We hear this gospel a few times in the course of the year and the words that stick with us are usually, ‘you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.’ But Jesus tells Peter why he was able to say what he said, ’You are the Christ, the son of the living God’ Jesus tells Peter, ‘you didn’t come to this insight on your own’ not through human reasoning – it was my Father who made this truth known to you. You were gifted to know my oneness with the Father. Even after having been so gifted Peter was unable to stand by his statement of faith when he was confronted by the servant on the night Jesus was betrayed by Judas. When accused of being a disciple of Jesus Peter swore on an oath he did not know Jesus. When he realized what he had done that must have been the lowest point in Peter’s life. But after his resurrection Jesus still entrusted the church to the denier Peter’s leadership telling him, ‘feed my lamb, feed my sheep.’
I was reading something on today’s gospel that was written by John Chrysostom who was the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 4th century.This is how he explained how Peter the Rock could fall so far as to deny he even knew Jesus.
“Now Peter was inclined to be severe, so if he had also been impeccable what forbearance would he have shown toward those he instructed? His falling into sin was thus a providential grace to teach him from experience to deal kindly with others.
The reason God’s plan permitted Peter to sin was because he was to be entrusted with the whole people of God, and sinlessness added to his severity might have made him unforgiving toward his brothers and sisters. He fell into sin so that remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness; he also might forgive others out of love for them.
This seems to be the message of Pope Francis. In the first days of his being the pope a reporter asked him, ‘who are you’? Pope Francis answer, ‘I am a sinner.’ The evening he was presented to the crowds in St. Peter’s square as the new Pope, before he gave his first blessing as Pope he bowed his head and ask the people to bless him first and then he would bless them.
Pope Francis is trying to change people’s image of the church as severe and judgmental, unfeeling about the daily struggles people are living with. His arms are open in welcome and blessing instead of a pointed and judgmental finger. In his first letter to the church he said, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional is not a torture chamber but an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.’ As regards receiving Holy Communion the Pope had this to say,’the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfects but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ In that same letter he wrote,’ I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets ‘ As I said before the church is a community of mistake making beings which walks with the wounded of the world.
Fr. Ron Rolhosier tells of a conversation he had with an older priest whom he admired. He asked him, ‘If you had your priesthood to live over again, would you do anything differently?” From a man so full of integrity, I fully expected that there would be no regrets. So his answer surprised me. Yes, he did have one regret, a major one, he said: “If I had my priesthood to do over again, I would be easier on people the next time. I wouldn’t be so stingy with God’s mercy, with the sacraments, with forgiveness. I fear I’ve been too hard on people. They have pain enough without me and the church laying further burdens on them. I should have risked God’s mercy more!”
This is a lesson we can take from today’s gospel and Christ entrusting the church to Peter, a sinner. We can remember the insight of St. John Chrysostom who wrote of Peter,’ He fell into sin so that remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them.
Again, our church is a community of mistake making people from the Pope on down. We have our conflicts, our misunderstanding, our resentments to others and that’s why we should support one another in our woundedness as we daily pray- forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.