Brief synopsis of the readings: As we continue to journey with the earliest church in the Acts of the Apostles we see the beginning of a conflict. The apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin (the ruling body of the Jews in Jerusalem) and are reminded that they were told to stop preaching about Jesus. Peter then tells them that they will do what they are commanded by God, even if it conflicts with the Sanhedrin. They were warned once again not to preach in the name of Jesus, which they did the instant they left. In John’s Gospel the apostles decided to spend the night fishing when Jesus appeared anonymously. They were out all night and caught nothing. Jesus then told them to cast out once again and lower their nets on the other side of the boat. This time they caught a full load; at this point Peter recognized Jesus. Once on shore they build a fire and cooked some of the fish and shared it with Jesus. Once the meal was completed Jesus asked Peter if Peter loved him. Peter answered that he did and Jesus ordered him to “feed my lambs.” Jesus asked Peter the same question and Peter gave the same answer, to which Jesus replied “tend my sheep.” A third time Jesus asked Peter; a little exasperated Peter answered that he loved Jesus. Jesus then told him to “feed my sheep.”
A few weeks ago I spoke about the parable of the Prodigal Son and how when one is forgiven, things don’t necessarily go back to the way they were before, that forgiveness doesn’t magically transport us back to the time before the sin was committed. The next week when we read about the woman caught in adultery and I suggested that God’s forgiveness allows us to not see ourselves in terms of our worst moment. Today, in John’s Gospel we find Jesus asking (three times) if Peter loves him. And when Peter answers yes all three times Jesus commands him to “feed my sheep.” I think this speaks to us of the power of penance in the healing process.
This part of the Gospel is tacked on to a longer story of Jesus miraculously making the apostles’ fishing expedition a success; as a matter of fact a shorter version of today’s Gospel reading eliminates entirely the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. But I think this dialogue is important and that’s where I want to preach.
It is interesting that Jesus asked three times whether Peter loved him. Peter certainly remembered that he denied Jesus three times before his crucifixion and this may have been Jesus’ way of telling him that he was forgiven.
Longtime readers of my work recognize how much importance I place of forgiveness and healing. All of our relationships develop over time. Some grow stronger, some weaker, and some weaken to the point of ending. Only the most casual relationships remain the same.
As I’ve said before, without the ability to forgive, heal, and reconcile our relationships are doomed to failure. In 1970 Erich Segal wrote in his book Love Story that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s an excellent book but it gives the single worst peace of advice on love in the history of love.
When we commit a sin and harm a relationship we go “off track.” How then, do we get back on track? I like to think we do that by a process that we’ve come to call penance.
OK, I know some of you just experienced a cold shiver down you spine, but bear with me. Catholics were raised with the demand that we “go to confession” on a regular basis. There we would confess our sins to a talking screen (we were told there was a priest on the other side, but we couldn’t see him) and be given a penance, usually that we say a certain number of prayers (e.g. 10 Hail Mary’s or a rosary, etc.). We even joked that the number of prayers we were assigned tracked with the severity of our sins. And that’s all fine and good, but I think we tended to look on penance as a sort of punishment for our sins and today I wish to challenge that.
I define penance as the act that gets us back on track. Praying isn’t punishment, it’s something we do to get closer to God and to see each other in a better light. Also, penance doesn’t have to be prayers. Many years ago when I was a seminarian I went to see a priest because I was having a hard time getting along with one of my classmates. We had a nice talk and for my penance the priest suggested that for my penance I go out of my way to do something kind to this classmates. It didn’t mean I had to tell this classmate why I was doing it, just that I did it. I lost touch with him a few years after this, and I recently heard he doing well in his career as an Episcopal priest and I’m happy for him and I like to think my simple act of kindness/penance started me on the road to being happy for him.
If we think of penance as the way of getting back on track we also have to see it as an ongoing practice, not something done once or a set number of times. We see the phrase “born again” everywhere, and it has biblical roots: John 3:3 tells us that we must be born again to be saved. I don’t disagree with that but it can create the false belief that once born again we need do nothing else. Just as forgiveness and reconciliation are done again and again, so too is penance.
Followers of 12 Step programs know this. The first several steps describe a process where the person (with the help of a sponsor) lists, recognizes, and attempts to fix the havoc he’s created. The 10th step says this: “We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Practitioners of this program (who are not necessarily recovering from addiction) recognize that the coupling of getting off track and getting back on track is an ongoing process, something that we always need to pay attention to.
We recognize that love means saying we’re sorry a lot, and apologizing isn’t punishment, but a road back.