Homilette for Friday, May 9, 2008

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter

(John 21:15-19)

George Orwell’s Animal Farm pictures a society without leaders. On paper it seems like a good idea. Every animal is equal. There are no farmers around to make the animals do what they do not wish. In reality the situation quickly deteriorates. Soon every animal is equal but some are more equal than others. The same division of labor follows as when the farmers were in charge, but there is worse oppression. Orwell intended the novel as an allegory for totalitarianism in twentieth century Russia. We can also read it as a warning about leaderless societies.

There is some evidence that the early Church saw no need for a leader to replace Jesus. His disciples expected Jesus to return soon after his going to the Father. Everyone associated with the various communities of disciples understood the primacy of love. With such high motivation, is a leader really necessary? Today’s gospel indicates that there is indeed such need if the institution’s existence stretches to any appreciable length. For this reason Jesus is seen appointing Peter as chief shepherd of his flock.

But Peter is to be a leader different from most. The basis of his authority is love for Jesus. To assure that Peter understands what he is saying, Jesus has Peter profess his love three times. Later this love will be tested in an even more revealing way. When Jesus tells Peter that someone will lead him where he would not otherwise go, he is predicting Peter’s martyrdom. Peter did, in fact, die crucified like Jesus nailed on a cross.

Leadership is fraught with pitfalls. Leaders may abuse their authority to become tyrannical or they may neglect their duties to grow ineffectual. Based on self-sacrificing love and guided by the Spirit’s gifts of justice and prudence, however, leaders perform an indispensable and necessary service. Especially in contemporary times the Church has been blessed with great leaders in the line of Peter.