Honesty and Grace: a homily for Ash Wednesday

Peter mural

The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself…They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

– John 18.15-18; 25-26

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’

– John 21.15-17

Perhaps the most profound experience I have ever had in my life of faith occurred in the summer of 2017, when I visited Rome for the first time. We spent a day at the Vatican, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, exploring the museums, taking in the glorious St Peter’s Square and standing open-mouthed under the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.

But that wasn’t the moment.

We then descended a set of steps into the crypt and paused in front of the tomb of St Peter, one of the disciples, appointed by Christ himself to lead the church. During excavations after the Second World War, the bones of a man in his early sixties, dating from the first century were found along with an inscription reading: ‘Petros eni’.

‘Peter is here.’

I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of connectedness across two thousand years of Christian history: here was I standing at the tomb of a man who had known Jesus, had walked and talked with him, had looked him in the eye.

I also remember feeling a deep sense of inadequacy.

As a priest of the Church, I’m called to keep alive the message that Peter had heard from Jesus’ own lips, a message that he had given his life for, crucified as he was, upside down, because he didn’t think himself worthy of the same death as Jesus.

How could I possibly live up to that?

But as I stood there, two moments from the Gospels came to mind, which helped me to see things differently; they are the passages we have just heard read, and I want to share with you the thoughts that came to me that day.

To do that, I want us to look at the next mural on our tour through the Brangwyns. It depicts the day of Pentecost, when God sends the Holy Spirit and Peter addresses the crowds who have gathered. The title of the mural is: ‘Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and spake.’

As a result of his preaching, it is recorded in the Book of Acts that 3,000 people became Christians that day. But what strikes me about this mural is that Peter and the other apostles aren’t depicted as great saints, with golden halos and pious expressions; they look weather-beaten, exhausted, somber, even a little embarrassed, as if their journey to this day was challenging.

And, of course, it was.

They had pinned their hopes on Jesus, who got himself arrested and sentenced to death. And just when he needed them the most, they fell asleep on him when he was praying and when he was arrested, they all abandoned him. Worst of all, Peter was asked three times if he knew Jesus, as we heard in our first reading, and three times he denied it.

When this episode came to mind as I stood at Peter’s tomb, I was reassured. Reassured because however inadequate I felt about my own failings, I knew that Peter must have felt it to. In fact, the Gospels record that when he realises his denial, he breaks down in tears.

But there is hope, as we heard in our second reading, which was the second episode, which came to mind that day in Rome. This was an exchange between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection.

It must have been so painful for Peter to look Jesus in the eye, knowing that he betrayed him, but Jesus doesn’t shame him, instead he offers Peter a way back: he asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’ and Peter replies, three times, ‘I love you’; one each for his three denials.

As I stood with St Peter that day in 2017, with these two episodes in mine, I realised that two things helped Peter find his way back home: honesty and grace. Honesty on his part about how he had failed when Jesus needed him the most and grace on Jesus’ part, which loved Peter back together, which enabled him to return to his true self, as the Rock upon which Christ would build his Church.

I love the way Brangwyn depicts Peter and the eleven: he paints them as flawed human beings who know their limitations and imperfections, who know their need of grace and it is from that experience that they seem to be speaking in this mural.

This is an important lesson for us as we embark on our journey through Lent. This is a time for honesty about the times when we have got it wrong, the times when we have betrayed others and ourselves; honesty about the things we have done, which we ought not to have done and failed to do the things we ought to have done.

That is a painful and necessary process if we are to open ourselves to grace: the gift of God’s love, given without condition to those who know their need of it, to those who long to feel whole again, to those trying to find their way home.

Honesty and grace.

May these be God’s gift to you this Lent.


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