Sunday, April 14, 2013

Third Sunday of Easter

When those suffering from a terminal illness reach a point where they have accepted that they are dying, one of the first things they want to do is make peace with their loved ones. They make a point of calling them to either ask for forgiveness or to offer it to those who may have hurt them. On the other hand, one of the most painful and haunting experiences we could have is to lose a loved one before we have an opportunity to make peace. The finality of death helps us to appreciate how insignificant our squabbles are. None of us wants to carry the burden of a grudge with us as we prepare to meet our Maker.

We can imagine the distress, then, that Peter must have felt on the day Jesus died. Though he had promised to stand by Jesus no matter what, he denied ever knowing him to the guards who were warming themselves over a charcoal fire. When he learned that Jesus would be condemned to death, he ran and hid out of fear. It must have been eating him up inside that when Jesus needed him most, Peter did not stand by him. What was probably most haunting was the thought that he would never have a chance to tell him how sorry he was and to make peace with him. He thought that he would have to live the rest of his life with the guilt and shame of knowing that he had let Jesus down.

What Peter could not understand at the time was that Good Friday was not the last time he would see Jesus alive. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus would rise again with a new, glorified body. He would appear to the apostles during the course of forty days helping them to understand what the tragic events surrounding his death all meant. And he would give them the same Spirit which raised him from the dead so that they could continue his good works of preaching the gospel, bringing forgiveness to sinners and healing to the sick. Peter would have a chance to see Jesus again and to express his love for him.

Today's reading offers us the last appearance of the Risen Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Saint John. The apostles have left Jerusalem with all its reminders of those last days of Jesus earthly life. They have returned to their hometown, the region of Galilee, where they feel most at home and comfortable. It was at Galilee that the apostles, many of them fishermen, had met Jesus for the first time and had begun to follow him. It was at the shores of the Sea of Galilee that they first witnessed how he touched so many lives with his message of love and forgiveness.

When the apostles recognize him, Jesus is on the shore of the sea preparing breakfast for them. Seeing the charcoal fire Jesus had made must have reminded Peter of how it was against the glow of just such a fire that he had denied knowing him. His heart must have been aching to tell Jesus how sorry he was for abandoning him.

Peter would have his chance. He finally has an opportunity to be alone with Jesus as they walk along the beach after breakfast. It is an idyllic, peaceful scene - the type of scene we would imagine ourselves in if we had a chance to meet Jesus face to face. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. When Peter replies, "Yes, Lord, I love you.", Jesus gives him the mission of feeding or tending his lambs. By professing his love, Peter makes up for his sin and is restored to his dignity as the chief shepherd.

It is interesting that Jesus does not call him by the name he had given him - Peter, which means "rock". Rather he addresses him as "Simon, son of John". The only other time Jesus addresses Peter this way is when he first meets him and calls him to be a disciple. What Jesus is doing is letting Peter know that, though he has failed, he is still called to be a disciple. This is emphasized at the end of their conversation when he says to him, "Follow me." Jesus forgives Peter and restores his status as a disciple based on a simple profession of love.

We tend to associate mercy and forgiveness with the season of Lent. But it is just as fitting for the Easter season. It was for the forgiveness of sins that Jesus died and rose again. When he appeared to the apostles on the night of the resurrection, his first gift to them was the power to forgive sins. All that Jesus did was centered on giving us new life by reconciling us to the Father. And so the sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, is not just for the Lenten season. Rather, like the other sacraments, it is a real encounter with the Risen Lord. Through confession we walk with Jesus, tell him that we are sorry for abandoning him, and profess our love for him as Peter did. Jesus then pours his forgiveness and mercy out upon us and renews his call to us to follow him as his disciple. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the beautiful ways that we can come into the presence of our Risen Savior during this Easter season and experience the healing power of his mercy just as Peter did at the banks of the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus calls us to his side today. He has prepared a meal for us. It is his very body and blood. We can approach this table with confidence knowing that he has forgiven us. We can approach this table with joy because he is alive. We can go in peace knowing that he will always be by our side.

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