Sunday Scriptures

Seeing the Merciful Mathematics Of Salvation in the Equation of Life

by Father Robert M. Powers

DURING MY LAST semester in the seminary, I had a course in pastoral counselling taught by a very gifted psychologist. A lesson taught one day was the practical arithmetic of marital relationships.

The psychologist told us of his various experiences as a marriage counselor. One day, a young couple expressed to him extreme hurt over ugly arguments they had repeatedly been having. When he asked them to repeat, line by line, what they had said, he was shocked at the foul language they had been firing at one another. Off-color words that had been used in a joking way at the beginning of their marriage had now become very wounding. He urged them to argue in a more respectful way.

Three sessions later, the couple came to him and expressed their discouragement. They had cleaned up their language and were trying to be more patient with one another, but they were still hurt. They wanted to quit marriage counselling and the marriage altogether.

The psychologist advised them not to give up on either. “It’s going to take time for both of you to heal,” he told them. “For every unkind, mean word you have said to each other in the past, you need to say a word of love. And that’s going to take time.”

I am often struck by arithmetic and mathematics in the Gospels. “Give to others and God will give to you,” Jesus advises His Apostles in Luke 6. “The measure with which you measure will be measured back to you.” And there is Jesus’ constant preference for sinners: The weight of their sins can only be relieved by His forgiveness, while those who do not recognize their sinfulness have no need of His mercy.

For grace to get into the equation of our lives, there has to be a recognition of the sin that is present there. On one occasion, Peter asks about the practical arithmetic of forgiveness: “How many times must I forgive my brother, Lord? Seven times?” Jesus replies that seven times is not enough. The response of forgiveness must be infinite: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”

In today’s Gospel, the risen Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him. St. John notes that Peter is distressed, perhaps suspecting that Jesus doubts his love and fidelity. What Jesus is really doing is healing Peter of the effects of his words of three denials of his relationship with Jesus on Holy Thursday night. Jesus has already forgiven those three denials of Peter, but the Apostle’s triple affirmation of love for Jesus is needed in order that Peter be strengthened in his capacity to love.

Dynamic of Love

As  Vicar of Christ, Peter would need to exemplify the life of love that Jesus described in the two greatest commandments: to love God with one’s whole being, and flowing from that first commandment, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus gently draws Peter into this dynamic of love by responding to each of Peter’s declarations with a mandate to love his neighbor out of that love for God: “feed my lambs;” “tend my sheep;” and “feed my sheep.”

Our profession of faith in question form on Easter Sunday resonates with that triple declaration of Peter’s love for Jesus. After we deny Satan three times, we declare our belief in the essential articles of the Nicene Creed.

Whenever I have taught class for parents preparing for the baptism of their child, I have previewed the baptismal ritual with them, in which they make that same triple profession when they renew their baptismal vows. I remind them that when they profess this faith with the godparents at the baptism, they must believe in these doctrines as truths.

St. John includes the detail that the risen Jesus ate breakfast and took food into His glorified body to emphasize that this is the same Jesus of Nazareth, not a ghost or an illusion.

I also tell them that these articles of belief are not dry facts of events that happened long ago that have little to do with their lives today.

On the contrary, they are mysteries to which their lives are joined through baptism, and that their “yes” to each of these questions of belief should be a “yes” to the question: “Are you open to these mysteries of our faith and willing to let your life be touched and transformed by them?”

An even better question suggested by today’s Gospel would be: “Do you love God, the source of all these mysteries?” If they are to feed their own lambs, to teach their children by word and example the Catholic faith, they must allow their lives to be changed by their love of the triune God and of His Church.

So it is for all of us. When we profess our faith at Mass, it is an opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to bind us more closely to Christ and to remove the effects of sin that have kept us away from that loving union.[hr]

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 5: 27-32, 40b-41

Psalm 30: 2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13

Revelation 5: 11-14

John 21: 1-19 or

John 21: 1-14

Father Robert M. Powers is the administrator of St. Paul and St. Agnes parish, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Gowanus and the Columbia Street Waterfront District.

Often when people return to church after a long time away, they can be discouraged that the fervor of faith does not always return immediately. I tell them there is a need to be patient and that the time of restored communion with the Body of Christ will ultimately heal the time apart, but it is all according to God’s timetable.

Peter’s triple profession of faith in today’s Gospel heals him of his triple denial of Jesus. It is the merciful mathematics of the salvation of all of us in Jesus Christ.