Yesterday afternoon, as we were coming by this Church on the boat tour of the Sea of Galilee, Sister Monica spoke to me about why she chose this Church among all the other places she has experienced here in her ministry in the Holy Land; why the Primacy of Peter as the place of First Vows as a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist? Her answer was simple, and profound: Discipleship.
St. Peter is, in many ways, the quintessential disciple. He is the one to whom Christ says, at the end of the gospel we just listened to: “Follow me” (John 21:19). Yet I think all of us would admit that Peter is a complicated disciple. There is nothing simple about St. Peter. We find him, all throughout the gospels, and in the Acts of the Apostles, on both sides of the spectrum.
St. Peter is the one who often bumbles into situations, flags in faith as he sinks into the water, and even denies our Lord hours after the Last Supper. But Peter alone is the one who has the courage to walk out on the sea. To him alone was it revealed by the Father that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ of God. And Peter alone is given that special place of primacy among the other apostles. As Christ says to the fisherman from Galilee: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18).
It is fitting that St. Peter, who we find at both of those extremes, offers to us a contrast of discipleship in our first reading. He talks about two different kinds of discipleship: the one of constraint, and discipleship taken up willingly. He says to the presbyters or priests of the Church:
Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it…
—1 Peter 5:2-3
Constrained means moved by outside forces, or inward motives that are not from God. St. Peter says we should have nothing to do with that. Discipleship taken up willingly is that which is done in freedom, with an undivided heart. And therein lies the paradox of Christian freedom! For the Christian, freedom IS constraint. To be totally free as a Christian is to be totally constrained to love, to follow Christ, to serve. It is what drives us, the only option.
It pains me to have to do it at a Franciscan gathering, in a Church which is in the custody of the Franciscans, but the great Dominican Theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, offers a beautiful example of this kind of freedom. He says that the people who are most free are the saints in heaven. Unlike us, they are unable to sin, unable to turn away from God in any way. They are “locked in” to the beatific vision, and can only love, only serve, only see what God sees. Bound to truth, bound to love, bound to Christ…that is the true definition of freedom for the Christian.
We find that freedom, in a striking and particular way, in the person of Jesus Christ. What is Jesus’ triumphant moment of freedom? We were there several days ago; we knelt in the very spot. Gethsemane. The Garden of Gethsemane is the place where Christ takes our human will, which he took from us in the Incarnation—a will that, from the Garden of Eden, had gone awry and chosen to disobey God—and He unites that will to the Father’s will. He does not want to die, but He is constrained by love and the desire to obey the Father and set us free from sin, and so He prays, “Not my will, but Thine, be done (Luke 22:42).
Immediately after He makes that prayer, what happens? He is arrested and bound. They tie His hands and drag him off the house of the high priest. He is thrown into the cistern, imprisoned in that place, but undoubtedly the most free man on the face of the earth. The Son of God is not bound by chains, or prison walls, or even by being fastened to the wood of the cross. Jesus Christ is bound by love, and He shows each one of us that this is true freedom; freedom bound by love.
That is the freedom Christ revealed to St. Peter on this very spot, by this very lake. Jesus said to Simon Peter:
When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.
Literally, Jesus says that Peter used to “gird” himself, put a belt upon himself. Now, He says, Peter will stretch out his hands and another will gird not his waist but his hands. He will be taken away, against his will, to serve the Church by giving his very life. St. Peter would be bound to the cross, as Christ was, and offer everything in true discipleship. Yet in that St. Peter was more completely free than he ever was when he could “go where he wanted.” Freedom for the Christian is constraint; it is to be bound by love, bound by service, bound to follow Christ and offer everything to Him.
Sister Monica, that is what you are saying “Yes,” to this morning. You are making vows not by constraint, but willingly, as one bound by love. And this morning, in this Church, you will make promises that will become visible in the world around you. Someone else will bind you with the cincture around your waist. Someone else will place a cross around your neck, the ultimate symbol of discipleship and love.
In the weeks, months, and years to come, in the cities where He lived, and taught, and died, Jesus Christ will come to you many times—in the poor, in the lonely, in those who are suffering and sorrowful, in the knock at the door when it is inconvenient, in a thousand different ways, He will come to you—and He will say to you what He said to St. Peter. He will ask you:
Sister Monica, do you love me?... Do you love me?... Do you love me? Then if you do, feed my sheep.