With winter now banished, one of my favorite signs of Roman spring is here — flowers sprouting from the tile rooftops. Above, my favorite, the corner of St. Ignatius Church seen from the terrace of our building, below a more modest view from my room. I’m not sure what this annual effusion of greenery means for the structural integrity of the tiles — and, I guess, I don’t really care. I find the flowers exuberant and surprising and, yes, just a tad reckless. In other words, a perfect sign of Easter.
I’ve always thought the flowers — life and beauty — breaking through the tiles a nice metaphor for the Resurrection, like the angels dressed in dazzling white among the scattered tombstones. This year they’ve also put me in mind of Peter. Peter is, after all, a slightly reckless figure, the desires of his heart a step ahead of his own moral capacities. His love for Jesus leads him to boast of his fidelity on Holy Thursday — “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” — and then to find that his steadfastness has fallen short of his aspirations. It is devastating to read of Peter’s betrayal; one can imagine how much more devastating it was to live it.
Though theologians have offered very sophisticated allegories for why, on Easter morning, John gets to the tomb first but allows Peter to enter before him, I’ve always thought the simplest explanation of the event is most profound. Stepping into a tomb is at best unpleasant and more likely terrifying, so it’s only natural for John to hesitate. But Peter, at that point, had nothing left to lose. The same reckless love for Jesus that made him promise what he couldn’t deliver a few days before made him plunge into the darkness of the tomb, sadder this time and more desperate. But the Lord can work with that.
It’s the same impulsive Peter, bumbling and loving, passionate and over-eager, we see in the great reconciliation scene of John 21 on the shores of the Sea of Galilee this Sunday. John recognizes Jesus first, but it’s Peter who jumps into the water and swims to the shore. His answers to Jesus once he gets there may not be exactly A+ material, but the Lord still asks him to feed his sheep.
Somehow I doubt Peter would be named a bishop today, and if he were, he’d end up crucified on Twitter instead of hanging upside down in Nero’s circus. Jesus alone saw that he was the right man for the job. If the other apostles weren’t guilty of the same stinging betrayal as Peter on Holy Thursday night, it was only because they hadn’t dared to try to follow Jesus as far as Peter had. Failure is the risk of aspiration.
Jesus knew Peter better than he knew himself, and he entrusted his lambs to the flawed fisherman’s care. That says quite a bit about God’s love, his power, and his wisdom. And it says something about discipleship too. If we fall short because we aimed to high, we bumble because we loved too much, because our love turns out to be a blunt instrument in need of the Lord’s refining, but if we keep plunging in, whether into the tomb or into the sea, to wherever the Lord might be, and answer Jesus as best we can no matter how many times he asks the question, then, faltering though we might be, the word that will belong in front of our name, like that of Peter, will be saint.
On the Third Sunday of Easter (C), John 21