No comments yet

Jesus and Peter at the seashore: an icon of confession

The very personal and moving encounter between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus asks him three times “do you love me?” tells us what sin is really all about and what mercy is really all about.


This scene takes place back in Galilee, and the apostles are doing what some of them had been doing when Jesus first called them: they were fishing. It’s a scene of nostalgia. Peter was probably longing for the uncomplicated times of the early encounter with the Rabbi from Nazareth. But instead he was now carrying a terrible burden of guilt and shame for having denied him three times when Jesus had most needed him.


Jesus approaches the group of apostles in this Gospel reading unobtrusively. He calls to them from the shore. He invites them to breakfast. The atmosphere is cordial but a little tense. Everyone there knows there is an elephant on the seashore: they had abandoned him, Peter had denied him.


As regards Peter, Jesus takes the initiative. He doesn’t accuse or berate Peter. For Jesus, the issue is not his own hurt but Peter’s wounded capacity to love him. The fact that Jesus asks Peter “do you love me more than these?” shows that it is our capacity to love which sin weakens and destroys. For life is about learning to love Jesus in the strength of Jesus’ love for me. Sin is unlove and death. Growing in the spiritual life is discovering that my rapport with Jesus is the foundation and goal of my existence. And learning to love Jesus will be for us, as it was for Peter, a deeply grieving experience (“Peter was deeply grieved when Jesus asked him the third time, do you love me”) for it requires of us to admit the full gravity of our sin. Only then can His love claim full sovereignty in our hearts.


When Jesus asks Peter “do you love me more than these?” it can certainly mean, “more than these others who are here with us.” It can be an invitation to a healthy rivalry of love for Jesus, to outdo one another in love. But “more than these” can also mean more than anything, including anyone. It’s as if Jesus is asking Peter, “do you love me more than any concern you have for your sin, guilt and shame? Do you love me more than anything you could ever want or be or hope for?”


Repentance from sin is about refocusing on Jesus, not about self-absorption. Of course, we must recognise where we have lost the focus, but Jesus stands before us with the relentless mantra, like a great sirene and great magnet, “Simon, son of Jona; do you love me more than your sin, more than your reputation, more than your self-respect, more than your very self?”


Sacramental Confession is the encounter with this Jesus by the seashore, looking at me with those searching, compassionate, hopeful, long-suffering eyes and asking me to confess not just my sins but above all my love of him. And through those same eyes, he pierces my heart and soul with the power of his own love, absolving my sins with that love and restoring the original baptismal beauty of my spirit. And if I cannot yet honestly say, “yes, Lord, you know everything, you know I love you above all”, then let my answer be, “yes, Lord, you know I desire to love you above all” or even, “I desire to desire to love you above all.” Let his gaze at least stir my desire.


One last thing. Peter is not alone with Jesus in this scene. He is in the presence of some of the other apostles. When I go to confession, neither am I alone with Jesus, for the priest is not only there in Jesus’ name but also in the name of the Church. In restoring me to myself, Jesus restores me to the communion of those who believe in Him and love Him, which is what the Church is or should be. He makes the rays of his love in me shine and heat and heal those around me. He makes me a missionary of reconciliation just as he enjoined on Peter to feed his flock after he had been forgiven.


So, when you sin, use it as an opportunity to lift up your eyes and see Jesus of the seashore looking into them and asking, “Peter, son of William (that’s your preacher!), do you love me more than these?” Let your sacramental confession be your way of drawing near to Him in his Church and responding, “Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know I love you.”