In towns and cities across the world, you will come across graffiti scrawled on walls. One line of scrawled wisdom that sticks in my mind, from many years ago, are the words: Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
For some people religion too, isn’t what it used to be. They look back longingly to a past age when, it seemed, being a Catholic demanded more toughness, and prayer seemed to come more easily. The challenges of being a Catholic were welcomed and we were proud to be a people ‘set apart’. Even God seemed closer than he does today. Such looking back on our past life seems to me to cast the present in a somewhat unfavourable light. For it’s amazing just how many people do feel a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the way they are leading the Christian life today. They feel that their faith isn’t what it used to be and that in all the changes of the past 50 or so years we have lost something.
Today’s Gospel encourages us to look back: not on our own life but on the life of Saint Peter. And Saint Peter, despite being the first Pope, is a pretty typical disciple. We all recall the first meeting of Our Lord with Peter and his friends when he invites his future Apostles to throw out their fishing net one more time in order to catch some fish. And when Our Lord asks Peter three times if he loves him, we remember the very last meeting between Our Lord and Peter before the Crucifixion when Our Lord prophesied Peter’s denial of him and Peter boasted so vehemently that though all lose faith in you, I will never lose faith. Words he would come to regret.
As Peter is reminded of his past life he becomes very conscious that, for him, the following of Our Lord isn’t what it used to be. When Peter first met Our Lord he was a simple fisherman, one of many such men who earned a living by catching and selling fish. Following Jesus would have been an exciting change from the normal daily routine of the fisherman. And at Peter’s last meeting with Jesus, three years later, the excitement of the change of lifestyle may have worn just a little thin: but the challenge remained and Peter boasted: I will lay down my life for you.
And yet only days after the Crucifixion, Peter is back at his old job as a fisherman, and he has totally failed to meet the challenge in his dramatic boast. Peter had disowned Jesus not once, but three times, and that experience of failure had a profound effect on Peter. It shattered his illusions about himself, and it gave him a much more realistic idea of what it meant to be a disciple. And so Peter, in today’s Gospel, is a different man. It is not just Jesus who has risen from the dead, but also Peter who has risen with him.
So does this mean that Peter didn’t have any faith until today when he affirms three times his love for Our Lord? Of course not; Peter’s faith has been growing all the time. The phases of discipleship: first as a refreshing change from the monotonous daily routine, and then as a challenge are periods, like childhood and adolescence, that we all go through. But in today’s Gospel, as he re-lives the events of his past life, Peter’s faith takes on a totally new quality. The centre of his attention is no longer himself and his own ego. Rather, in the words of the Gospel, it is the Lord. Looking back over his life no longer does he wonder who it was leading him, he knew quite well it was the Lord. Peter has realized, at long last, that faith is more than simply believing in God, it’s more than a change of lifestyle; it is much more than accepting a challenge. Faith is, more than anything else, developing a personal relationship with Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Peter’s experience is a lesson for us all. Failure is an essential part of our growth in faith. Trials, difficulties, temptations and periods of sheer weariness are a normal part of Christian living. Through them God is leading us to a more mature, more realistic faith: through all the doubts and concerns and all the difficult times, he is leading us to a greater love of him, and a deepening of our relationship with him.
And so, as we look back over our own lives, we can do one of two things. We can allow our weakness, and our failure, and our lack of faith, to lead us to depression and disillusionment; we can allow it to force us in on ourselves and to give up hope. To all intents and purposes, the Lord is not with us at all. He is dead.
Or, we can allow our failures to lead us to turn back to God and start afresh. As we look back over our lives we begin to see that there is no need to ask who it is who guides us, for we know quite well it is the Lord: including those moments – and especially those moments – when he seems absent from our lives. At such moments religion becomes no longer what it used to be. The centre of attention has to move away from ourselves to God. Only then, will we discover, at last, that the Lord is risen.