The Apostle Peter Kneeling by Rembrandt van Rijn
It struck me during Mass.
It was the reading from the Gospel of Luke for Palm Sunday – the Passion, to be precise. I’m sure I have heard it (or read it) dozens of times in my life, but it never jarred me like it did tonight.
Jesus had finished the Last Supper with his disciples and began revealing to them the tragedy that is to come. He spoke of a traitor. He quelled an argument over who will lead by reminding the disciples that their call is to serve. And then he turned to Simon Peter, the Rock, and said,
“Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”
There it was.
Once you have turned back.
It was so matter of fact. Five words and then on to the next duty: you must strengthen your brothers.
Now the more famous and memorable line from Christ follows shortly thereafter where he tells Peter, to Peter’s chagrin and protests, that he will deny Christ three times before the cock crows. But it was this line “once you have turned back” that really captured me.
Just think about it. Jesus Christ – God on Earth – knows the incomparable suffering he is about to endure. He knows that the sin of the world must be paid for and understands well that He is the payment. He is the sacrificial lamb that serves God’s justice and mercy simultaneously. But it will be brutal. So needless to say, one might think that Christ would be preoccupied with the horrors that lay ahead. And yet, he wasn’t.
Jesus very frankly knew that the foremost disciple, the Rock upon which the Church would be built, the Rock against whom the gates of Hell would not prevail, the friend who swore he would suffer and die for Christ…would betray him.
He would betray him…
But would turn back. Peter would turn back and strengthen his brothers.
This statement is so profound because it speaks volumes about Christ’s mercy. Jesus would love and trust Peter through the anticipated betrayal. And he would have faith that this imperfect and fallen man would unquestionably turn back and be the edifice for the Church and the indispensable comfort and guide for his flagging brothers. From the very beginning Christ saw that the glory of his Church ran through the wretchedness of Peter.
Christ was conscious of Peter’s sin and his disciples’ sin and our sin. But he died for us anyway. He built a Church of inviolable Truth on the shoulders of imperfect sinners. Why would he invest in such failure? Why? Because we are his dignified children and because we are redeemable.
In one of her brilliant letters, Catholic author Flannery O’Connor challenged friend Cecil Dawkins’ dissatisfaction with the Church because of its wretched leaders and members.
“You are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into flesh…The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
Christ knew Peter would sin…and he offered mercy. Christ knew that Peter would try again…and he offered his trust.
We are all sinners including the leaders of the Catholic Church. This is no surprise to Christ and this is no veto on building his Church. We are fallen, but dignified.We are broken, but redeemable.
If you have left the Church because of the wretchedness of Peter or because of what you believe is your own unforgivable wretchedness, come back. Jesus has shown that this is a Church of second chances. And third. And fourth chances… If Christ has confidence in each one of us and if Christ knows we will sin, yet can do even greater things after we turn back…perhaps he is right?
Of course he is.
Of course he is.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons