The Vicar of Christ’s Love, 3rd Sunday of Easter (C), April 25, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
April 25, 2004
Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; Rev 5:11-14; Jn 21:11-19

1) On the Sundays of Easter, the Church gives us each week in the first reading a passage from the Acts of the Apostles and in the second, part of the Book of Revelation. The first describes to us the first steps of the Church in time and history; the second describes to us the Church that will last forever after the end of time. The first takes place in the earthly Jerusalem; the second in the new and eternal Jerusalem. This interplay allows us to contemplate, each week, both the Church in pilgrimage through time and the Church that has reached the destination. Much like God allowed Moses and the Israelites to climb Mount Nebo to look into the Promised Land from a distance (Dt 34:1), so the Church allows us, each week, while we’re still on pilgrimage, to look into the eternal promised land of heaven.

2) The Church here on earth is meant to lead us to that promised land. In today’s Gospel, we see very clearly one of the most important realities of this means of salvation founded by Christ himself: that the Lord has given his Church a guide and a shepherd — the ministry of St. Peter in the Church. The ministry was to feed Christ’s flock and insofar as Christ’s flock will always need to be fed, there will always be the constitutive need of the Petrine ministry, the work of St. Peter and his successors as bishop of Rome.

3) Peter’s mission in the Church Christ founded is seen very clearly in two dialogues between him and Christ in the Gospel. The first rather early in Christ’s public ministry, when the Lord conducted his first poll at Caesaria Philippi. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?,” he asked. The disciples responded, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then came the first question on the job interview Christ was conducting. “But who do YOU say that I am.” All of the rest were silent. Simon, son of John, stood up and, responding to grace coming from God the Father, said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Christ then changed Simon’s name and gave him a mission. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I for my part tell you, you are Peter [kepha], and on this rock [kepha] I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Christ was going to build his Church on Peter and give Peter his own authority, his own keys. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:13-19). This was Peter’s confession of faith and the beginning of his on-the-job training to be Christ’s vicar.

4) But it wasn’t the end of his job interview or the fulfillment of his training. That came in today’s Gospel, when the Lord Jesus came with more questions. “Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?” This was to be Peter’s confession of love. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs. … Tend my sheep.” Peter’s mission was to be one in which he would continue to confess Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, throughout time; but it was also more importantly one that he would carry out in love. Peter was to become the vicar of Christ’s love. Christ entrusted his flock to this love. Jesus is still present, he is alive, risen from the dead. But, by his own design, the Good Shepherd would continue to love, feed and tend his flock through Peter and his successors.

5) This love to which Jesus calls Peter and his successors is challenging. Love is not just a desire for the good of another, “wishing” someone well. Christ was calling Peter to the type of love he talked about during the Last Supper, when he told them to “live in my love,” to “love one another as I have loved you.” He stated clearly what that love was in words and then put it into body language the following afternoon: “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). This was the love to which Christ was calling Peter in his triple query. This love has a few characteristics:

a) It’s a love above every other love. Jesus’ first question was, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than THESE?” We don’t know precisely what the “these” were. Christ could have been holding fish in his hand, to ask whether Peter loved him more than his job, than his expertise. Christ could have been pointing to his friends and fishing business colleagues — “Do you love me more than all of them?” Whatever the referent, Peter was being asked if he loved the Lord more than every other love. Jesus had said during his public ministry, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37-38 ). He even used the Aramaic word for “hate,” once (which means not “detesting someone” but “knocking someone out of first place”) to describe where love for him must rank in our lives: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Jesus was saying that if we do love SOMEONE or SOMETHING else more than we love him, then we are idol worshippers. The first condition of the love to which Christ was calling Peter was to love him above every other thing.

b) The second characteristic is that it is self-sacrificial. “No one has any greater love,” Jesus taught, “than to lay down his life for his friends.” Real love is self-giving, no matter what the cost. That Jesus was clearly calling Peter to this type of love can be seen in the original Greek language St. John used to write his Gospel. There are four words in Greek for love. The two that are relevant for us today are AGAPEIN and PHILEIN. Agapein refers to a self-giving, self-sacrificial type of love. This is the word Jesus used when he said “there is no greater love” and when he said, “love one another as I have loved you.” Philein refers to the love we have for friends. In the dialogue between Jesus and Peter, Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me in an agapic, self-sacrificial, total type of way (agapein)?” Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you in a friendly type of way (philein).” Jesus was trying to raise Peter up to the type of love that Christ knew Peter was capable of, the type of love that the petrine office would need. So he asked him again, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me in an total self-giving type of way?” Peter replied again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you as a friend.” We don’t know why Peter would not have responded with the higher form of love to the Lord’s question. Perhaps the sight of the charcoal fire Christ had lit to cook the fish reminded him of another charcoal fire on the night Christ was betrayed, before which Peter three times denied even knowing Christ in order to keep himself warm. Peter had previously said that he would never abandon the Lord and would be ready to die for him, but had failed to keep his word. Perhaps he was afraid to respond saying that he did love the Lord in a self-sacrificing type of way, lest he betray the Lord again. Whatever the reason, the Lord decided to meet Peter where he was at for the time. So he asked him the third time, “Simon, do you love me in a friendly type of way?” That was what probably stung St. Peter the most. That the Lord down-graded the challenge to him. Peter responded, with sadness, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” But the Lord Jesus knew that Peter was ultimately capable of the type of love to which he was calling him, the agapic, total self-giving, Christ-like type of love. That’s why he immediately added, “Amen, amen I say to you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” St. John, who wrote his Gospel very likely in the 90s AD, told us that this prophecy of the Lord signified the type of death St. Peter himself would suffer, very likely on October 13, 64 AD in the circus of Caligula and Nero in the part of Rome called the Vatican, when others tied a rope around him, and dragged him into the circus, where they stretched out his arms on an upside-down Cross and crucified him. Peter did love the Lord and his flock enough to die out of love for them and that was his definitive answer to Christ’s question.

c) The third characteristic of the type of love Christ was calling Peter to live was that it was always for OTHERS. Jesus didn’t say, “Love ME as I have loved you,” but “love one another as I have loved you.” When Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus didn’t say, “Great, that’s what I wanted to know.” He replied, instead, “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep.” Real love of Christ would be shown in love of others, and this love is always shown in deeds of self-giving service. At the beginning of the Last Supper when Jesus described to them what real love was, he got up from table, girded himself with a towel and then washed all the filth from their feet, something that only slaves do, because their feet would pick up all types of defecated material along the road sides as they walked in their sandals. Christ said after he had done this: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:12-15). He put into action what he had told them before, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” He was calling them to serve, to give their lives as a ransom, to do whatever it takes to help clean and save others. That’s why the most beautiful title for the Holy Father is not “vicar of Christ,” or “bishop of Rome,” or “successor of St. Peter.” It’s the title that has been common since the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604): “servant of the servants of God.” To be the greatest in the kingdom means to be the servant of the rest (Mt 23:11), and the Pope, in being the leader of all of Christ’s servants, must be the servant of them all, just as Jesus was.

6) Peter’s carrying out this mission of self-giving love and service can be encapsulated by two verbs and images we have in today’s Gospel. The first is “cast the net” or “fish”; the second is “feed, tend, shepherd.” These are the two principle activities of the Petrine ministry and they mutually support each other.

a)) The first is to fish for men. This episode in today’s Gospel recalls a similar episode that happened at the beginning of Christ’s public ministry when he called Peter to leave everything and follow him. After Peter and his colleagues were bringing in their boat after a long, unsuccessful night of fishing, Christ asked to borrow the boat to preach to the crowds. After he had finished, he told Peter to put out his boat into deep water and lower his nets for a catch. Even though Peter knew that fish were caught during the night in shallow water, even though he had already cleaned his nets, he humbly did what the preacher from Nazareth asked and caught again a huge number of fish. As soon as he got back on sure, he dropped to his knees and begged the Lord, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus told him in reply, “Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats ashore, Peter left everything to follow the Lord (Lk 5:1-10). The mission of Peter and his successors was to fish for men and women through the proclamation of the Gospel. We see Peter carrying out that mission in the first reading. The text tells us that he and the other apostles had “filled the city [of Jerusalem] with their teaching” and were calling the residents of Jerusalem to conversion. Peter’s 263 successors as bishop of Rome have continued to proclaim that Gospel. Pope John Paul II has been doing so for the past 25 and a half years. He has traveled over 700,000 miles — that’s 28 times around the circumference of the earth and three times round trip to the moon — preaching the Gospel. He has reached out to people of every religion. He has reached out to scientists, to artists. At almost 84 years old, with a severely damaged hip and with Parkinson’s disease, he continues to put in 17 hour work days, putting out into the deep water and lowering Christ’s nets for a catch. And just like Peter suffered for preaching the Gospel, so does his successor. Peter was arrested, thrown into prison and flogged. After having watched Mel Gibson’s movie, we all now know that a flogging wasn’t just a polite spanking but something that would terrify people. But Peter’s response was two fold. First, he said, “We must obey God, rather than men.” (Would that one of Senator Kerry’s friends tell him, for his own salvation, about this principle…). Secondly, after having undergone the scourging, he and the others thanked God and rejoiced for having been accounted worthy to suffer on account of the name of Jesus. We know that he was ultimately killed for proclaiming the Gospel. His successor, Pope John Paul II, has known what it is to suffer as well. Well beyond the assassination attempt in 1981 and all the physical sufferings he has endured, perhaps the greatest suffering has come for proclaiming the Gospel. When he talks about the sanctity of marriage as the indissoluble union of a man and a woman, many from the media, from popular culture, even some within the Church, vilify him. When he calls married couples to stop rejecting each other in the act of making love through the use of contraception, many dismiss him. When he articulates the need to forgive enemies, or teaches that the use of the death penalty should be “practically non-existent” or stresses the principles of a just war, many others show their venom. But to reject the message of Peter is to reject Christ. Jesus had said to Peter, “Whoever hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). The Successor of St. Peter is the echo of Christ’s voice. To reject Christ’s message through his vicar is to reject the one who gave him that message to preach. It is to do what the folks in Jerusalem in the first reading did to St. Peter.

b) The second task is to shepherd Christ’s flock, to feed and tend Christ’s lambs and sheep. This is done through teaching, when he gives us the solid food of Christ’s word. This is done through the sacraments, through which Christ continues to give us his life. There would be no sacraments — and particularly no Eucharist — were it not for the mission of St. Peter and for the successors of the apostles, the bishops, united with him. The third way is to care for all the sheep and lambs of the Lord who are in need, through loving service. In all of these ways, Christ takes care of us through Peter. He teaches us through his vicar. He feeds us with himself through the sacrament of Holy Orders grounded in Peter’s ministry. He takes care of us and our material concerns when we’re in great need through the Church he founed on the living Rock.

7) But what about us? What is the significance for us of this extended reflection on this vicariate of Christ’s love? When Peter said to the other disciples, “I am going fishing,” they responded, “We will go with you.” So today, John Paul II has been losing his aging vocal cords saying “I am going fishing” and has been casting out nets across the globe. Our response is to say, “We will go with you!” To proclaim the Gospel is not the task just of the Pope, bishops and priests. It’s the task of every disciple. And there are some people whom Christ will catch only if one of us casts the line, fish who swim in ponds that are far from the Church, perhaps, or tough fish that need someone with a particular expertise to reel them in. Our first response is to go fishing with the successor of St. Peter. The second is to help him feed Christ’s lambs and fish. To do that, we ourselves need first to be fed, by Christ’s teaching through Peter, by the sacraments, by Christ’s love. Then we can take that and pass each of those onto others.

8 ) Today, Jesus says to each of us, just like he said to Simon bar-Jonah a short time after his resurrection, “Do YOU love me more than everything else?” Jesus is the truth incarnate and knows the truth. Regardless of whether we like Peter may have betrayed him before, he asks us that question today, “Do you love me in a total, self-giving type of way?” Through this Eucharist, wherein Christ continues to love us and show us the full meaning of self-giving love — “this is my body given for you” — may we receive His help to say in truth, by our words and by our choices, “YES, LORD! I do love you!”

Praised be Jesus Christ!