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THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER 2016
Our first reading at today’s Mass (Acts 5:29) shows Peter exercising full leadership in the face of virulent opposition. He and the other apostle were later scourged (5:40). This was a most degrading indignity: grown men treated like animals. The opposition was savage; such treatment often killed people. But St. Luke says: they were glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name (5:41)- their betrayed and beloved Master, God’s only Son. Their love outweighed their suffering. But it is the Gospel writers who give us this benign description- a little imagination can stimulate us to recall how even moderate abuse can flatten us and how suffering can push us to the extremes of confusion and despair especially with regard to the matters we hold most dear.
Looking back to today’s Gospel reading, the three questions posed to St.Peter about love are surely the most striking questions ever raised in literary history- let alone in historical reality. We should simply try the words out on ourselves. How many of us have ever been asked point blank how much we have loved! How many of us have been asked this question when there is opposition around? And even more acutely: You abandoned me when I was in terrible trouble – you did not speak up for me! Do you love me? This is near the bone. But it is all in the text before our eyes. The embarrassment of Peter would have been entirely irrelevant if we did not have the subsequent story. And that is why we have it.
When appalling tragedy struck in Jerusalem, these same disciples completely disillusioned went back to Galilee. Such is the story as recounted in chapter 21 of St. John’s Gospel. Peter and his friends are fishing again. Had we followed the other Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) they would have had no tackle to fish with since they had been called and followed Jesus and left it all behind them after their first encounter with Jesus on the lake shore. Seemingly it had all ended in total failure. Here they are fishing again, and ironically not very successfully, but they could have expected a modest secure future from the enterprise. The extraordinary drama is behind them. They probably felt lucky not to have been arrested with their Master and to have been accused of being complicit in what he had been executed for. What they had been through! Innocents- naïve, or political and hopeful nationalists, or unsure what it all meant, strangers in Jerusalem from the north, behind them their glorious lake, their beautiful Galilee, all now a dreadful nightmare because of the unimaginable tragedy of their wonderful leader in Jerusalem. They had had such sublime experiences with him, adulation beyond description, and then the most shocking end, and their own horrible failure in love. ‘Just let us go back fishing’, seemed to be the only solution at the end of it. ‘That is where we started; that is where we will end’. And probably for them, in theory, not a bad life really: “we were reasonably successful at it before we joined him”.
The Acts Recount the Change
Our readings today fit the story together evocatively for us. Now they are with
Jesus again, in a new way. They are unafraid. Love is not just a profession with words but a life’s commitment and its cost. It is about values, absolute values, not mere sentiments. The world is now their oyster. And they are succeeding despite all appearances and all opposition. They are changing a hostile alienated world into a world of love and reconciliation.
Is this too far fetched? Let us be realistic about what is happening in our own day. Where are all these refugees coming from and to whom are they fleeing? They are fleeing from the terrors of suffering and death in war torn countries. And to whom are they fleeing? To any one who will assure them of peace and freedom. True love is present when kindness overcomes prejudice, and tolerance is not a political expedient. Could all of this be dangerous for life in the west? Of course it could. And many say so insistently. But Christians say: What are we supposed to do? These people are here on our doorstep. We did not make them come, nor have we been complicit in why they have to come. But they are suffering now. Vast efforts are being made to provide help for them. People of good will every-where join together in trying to change the world for the better. Institutions do this publicly but very many people do it discreetly and privately, but nevertheless effectively.
The mystery of love and suffering is beyond us all. They are none the less real for that. We can all love and love selflessly, and not feel jealous or stupid or deprived because we do not feel loved enough, or hold on selfishly to the only love we think is available to us because we feel other love has passed us by. Do you love me more than these others? Before his death Jesus had (in the Synoptic Gospels) excoriated the disciples for vying for preference in his ‘expected’ kingdom. In our Gospel today Peter is posed the question about love which he understands very well. Great responsibilities came with his answer. But the responsibilities are also, in a lesser way of course, known to us. ‘You know I love you’. Husbands and wives? Parents and children? Consecrated members in community? Friends? We have so much to be grateful for when we know love. As always the Gospel readings are powerful in bringing its realism home to us. On April 16th Pope Francis is off to the refugees in Lesbos- as St. Peter’s successor he articulates love’s commitment to ‘the least of my little ones’. A practical example is worth more than a thousand sermons. When we have done our best we are still only unworthy servants (Lk 17:10). Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK