Thursday, January 28, 2010

Peter and the Risen Christ

A Study in Penance


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." He 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." He said to him, "Tend my sheep."  He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved 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 21:7, 14-17 (RSV)



Peter defied the expectations of any person in the ancient world of Paganism who, upon hearing this story for the first time, might have expected him to run away from the God he had offended. Instead, Peter is eager to get into the presence of Jesus, leaping into the water to try to swim ahead of the others. Peter knew he had denied the Lord three times, and no longer was able to boast of his own unfailing love. No longer does he presume to say, "Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death." Indeed, no longer able to boast of his readiness, he would instead come to obtain a Divine gift, to rely on grace rather than on his own power.

Because he knew the reality of his sin and failure, Peter ran to Christ rather than away from him. When God called to Adam in the garden, asking, "Adam, where art thou?" (Gen.3:9) he showed that his intention was to restore sinners by his grace to his favor as elect and beloved. For this reason Christ died, and to justify us he rose again (Rom.4:25). He stood on the shore and welcomed the approach of not only Peter, but of all of these men who had forsaken him and fled; for only John had come to the foot of the cross.

Why did Jesus give Peter three opportunities to speak of his love? What was this love of Peter's now but a sincere intention to love? Unable to rise to the highest love (ἀγαπάω) by human strength, Peter was humble enough to answer in terms of his intention to be a friend (φιλέω) of God; and Jesus met him at that point of sincere intention. Jesus gave Peter these three opportunities because he had denied the Lord exactly that many times, three times before the cock crowed on that Friday morning. This was not necessary for Peter to be forgiven; rather, it was a necessary aid to Peter for what would lie ahead.

Penance is not atonement; the only atonement for our sins was accomplished when Christ paid in full for our sins (John 20:30 τελέω). Penance does not earn forgiveness; in fact, it is done after Absolution has been given, never before. This story as John tells it, where Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to speak of his love, however imperfect that love may have been, teaches us what penance is about. It redirects the soul to God, indeed, the redeemed and forgiven soul.

Forgiveness is about the past. Penance is about the future. In penance we say to Jesus, "Lord you know everything; You know I love you." So, Jesus, who formerly said to us "when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren," (Luke22:32) now says to us, "feed my sheep." He knew we would fail; he knew we would be converted. After forgiveness, after we are converted and restored, he gives us penance to redirect our souls in love and worship as holy, elect and beloved of the Father. Then he calls us, everyone of us, to a life of service.

How sad that this wonderful gift of penance has been twisted into an attempt to do the impossible, that is to atone. How sad that it is often mistaken as some price we pay for sin, as if we could pay such a price with anything less than an eternity in Hell (which is not the will of God at all). "Say three Our Fathers and two Hail Marys." I have required this as penance: "I will leave you here alone before the altar; read-rather pray-the words of Psalm 51." I have seen a grown man come to me afterward with tears in his eyes, happy tears because he learned there and then that Jesus loved him, as if he had only now learned it for the first time. "Now you know the love of Christ for you," I said.

This is what penance is, and what it is for: It meets our need to say, "Lord you know everything; You know I love you"

6 comments:

Rappahannock Rev said...

"I will leave you here alone before the altar; read-rather pray-the words of Psalm 51."

Absolutely dead on, Father! You've nailed it!

RC Cola said...

Can a Christian "participate" in Christ's atonement? Or would desiring to participate in Christ's atonement be considered striving for merit through works? What if the only way to desire to atone is because grace gives one the faith to know the worthiness of Christ's atonement and one's desire to unite with Christ in his atonement is an act of faith?

Platonist-inspired questions that, not being much for Plato or Plotinus, I am not accustomed to asking.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

RC Cola:

When you say "participate" my mind goes straight to the word koinōnia.
Therefore, it takes me to the tenth chapter of I Corinthians: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" Communion, fellowship and participation all are used in English to translate the word κοινωνία, pronounced and transliterated, koinōnia. Recall a recent essay I wrote about that.

Participate as in add to, or as in earn? No to both. Participate as in Sacramental fellowship? This is generally necessary to salvation.

Anonymous said...

"Can a Christian "participate" in Christ's atonement?"

Charles Wesley answered well:

"And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Saviour's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain,
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazine love! How can it be,
that thou my God should die for me?

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach the teternal throne
and claim the crown, through Christ, my own."

Our Prayer Book is perfectly clear:
"made one Body with Him, that He may dwell in us, and we in Him" (p. 81))

also,

"that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and our souls washed through His most precious blood, that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us." (p. 82)

"Or would desiring to participate in Christ's atonement be considered striving for merit through works?"

Desiring to participate in Christ's atonement is the absolute reverse of striving for merit. It is the prayer of the publican, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner," the prayer of the centurion, "Speak the word only and my soul shall be healed," the prayer of the penitent thief, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." It is the end of all striving (striving is futile), and instread claiming, with humble gratitude, the promises found in the Comfortable Words, particularly, "He is the propitiation for our sins."

Your questions have nothing to do with Plato or Plotinus, but are the questions a hell-deserving sinner is compelled to ask when his heart is touched by the Holy Spirit (although Plato can be helpful in making sense of the Biblical answer which Wesley and many others found so truly amazing).
LKW

RC Cola said...

Frs. Hart & Wells,

Thank you for our answers.

Participate as in add to, or as in earn? No to both. Participate as in Sacramental fellowship? This is generally necessary to salvation.

Yes. This gets right to the core of what I was wondering, and I am glad for this answer.

Desiring to participate in Christ's atonement is the absolute reverse of striving for merit.

This too, cuts right to the chase. Thank you!

The reason I bring up Plato and Plotinus is that whenever I hear the word "participate" I immediately think of them. Not knowing Greek (yet) I couldn't make the connection to koinōnia which does sound familiar.

Random question: anyone here a fan of Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon's books? I just picked up Creation and the Patriarchal Histories: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Genesis and Wise Lives: Orthodox Reflections on the Book of Sirach and plan to read them this weekend. I've read all of his other books and was very impressed, especially by Christ in the Psalms.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I consider Fr. Reardon a friend. His articles in Touchstone are all good reading, especially the ones that, like his books, demonstrate scholarly and disciplined Biblical interpretation. He never feeds his readers with his own ideas about Scripture, but with the results of his learning. Generally, he provides readers with a summary of the thinking of the Universal Church on Scripture, which in and of itself makes him a model to learn from.