We have been reading and hearing the Gospel according to St. Mark throughout this liturgical year. While Matthew and Luke make it clear that his disciples didn’t get Jesus’ message and, ultimately, let him down, Mark is particularly harsh in his characterization of that failure, desertion, and betrayal. Most recently, the women who otherwise do not figure prominently in Mark’s account, when they come onto center stage Easter morning, even they let him down. Told to tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, they “tell no one” out of fear. Human weakness and failure. Mark won’t let us dodge confronting that painful reality.
G. K. Chesterton wrote somewhere: “If you are to build a perfect society, start with imperfect people.” He might have gotten this insight from today’s Gospel passage. The resurrected Jesus gently but forcefully reminds Peter, on whom he will build his church, of his threefold denial just a few days earlier. And yet, after each reminder, he entrusts to Peter the responsibility of tending Jesus’ own flock.
We wouldn’t have done it that way. Instead, we would have been more inclined to say: “Peter proved himself unworthy; give the post to somebody else.” – thinking of the job as recognition or reward. If we needed to be reminded yet again, scripture tells us “God’s thoughts are not your thoughts, God’s ways are not your ways”.
Peter has to let go – let go of his protestations of loyalty, of his “I can do it” confidence. That’s possible only when it becomes inescapably clear to him that he really can’t do it. Peter must serve Jesus’ flock out of the full, painful awareness of his own incapacity. The strength he will need comes from Jesus, not from himself. And he must always remember that the flock is not his. “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep”. There is only one shepherd – Jesus.
Most of us are not members of the clerical establishment, to whom this passage would seem most pointedly directed. But in a less formal sense, these words apply to all of us. We are all commissioned to serve other members of the flock, and we can do so not from our own strength but from God’s life in us. Recognition of our incapacity and sinfulness is a necessary first step for us, just as it was for Peter. But what an incredible blessing it is to know that we are commissioned despite our failures.