The longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America is set to open later this month in our own Gatlinburg, TN. The bridge stretches nearly 700 ft. and is suspended 150 feet high. Apparently, it has glass panels as flooring in the middle of the expanse. I’ve been hearing people talk about it and have been seeing things on the news about it. Would you walk across it?
Bridges are pretty amazing structures when you stop and think about it. The physics, architecture and engineering that goes into the construction of a bridge is quite daunting. Whether the bridge is designed as a tourist destination (as the Gatlinburg Skybridge is) or if it has a completely utilitarian purpose as any number of interstate bridges dotting our country’s landscape or if it even has reached an iconic status such as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge, every bridge serves the same basic purpose of connecting two points and allowing interaction, traffic and commerce.
One of the traditional titles given to the Pope as the Bishop of Rome is “Pontifex Maximus” which means “bridge-builder”. It is a title rooted in pagan Rome but later christianized. The Pope, as successor to St. Peter, is to continuously work to build, strengthen and restore that bridge which connects our fallen and wounded world with the Kingdom of God. That bridge is the Church itself but like any bridge there are some divine physics and engineering that goes into the structure and maintaining of this bridge. Today’s gospel (Jn. 21:1-19) show some of these divine elements and they are worthy of note.
The disciples are gathered together at the Sea of Tiberias which means that they have done what our Lord requested when he instructed the women at the tomb to tell the apostles that they would find him in Galilee. Obedience to the Lord’s instruction and the grace of community are part of the divine physics that form the bridge of the Church. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is the first to recognize the Lord. Love is farsighted and is the first to appreciate divine kindness and the Church must always be led by this true love which is rooted in God alone. Peter has an acknowledged authority (as the Lord said that he would strengthen his brothers) but, is himself, open in humility to guidance as he listened to John, the youngest of disciples. The disciple allowed themselves to be fed by our Lord – the Church must continually be nourished by Christ through Word and Sacrament. All of these elements are part of the physics which must continually make up and uphold the bridge that is the Church.
But there is something else that must be learned from the exchange between Jesus and Peter. When our Lord was bound and on trial, Peter had denied knowing him three times. Now, three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Jesus does not belittle Peter. He does not punish him or embarrass him in front of the others rather he heals him and he does this by three times inviting Peter to love, to give and even to be as God himself does and is. God is love and true love feeds, nourishes, strengthens, tends, builds up and upholds. True love is willing to go where it would rather not out of care for the other. Jesus invites Peter (and the whole Church) into the very work of God which is to feed, tend and strengthen. The Church is to be the bridge connecting our world with the promise of the Kingdom of God by continuously living this invitation of our Lord to Peter.
After this exchange, our Lord says to Peter (and to us), “Follow me.”
In a special way, we pray for our Holy Father Pope Francis today. He is a good man and a good pope. He deserves our respect and he deserves our prayers as he strives to live his role and as he strives to encourage us to live our role as Church by feeding, tending, strengthening and loving as Christ would have us do.