May 1, 2022| 3rd Sunday in Eastertide
Peter and Paul are sometimes called “princes of the apostles”. They are depicted together in artworks, despite the fact that they had a quite conflictual relationship at a distance and probably met very few times. The matter of their disagreement is something that we will explore later on in this season. Today, I would like instead to meditate with you on the moments in which each of them became an apostle of Jesus Christ, that is, one sent by Christ himself for a purpose. Both Peter and Paul had a numinous experience of the risen Christ which certified to them individually their role as apostles. But what was the content of their experiences? And how these two very different people, who disagreed so much with each other, became pillars of the same Church? Is there, at the root, a similar experience?
Peter, the staunch companion of Jesus who, however, fails at the very end, is undoubtedly a tragic figure. Peter is presented in many writings of the New Testament essentially as an honest, well-meaning, passionate follower of Jesus who tries with all his might to understand who Jesus is and what is he about but is ultimately overcome by fear. The arrest and the crucifixion of Jesus are for him a shattering trauma. He enters into confusion and wallows into an abyss of pain. The story of the apparition of the risen Jesus at the lake in Galilee and the final conversation between Jesus and Peter, which we heard today, is the story of the healing of such trauma. In this story, it appears that Peter went back to his old life as a fisherman as if Jesus never existed, as if the years spent with him were a fantasy, as if the crucifixion never happened... never mind the resurrection. It looks like Peter has not yet seen the risen Lord, because those who saw Jesus alive after his death acquire new strength and vigor, new identity and aim. They feel and know that they are sent to do something. Peter's life, instead, is shrunken. His soul is on hospice care. But when the beloved disciple suggests that the stranger on the beach is, in fact, the risen Jesus, Peter starts getting back his old self. He becomes passionate again; he jumps in the sea to reach Jesus as soon as possible, although he still wants to preserve decency by not presenting himself naked. His healing starts when the memories of their past meals with Jesus on the shore of the lake come back to him. Being with Jesus has always meant to him that the moments of discomfort, the nights in which no fish is caught, were not the last stop. There was always another possibility, another way of doing things, a solution not tried before. But then, everything was interrupted. The arrest and death of Jesus broke the spell. Peter's life became dreary, and he blamed himself for his weakness, for his denial of Jesus. In our story, when the risen Jesus talks to Peter in the rarified atmosphere typical of mystical encounters, the sin of Peter, the mistake that torments him, is not overlooked. Jesus does not say: “Never mind”. Rather, he asks the same question three times: “Do you love me?” Meaning: “Will you be loyal to me now?” Three times the question is asked, just like Peter denied Jesus three times before dawn on the night of his arrest. Yet Peter is not shamed by Jesus in this encounter. Peter is placed right before his mistake, yes. But Peter is also loved very deeply, and he feels it. His trauma is overcome not in the sense that it is forgotten. That would be what we now call “repressed trauma”. Peter overcomes his trauma because Jesus forces him to look into his pain and now he can do it, he can accept his weakness. He finally understands that he can be a person with a strong identity, with a sense of aim... he can be a happy person not despite his weakness but through his weakness. It is only at this point, at least according to the Gospel of John, that Peter receives the commission to lead the flock. Jesus chooses someone who lost his way, who felt utterly lost, who knows the pain of the dissolution of all meaning. Jesus himself, when he appears after his death, bears the wounds of the crucifixion in his risen body. They are not bleeding anymore, yet they are present. The same is true for Peter. The new Peter, the apostle Peter, is one who keeps forever the memory of what happened, but such memory does not hurt him anymore. The bleeding has stopped. He is forgiven, he can forgive himself, he is healed. When his end will come, he will not be scared and traumatized again. He will not lose his wits when he will be led to be crucified just like his Rabbi and friend. Yes, he will be led by others like Jesus was, like a lamb to the slaughter, but this will not be anymore a reason for despair. His life until then will be a full life. And just like the end of Jesus was that of a seed, so the martyrdom of Peter will be the seed of many more Christians.
Saul, who will become Paul, is a very different person. He has never met Jesus; therefore, he has no personal memories to go back to. The trauma that he has to overcome is not that of the death of Jesus, but rather that of his own violence against the followers of Jesus. We don't know for certain if he committed or abetted the murder of anyone of them, but clearly, he was very much feared because he could imprison and hurt the brothers and sisters belonging to the Way, as early Christianity was called. The risen Christ shows up for Saul as a huge blinding light that makes him stumble, that makes him lose his violent way in order that he can find the Way. Like Peter, Saul also has a dialogue with the risen Lord. And Saul/Paul, just like Peter, is confronted with his sin. “Why do you persecute me?” Why, indeed, is Saul full of rage and violent intentions? He is lost in his violent dreams of purity and service to God. He is active and boastful, not shrunken like Peter, but he is equally lost. His healing happens through his enemies, who show him mercy despite being afraid of him. He will never be able to forget this moment, which in fact he recounts in several versions, including in his letters. This is the moment in which he becomes himself, he becomes Paulus (which means “little one”) instead of Saulus (which reminds one of the king Saul). An arrogant, angry person becomes one who needs the help of others to heal. And, again, it is through his weakness and his need, not despite it, that Paul becomes the great Apostle to the Gentiles. He also, like Peter, will have to suffer for the sake of Christ. Paul will be imprisoned in Rome and beheaded. But, again, in the meantime he will have had a productive, intense, full life. A life with meaning and with an aim, the life of an apostle. My friends, we all have traumas and emotional injuries. Peter and Paul are an example of at least three things: how such traumas can be enormously different from each other, how they are healed by the encounter with the risen Lord, and how such personal encounter happens in the context of the Church. The latter point is underlined in both stories. In one case it is the meal of fish and bread on the beach, with the old friends and companions of Jesus; in the other case is the ministry of Ananias in the city of Damascus, and a ritual baptism. In both cases, it is not just an individual relationship with Christ, but a deep relationship with him in the context of the community of believers. This brings us, or should bring us, to a deeper awareness of our claims as a Church. This is a place where traumas are healed. If they aren’t or – even worse – if they are caused by the Church, then we are not the Church of the risen Christ, and all our words about meeting Him at the table and partaking of his very substance are lies. It is a high standard, but it is the standard that we have received and against which we must judge ourselves. Everything else does not really matter that much. Only if we seek and receive healing here, then this is the Church of the risen Christ, and we are apostles of his healing grace. AMEN.