20 May 2015

Called to Discipleship: Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk (Reprise)

Written Reflection for the End of the Parish 2011 School Year based on John 21:15-19:

How many of you have ever done something wrong, or hurt someone in a way which made you feel like you would or could never be forgiven or trusted again? Let me give you an example of how this happened in the life of a Sister friend of mine. Mary was about 12 or 13 years old and her parents had asked her to watch her younger sister.

She had other things she might have preferred to be doing, but she said sure, and the two of them went out to play. While Mary's little sister was swinging on a swing Mary looked away for just a moment and, in just that tiny space of time, her sister fell off the swing and struck her head on the concrete. It seemed like there was a lot of blood, and she was clearly hurt in a way a band-aid alone wouldn't fix! Mary's parents came out when Mary called. They did not yell or scold, but neither was there time to talk. Instead they whisked M's sister away to the hospital leaving Mary home alone with her fears and thoughts. You can imagine what was going on inside her: "She's going to die! People who are hurt badly enough to go to the hospital die!!", "Will mom and dad ever forgive me? How can they ever trust me again?" "Do I love my Sister? How could I let something like this happen to someone I really love??" "If she dies, my life will be all over!"

I am sure that Peter is probably feeling and thinking some of these same things in today's Gospel. Remember that the last time we hear much about Peter in John's Gospel before this it is around the time of the Last Supper, and Jesus' following arrest, trial and execution. Always full of bluster, and never really in touch with his own weaknesses, Peter is protesting that he will never betray Jesus, that he will follow him anywhere; that he'll even die for him if necessary, and when soldiers step forward to arrest Jesus, it is Peter who rushes forward to lop the ear off of one of them! But once Jesus is taken away, Peter is a different guy altogether. He skulks around the temple precincts trying to see what is happening to Jesus, but when people ask him three separate times if he is Jesus' disciple, he denies it. And when Jesus is crucified, Peter is off hiding with most of the other disciples so he won't also be arrested and killed (only the beloved disciple remained with Jesus, Mary, and the women). Peter could talk the talk, but, when left to himself, when Jesus was gone, he wasn't strong or courageous enough to walk the walk.

So, although Jesus has appeared several times to the disciples, this is the first time John tells us that he and Peter will talk face to face. Imagine the questions and concerns roiling or boiling around inside Peter's heart! "What does he want? What will he say?" "Does he want to tell me how awful my failure was, and how disappointed in me he was/is?" Does he want to explain how unworthy I am to be his disciple and a leader in his Church?" Will he tell me to just forget it! Oh I hope he doesn't say just forget it --- that would hurt even worse. He knows I can't do that, and besides it would feel like he was dismissing me as a person! I really hope he doesn't do that!" "Does he know how much I really do love him?" "Will he forgive me? Can he ever trust me again???

And Jesus, who knows Peter better than Peter knows himself asks him three times, one for each denial, "Do you love me Peter?" And Peter answers, quieter, humbler now, "You know Lord, that I love you!" Jesus' questions are not a test in the usual way we use that word. The only right answer is the truth. These questions remind Peter of his denials and all the fear, self-centeredness, need for self-preservation and failure that drove them, but they also help to put him in touch with something which is deeper and truer, something which is more real than these. They help Peter to get in touch with his deeper self, the one God calls him to be, the one who is capable of generosity and empathy and compassion, and who really does love Jesus and others more than himself. Each time Peter answers from this deeper place, Jesus entrusts him with a charge or responsibility: "Feed my Lambs, Tend my lambs, Feed my Sheep!" He doesn't shame Peter. Neither does he treat his denials and failure as though they never happened. They were real and they mark him the same as Jesus' wounds mark his own hands, feet, and side, But Jesus empowers him to move beyond them. This is how Jesus forgives. This is how he creates a future for us.

My friend's parents did something very similar. When they returned home from the hospital with Mary's sister, stitched up and bandaged, they let Mary touch her, and kiss her. Then they asked her a couple of questions: "Did you do the best you could do?" Do you love your sister?" And Mary answered yes to both questions, but with the second one she added: "I thought I loved her but now, after all this, I know how much I REALLY do love her!!" Then her parents reminded her that they were going to need to go away in two more weekends, and they wondered if Mary would be okay to take care of her sister for them. Once again she answered yes, yes to her love, yes to her parents and sister, yes to the future.

Here at the end of the school year we should hear the same questions that Peter did. Do you love me?? Perhaps we have not been always been great friends. Maybe there have been times we have been thoughtless, or selfish, or insensitive to the needs of our friends. Perhaps we have not been the best classmates. Maybe we have bullied others or laughed at them because in some way they are different than we are. Maybe we formed exclusive cliques and shut others out, or otherwise acted or spoke at the expense of another's dignity. Perhaps we have not been the best sons and daughters and failed to listen to or respect our parents. But as we hear the same questions, so too should we hear the same commissioning Peter heard: Feed my Sheep! Jesus knows we are better than this; that deep down we are simply awesome, and so, as he did with Peter, he calls us all to grow into that --- and some of us he just plain calls to grow up --- to take care of the least and the weakest as he does us --- the least and the weakest.

At the end of the Gospel today Jesus tells Peter that when he was younger he could go anywhere he liked, but now that he is older, someone will gird or dress him and lead him where he would rather not go. Today, you sit here in your Summer clothes, all set to have a great vacation from school. Your teachers, your pastor, and all the parish staff all hope you will have a terrific time, full of fun and a different kind of learning. But come September, we will ask you to put your St P's uniforms back on, and leave your younger, less mature selves behind while you to step up to even greater challenges, even more responsibility, and show us your better, truer selves. We know you are capable of this. We trust that you are each capable of fulfilling Jesus' charge to "Feed my Lambs, Tend my Sheep. Feed my Sheep." We know that you will return to us ready and eager not only to talk the talk but to walk the walk of the community leaders and disciples of Christ you truly are.