- ‘In elections, we are all entitled to dream of choosing leaders who will inspire us and have high standards for themselves. Woolly promises of simplistic solutions or self-serving divisive slogans do nothing to help those who feel most burdened by life.’ – Bishop McKeown
In the first weeks of the Easter Season, we hear about encounters between Jesus and his followers. They are all conversion stories. Jesus has been changed by the Resurrection – and these stories deal with his disciples having to see who Jesus is through the lens of the Resurrection. He is no longer just the good friend and teacher. He is the Risen Lord. The liturgy invites us to engage in those life-changing encounters with the Risen Jesus. What do we learn about the dynamics of conversion today?
Firstly, conversion means moving from low expectations to divine dreams. At the beginning of the Gospel passage, Peter has decided to go fishing. His hopes in Jesus had vanished. He plans to do the only thing that he knows. And then, even at that, he fails to catch any fish. Jesus appears and there is a huge catch of fish. But even that is just the hook to catch Peter. He has seen miracles before and still has doubts. There is still more of the conversion to take place. As at the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, Jesus shared bread and fish with them. He has a fire prepared for them and reminds them of his ministry of service that had happened at the Last Supper.
And Jesus goes further. He wants specifically to heal the wounds that weigh Peter down. Just as Peter had been standing at a charcoal fire on Holy Thursday evening when he denied Jesus three times, so here Jesus has gathered them around a charcoal fire and asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him. The Risen Lord offers forgiveness, but that healing needs an acknowledgement of the sin that has marred the relationship.
At the present time in our church, there is the temptation from some sides to lower our expectations of what can happen and then not be disappointed. Jesus wants us to move beyond standing in tears at the foot of the Cross or as the stone is rolled over the mouth of the tomb. That is what Pope Francis means when he says that the synodal process in Ireland will mean conversion for everybody. We are called to move from a preoccupation with our own limited imagination and our pet issues, to encountering the Risen Lord and allowing him to tell us about his outrageous dream for the Church. Easter is a time of preparing for the Holy Spirit to push out into very deep waters and choppy seas.
Secondly, Jesus does not just want Peter to see the world through divine eyes. Jesus knows that only those who love Christ will have hearts for his mission. Thus, he asks Peter three times whether he loves him. All ministry in the church has to be driven by a passion for Jesus and a desire to give all in service of him. The church has to be a body of people who can answer ‘yes’ when Jesus asks us ‘do you love me?’ If we are only a religious institution that stands for certain ideas, then we offer only a philosophy or a political agenda. That sort of religious body risks offering nothing but a battle over teaching and laws. That is what happened to the Pharisees. A Church that is powered by love of Jesus and of those to whom he ministered – that is the sort of church which will draw followers to Christ. A church that is not renewed daily through love of the Risen Jesus is not offering what Jesus came to reveal. That is another area where conversion is needed when we encounter the Risen Christ.
Thirdly, this is not just a nice reconciliation scene for Peter. He is told that, if he loves Jesus, he will be led down paths that he did not choose. The apostles discover that in our first reading as well. Just as happened to Jesus, the church has to be ready to speak uncomfortable truths to ourselves – and to others. That will probably elicit opposition from the powerful who prefer to portray themselves as the new fountainheads of wisdom and who react negatively to Christ’s awkward values. If the church dares to stand for values that are not popular in powerful circles, then Christ’s followers can expect to be criticised. Indeed, a church that is too close to political power, too well thought of, may well feel comfortable and secure – but it loses its prophetic voice. Jesus was not prepared to trade truth for popularity.
In elections, we are all entitled to dream of choosing leaders who will inspire us and have high standards for themselves. Woolly promises of simplistic solutions or self-serving divisive slogans do nothing to help those who feel most burdened by life. A shared future will be built on the foundations of generous leadership, not tribal victories. Young people will be inspired to vote when their generous hearts are nourished. When they fail to vote, that says as much about a lack of inspiring leaders as it does about voter apathy. After our forthcoming elections, I hope all our political parties can reflect not just on how many votes they got but also on how many may have felt no interest in voting for anybody.
These resurrection stories were central to the apostles’ commitment to spread the Good News to the ends of the known world. If we are to become a missionary church again in the 21st century, we need to reflect on and pray about these encounters with the Risen Lord. Jesus still meets us when we have lost our dreams but still dare to hope. Jesus is still calling people to be inspired and healed – and he still calls people to feed his lambs and his sheep. Next Sunday we will hear about Jesus who describes himself as the Good Shepherd. As we celebrate around the altar the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we open our hearts to be surprised by God’s love in the forgiving smile of the Risen Christ. In every generation, his first words are ‘Peace be with you. Do not be afraid, it is I.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered on Sunday 1 May 2022.
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