Tying It Together
Third Sunday of Easter (C) | Fr Euan Marley points to the past, present, and future held in God’s providence and grace.
In the end, every human life comes to a point, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to love, to truth, and to the gift of creation. There is a unity in our lives, but we cannot grasp that unity for ourselves, we cannot be sure what our final decision will be. Even as we approach the end of life, there is still doubt, and the last few days, hours, or even moments may be significant. In my time as a hospital chaplain, I often said to a patient the same thing, a little speech which seemed important to me to get across. Time is elastic, I would say, you can go through years of life without much happening of any importance, and then a lot can happen in a very short time.
I think this is why today’s Gospel should be seen as a unity. There are three parts to the story, the miraculous draft of fish, Jesus asking Peter if he loves him, and then the odd prophecy of his death. The prophecy is odd because it is not obviously about the death we know about in tradition. St Peter being nailed to an upside down cross, seems rather different from this depiction of an old man being cared for, losing his freedom and becoming utterly dependent on others as he approaches death. There is a unity there though, a unity to be found both in the life of St Peter and in the nature of all lives. The miracle of the fish is both a reference to the past and the future. Once St Peter had been a fisherman, but soon he would be a new kind of fisherman. The miraculous catch, because it is the work of Our Lord, because it is done in obedience to him, is both the repetition of his past life, and the start of a new life. When we are in the presence of Christ, what we have been, what we are now, and what we will be are one.
Then there is the question of St Peter’s love. The question is couched in terms of the present. ‘Do you love me?, but the present contains the past and the future, because it is Jesus the Christ, who is posing this question to all of us. St Peter has a past, we all know about this past, his betrayal, his failure at the moment of the Cross, and the moment that showed that he really did not know who he was. That failure echoes throughout the whole of the history of the Church. We will remember the words of St Peter until the end of time. ‘I do not know him’. Yet we also know that St Peter is to be redeemed and is with Christ forever, not in spite of those words but through them. The grace of God is great enough. While we live, we are always in a single moment, always at an exact point in time and space, but what we have been is part of that moment, and what we can be, long to be, and by God’s grace will be, is also part of that moment. Do you love me, is always a question for now, but it is never just about that ‘now’. Only Christ can truly know that St Peter loves him, because he sees the whole of his life, he alone knows all things.
Then there is the third part, where Jesus predicts the death of Christ. Why is it so different from the way the Church has remembered the death of St Peter. I assume that this passage was aimed at readers who knew how St Peter had died, but there must have been a time when these words of Christ were remembered, not least by St Peter himself, before his death. The words are not wrong. They did not mislead Peter about his death. Instead they speak of the deeper meaning of his death, and all death. We may wish to continue forever, speaking, acting, making, sharing life, and being part of this world. Yet all lives come to an end. The depiction of the martyrdom of St Peter as if it were the work of carers, who look after an old man, speaks of the true purpose of God. He it is who binds us up, takes away our freedom, and wraps us up for the new life. If we live in faith and hope, then no matter who our death comes to us, sudden or not, peaceful, or violent, understood or while we are unaware, that death will give glory to God. Meanwhile, come and follow him.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the Martyrdom of St Peter from the Vatican Museum.