Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
We are in the thick of the Easter season, and yet nevertheless after contemplating the readings for this Sunday I cannot help but be drawn to the second Beatitude of Matthew 5: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” All the readings radiate joy, I know, but the joy is not simply the superficial elation of those who stumble upon fortune: it is the joy of those who have mourned and are now being comforted.
The first reading relates the story of St. Peter and the first apostles who left the court of the Sanhedrin “rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” They rejoiced, but only because they suffered. The Psalmist extols the Lord because He “drew him clear” and did not let his enemies rejoice over him. It is quite explicitly a psalm of resurrection: “O LORD, you brought me up from the netherworld; you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.”
Again the scene from the third reading from Revelation 5 is one of eschatological exaltation, but an exaltation centered upon “the Lamb who was slain:” the One who now sits upon the throne of the Almighty, surrounded by the beasts who appeared to Ezekiel as well as the countless creatures who have been redeemed by the Lamb’s blood. This heavenly liturgy is suffused with joy, but the joy flows from the wounds of love, which have been vindicated by eternal justice.
Finally and most dramatically, we hear in the gospel of St. Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ, who waits for him on the shoreline. Peter’s betrayal on the night of Jesus’ passion is still a fresh and open wound. The sound of the cock’s crow still rings clear in his ears; the tears of his weeping have barely dried on his face. And we find him doing what many a man does when he is grieving deeply: he is out on the water, fishing.
Yet even this act must have been a source of profound grief for him. How could he not have recalled that fateful morning when after a long and unfruitful night of fishing he first came upon the man who told him that he would become a “fisher of men”? Now here he sits in his boat once again, fishing for fish and with the same amount of success. Yes, it is true that John describes a prior encounter in which Jesus appears to the disciples behind closed doors, and yes, Jesus made a point (more than once) to bestow his peace upon them then, but there are still loose ends; there are still some specific, personal wounds to dress.
So Jesus appears upon the shoreline, but they do not yet know it is Him. He speaks to them as one fisherman to another: “have you caught anything yet?” And when tell him they haven’t, he gives them an unsolicited tip: cast your nets on the other side of the boat. Surely all this must have begun to sound a little familiar to St. Peter, so that when one of his companions blurted out what they all were probably thinking—“it is the Lord”— Peter does not hesitate to tuck in his skivvies and jump out of the boat.
Here is the joy of a man who has known grief, a man who has known the despair of betrayed friendship and foregone redemption. The most astounding thing about Peter’s act here is that he does not hesitate for a moment. “What will he think?” “Is he here to humiliate me?” “I cannot face him again”—these are thoughts that may have crossed many a man’s mind in this situation, but they do not enter Peter’s head at this moment. St. Peter trips over himself to reach the shore; he has no regard for any tension that may still remain between them. He is filled with self-abandon.
I cannot help but think of King David at this moment: dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, rending his heart in penance for his sin, pleading before God that he might have died instead of his son. In St. Peter beats a similar sort of heart: one who feels deeply and sins deeply, but one who ultimately has no regard for itself when it beholds its beloved. Like David, Peter does not hesitate to return to the Lord. He does not care what it will cost to his self-image or his public persona. All that matters is that He is there, and that He is waiting for me.
Here is the joy of one who mourns, but who has been comforted. Here is the joy of one who is given the privilege of being asked by the one who created his heart: “do you love me?” And in answering, it is almost as if Peter is confessing something entirely beyond his control: “yes Lord, you know that I love you.” And it is at this moment that the weak man whom Jesus renamed “the Rock” (surely not without some irony) becomes who he was always meant to be: one who has finally taken hold of the consuming love which first took hold of him, one who has been comforted and strengthened to carry out the task to which he was first called, and for which he was made.
I know it is completely and perhaps irresponsibly speculative, but perhaps we might nevertheless imagine those same words on the lips of St. Peter as he hung on the inverted cross upon which he was destined to “stretch out his hands”: “yes Lord, you know that I love you.”