We are given in all four of the gospel accounts of the Passion of Jesus a rather detailed description of Peter’s denial of Jesus after he had been taken into the courtyard to face the Sanhedrin. The details vary somewhat, but all are very clear that Peter denied Jesus three times in succession, after which the cock crowed, bringing Peter to realise what he had done.
What makes it even more poignant is the fact that among all the other apostles, Peter was not only singled out by Jesus that he was to be the rock that founded the Church, but in various other occasions was shown to be the one apostle who was gung-ho about being faithful to Jesus, come what may. It was Peter who had boldly insisted that Jesus was not to undergo the upcoming Passion, and it was Peter who was brazen enough to ask Jesus to tell him to walk out of the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee toward Jesus in the midst of the squall. If there were a personality that had thought highly of himself in the Gospels, Peter would win hands down.
One would think, logically at least, that denying Jesus would automatically disqualify Peter, making him a persona-non-grata as far as discipleship post resurrection is concerned. Moreover, a fledgling church that was just beginning to get off the ground would also find it in its best interests to hide such a shameful incident from record. Instead, it is there for all to see, writ large, as it were, a failure of loyalty and dedication, by the very one who was to be the first Pope. This must then have a meaning and purpose that goes beyond what meets the eye. What is it?
At the heart of the gospel is the revelation that God is love, and Jesus’ role in the plan of salvation is to be a testimony of how this is true. Mercy is only god-like when it is associated with the love of God. When mercy is administered without it being linked with the love that is God’s very essence, it will inevitably have limitations and as well as certain conditions attached to it. After all, Jesus himself gave the numeric symbol of infinitum by telling Peter that we must forgive not seven (a number that signifies completeness and perfection in the Hebrew tradition) but seventy-seven times (the perfection of perfection).
It is in John’s post resurrection account that we see Jesus having that very tender and intimate moment and asking him not once, not twice, but three times to feed his sheep. Biblical commentaries agree somewhat that this is an offer made to Peter to reverse the triple denial that he was guilty of. Of course, the Greek rendering of the text has another very legitimate rationale for the three responses given by Peter to the three times Jesus asks if he loves him. In the Greek, there are different gradations of love and in two of Jesus’ questions to Peter if he loves him, he asks Peter if he loves him with the love that is unconditional (agape) to which Peter responded that he could love him with that of a brother (phileo). On the third time, Jesus himself uses the word phileo, showing that he saw that at that time, Peter was simply incapable of the kind of love that a leader and shepherd of the flock needs to embrace. Out of mercy and compassion, Jesus still accepted him at that level, but he had always tried to stretch Peter’s heart to move from loving at the phileo level to that of agape.
That Peter was made the first Shepherd of the Church despite his having denied Jesus is strong testimony that mercy is at the heart of the Church and the crux of the Gospel message. That we see this fact of his denial not hidden shamefully, not blurred or blotted out, but boldly presented in its guilt and shame-sodden detail clearly shows that there is nothing that humility and true repentance and remorse cannot overcome. God’s grace and mercy wants to invite our hearts to be stretched to love in ways that we never thought we could.
I believe Jesus wants that kind of love to be coming from each of our hearts as well. Like Peter, we too are often finding ourselves at loving with very small hearts, with much condition and are way too focused on feelings and sentiments. But Jesus wants to stretch our hearts, to move us from loving in small and limited ways, to display the kind of love that is unconditional and limitless, which is the agape love that Jesus loved the sinful world with from the Cross of Calvary.
Each time we deny Jesus and give in to the false ways of sin and temptation (they are ALWAYS false), we are like Peter outside the courtyard. But each time we step into the confessional and strip ourselves of our pride and humble our egos, we find Jesus asking us “do you love me?” How confident we are to respond that it is an agape love that we return to God will show just how stretched our hearts have been.
Fr Luke Fong is a catholic priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore. He blogs regularly at Reflections & Ruminations.