Heaven is calling: Encountering Jesus in real time
When Jesus encountered people in the scriptures, some responded positively, others negatively. For some, it wasn’t just a one-time experience but a process of growth as a disciple/witness for Jesus. Let’s follow St. Peter’s journey.
The first encounter, according to St. John, was not a positive one between Peter and Jesus. When Peter’s brother Andrew brought him to Jesus, the Lord indicated Peter’s future role by changing his name from Simon to Cephas or Peter. The future disciple’s response was to return to what he did best: fishing.
Jesus encountered Peter a little later. Jesus asked him to put out into the deeper water even though he hadn’t caught anything hours before. After the miraculous catch of fish, Peter recognizes his sinfulness and asks Jesus to leave him. Instead, Jesus invites him to leave his occupation and security to become his disciple. Peter accepts.
Other significant encounters follow. Jesus stretches and hones Peter from a fisherman to a fisher of men — from a brash, put-your-foot-in-your-mouth person to one who was willing to surrender to the Lord’s will. Along the way Peter failed many times. He sought to distract Jesus from his prophetic destiny as Suffering Savior before denying Christ all together. At each step, there is a significant encounter with Jesus.
Finally, Peter’s transforming encounter occurs after the resurrection — again at the place of his first, positive response to Jesus: the Sea of Galilee. Again, there is a miraculous catch of fish and the recognition of Jesus as Lord. Taking Peter aside, Jesus asked him probably the most challenging questions of his life. Three times he asked Peter: “Do you love me more than others?” In spite of all Peter’s failures, the Lord invites him into the intimacy of love.
Peter’s response was sufficient. “Lord, I know you love me unconditionally. But at the moment I love you as a close friend. I hope to love you one day the way you love.” The first invitation — “Come, follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men” — now becomes an invitation to follow Jesus to the cross in total surrender of his life in witness for Christ. All this as a result of Peter’s continual encounters with Jesus.
Our lives are filled with many encounters with Jesus. We are aware of some, but not others. Our response to some of these were positive, others negative. Yet Jesus was persistent, never giving up on us, even when, like the Prodigal Son, we ran away from him. But hopefully there was an initial encounter in which we experienced the certainty of his love and the invitation to become his disciple. Even then, our journey was probably not straight but crooked with many ups and downs.
Our past relationship with Jesus is very important, but more important is how attentive we are in our current encounters with Jesus. How conscious are we of our last encounter? How prepared are we to answer the most important questions in our lives, when at the moment of death, Jesus asks: “Who am I to you? Do you love me more than others?”
These encounters are part of the growth in holiness we are called to by virtue of our Baptism. This is God’s will for each of us: Be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy. Let’s reflect on Pope Francis’ words:
“Let us be infected by the holiness of God. Every Christian is called to sanctity and sanctity does not consist especially in doing extraordinary things, but in allowing God to act [through these encounters]. It is the meeting of our weakness with the strength of his grace, it is having faith in his action that allows us to live in charity, to do everything with joy and humility, for the glory of God and as a service to our neighbor. There is a celebrated saying by the French writer Leon Bloy, at the end of his life, who said: ‘The only real sadness in life is not becoming a saint.’”
The last encounter I desire with Jesus is to hear him say: “Well done, good and faithful disciple; enter into the kingdom prepared for you.” On the other hand, the encounter with Jesus I do not desire is to hear him say: “Depart from me. I do not know you.” The difference will be my attentiveness and positive responses to the different grace encounters between now and then.
BISHOP SAM JACOBS is Legatus’ international chaplain and the former bishop of the Houma-Thibodeaux diocese.