Christ’s commission to Peter is set forth in different forms in different Gospels. He is commissioned to feed the whole flock of Christ with the solid nourishment of word and sacrament. In order to do so, Peter must be motivated by love for Jesus, the supreme shepherd. And he must be ready to follow Jesus even to death on the cross, as he was to do some 35 years later in Rome.
This parting commission to Peter is a kind of graduation. Until now Peter, like the other members of the Twelve, has been a disciple, a pupil, learning from the words and example of the Master and being corrected when he errs. Jesus has been the good shepherd, and Peter one of the sheep. But now the time has come for Peter to take full responsibility for his own actions, and to do for others what Jesus has done for him. To “tend the flock of God” is an awesome responsibility, especially for a man as unstable and impulsive as Peter was by temperament.
Tomorrow many of you will be passing from a stage of discipleship to one of mastery. The degrees you receive on various levels will mark an advancement to a kind of academic adulthood. You will become responsible agents in society.
The three lessons that Jesus gave to Peter can guide you.
First, Jesus appointed Peter to be a pastor, charged with guarding and feeding the flock of Christ. Most of you will not be pastors in the church but some of you will be teachers and most of you will, as citizens and parents, have some degree of authority over others. Consider what kind of influence you will radiate. Will you pass on worthless pablum that does not nourish or the rich and pure food of abiding truth? Your teachers, according to their abilities, have tried to form you in the truth that leads to life. You will have to take responsibility for your share in the maintenance and transmission of life and truth.
Second, establish order in your loves. If Peter was to be a shepherd, love for Jesus would have to be the controlling element in his life. Love is a wonderful and blessed thing, but if it is turned toward the wrong objects it can wreak havoc. Disordered love is the source of untold pain and conflict in the world. Love, therefore, must accept discipline. A well-ordered love goes out to God above all else, and to one’s neighbor as much as to oneself. As I am sure you have already experienced, there are competing loves that can draw you away from the love that should rule your lives. Your love for God, nourished by prayer and worship, must be stronger than death. No university can impart that love, but I am sure that yours has sought to instill in you a passion for truth and thereby dispose you to love Him who alone could say, “I am the truth.” Be true to that love.
Third, Jesus admonishes Peter: Follow me. In other words, even though I am gone, you must still be my disciple. The Latin words “alumnus” and “alumna” mean pupil or disciple, one who has been nourished as by a parent. In being called alumni and alumnae, you are being reminded of your abiding relationship to your alma mater. No other education will or can replace the one you have already received. You will continue to rest upon it as much as a house rests on its foundations.
Your degree means that your university puts a vote of confidence in you to be faithful on your own. Do not forget or set aside the learning and truth that have been entrusted to you. You are to be guardians and heralds of that truth. Truth, while it can be enriched, can never perish. It cannot be contradicted except by error. Hold fast, therefore, to what you have learned.
Note also the path along which Peter is personally called to follow Jesus. By telling him that he will be carried where he does not wish to go, Jesus is preparing him for martyrdom. Few if any of you will be called to that extreme, but there will surely be a share of the Cross in your lives. If you stay close to Christ, you will meet opposition. Accept it as a way of showing your love for your divine Master, who has suffered so much for the redemption of each and every one of us.