As a child, I knew when I was in trouble. Rather than calling me Kevin or any diminutive form of my name, my parents would use my full name, my given name: “‘Kevin Gregory Grove’ stop that,” or “come over here!” And if the tone was not convincing enough, there was something about using my full name that made it so. Perhaps your parents did this, too, I don’t know. But there is something about using someone’s entire, given name—first, middle, and last—especially when they are in trouble. Courts of law do the same thing. The very tactic reminds us of the entirety of who we are, and when we have been bad that we haven’t been all that we are called to be but only a portion of that.
If we think about the power of our own given names, then the deep meaning of the exchanges between Jesus and Peter open up before our eyes. Today Jesus in the Gospel appears to the disciples along the Sea of Tiberias. And we get a glimpse into this privileged conversation between Jesus and Peter, a great reconciliation and a three-fold statement of “Yes, Lord, I love you” when just days before Peter had denied the same Lord three different times.
But this exchange between Peter and Jesus is meant to give each of us a flashback to the moment when Jesus first called Peter. Andrew, Peter’s brother, realizes that he has found the messiah, hurries to get his brother, and brings him right up to Jesus. And something happens in that moment that happens to none of the other disciples. Jesus looks into the young man’s eyes and says, “You are Simon, the son of John; you will be called [Peter]” (2:42). Jesus does something remarkable, and Peter wasn’t even in trouble at this point. Jesus uses his full name: You are Simon, the son of John. Jesus summed up everything in that moment that the disciple had been, was, and would be: Simon, the son of John. And Jesus made him even more. You will be called Peter. He didn’t cease to be the Son of John, but Jesus Christ made him someone more, someone more himself. And so from early on in John’s Gospel we see that this man named Peter is very specially named. Wrapped up in that very name, Peter, is his God given mission. And every time we hear the word “Peter” used in the Gospel, we are reminded that Christ made him that.
And it is inevitably compromised. In the other Gospels, the writers actually interface the two names for Peter. Sometimes he is Simon and at other times he is Peter. It’s not that he has a split personality, but that he has a very difficult time living into this vocation that the Lord has placed him. And for the most part, the Gospel of John uses a compromise, calling this disciple “Simon Peter.” It’s true; he was both. But then he denies the Lord three times. And then he meets the Lord on the shore of the sea of Tiberias, and a special exchange begins. Jesus does not address the disciple as Peter, or Simon-Peter. Jesus questions him, “Simon son of John” –his full, given name that Jesus had first called him before asking more of him as Peter. “Simon, son of John do you love me more than these?” “Simon, son of John do you love me?” “Simon, son of John, do you love me.”
There is a way in which this must have been devastating to Peter. In one sense he had failed his new name. And from the roots of that broken disciple’s very self, Christ draws out again Peter from Simon the Son of John. And this is the great subtlety and beauty of our savior. Jesus doesn’t say again, you messed up but you are once more Peter. Because he doesn’t have to. By the end of the third, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, the Gospel writer starts calling him “Peter.” Not Simon Son of John, not Simon Peter, just Peter. It was a transformation that Simon son of John couldn’t affect or live up to on his own. He tried; and three times he denied his Lord. And in three times saying “yes” he loved his Lord, Peter realized that we do not make ourselves God’s chosen, because we will fail every single time. But God holds up the best of our human love and perfects it and makes us who we really are over and over and over again. In asking “Simon Son of John do you love me?”, Jesus communicated that I love you repeatedly and complete you in such a way that no matter your fall I am the one who makes you Peter. It is the same for you and for me, too. Our parents went back to our full names when we were in trouble, but for the purpose of calling something more out of us than we had become. Like Simon the son of John, Christ renames in us, the fullness of life. And when we are called, like Simon Peter we repeatedly fall, and we repeatedly must be recalled by Christ himself. And just as in that process, Simon the Son of John finally grew into his God-given name of Peter, so too is God ready to name each of us in full and then demand something more.
There is a blessed ending to this story. After Jesus had gone and Peter began his ministry, he wrote his own letters. And in the first of these, he begins it in this way: “I, Peter, and apostle of Jesus Christ.” At last he used the fullness of the name. The resurrected Christ names you and me again this day, names us into that same fullness.
Fr. Kevin Grove, CSC
Chapel of Saint Ignatius
April 18, 2010