Chapel last Friday was a retelling of the post-resurrection story of Jesus and Peter on the lake shore in at least six different ways: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The multiple tellings in drama, story and song created an echoing, resonant space for deep, sustained listening. I was profoundly moved.
Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. Peter is anguished by the repetition. What Peter doesn’t understand, says Robert Schreiter in his book The Ministry of Reconciliation, is that this “threefold asking on Jesus’ part is the power of ritual in healing and reconciliation.” Jesus’ three queries became a ritual way of undoing Peter’s three denials of Jesus. They also became a threefold commissioning.
Ritual, says Schreiter, is an important aspect of reconciliation. Its repetitive nature underscores how difficult it can be to come to terms with the past. By asking Peter not once but three times, Jesus underscores the depth of pain Peter’s denials had caused Jesus. The repetition intensifies the effects of the “gravity of the denial that is being undone.”
Jesus’ threefold ritual-like-query also highlights the need for the story of a violation of trust and the restoration of trust to be told over and over. In each telling, the pain of the denial may gradually lessen its debilitating grip—and in each repetition, the space for grace and forgiveness may widen just a bit.
Ritual also helps us give public, common shape to our experience—creating a space in which a difficult past can find a kind of closure. Ritual can mark a coming to terms with the past—along with releasing the healing power needed to move into renewed hope for a future free of guilt and the captivity of fear.
It is in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper that I experience most vividly Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me?.... Feed my sheep.” Somehow, in the eucharistic commemoration of Jesus’ torture and execution, we travel into disbelief and denial yet again. Why did it have to come to this—the death of all that we had hoped for?
Within the Eucharist, we remember Jesus’ death, but we also remember our own crushed hopes, disabling doubts, very real failures. Isn’t this in part what it means to remember Jesus’ death?
And then we are fed by Jesus: “Take, eat; this is my body….This cup is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus, in his resurrected power, welcomes us to his table where we are invited to freely acknowledge our denial, our doubt, our suffering. He asks us, “Do you love me?” and then, with thanksgiving that we have come again to his table, Jesus feeds us, and commissions us, saying “Feed my sheep.”
To his frightened and astonished disciples he says: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained…. Peace be with you.”
We leave the table, jubilant with renewed hope!
While we were in Harrisonburg, Va., my husband and I, along with friends and seminary students, started a church with weekly celebration of the Eucharist at its core. We wondered why, if Jesus has given us such a powerful reminder of his forgiving, reconciling presence among us, do we so rarely celebrate the Eucharist? Why do we starve ourselves when Jesus longs to feed us at his table often and in resurrection joy? Why do we celebrate the Eucharist in such assembly line fashion, filing stiffly to the front to receive tiny nibbles of bread and mere drops of juice?
I could write at length about this because I care so passionately about it, but now I will be brief. The stark truth is that I, and I suspect many of us, are often left hungry, even starving in the midst of Mennonite worship. It reminds me of an observation my hungry little son made some years ago: “Sometimes I feel like a starver.”
What would it take to revitalize our Eucharistic worship to become an authentic table of reconciliation between us and God, and with each other? Why wouldn’t we celebrate communion at least on a weekly basis? Why are Mennonites, who pride ourselves on following Jesus in daily discipleship, so reluctant to live into the fullness of death, resurrection, and reconciliation made known at Jesus’ table?
“Simon, son of John. Do you love me?... Feed my sheep.”