When you lose someone close to you, especially unexpectedly, often you find yourself thinking about the last thing you said to them or the last thing they said to you.
I was thinking about that this week reading about that heroic college student in Charlotte — Riley Howell — who sacrificed his life helping to save his classmates from a gunman. His girlfriend of several years mentioned that the last thing she’d said to him was “I love you,” and she said, “Just tell people you love them.”
It’s a great comfort to remember last words like that: pleasant or loving words. It can be haunting if they weren’t so pleasant, because however much we regret them, we can never take them back. So many times we long for do-overs, but there are no do-overs.
The Words that Haunted Peter
Now think about St. Peter, who saw his beloved master arrested, torn from his side, savagely tortured, and put to death.
What last words haunted Peter?
His last recorded words spoken to Jesus, at the Last Supper, were:
“Even if they all fall away, I will never fall away. I’m ready to go to prison and die with you.”
But those weren’t the words he regretted. It was what he said after that, standing in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, warming himself by a charcoal fire.
It’s in all four Gospels. Three weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, we heard Luke’s version and then on Good Friday we heard it again from St. John.
“I don’t know him.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“In God’s name, I swear I never met the man.”
And Jesus turned and caught Peter’s eye … and he realized what he’d done.
And then less than a day later Jesus was dead, and there was no taking it back. How those words haunted Peter! How he must have wished for a do-over — for three do-overs!
But, as we’ll see, Peter learned something about himself that night: He learned just how weak and unreliable he could be. That’s not something he could change, even if there were do-overs.
The mistakes we make, the things we regret, the people we let down in our lives — for most of us, these are things we do over and over again, whatever our good intentions. Even with do-overs, we would do it again. There’s no fixing it.
Easter changes everything.
God’s Great Do-Over
The risen Jesus has overcome not just his own death, but all death, all evil, all sin.
His resurrection is just the beginning, the foundation, of God’s plan of redemption, the divine plan to make everything right in the end.
Everything you or I have ever done that we wish we could take back, or should wish, by the grace of God. Everything we regret, everything we’ve done that hurt someone, or that someone else did that hurt us. All our suffering, all our grief. God’s plan is to put it all right in the end.
It’s God’s great do-over. The whole universe gets a do-over. When this universe dies, there will be a new heavens and a new earth in which we will live forever, new creations sharing the Lord’s resurrection.
All this begins on Easter. Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest, most momentous event in all of time and space. That’s why Easter is the holiest day of the year, and the Easter season, now in its third week, is the most important.
It’s why we get up every Sunday to come to Mass, because it was on the first day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead. Every Sunday is a mini-Easter.
See what the risen Jesus does in today’s reading from St. John’s Gospel.
He comes to the disciples at dawn, after a long, fruitless night of fishing. They’ve failed, but he tells them to cast their nets again and he fills them with fish. It’s a do-over.
Then he makes a fire — a charcoal fire, the same kind of fire, the same Greek work, that John used for that fire in the high priest’s courtyard where Simon Peter was standing.
And the Lord asks Peter a question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Not once. Not twice. Three times.
Three do-overs for three denials.
There’s a bit of a sting in the way Jesus phrases it. “Do you love me more than these?” Is your love strongest and truest? Do you still think that you’re the one who won’t fall away even if the others do?
Peter’s learned his lesson. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He doesn’t say he loves Jesus the most. In fact, he doesn’t even use the same word for “love” that Jesus did.
The word Jesus uses is agape. Agape love, in the New Testament, is divine, supernatural love, the love that comes from God that we also call charity. Faith, hope and agape love are the three theological virtues that come from God, and bind us to God.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Agape. Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful; not arrogant or rude. Agape. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Agape.
“Simon, do you love me with your whole being? Will you lay down your life for me?”
But Peter answers with a different word. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Philio, a word for human love, friendship or affection. Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love; phila-delphia literally means love of brothers. Philio is not divine love.
Maybe Peter had felt that his love must be strongest and truest because Jesus had made him first among the apostles. You are Peter, the rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church. I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
At the Last Supper Jesus said to Peter:
“Satan has demanded all of you, to sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your own faith may not fail, and when you have turned back, you will strength your brothers.”
Even when he fails, Peter is still the rock.
So again Jesus asks him, “Do you love me with agape love?” Again Peter answers, “Lord, you know I love you with philio love.”
Then the third time Jesus asks, “Do you love me with philio love?” And this grieves Peter. Maybe he feels like Jesus is rubbing it in. “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you with philio love.”
Jesus Makes It Good
And Peter’s humbled do-over is … good enough. Jesus restores Peter to his place as chief of the apostles, chief bishop or shepherd, with that threefold commission: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Peter is still the rock, because it doesn’t depend on his love for Jesus, but Jesus’ love for him.
And then Jesus tells Peter that the day will come when he will lay down his life for Jesus — when he will make good his boast that he was ready to die for the Lord.
The Lord gives Peter agape love. That’s part of the do-over: God helps us do what we can’t do for ourselves. Look at the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Remember how Peter trembled before a maid of the high priest and denied the Lord? Now he’s standing before the high priest himself and the whole council of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, and what does he say?
“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus…”
Easter changes everything. The power of Jesus’ resurrection has transformed Peter through the Holy Spirit given on Pentecost. He is already a new creation.
As are we all — through the power of our baptism, power renewed with every confession (every confession is a do-over) and strengthened every time we receive our Lord the Blessed Sacrament … if we open our hearts to the love God wants to share with us, if we become what we are. The Lord can fill our empty nets too.
Where do we start?
The Lord’s final words to Peter are for all of us: “Follow me.”