As we continue to engage with God’s Lenten call to repentance, James Dennis reminds us that repentance requires action, not just regret.
By James R. Dennis, 0.P.
|When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ (John 21: 9-17)|
We have inherited our word penitence from the Latin paenitentia, which means regret. While that’s not a bad start, the practice of penitence today calls us to something more than that.
The 21st chapter of John offers us a better insight into the practice of penitence. After the resurrection, Jesus seeks out Peter with a very specific purpose. John’s Gospel sets this story in the context of a charcoal fire, and we can almost smell that fire burning on the beach. Earlier, in chapter 18 of John’s Gospel, Peter had denied Jesus three times as the smoke from a charcoal fire filled the air. After the resurrection, it’s interesting that Jesus refers to him as “Simon,” as though he’s inviting Peter to return to the beginning of their relationship and start with a clean slate. That’s exactly what Jesus has in mind.
But a clean slate doesn’t come easy. Just as Peter had denied Christ three times, he has to erase that harm by affirming his love of the resurrected Christ three times. It was not enough for Peter to simply apologize or retract his betrayal. Jesus calls on Peter to relive those denials, which was surely an agonizing process for Peter.
The Gospel also points out one of the common problems with our own practice of penitence. We don’t want to go through the rigors of examining what we’ve done, and how it has broken our relationship with Christ. But we must, because ultimately, the restoration of our relationship with the living God lies at the heart of penitence.
Looking to a modern example, after the horror of apartheid, the South African nation wondered how its people could live together again without an endless cycle of revenge and reprisals. Bishop Desmond Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found its moral authority in the deep understanding that they could not undertake the work of reconciliation without first getting to the truth of the brutal past.
Similarly, our work in restoring our relationship with God and his people must begin with a rigorous, disciplined and truthful examination of the ways in which we have betrayed our better angels. This is often deeply painful and difficult; I would rather just not think about the ways in which I’ve denied Christ. But John’s Gospel, and centuries of Christian discipline, teach us that there are no shortcuts here.
Another way we fall short of our penitential goal is in getting stuck in self-examination. Like the Flagellants of the Middle Ages, we can become mired in the task of cataloging our sins and engage in psychological self-laceration as we punish ourselves again and again. That can create a sort of habit forming self-loathing, which gets us no closer to the true penitence that Jesus taught. We have to ask ourselves whether crawling up a mountain on our knees, or giving up cigarettes or chocolates, will really bring about the restoration of our relationship to a God who is waiting to forgive us.
Jesus offers Peter the perfect way to restore their relationship. Each time Peter affirms his love of Jesus (recanting his prior betrayals), Jesus teaches Peter how he can undo the harm he has done: “Feed my sheep.” Jesus tells Peter that, by tending to God’s children, he will acknowledge Jesus as his Lord and undo the harm of his betrayal. This story gives us great insight into the purpose of penitence. In asking the question three times, Jesus affirms that it is love and only love that will lead to forgiveness. If we want to heal our broken relationship with the Father, or with one of God’s children, we have to do something about it.
We have a lot to learn from this story about how to bind these self-inflicted wounds, and that’s what penitence is all about.
James R. Dennis is a brother in the Dominican Order and a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio TX