Third Sunday of Easter – Year C
[Acts 5: 28-32, 40b-41; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19]
In recent years, there has emerged a phenomenon that goes popularly by the name of “cancel culture”. It is a widespread form of ostracism, by which someone has their invitation to speak cancelled, is turned out of social circles or professional spheres, is boycotted or otherwise shunned, because of having said something or acted in some way that is deemed by others to be unacceptable, not in keeping with a prevailing orthodoxy. There is an attempt to “cancel” not only the opinion expressed but also the one who holds it.
If we consider this trend in the light of the Gospel for today, an urgent question emerges for us who are followers of Jesus Christ. Is there any tendency in me to “cancel”, or turn away from someone not only with whom I might disagree, but who has actually harmed me in some way? Is there room in me for mercy and forgiveness? The cancel culture around us demonstrates rather clearly that, in society generally, there is a growing absence of mercy, a lack of consideration given to redemption, to giving someone a second chance, to helping them start over when a mistake has been made. Am I allowing the way I relate to others to be shaped by this culture, or by the Gospel?
As we engage this question, let’s remember first of all that the Easter season is the Christian celebration of redemption. It is the joyful recognition that we, who are all sinners, who have all made mistakes, have been redeemed, not cancelled, by the love of God that has reached us in Jesus Christ. In the death and resurrection of our Lord, we see clearly that God has not given up on us. He has not turned his back, he has not shunned or boycotted us; rather God has drawn near with mercy that, yes, cancels our sins, but not us sinners, with a love that fully restores and continually accompanies us. As people who live from that mercy, we must be ready to extend it to others.
Now let’s turn to the Gospel text, with its wonderfully rich account of the encounter between Peter and the Risen Jesus. Their interaction unfolds around one question that Jesus poses to Peter: “Do you love me?” Close consideration of what Jesus does with this question will bring to light how he responds to the reality of our sin and thereby models how we are to respond to people who harm or offend us.
Bear in mind that this is the first record we have in St. John’s Gospel of a dialogue between Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection, which is to say, the first since Peter’s threefold betrayal of the Lord. We can well imagine that Peter is feeling a little sheepish, to say the least; thoroughly ashamed is likely more accurate, and wondering with trepidation what Jesus would have to say to him. The Lord’s first words were ones not of condemnation but embrace: “Do you love me?” By posing that question three times, Jesus does indeed cancel out the threefold betrayal, but he does not cancel Peter. Rather he invites him back into the relationship, to begin again in the mission to which he appointed him: “Feed my sheep.”
Whenever we come before the Lord in repentance, painfully aware of our mistakes, failings and sins, Jesus poses to us the same question: “Do you love me?” It is as if he says to us, “Don’t worry about the mistakes you’ve made or the mess you’re in. I’m God, so whatever it is I can fix it. And don’t be imprisoned by your shame and guilt. I am God, so I can forgive your sins and set you free. What I want to know is: do you love me? And are you willing to heal others with the mercy by which I restore you?” The encounter with Jesus Christ does not cancel us out but brings us back; it does not bring things to an end but launches a new beginning.
This is of enormous importance as we undertake what our baptism calls us to do: announce the Gospel of mercy in both word and deed. The love of the Lord for us and ours for him is the fire within that changes us, moves us, and keeps us motivated when mercy itself runs up against the cancel culture. Look again at Saint Peter. In the first reading from Acts, we see that he, who had been ashamed of his sin and had returned to his old way of life, is now boldly announcing God’s mercy in Christ and resisting attempts by the high priest and council to cancel his teaching. It was the love and forgiveness of the Lord that changed and sustained Peter. It is the love and forgiveness of the Lord that transforms and strengthens us as we, too, refuse to allow the Gospel of mercy to be cancelled and continue with our wonderful mission of making Jesus known by the way we show mercy to others.
On this day, let’s draw inspiration from St. Joseph as well as St. Peter. I say this because today’s liturgical feast, which honours him under the title St. Joseph the Worker, is the anniversary of the dedication of our Cathedral Basilica. St. Joseph worked to provide a home for the Holy Family. We, as disciples of Jesus, work to provide a home in our hearts and in our world for the Gospel of mercy, the good news that God cancels sin but not the sinner. To put it concretely, this means working to cancel any temptation to cancel others and to establish a culture of tenderness, compassion, and forgiveness.
So, aided by the intercession of our patron, Saint Joseph, let us open our hearts to the Lord, who draws near to us in the Eucharist. May we hear him pose to us this morning, as he does every day, the question that matters most to him, and that should matter most to us: “Do you love me?” May his mercy awaken within our hearts the answering love he seeks, and inspire us always to extend mercy to others.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
May 1st, 2022