Towards the end of first semester, I was going out with group of students at a local restaurant. One of them is even more of an exclusive Iowa State fan than I am so, in an attempt to annoy him, I put on my Fightin’ Texas Aggies Sweatshirt. This particular kid once held me hostage in my apartment until I changed this sweatshirt so, from then on, I decided to wear it as much as I could around him. We went out to one of the local restaurants for a quick meal and great conversation. As we were checking out, I noticed this incredibly tall guy standing next to me wearing what might be referred to as basketball warm ups. I looked up and realized I was standing next to the new Iowa State basketball coach, Coach McDermott, with this stupid Aggies sweatshirt on. I mean, I’m a life-long Iowa State fan. I only like the Aggies because they’re like the Texas version of Iowa State. I tried to cover up my shirt as he introduced himself to me. Thankfully the students around me were incredibly gracious, telling him that they were looking forward to seeing him coach and going to games. I was too embarrassed at being caught out of uniform, a fact that I’m almost certain he didn’t even notice.
I feel like today’s readings are also out of uniform. Here we are in the middle of the Easter season and we hear in the first reading of a particular group of disciples who “left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” What a strange thing in which to rejoice! But, it makes sense when you consider that the earliest church would often refer to itself as the witnesses. No, not those door bell ringing during nap time witnesses. They used a Greek to describe themselves, martyrion, which can be translated into English as either witness or martyr. The early church considered itself to be Jesus’ witnesses and, as their descendants, we are called to be witnesses too; to be…martyrs. I hesitate to say that because of the misunderstanding surrounding this word. Half the time we use it, it’s to mock someone who is complaining too much, like a kid who thinks the worst thing he could ever do is miss five minutes of the Simpsons because he has to take out the trash. We’ll sarcastically say, “You’re such a martyr.” Another bad definition that gets thrown around is the notion that a martyr is someone who kills some else for the sake of a cause. I am especially fearful of mentioning this in the light of this past week’s events at Virginia Tech. I’d hope that we’d all agree that there is no comparison between a man who was clearly in need of psychological help who carries out an attack against innocent college students and the actions of, say, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity who were willing to die rather than worship false gods. At very least, I’d hope we could see that Christians do not esteem killing and do not put those who kill others on a pedestal by giving them the title of martyr. Martyrs are simply those who remain faithful to the end, even when the going gets toughest.
There is, built into each of us, a desire to be more than what our simple lives afford. Look at Peter, for instance. He tried to witness to Jesus and he failed. We all might remember the scene where Peter was standing around the fire warming himself on that fateful night when Jesus was betrayed. Peter had told him that he would even be willing to die rather than forsake being an apostle. But, when the time came for Peter to stand up for Christ, he was unwilling to do so. He denied him three times just like Jesus said he would. There’s a part of me that says that it wasn’t his time to die. It was Jesus’ time. Plus, at very least Peter made an attempt. Where are the other disciples when Peter is following Jesus at a distance? Nonetheless, because of this experience, Peter is often seen as turning his back on the Lord during his time of need.
This week, Peter is once again gathered around a fire, this time not denying Jesus three times but thrice affirming his love for him. One of the big differences between the Peter who denied Jesus around the fire of the temple and the Peter who witnesses to his love of Jesus around this fish preparing charcoal fire, is that Peter is finally willing to stop comparing himself to others and be the shepherd that Jesus needs him to be.
This is why one of the great dangers in life can be competition. It can bring out the best in us as we strive to be more and do better. Yet, it can also bring out the ugliest side of us; never being satisfied with the gifts and talents God has given us and always comparing ourselves to other people. In the end, Peter just had to show how he could love. He had to set aside both his sense of pride and sense of failure in order to be truly amazing. It was only by the will of God and the cruelty of the Roman soldiers that he would stretch out his arms between heaven and earth to mirror the death of the Lord. So, we are indeed special in the eyes of the Lord, not because of some special power that we possess nor because of some fantastic act that we might do. We are special in the eyes of the Lord because we are witnesses to the love that God has shown us. We are called to share that love with one another, even if it means having to set aside our pride and hurt feelings. That might mean reaching out to a roommate who has hurt us in order to make amends before the end of the year. Or helping a belligerent drunk back from the bars who seems like he or she doesn’t have anyone else helping him or her. Or reaching out to a family member who always seems to play the martyr. It is Christ who looks to us today and asks, “Do you love me?” Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. “Feed my sheep” Who are the lost sheep in your life that are in need of help? How can we be the witnesses who bring them back?