May 5; 3rd Sunday of Easter; Year C

3rd EasterQuo vadis?

The Fourth Gospel ends with the appearance of the Lord at the Sea of Tiberias where St Peter is installed by the Lord in his pastoral office. The rest of St Peter’s story, as far as scripture is concerned, is told in the Acts of the Apostles. But even there, St Peter seems to disappear from the pages of recorded history after the ascendance of St Paul who takes the mission of Christ to the Gentiles. What happened to St Peter after this? Many can only speculate. We have a clue in today’s gospel where the Lord predicts Peter’s own ending. Well, where scripture is silent, tradition fills in the blank spaces. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, and just like how he abandoned Christ after His arrest, Peter flees from persecution in Rome as he abandons his flock, and along the road outside the city, he meets the risen Lord. In the Latin translation, Peter, shocked to see Jesus in the flesh, asks Him, “Domine, Quo vadis?”(“Lord, where are you going?”) and the Lord replies, “Romam eo iterum crucifigi” (“I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”). Peter, shamed by His master’s answer, then gains the courage to continue his ministry and returns to the city, where he is martyred by being crucified upside-down.

A beautiful and poignant ending to the tale of the Prince of the Apostles and our first pope, but let’s return to our story in today’s gospel. A lot of things seem to be happening before our Lord entrusts this crucial pastoral ministry to St Peter. Everything that precedes this preparatory: failed fishing venture, then the outstanding miraculous catch which would not be possible without the Lord’s intervention, after which Peter swims to the shore to meet the Lord and stands beside Him on the bedrock of eternity, then the simple breakfast that prefigures the Eucharist; prepares us for the final scene where the Lord interrogates Peter and Peter gives his answer. The crucial question, asked not just once but three times. If we cast our minds back, we will remember that we watched Peter deny Christ three times. Here, he makes three professions of love, three confirmations of his faith.

Three times our Lord will pose this question to Peter, “Do you love me?” Although they read the same in English, they are actually different in the original Greek. While the English language has only one word for “love,” there are quite a few in Greek. In this very passage, the Lord uses the verb form of agape in the first two of His three questions and the verb form of philos in the third, while Peter responds with the verb form of philos in all his three replies. What’s happening is this. The Lord firstly asks Peter if he loves Him self-sacrificially “more than these others do.” To paraphrase this, “do you love me more than the Beloved Disciple who stood under the cross there or these other apostles over there, who gave everything to follow me?” Instead of addressing the comparison, Peter answers by claiming his love for Jesus as a friend. After having betrayed Jesus, there was no way that he could claim anything more than that. Jesus then drops the comparison and asks Peter if he simply loves Him self-sacrificially. Peter sticks to his claim of friendly love. With His third question, Jesus drops the level of love down to Peter’s, and there’s a match. Jesus will start working on us with whatever level of love we have for Him, because at the end of the day, as St John so rightly puts it, “Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent His Son to expiate our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

Without this confession of greater love, the Good Shepherd, who gives His life for His sheep, could not entrust His flock to Peter’s pasturing. For the office our Lord has received from the Father is identical with His own loving sacrifice of His life for His sheep. Ever since our Lord bestowed this office on St Peter, this unity of love and office has been unconditionally required. This unity is then sealed by the prediction of Peter’s own passion, his crucifixion, the gift of completed discipleship. Just like the Master, the servant too must lay down his life for his sheep. The cross will be bound up with the papacy from this point onward, even when it is given to unworthy popes. That is the reason why Popes have traditionally worn red shoes. It is hardly a fashion statement as many would sarcastically comment (especially when Pope Benedict restored the tradition). But those red shoes are a reminder that this is the vocation of the one who sits on the Chair of St Peter. He must be willing to give his life-blood for his mission and his sheep, and that blood runs red till it covers even his shoes and the toes of his feet.

It won’t be easy for St Peter to accept this proposal. Let’s be honest, it won’t be easy for anyone of us. We want the frills without paying the cost. We want the prestige and power that comes with the position, but not the responsibilities. We want glory without the cross. Peter will still for a long time stick to his convictions, hopes and dreams of glory. Only after years will he be converted completely and if the tradition regarding his last encounter with the Risen Lord and his death are true, he would finally concede to be taken where he would rather not go.

Leadership has often oscillated between the temptation to accede to popular demands or face the painful prospect of rejection. Anyone can be a leader. Anyone can be equipped with leadership skills and learn the basics of management, communication, conflict resolution, planning and decision making. But the Christian leader is challenged to go further. He must, like St Peter in the First Reading, be ready “to suffer mistreatment for Jesus’ name.” We see a very different Peter in this scene before the Sanhedrin, the High Council of the Jews. He is no longer the cowardly and timid Peter who flees from the scene of the charcoal fire when threatened with discovery. Here he does not run but instead gives one of his most inspiring speeches, “Better for us to obey God than men!” Peter and his brothers refuse to be cowed into silence. Instead “they rejoiced that they had been judged worthy to suffer mistreatment for Jesus’ name.”

Peter and his brothers stand with so many others in the history of the Church. The Church on earth has always known various tribulations, in the likeness of her Lord. She experiences betrayal, calumny, torture and finally martyrdom. Are we shocked and horrified by the hundreds that were killed, maimed and injured in Sri Lanka last Easter? We should be rightly so but let us not forget that the Church takes the same path as her Lord. For her too, it is necessary that she suffer these things, and so enter into her glory. This is the brilliant vision painted in the second reading. As the Church had suffered the fate, mission, and mistreatment of her Master on earth, now she will share in the glory of the Master who reigns supreme in heaven. This is because the Cross can never be separated from the Resurrection.

St Peter will carry the mission entrusted to him by the Lord to Rome eventually. As an old man, he will be girded by the soldiers of Nero, and made to climb. He will be crucified with his feet upward - his own request, being so unlike his Master! His face will be low to the ground: the dust of men! In his heart ... the shore of Galilee, the voice of Christ speaking to him, yesterday, today, and forever. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And with his dying breath, Peter finally answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you. I have fed your sheep.”