Back at the Scene of the Crime

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C.

If you’ve ever had to take care of someone else, you know that it’s easy to become so consumed with taking care of that other person, that you forget to take care of yourself. And if you do this for long enough, it eventually catches up with you. Because you’ve neglected your own self-care for so long, you can no longer care for that other person.

This is true for priests as well. If a priest neglects his own spiritual life, before too long he will no longer be effective in helping others grow in theirs. A priest has to pray, cooperate with God’s grace, and receive the Sacraments, just like everyone else, if he wants to grow in holiness and to help others do the same. One of the most important Sacraments for growing in holiness is Confession, or Reconciliation. And as hard as it sometimes is for everyone else to make it to Confession regularly, it can be especially hard for a priest. When priests at other parishes are hearing Confessions, you, as a priest, might be hearing Confessions yourself, or have other obligations.

Before the pandemic, I used to go to Confession on Monday, which is my day off. I would go to Holy Hill during their normally scheduled Confession time, and, more often than not, I would see another priest, sometimes two, taking advantage of this same opportunity. During the pandemic this was no longer possible, so I had to figure out another option. It had to overcome my initial reluctance to do this, but I eventually decided to ask one of my priest friends to hear my Confession. I was reluctant, at first, because it was going to require me to be more vulnerable than I’d every been before. It’s hard enough to tell a priest who is a stranger your sins, let alone a priest who is your close friend.

But this turned out to be the best thing I could have possibly done. This friend already knew me; he knew my strengths and my weaknesses; he knew what I was going through. My brokenness didn’t prove to be an obstacle to his friendship with me, but rather a new opportunity to be an even better friend to me. In hearing my Confession, he was acting as more than a friend, but not less than a friend either.

This is also a way to look at our gospel. In this encounter between Jesus and Peter, we see the meeting of two friends. Jesus is more than a friend to Peter in this moment, but He is not less than a friend either. Jesus knows Peter; He knows His strengths and weaknesses; He knows what He has gone through. And Peter’s brokenness—his threefold denial of Jesus—is not ultimately an obstacle to Jesus’ friendship with him, but, in the end, a new opportunity for Jesus to be an even better friend to him.

In this scene, Jesus takes Peter back to the scene of the crime, so to speak. When Peter denied Jesus three times in the courtyard of the high priest in John Chapter 18, he was standing around a charcoal fire keeping himself warm. Now, in John Chapter 21, Jesus invites Peter to do the same. Having just swam in the cold water, and now standing in the chill, morning air, Peter must have been just as cold, if not colder, than he was on that fateful night. And once again, there is a charcoal fire. When Peter saw this, and made the connection, he may have felt awkward or ashamed.

When we think of sin as Catholics, we often think of it as breaking a rule. As we grow in our relationship with God, we often realize that it’s more like violating a friendship. The sin has hurt or broken the friendship, and it must be forgiven before the friendship can be restored. By his three-fold denial, Peter has seriously harmed his friendship with Jesus; by his three-fold expression of love he is reconciled to Jesus and their friendship is restored. But if we just leave it at that, we miss something. There’s something profound in Jesus taking Peter back to the scene of the crime.

It might not be wise, for a number of reasons, to tell you to imagine the worst sin you’ve ever committed. But if you were to go back in your mind’s eye to this scene from your life, the thing to do would be to imagine Jesus in that scene. It might be extremely painful to do this. But the fact is, that Jesus was there whether we realized it or not. And so, to imagine Him in that scene is not to engage in some deceptive fantasy, but to see the truth of that scene, perhaps for the very first time. Jesus was there, wherever you were, when you committed the worst sin of your life.

What if you were to go back to that scene in your imagination? What if you were to return to the scene of the crime? What if you were to hear Jesus say, as He said to Peter, “Do you love me?” What would you think? How would you feel? Would you be able to say to Jesus in return, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”? And how would Jesus reply to you? Is there something He’d ask you to do?

Jesus doesn’t just want to restore our friendship with Him when it’s been hurt or broken. Jesus wants to deepen our friendship with Him. And the very things which may initially be obstacles to that friendship—our sins—can become opportunities to deepen that friendship. When we return to our sins—not to dwell on them, not to beat ourselves up for them—but to allow Jesus to encounter us in them, we come to a deeper knowledge of His love for us, and of our desire to love Him in return. When we see Jesus look at us in our sins, not with condemnation but with mercy, when we see that gaze of love for us, our hearts cannot help but cry out, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!”

My challenge to all of us this week is this: If you can, return to the scene of your worst sin. If it is too painful to do that, at least return to the scene of some sin you have committed, perhaps one that still weighs heavy on your heart. Whatever scene you return to, imagine Jesus in it. Hear Jesus ask you, “Do you love me?” Receive that question, not in a spirit of condemnation, but of invitation. Allow Jesus to give you the opportunity to reaffirm your love for Him. Even if Jesus has forgiven you for that sin, there is more about His love for you, and your love for Him, that He wants to reveal to you. Let’s not settle for an unbroken friendship with Jesus, as good as that is; let’s strive for an ever-deeper friendship with Him. Amen.