It is deeply fitting that after Divine Mercy Sunday, we should come to this weekend’s Gospel. Last week, we saw Christ offer peace and forgiveness to the Apostles as a group, giving them the power to forgive sins themselves, and showing them the marks of the suffering with which He won those great gifts. Now, this week, we see Peter receive mercy in a particular way, on his own. Since he had denied Jesus three times, now he must profess his love three times in return, and turn his heart towards the Lord’s flock. If we pay close attention to what happens in this passage, not only will we understand the sort of mercy Jesus offers, but we will also understand what sort of repentance cleans our own souls.
First, how does Christ forgive? Before anything else, we notice that He chooses to meet the Apostles in the same place and in the same way that He did at the beginning of His ministry. He first called them through a miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee, and now, as the Apostles wonder what it is exactly that they are supposed to do after the Resurrection, He meets them there again. He recalls the beginning of their friendship with Him, and the first announcement of their mission: “from now on, you will be catching men.” Despite their sins, despite everything that has happened, despite His new risen glory and His victory over death and sin, the call remains the same. He appoints these men, weak by nature, to go bring others to participate in His victory.
We notice something similar when Christ calls Peter aside. He calls forth from Peter three declarations of love to replace his denials during the Passion, but then commands him: “feed my sheep.” He does not demote Peter for his sins, He does not forgive him only to renegotiate the relationship more realistically based on Peter’s failure, but instead gives him the responsibility intended from the beginning. As Christ said at the Last Supper in Luke’s Gospel: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” In Peter’s case, as with that of the Apostles as a group, Jesus’ forgiveness is total and restorative. He does not change His plans based on the weakness of His beloved friends, but continues to keep them as close as before, so long as they repent. This is the same mercy we receive from Christ, who rejoices in bringing us home as though we had never left whenever we turn away from our sins and confess them.
So what sort of repentance does Christ seek and accept? What allows these sinful men to receive forgiveness? We see this in the conversation with Peter. Christ asks: “do you love me?” Like everything else in the Lord’s preaching, the focus is on His own person. Peter can receive mercy because He loves Christ, and is willing to follow Him. Notice that Christ does not ask Peter, “are you a good person deep down?” He does not ask “have you done enough good to balance out your sin?” Neither of those things counts in His eyes. He asks clearly: “do you love me?” And the proof of that love is Peter’s willingness to feed the sheep rather than go back to looking after his own interests and gain.
We too, if we want forgiveness, must seek it in the same way. Christ does not ask us if we are basically good people or if we have done enough good on balance to even out our sins. He asks us: “do you love me?” If we really do love Him, with our whole heart, with our actions and not just our sentiments, then we will have access like Peter and the Apostles to the renewal of our souls. So let’s remember the love with which Christ conquered our sins out of desire for our friendship, and love Him in return.