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GOING BACK

In the last few weeks, some friends of mine have been posting pictures of themselves online returning to the places where they went to college – but this time with their children who are visiting and trying to decide whether they want to attend these schools themselves.  That’s quite a brutal realization: that you’re now the age of your parents when you went to college.  But apart from that, it was interesting to see and read the reactions of people. Seeing them posting pictures of buildings that they had lived in, statues that they had passed by during their time that still make up the landscape for students today, even shots of academic buildings or libraries – which despite the passage of time and advancements in technology – still look pretty much the same as they did decades ago.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER -May 1, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

Most people who go through this experience – of “going back” to places from their past – find that the different sights, even the smells of some of the buildings, years later still hold a place in a person’s mind that they can unlock a flood of memories almost instantly.  This can happen when you go back to any place that made up a part of your life:  whether you’re visiting a house or a neighborhood you grew up in before you moved; or the place where you went to elementary school: as you find the classrooms where you spent your formative years of childhood – which seemed so much bigger then they do now… maybe the fields where you learned how to play a particular sport, practiced, played your first games…

It’s been a few years for me since I stepped foot on the campus of DeSales University where I went to college.  But every time I have, it’s been an incredibly unique experience for sure.  While the number of buildings has probably doubled since I graduated in 1995, every building that was there over 25 years ago is still standing – and most of them haven’t changed that dramatically.  Which can seem really strange seeing some buildings somewhat frozen in time down to the curtains, furniture, is the same – even finding the same doors that were unlocked like they were back then.  What’s more fascinating to me going back to these places, you can’t help but find yourself almost revisiting a younger version of yourself.

That is particularly true for me walking into the chapel, (which might not be surprising to you, the Chapel being an especially meaningful place for me).  The building itself was designed in this bizarre 1960s architecture – it’s constructed in a round circle which had the rooms on this exterior ring for the priests to live in, and then there’s a separate structure within that building in the shape of a triangle which made up the chapel.  It had with these little mini courtyards in between which allowed natural light into the chapel (and must be a lot of fun for the landscapers to have to get to)  Walking into the triangular shape chapel though, pretty much everything is the same, down to the pews creaking just the same way they had 30 years ago.  Whenever I visit I remember praying there when I first visited the campus and trying to discern if this was the place for me to attend college and feeling very much at home.  Thinking of the days, seasons where this was where I shared with God my excitement of being in college; my broken heart when a girlfriend had cheated on me; my anxious mind worrying over a final exam that was coming up or a paper that was due (don’t know if any of you can relate to that feeling right now) …  the years where I learned to hear the Lord’s voice growing louder and clearer from a whisper to far more definitive voice calling me to share His priesthood.

Whether it’s my friends bringing their sons and daughters to visit their alma matters, or my 16-year-old niece returning to the grammar school where her youngest sister now attends – there’s something powerful about going back – going back to these places, yes.  But more than that.   It’s more than just nostalgia.  It’s the closest experience to “time travel” that we will ever experience.   Sometimes you think I wish I knew then what I know now.  Sometimes you are grateful that you’re not the same person you were then.  Sometimes you wish you could go back in time and maybe do things differently.  These places that had been such a part of your life at one time can become places of remembrance and reflection.

That’s what makes today’s Gospel passage such a powerful one for us to pray with as we continue in this Easter Season.  Because we find Simon Peter very relatable to us as he’s doing this very thing.  Simon Peter simply announces “I am going fishing” in this Gospel, but that gesture, the location, and the context tell us a whole lot more than just doing this particular activity.  Peter’s going back to the Sea of Galilee.  He’s going back to the place where he had grown up and had experienced probably a somewhat carefree childhood in a beautiful setting that was meaningful to him.   But he’s also going back in a sense to his former life when he was just a fisherman, before encountering Christ calling him to become a “fisher of men.”

It’s not hard to imagine why:  Simon Peter is a wreck.  His heart, mind, soul, and very being has just been through an emotional roller coaster the likes of which have left him somewhat disoriented and lost.  Just to put it in perspective:  thinking back to the few weeks preceding this.  He witnessed Jesus’ raise his friend Lazarus back from the dead after being entombed for 4 days.  Peter was there when Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb and witnessed the exhilaration and shock of his family and friends that instantly moved from inconsolable weeping to terrifying joy.  Peter was there when soon after they entered Jerusalem as people cut down Palm Branches to cheer Jesus’ entry and call Him the Messiah, the one they had been waiting for for centuries…  a confirmation of all his hopes and dreams for the years following Jesus as the crowds chanted Hosanna!  Yet within a matter of days things would turn even more dramatically.

A Passover meal, something that traditionally families celebrated together, Peter found himself with Jesus and the other 11 who had become his brothers in a family unlike any other.  That Passover which became Jesus’ Last Supper where Peter has his feet washed by Jesus, is ordained as one of Jesus’ first priests, experiences the Eucharist for the first time – that upper room was filled with an intimacy clouded in mystery and emotional weight as heaven and earth are united and unveiled in a new way. Yet hours later will seemingly vanish in very real, sadly familiar, and utterly human ways.  In human weakness, they find themselves falling asleep as Jesus with deep emotion is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Waking up and witnessed the evil betrayal of one of his brothers, Judas on Jesus the one that Peter and everyone else (so he thought) loved.

As the madness begins to spin out of control Peter goes from his very human impulse to defend Jesus with a sword (which results in a guard’s ear being sliced off and Jesus having to pause his arrest to miraculously heal that wound and fraternally correct Peter reminding him of all that He had taught, all that He had called Peter to) to hours later, Peter thoughtlessly fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy that Peter himself would deny three times ever having known Jesus.  That moment of revelation as Peter spoke those words of denial takes place this short distance from where Jesus suffers abandonment, abject evil, and lies being leveled at Him, beginning the horrific torture, followed by a humiliating and excruciating death of Good Friday.

It’s not hard to imagine the state of heart and mind of Simon Peter… which now, even though Peter’s seen the empty tomb, encountered Jesus risen from the dead twice, over the course of a week, he’s feeling lost. Therapists today would put it, that’s been a lot to process…  Where does he fit in?  Does he anymore?  Does he belong there with the others?   Jesus had called Peter his “rock” and he’s certainly not feeling that sturdy or secure in himself.

So Peter’s going back to a time and place where he did feel secure about himself… where he knew who he was, what he was capable of.  Back to the Sea of Galilee, back to fishing.  But Peter finds what so many of us find…  We can go back there physically, but we’re not the same person anymore.  Those memories might be consoling to experience or perhaps a distraction from what we’re going through right now.  But so much has changed, so much has happened since.  This is why this Gospel is so powerful.  As Peter announces he’s going fishing – the inner circle, probably the closest of his friends from the 12, men who knew this sea, knew this life, and shared those earlier memories invite themselves to come along.

What happens next is they don’t simply revisit familiar places, do familiar things – but find themselves reliving a pivotal moment in their life in which everything changed for them.  They spend a night fishing and catch nothing.  All those emotions that they had which drove them to return to this place are now coupled with further exhaustion and frustration – when a voice calls out from a man onshore inviting them to put out the net, one more time – which results in a catch of an abundance: This was precisely what happened when Jesus had first called Peter and these men to follow Him back in the Gospel of Luke.

But it’s not time travel. Simon Peter’s not the same man he was that first time this happened when he fell to his knees and said to Jesus in response to that miraculous catch “depart from me, I’m a sinful man” – words that were uttered out of shock and awe at what he had experienced.  No, on this particular day, probably remembering those words, but this time, Peter can’t say anything.  He’s remembering how he’s proved that true… I’m a sinful man… that’s why he was going back there, where he probably thought Jesus should’ve left him in the first place.

But Jesus didn’t make a mistake.  Peter did.  Peter made a lot of them to be sure.  But Jesus didn’t make a mistake in calling Peter to follow Him.  And He won’t allow Peter to hold himself captive to those sins, those mistakes.  He doesn’t want Peter to remain hung up on his past – whether the distant one he’s romanticized or the more recent one that is holding him, hostage, from experiencing the joy of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.  That’s precisely what Jesus is addressing as He asks Peter three times “do you love me?”   As Peter observes about Jesus, He “knows everything.”  But Jesus wants Peter to know.  To know that the love Peter has for Jesus wasn’t something in the past.  To know the love Jesus has for Peter isn’t either. He lets Peter confront his three denials with three confessions of love.   And it’s in this confession that Peter’s “going back” to this place goes from maybe running away from his mistakes, escaping to a simpler time in his life – to remembering when His life was changed on that Sea of Galilee.  Now that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, He who was dead, lives forever – is constantly making all things new.  Peter is redeemed and transformed by following Jesus Christ.   Now the mercy, the forgiveness Jesus first poured out on him and the twelve on Easter Sunday and commissioned them as His priests to go and offer in His name – now Peter was able to accept that forgiveness himself.  And recognize the urgency for him and the twelve to follow Jesus’ example, follow Jesus’ commission to do the same.

Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel first directed to Simon Peter and the others that day are spoken in the present tense:  Follow me.  It’s important to recognize our past – to even go back there and remember the good and the bad.  But Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just a historic event that took place 2,000 years ago.  He is Risen and continues to say “Follow Me.”  And when we do, that is how Jesus truly becomes the way, the truth, the life for each of us.  Follow Him secure in that identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters that we received in our Baptisms.  Follow Him to this altar to receive Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity and nourish us on our journeys.  Follow Him even when we’ve stumbled and fallen and don’t feel worthy to anymore, but going to Him and confessing our sins, receiving His absolution and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and get up, resume following Him and witnessing to the world how Jesus continues to make all things new.