Deacon Cornell's Homilies


Isaiah 52:1-10
John 21:15-19


April 9, 2000 - Cluster Reconciliation Service

I think it is safe to say that Reconciliation is the most under-appreciated sacrament, especially by Catholics. Even among people who celebrate the sacrament, I find very often that we have an image of Reconciliation that makes it hard for us to experience the fullness of the grace of penance. The image that most people I've talked to about Penance have, centers around an idea of balancing the accounts. In other words, I do something wrong. That sin creates a debt or negative entry in God's big book of accounts. Then when I go to confession, through my confessing my sin, the priest giving me absolution, and performing my penance, I pay the debt and God reacts to this by granting me forgiveness. Isn't that how most people you know think about what is happening?

The readings we just heard tonight suggest a different way of thinking about Reconciliation that, at least for me, opens up a whole new richness and depth of meaning to this sacrament. The most important image that these readings, especially the first reading from Isaiah, remind me of is that Reconciliation is God's action and our reaction, not the other way around. All grace is initiated by God, and the movement that brings me and God together is always God crossing the infinite gap to come close to me,and then me moving the tiniest of steps in the direction God leads me.

The Gospel passage from John is perhaps more subtle but to me gives us a moving, intimate view of how God comes to meet us where ever we are. You have heard this passage many times I am sure, and most commentators I have read about it, present it as a balancing of accounts. Peter denied Jesus three times, so here his three fold acclamation of love balances that account. The English translation of this passage emphasizes this notion. But in the original Greek of the passage, the author of John's Gospel uses two different words for love in the exchange between Jesus and Peter. The first word is agape, which means the highest, purest form of love. It is the word that Jesus uses when he commands us to love one another, as he loves us. The second word for love used is philo, which means brotherly (sisterly) love. Listen to how the exchange sounds with the two different words for love used:

Jesus said to Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you agape me more than these?" Peter replied, "Yes, Lord, you know I that I philo you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep". Then Jesus said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you agape me?" Peter said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." Jesus said to a Peter a third time, "Simon, son of John, do you philo me?" Peter, very distressed, said, "Lord, you know everything, you know that I philo you."

There is no balancing of the accounts going on here at all. Jesus has completely forgotten about anything Peter might have done in the past, as he forgets our sins as well. He confronts Peter with the possibilities of the future. "Peter, I know you can agape me - do you know that you agape me?" Like most of us, Peter doesn't even see his own potential, or if he does, he is not so sure he can go there. "Agape you? Hmmm, I don't know; I philo you though. That is where I am." And after the second time, Jesus does not berate him for not hearing the challenge or put him down for not rising to it. He says, in effect, "OK, if that is the where you are right now, that is enough for me. I will meet you where you are. And because you let me meet you where you are, I will fill you with my Spirit and power and soon, all too soon, you will stretch out your hands and you will agape me."

By thinking we act and God reacts, we limit God's graciousness to our own capacity for forgiveness, for grace. But God cannot be limited. God's forgiveness is always there. We don't earn it by our confession or make God give it to us by going through a ritual. God is always ready to go the extra mile to meet us wherever we are in out journey and if we let him in, to raise us up to heights we cannot even imagine.  In this respect, God is like an Italian mother and food. I hope all of you get to experience the graciousness of an Italian mother with respect to food because it is such a wonderful image of God's graciousness.

My wife Betsy is half Italian, half Irish but all Italian when it comes to food. When the older kids, who no longer live with us, come home, she can't feed them enough. Most of the time, with our kids, that is not a problem; they love to eat at our house. But even if their appetite is not up to Betsy's idea of what is needed, that is not a problem either. She just packs up a doggy bag and makes them take some home. So that later, when they realize they need more nourishment, they have it. Or they share it with others who need nourishment but weren't able to come to our house. Isn't God like that in this sacrament? We come ,and he lavishes us with grace and forgiveness and comfort. And God's graciousness is not limited to our appetite at the time. If we are wise, we take away a doggy bag of God's grace to be used later, or better yet, to be shared with others who need it.

I would invite you to throw away the notion of balancing your accounts tonight. Instead of trying to count how many times you did this or did not do that, which reinforces the balancing account idea, focus on the things in your relationships that lead to doing this or not doing that. In a very real sense, if I lie to you, that is not the sin. The sin is the brokenness in my relationship with you that made me fear what you would do if I told the truth, or the need for power that made me think I could control you by lying. It is really my failure to agape you, or even philo you. As we listen to the examination of conscience, think about the ways we fail to love one another and ourselves as Jesus did: to death. Then using the opportunity for individual confession, reflect on those shortcomings in our ability to love with the priest. By doing that we let Jesus meet us where we are, and let him fill us in his infinite graciousness, with his peace and love. Let him lead us from where we are, to where he knows we have the potential to go. A place where we can say, "Yes Lord, you know I agape you."

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