The Hardest Words
We find it difficult at times to say the words, “I’m sorry.” Pride can hinder the effort. So too, embarrassment. If we’ve played the buffoon or the cad it is hard to admit to what others have already clearly seen. But we also know that the mere recital of the words are often done poorly or insincerely in an effort to quickly move past the awkward moment. What is interesting about the restoration of Peter is that Jesus never gives him an opportunity for the easy out. He goes past the sin to the sinner and unearths the real issue: “Peter, do you love me above all else?” Absent an honest reflection in respect to that question an “I’m sorry” would have been pointless.
But Jesus was not quite finished: “Jesus said, ‘Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God…” ~John 21:18,19
In a very grim prognostication Jesus pulled back the curtain to tell Peter that he would die a death not of his choosing. Tradition tells us that Peter would himself be crucified. Impulsive to the very end, that same tradition records that Peter requested to be crucified upside down so as not be confused with the sacrifice of Christ.
One of the reasons I believe Jesus shared this prophetic glimpse was to disabuse Peter of the futile attempts at self-described penance. In a church that sometimes forgets the concept of grace we somehow think that good deeds can make up for past mistakes. But penance does nothing to erase sin. We don’t do penance to gain forgiveness. We do penance because we’ve been forgiven.
Peter would have another chance to redeem his denial. But that was a ways off. In the meantime, Jesus closed the restoration of Peter with the same words he had spoken to him three years earlier: “Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’” And just like that, Peter was forgiven and restored.