The Gospel Reading for Mass today – John 21:1-19 – describes the first meeting between Peter and Jesus after the Lord’s resurrection. The last time they had seen each other was when Jesus was arrested and Peter denied knowing him.

In betraying Jesus, Peter was no different from Judas who also betrayed Jesus . Yet, while Peter went on to be the ‘rock’ on which Christ founded His church, the one to whom he entrusted the ministry of caring for his flock, Judas remains to this day as the villain of the Christian story. He could not live with himself for what he had done and, in despair, he took his own life.  Now, contrast his fate with what we learn about Peter in today’s Gospel.

After the Lord’s crucifixion, Peter returned to being a fisherman. We have no indication of his emotional state then but it is reasonable to assume that he, like Judas, had feelings of shame and guilt for publicly turning his back on Jesus.

It’s noteworthy, I think, that when they met, there is no mention of Peter being condemned for his betrayal. Instead, Jesus asked him the simple but stark question: ‘Do you love me?’ He asks it three times, corresponding to the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus.

The word for ‘love’ that Jesus uses in their meeting and the word for ‘love’ Peter uses in reply are different. Peter’s reply did not respond exactly to what Jesus asked him. There are several words in the Greek language – the original language of the New Testament – to express the various meanings of our word for ‘love’. First, there is the Greek Storge, meaning affection; then there is Eros, meaning sensual or erotic love; another term is Philia, friendship with people with whom we share some real interest; and, finally, there is Agape, which means generous, self-giving, selfless love, which we offer to another person even when there is nothing for us to gain. (This is the meaning of love defined by St Paul in of 1 Corinthians 13.)

The question Jesus asked Peter was ‘Do you have Agape for me?”, that is “Do you have the same selfless love for me that I have for you?” Peter merely replied “ Lord, I love you as my friend (philia).” Jesus asked Peter a second time “Do you have Agape for me?’ and again Peter replied with the previous answer of being Jesus’ friend (Philia). Jesus then changes tack and asks “But, Peter, are you even my friend (Philia)? and Peter answered “Lord, you know that I am your friend.”

What’s significant here is that although Jesus did not get the answer (of total commitment) he wanted from Peter, he, nevertheless, entrusted him with the ministry of caring for the ‘lambs’ and ‘sheep’ of His Church.

Many of us, I am sure, can identify with Peter’s response to Jesus here – we’d like to give more of ourselves to following the Lord but things hold us back – our responsibilities and commitment to others or, perhaps, an unwillingness or inability to change lifestyle. In this sense, we, perhaps, we have more in common with St Peter than we think!

By contrast, poor Judas never knew that he, like Peter, would have been forgiven and accepted back into the Lord’s friendship. He thought he was beyond forgiveness for what he had done. He never came to know, as Peter did, that not even betrayal would stop the Lord from loving him. So the poor man died not surrounded by love but in despair.

We also can be overcome with guilt and shame for wrongs we have done or things we failed to do. While we may reproach ourselves and even be shunned by others for what we have done, the Lord’s response to Peter shows that we do not have to be perfect to be loved by Jesus. While we strive to be better, we are never shunned if we fail. In our imperfection, we plod on –  Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett.)

The sin of Judas was his doubt and despair that he could be forgiven and accepted back into Christ’s love. He did not come to know the truth that God’s mercy is ‘as gentle as silence’, and that that no sin of ours is greater than God’s love. As with Peter so with us – with Jesus we can always begin again. And that is why Peter is the rock on which our Church is founded.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
1 May 2022

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