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Feed my lambs

Post communion reflection Jn 21 15-19 by Sr Ann Swailes

As Eastertide draws towards its close, we find ourselves in our gospel tonight back, so to speak, in Easter week, with the disciples trying to get used to a new reality, to make sense of a new dimension of reality that bursts into the world with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  

It is a new dimension: heaven intersects with earth as a kind of lightning flash, as the one they had last seen abandoned in agony, the one they had abandoned to his agony, stands before them in the glory of Easter, unlimited by the normal constraints of time and space, able to walk through walls, appear and disappear at will, not always instantly recognisable. This is sheer, unthinkable, unimaginable novelty: nothing like this has ever been seen before, nothing like this has ever happened before.   And yet, as their teacher returns to them, to give them last precious lessons before his going to the Father, the resources for those lessons, the visual aids if you like – and the audible and tangible and tastable aids - are utterly mundane and every day, utterly, reassuringly familiar: rendezvous in old meeting places, an address by name in an unmistakable accent, a charcoal fire and fish for breakfast grilling on it.

What are we to make of this strange fusion of old and new, this juxtaposition of the comfortingly commonplace and the disturbingly unprecedented?  I think we are being summoned, with Simon Peter, to learn a profoundly healing lesson about repentance and forgiveness: called to shed, perhaps, certain fears that we all carry around with us about what repentance requires of us; to open ourselves to something, previously unsuspected, of what it means to be forgiven.  In the story of the breakfast time encounter at the lakeside, our Evangelist tonight offers us nothing less than an insight into how Jesus educates Peter, how his words and his actions shape and form him for his ministry. And thus we too are invited to allow the Lord to educate, shape and form us.

St John, of course, paints an unforgettably vivid picture of the scene, and some of its details must have stirred profoundly uncomfortable memories for those actually present.  The charcoal fire on which, just before the conversation we have overheard, breakfast has been cooked: surely Peter at least could not have avoided thinking of the last time he stood warming himself before such a fire, in the courtyard of the high priest on that terrible night of his breakdown and desertion?  And the interrogation to which the Lord subjects him here with such insistency: do you love me more than these? Do you love me? Do you love me? From the fathers of the Church onwards, commentators have seen in this repetition a kind of therapy, shining the light of recollection as gently as possible on that earlier triple assertion by Peter: I do not know the man, I tell you I do not know him, I do not know him. 

Now, we know, in our psychologically sophisticated age, that denial is a dangerous, albeit often a seductive thing, blocking off the possibility of real growth in mind and heart.   And it is only by refusing to deny his denial, by acknowledging the full horror of what he did after the supper and the garden and the hasty scramble back to town in the wake of Jesus’ captors, that Peter can  be healed and forgiven. He has to own, as we might say today, his words in the courtyard, before he can be relieved of their burden.  With a beautiful kind of tact, however, rather than turning to him with recrimination and bitterness, rehearsing the dreadful dialogue explicitly, dragging it into the light of day, the Lord as it were encodes it in the structure of his own threefold questioning.  For every time that Peter has said no to Jesus, he is invited now to say yes, yes to love of Jesus, yes to life with Jesus as he grows into the vocation for which he has been formed: feed my sheep, feed my lambs.  And for any of us who have ever been anxious about facing the Lord weighed down with the burden of our own words and deeds, for any of us who have ever hesitated about approaching him in the sacrament of reconciliation, for instance, there is comfort here.  When we go to confession, it is not, as Pope Francis has reminded us, to a torture chamber that we go to be humiliated, but to a place of healing where the only reason for our retelling the story of our past so that its crushing weight may be lifted from us, and we may be freed to replace each no of our own to Jesus with a yes.


But there is more. Jesus’ invitation to Peter to declare his love doesn’t just offer him the chance to reverse his moment of betrayal, significant though that is. At the same time, it reaches back beyond the denial to a previous affirmation, to Peter’s cocksure insistence that, even if all the others fell away he would remain faithful unto death.  And it provides a healing remedy for the humiliation this memory must inevitably now bring Peter, in the light of bitter subsequent events. St Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on St John’s Gospel makes a poignant suggestion here. When Peter says, in response to the Lord’s third and final enquiry “you know everything, you know that I love you”, this is not the voice of self-righteous irritation, but rather of self-doubting insecurity. It is Thomas tells us, as if Peter says “I love you, at least I think I do” and appeals to the Lord who knows everything to reassure him that yes, indeed he does love. And in reply, the Lord commissions him definitively, speaking again the words of vocation that could only be spoken to a friend, to one who loves -  feed my sheep: be with me where I am and share my destiny.   On those occasions when we are fearful that by our weakness, our failures of comprehension,  even our deliberate sin, we have ruined what we began so splendidly and in so doing betrayed the Lord, we can find consolation here too. The Lord who in his risen splendour makes all things new takes all we start and spoil and transfigures it, so that we, too, can have the assurance that we truly love him, and will truly be with him in glory.