St Peter in flagrante

Frances writes on the Sunday readings for Easter 3 :

I suspect that you, like me all too easily restrict our prayer to making requests of God especially when things are tough, rather than heaping upon him the praise and thanks he rightly deserves and the idea that we shall ultimately devote eternity to such a praise song is more than a little daunting! The lamb that was sacrificed is worthy to be given power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing….To the One sitting on the throne and to the lamb be all praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever. To know that we are to become party to this great praise song, the praise of creation to its creator puts all our rather small-time requests and needs in perspective, doesn’t it, Eastertide puts us in our place!

When we read the Book of Acts and Revelation, or the Apocalypse of St John we also learn that becoming part of this great gathering of the elect also means that we are among those who came to this position through suffering. Luke says in Acts, They left the presence of the Sanhedrin glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name. Luke’s version of the post resurrection Church is triumphalistic, full of certainty whilst that, written later by John seems an altogether more realistic and penetrating account of the renewed creation of which we are a suffering part. John’s apocalypse is very clear that the saints are the ones clad in white because they have suffered, emulating Jesus the sacrificial victim, and I wondered how exactly Christians of the past and we are to cash this promise.

I think we get some flavour of that in our gospel from John, the Beloved Disciple, someone who apparently realised that ‘suffering’ might imply more than the obvious suffering of being an upright Christian who died for the faith implied, that it might be quite a stretched out and even embarrassing journey to Christ. We see this in his account of the appearance of the risen Jesus to Peter and six of the other disciples. Quiet clearly they had given up on the entire Jesus project and all its hopes and had gone back to what they knew they could handle – fishing on the Sea of Galilee, keeping their heads down and simply earning their livings, which was what they had probably come to the conclusion they should have done all along. Then, out of the blue there came that totally unlooked for encounter with the risen Lord Jesus and the miraculous haul of fish with the sudden knowledge born of John’s love that it was Jesus on the shore, returned from the dead. At this point the story gets suddenly more dramatic and symbolic and we realise that something more that simple reportage is going on.

Now when you and I normally nip into the sea for a dip we take off our clothes, but Peter, to the contrary, who was near naked in the boat puts on his cloak before jumping into the water to go to Jesus. Clearly something odd is taking place. We are in fact being taken back into our prehistory, into the account of the Fall in Genesis, where the ‘naked and unashamed’ Adam and Eve suddenly become conscious of their nakedness in the presence of God in the garden after eating of the forbidden fruit, a mythological and stylised explanation of humanities discovery of culpability and conscience. Peter would at this point have been confronted with the memory of his three fold denial of Jesus during his trial before the high priest and, while acting to greet the Lord was at the same time deeply aware of his desertion and rejection of him and so he covers his nakedness – something anyone caught in flagrante would do. We are shape- shifting here between historical account and symbolic remaking, a penitential rite of forgiveness, a suffering imposed on a guilty man – here representing all of fallen humanity. You and I as well as Peter, undergo a remaking, a reconstituting into the new humanity made by the resurrection. As the account continues we see that Jesus pushes this on remorselessly with his three times putting the same searing question to Peter, Do you love me? Surely within this demand there is more than ritual questioning and affirmation, for we can imaging how Peter squirmed remembering his own denials at the critical moment. The restructuring comes in Jesus’ affirming of Peter’s role after each painful and positive reply: Feed my lambs; look after my sheep; feed my sheep.

The rehabilitated Peter and we ourselves as party to this resurrection refashioning is the promise of a future rich in Christ yet within that promise lies the foretelling of suffering and in Peter’s case, actual martyrdom, showing that the pathway to life in the divine will always be achieved through suffering in some way or other. St John the Devine – the only apostle we are told not to die a martyr death had the ability to grasp the fact that the lives of many of us will have its times of redemptive suffering and that they too are the path to glory. They may even be mundane – as was his, stuck in exile in Ephesus with all the trials of leading a pagan group to Christ, and, if he was the author of Apocalypse, finally exiled to Patmos, that lonely isle in the Aegean where he would have had ample time to contemplate his lot. Suffering and the final victory in Christ which it brings may not always have the dramatic appeal of a Peter in Rome or Ignatius’ being ‘ground to fine wheat’ in the arena by the savage beasts, his point is nevertheless, that it will get us there in the end.

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