The Practice of Penitence

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

5 thoughts on “The Practice of Penitence”

  1. Thank you for this very insightful reflection.
    I have often felt for Peter in this situation. After denying Jesus three times he must have felt there would be no going back, no wiping the slate clean. Yet Jesus makes it clear that we an all be forgiven and have a second chance if we truly repent.

  2. Well said, my brother! I am especially touched by your reminder that God’s grace includes not only forgiveness for our “denials” but also the privilege of serving again, being useful again for His kingdom. Thank you for this word!

  3. My priest explained reconciliation to me once, long ago, as, “All may, none must, some should.” I fell into the “should” category, though I really didn’t know it at the time. I had successfully shoved pain deep within my soul for years, and was “living” what seemed to me to be an active Christian life. In hindsight, it was a shadow of one; I was active, certainly, but there was no connection to Christ in it. I didn’t even know enough to recognize its absence. Until the day when all that pain erupted like the volcanic eruptions we are hearing of this weekend. I had no control over it, and that same priest offered the Rite of Reconciliation. I had a choice to make, to do it or not, and was in enough pain that I chose to take the step. As I sat in the sanctuary with him and poured out my heart, at one point my brain sparked the thought that, of course, now i would have to leave this beloved church, because I could never stay where my priest knew all this garbage within me. And then….and then I looked at him. I expected shock, or disgust, or some form of amazement that I could have been that person – and to my utter shock, I saw Christ. Christ’s eyes were in my priest’s eyes, and I knew that it would be fine. The weight that left my shoulders that day was immense. If you are wondering if you should take this step, find that person you can trust and just do it. You will be blessed beyond belief – I know I was.

  4. Our pastor, Robert Woody, took his sabbatical last year and traveled to Rwanda. He returned with many stories of the reconciliation that is taking place there. In the old testament we read stories of how the early believers celebrated the Jubilee year, washing the slate clean. I believe all these are an acknowledgement of our “humanness” and while we were created in the image of God we certainly are an imperfect creation. Jesus reminded us of this when he gave us his prayer in which we ask for the forgiveness of our transgressions each day.

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