Wednesday, April 14, 2010

04-18-2010: Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 5:27-32,41 / Psalm 30 / Revelation 5:11-14 / John 21:1-19
Many years ago, when I was taking the test to become a lifeguard, we had to jump into a pool fully clothed and quickly disrobe in the water using our clothes as aides in the rescue we were attempting. Swimming in your clothes is a cumbersome thing, the weight of wet clothes impedes every stroke you try to take. It’s a heavy burden, one that suggests the evolutionary biologists must be right when they suggest we human beings – or our ancestors – emerged from the sea, initially free of the paraphernalia of culture. Remember, it was only in Eden we started wearing clothes; and only in community we began to know the weight of shame.

In today’s gospel, filled with anomalies, Peter does something baffling. He’s near naked in his boat, just finishing his fishing, when he realizes the once-dead-and-now-risen Jesus is cooking breakfast on the shore. We read that Peter first put on his clothes and then jumped into the water to swim to shore.

Some have argued that St. John is being a bit liturgical here, suggesting that a follower of the Lord pays him homage by how he presents himself; not poorly clad or, God forbid, naked – but clothed and reverent before the majesty. It’s the notion of putting on your Sunday-best before you get yourself to church. One could debate such an interpretation. What’s not debatable, though, are the feelings conveyed. Peter is like a bewildered teenager in need of love and forgiveness – he doesn’t realize what he’s doing and ends up doing just the opposite of what you’d expect. His last encounter with Jesus was the night he so coldly denied him to save his own skin. Here’s a chance, he’s thinking, to make things right and face the shame his actions had brought on himself. Three times Jesus asks Peter Do you love me, corresponding to his three denials a few nights before. He asks this in community, in front of everyone, highlighting that precise moment when guilt becomes shame.

Peter, realizing his cowardice and abject inadequacy, might have expected to be replaced at that point by someone more loyal like John, or gutsier like Thomas. But Jesus continues to choose Peter as the Rock on which the church would stand precisely because he failed so miserably, suggesting that the enterprise we call the church was not intended as empire or business, but as the matrix where our abject poverty and terrible inadequacy mixes with grace. Peter shows us that absolutely everyone can afford the cost of entry into this matrix of mystery, though it is a price few of us are willing to pay; the asking price being the very shame we wish not to acknowledge.

Today, Peter’s successor is feeling the weight of shame, the heavy burden of an unresolved past. News reports have been praised and criticized on many counts but few would argue that the pope can escape untainted. A supreme irony is now emerging where the evidence for Benedict’s genuine desire to reform the way the Vatican responded to the sex abuse crisis will inevitably show that his predecessor, John Paul II, was as genuinely desirous to cover it up, to save face, to fall into the inevitable temptation of believing secrecy the antidote to scandal when, in actuality, secrecy is scandal’s greatest ally.

No doubt many who call for the pope’s resignation do so out of a disdain for institutional religion in general and Catholicism in particular; others, genuinely concerned for the church, call for the pope’s resignation because they perceive it as the only way to save the church - by offering a fresh start. Of the two motivations the latter is more acceptable but far more sinister than the former, precisely because a fresh start is just what we don’t need. Peter was the Rock not because he was strong, not because he was innocent, but because he was weak and filled with shame. Grace doesn’t seek to obliterate the past but enables Peter to face it. As Peter’s successor swims toward that same shore, taking the next labored stroke, weighed down as he is by the paraphernalia of Vatican bureaucracy and Romanità, we can only pray that when, and if, he reaches that shore, at least some of that weighty and burdensome paraphernalia – the heavy yoke of secrecy - will have sunk to the bottom of the sea.

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