A priest friend of mine who’d had a previous career on the stage used to say ‘Jesus had a great plot, but he chose a lousy cast’ and a well-known Scripture scholar taught that, in the Gospel stories, the dramatic function of the apostles is to get things wrong. St Peter and St Paul are two great examples of the way Jesus chose the most unlikely characters to carry out his mission.
The conversation between Peter and Jesus we hear this weekend comes just after the risen Jesus has appeared in the early morning by the lakeside and guided the tired and reluctant disciples to a huge catch of fish. The charcoal fire over which he cooks some of the fish for breakfast recalls the brazier where Peter warmed himself on the night Jesus was arrested. The thrice-repeated question, ‘Do you love me?’ and the ringing answer ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you’ recall and cancel out Peter’s three-fold denial of his Master. The one who abandoned his Lord in his hour of need is now entrusted with feeding, guarding and leading the Lord’s flock.
Paul’s case is equally dramatic. In our second reading, he describes himself graphically as the persecutor and destroyer of the followers of Jesus. This fanatical and violent enemy of the new born faith is thrown into blind confusion by a direct encounter with the risen Lord. He experiences the terrifying loss, not just of his physical sight, but of all his certainties, is forced to seek healing from the very people he has persecuted and becomes the greatest preacher of the faith he had hated with such passion.
These are our models: not stars who could do no wrong or chancers who know how to present themselves in a good light but failures who have faced up to their mistakes and been forgiven. And their successors are no different: our present pope describes himself as a sinner whom the Lord has looked on kindly. As Jesus said of the woman who washed his feet with her tears,
‘She must have been forgiven much to show such great love’. Our ambition must be to respond to being forgiven by loving and serving with all our heart and strength.