We know that Peter had a strong love for Jesus. He had wanted Jesus to be spared the Cross. He had wanted to walk with Jesus on the water. He had wanted to give his life for Jesus even if everyone else abandoned him. He had wanted Jesus to be spared the indignity of washing his feet and then, once he was rebuked by Jesus, he had wanted Jesus to wash his head and his hands as well. He had used his skilled swordsmanship to cut off the ear of someone trying to arrest Jesus. He had wanted to go with Jesus into the high priest’s house and had followed him as far as the inner courtyard.
But for all that, Peter was weak. “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man”, he once said to Jesus, and Jesus did not deny it. Jesus instead told him not to be afraid and that he would become a fisher of men, but not before the same Jesus had to call Peter Satan to bring him to his senses. Not before Jesus had to stretch out his hand and prevent him from sinking in the water saying, “O man of little faith! Why did you doubt?” Not before telling Peter that he could have no part with him if he didn’t let him wash his feet. Not before sharply rebuking him to put his sword back in its scabbard saying, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Not before the worst and most bitter of all Jesus’ rebukes to him, “give your life for me? Before the cock crows twice you will have denied me thrice.”
And when, despite himself, despite all his protestations of loyalty, love and faith, despite his bravado and hubris, Peter finds himself cursing and swearing that he does not know Jesus and hears the pathetic crowing of the cockerel, the response of Jesus is to look straight at Peter. It will have been a complex look, both accusatory and merciful, both judging and acquitting, both filled with hurt at the bitter reality of the denial and filled with compassion for the man Peter who was experiencing the depths of his own misery. But there would also be the look of Peter towards Jesus. It will have been filled with horror and disbelief at his own cowardice, “how could I have just done that to one so good, so innocent, so true?” Before his mind’s eye will have flashed all the times he had received so much from the goodness of Jesus and all the times he had promised Jesus the earth in return. Now it was all in tatters; now his wretchedness and emptiness were on full display.
Even so, there was something in Peter that was not in Judas. There was, even at this darkest of moments, an openness, a trust, in his look towards Jesus which allowed the mercy in Jesus’ look towards him to flood his soul. The sweetness of that mercy in that most dire of moments gave Peter the ability to weep bitterly, to weep out the acidity of his abject soul. As the look between the two men locked into place, Peter’s repentance was born, the path back to Jesus was begun, but only begun.
The Gospel does not tell us if Peter was at the foot of the Cross, but it does tell us that some of the friends of Jesus looked on from a distance. We can only speculate if Peter was among them. Humanly speaking, after his tears, he would have wanted to come near to Jesus again but may have felt too ashamed. It would take time. It is doubtful that Peter understood that Jesus would rise again even although he had heard him say as much. To think that the last time he looked Jesus alive in the eye he had just denied him would have been particularly galling for Peter. There would be no chance to make up to him.
Maybe that’s why, when Mary Magdalene told him that the tomb was empty, Peter went running to see. Whatever about that, the New Testament tells us twice that the risen Jesus appeared to Peter by himself. We can only guess at the depth of feeling and at the wonder of the consolation Peter received from Jesus during that one-on-one. How Peter will have wanted to express his sorrow and profess once more his love for Jesus! How Jesus will have healed Peter’s heart and given him the deep peace and joy of reconciliation! Jesus once said that the one forgiven much will love much: did anyone need more to be forgiven than Peter? And will anyone now love Jesus more than Peter?
But for all the sincerity of Peter’s personal repentance, his denials caused Jesus great pain and caused the other apostles to lose confidence in their once confident leader. Peter’s repentance had to be witnessed not only by Jesus as if it were just somehow a private affair between the two of them. No, Peter’s repentance needed to be public because his denials were public. Jesus wanted to restore Peter as leader in the eyes of the others. Jesus had said at the last supper that he had prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail and that, once recovered from the denials, he should strengthen his brethren.
Jesus sets the scene for this beautifully. He leaves word that they should go to Galilee. At the lakeside there was where he first called Peter. It’s as if he is bringing him back to the beginning. Jesus even repeats the first miracle of the draught of fishes, to remind Peter and the others that their success, and, yes, their repentance, is not their own but the fruit of grace. Just as he had run to the tomb, on the word of John Peter now jumps into the water to get to Jesus. He needed to be near Jesus. In that familiar context of loaves and fishes, of the sea breeze and the brotherly company, Jesus makes his move.
It must have been as difficult for Jesus to ask the question three times as for Peter to answer it three times. Nothing is said, but everyone knows that Peter’s denials are the issue. Peter had failed Jesus more than these others and so he needs Peter to say that he loves him more than these others. And each time Peter answers, Jesus enjoins on him the responsibility to feed the flock, that is, to give the green and verdant pastures of his truth and grace to the Church. Peter’s hurt at the threefold question of love is a purging of his denials. For only love purges sin. It is now not just Peter’s faith in Jesus but his love for Jesus which makes him leader and rock of the Church.
But Jesus adds: follow me. Just as he had brought Peter back to the beginning in Galilee, Jesus now foretells Peter’s end on the Cross, the fear of which had made him deny Jesus. Now his love for Jesus will bring him where he would rather not go, to the supreme expression of martyrdom.
No matter how deep our denials of Jesus might reach, we must keep the trust that Peter had when he locked eyes with Jesus. When we sin, as did Peter, Jesus looks straight at us and we should look straight at him. When we sin, let’s not get lost in guilt and self-recrimination but allow Jesus immediately to ask us as many times as we sin, “do you love me?” And when we recover from sin by the gift of love he gives us in asking us that question, let us feed others with that same love and so follow him to whatever end our particular road in life and in death leads us.