The new supermarket was now open. Beth and her little boy Sean went to do the weekly shopping. They were in the middle of an aisle when a certain item caught Beth’s eye. She was reading the box and did not notice Sean walked further down the aisle to the end. He was attracted by a large display of canned goods. The cans were stacked into a large pyramid about 20 levels high.
Sean was looking intently at the pyramid and decided he wanted one of the cans, one on the bottom level. Meanwhile, his mom was down the aisle unaware of where he was or what he was doing — until she was startled by the sound of a large crash. Turning, she saw Sean, in the middle of a sea of canned goods, holding a can of tomatoes. Furious and embarrassed Beth stormed down to Sean and said: “Don’t you dare move another inch young man.” After a minute, she took his hand and they walked away.
Little Sean knew he was in trouble. As they walked Sean said to his mother: “Mommy, you said the other day that when God forgives our sins he buries them at the bottom of the deepest ocean, didn’t you?” With clenched teeth Beth replied, “Yes.” Sean said, “And you said that it didn’t matter what we did, God would never drag those things up again, didn’t you?” “Yes,” came the reply. “Well Mommy, I’ve got a feeling that when we get home you’re going to go fishing.”
The story is a humorous attempt to help us reflect on God’s mercy and our participation in that mercy. God forgives and calls us to the same forgiveness. In the story, Beth probably had a list of things Sean had done in the past that were going to be “revisited” when they got home. We can all laugh because part of a parent’s job is teaching children the difference between right and wrong, to behave in a good way. Little Sean “gets it;” however, he pulls in the piece about God’s mercy, which makes us think about it.
When God forgives us, does he “hold on” to our sins to later bring them up again? Or is his forgiveness complete? Is mercy a Band-Aid that helps healing or does it actually accomplish the healing itself? And when the healing takes place, what then?
Perhaps the Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy can help us reflect on God’s mercy. The story comes from the Gospel according to John. The passage recalls another one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. This time the apostles are gathered in Galilee by the sea. Simon Peter decides to go fishing. Thomas, Nathanael, James and John are with him. It was night. They go out but did not catch any fish.
As dawn approached, Jesus was standing on the shore but they did not recognize him. “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” he asks. “No,” comes the reply. “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” They did and hauled in a great number of fish. At this point the Beloved Disciple, John, says to Peter: “It is the Lord.”
They come to shore and Jesus already has a fire started and invites them to breakfast. Following the meal, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter says: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus replies: “Feed my lambs.” Three times this exchange occurs. The evangelist tells us that when Jesus asked the third time Peter was “distressed,” yet answers the question: “Lord, you know everything: you know that I love you.” To which Jesus again replies: “Feed my sheep.”
However, this time he continues: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” After which he concludes: “Follow me.”
Two themes that we encounter in this passage are forgiveness and discipleship. The forgiveness is captured in the trifold questioning of Jesus. Go back for a moment to the scene at the Lord’s supper where Jesus begins to wash the feet of the disciples. Peter objects. Jesus tells him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Then when he completes the feet washing Jesus says: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Later, as the evening progresses, Jesus speaks of His departure: “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. You will look for me, and as I told the Jews, ‘Where I go you cannot come,’ so now I say it to you. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
Peter protests — not to the call to love, but to Jesus departure without them. He says: “Master, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus responds: “Will you lay down your life for me? Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow before you deny me three times.” Later that night after the arrest, while Peter is in the courtyard, the prediction comes true. Peter denies the Lord three times.
The encounter between Peter and the Risen Lord is an encounter of mercy. Jesus’ trice questioning of Peter — “Do you love me?” — is the means by which the healing takes place. Responding to the three earlier questions, in the darkness of night, Peter denied the Lord. Now, in the bright light of morning, in front of all, Peter acclaims his love for the Lord. Jesus provides Peter the opportunity to express his love and affirm his faith. The healing is complete. Mercy has triumphed.
The second theme is related to the first. It is in love that Jesus forgives Peter and through mercy heals that broken heart. The love of which Jesus spoke at the Last Supper is a love that needs to be imitated and modeled. Symbolically expressed in the washing of the feet, it is explicit expressed in words as Jesus says: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” The love is brought to perfection in the crucifixion. Recall Jesus’ earlier words: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Peter’s love is expressed in his words. Now Jesus commissions him to put this love into action: “Feed my sheep.” The instructions to Peter at the end of the exchange emphasize that this love is to be that of Jesus’ love – laying down one’s life. Discipleship entails imitation of the Master, Teacher and Lord. If Peter wishes to follow Jesus, he too will have to love as he has been loved. The mercy he has received, he too will have to share.
Peter’s discipleship will have a special role. He is the leader of the Twelve, hence the leader of the nascent Church. Jesus’ use of “feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep” apply to Peter in a particular way. His discipleship will be in the context of leadership. He will lead the flock by tending and feeding the flock. In order to do this, he will have to live by love, by laying down his life just as Jesus did.
While we are not all called to have the same leadership role as Peter, we are called to the same discipleship. All of us have been the recipients of God’s love and mercy. Through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection we have experienced this love and mercy. As disciples, we too are called, indeed required, to love as we have been loved; to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Celebrating this Third Sunday of Easter, may God give us the grace to recognize this love and to live it in our lives.