How the Synod should begin first: The welcome and the invitation

This article appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

It’s a week after the Resurrection and the disciples have gone back to their old way of life -- fishing, though they are still not very good at it, having caught nothing. It was already dawn, and Jesus is standing on the beach, but no one recognizes him.

It is Jesus who initiates their meeting: “Children have you caught anything to eat?” Of course the answer is “No.” And so Jesus, again, directs them to throw their nets over the right side of the boat and once again, they haul in a great number of fish.

The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Simon Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ And Simon Peter [in John’s Gospel this double name reminds us all that he is called as a disciple, even as a leader, yet has denied his relationship to Jesus publically] pulls on his garment and jumps into the water and the others haul the net into shore. When they climb out on shore, they see a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. ‘Bring some of the fish you just caught.’ So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. And Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ And none of them dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish (John 21:3b-13).

This is Jesus’ version of breakfast on the beach and his way of welcoming his disciples back into the intimacy of his company, by preparing a meal for them and serving them. They had all betrayed him. They had all left him alone in his suffering and dying. They had all broken faith with him though he had called all of them “friends.”

This is how Jesus models how his community, his church is to welcome back all who have failed him. It is done with graciousness -- not even mentioning their past failures and how they betrayed him, leaving him to face his dying alone. They are well aware of their own lack of love and yet that is not the focus of this encounter.

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This is how Eucharist is to be celebrated -- drawing everyone back into intimacy, all forgiven with a shared meal, awkward though it might be among them. Jesus’ words:  Children, come and have your breakfast. Welcome back into my company, welcome home to my heart. We are one; we are in communion because of my love, my life, death and resurrection. Come and eat with me — all of you.

This is how the Synod on the family should begin: with a proclamation of the Good News to the poor -- with God’s simple invitation repeated again to everyone -- come and eat; break bread with me; let me feed you. The opening prayer should be a greeting of welcome -- a place to stand after Resurrection, as Jesus’ stands with all of us, no matter how we have behaved.  Did the disciples deserve Eucharist and being drawn back into intimacy with Jesus? Does anyone ever deserve Eucharist? Perhaps that is just the point: no one ever deserves to be fed by God but that is the way God works in our world, never dealing with us as we deserve, but relating to us as the beloved children of God, the beloved servants and disciples of God and the beloved friends of God, calling us to become what God hopes for all of us.

No one is excluded, no one is held to account -- even after Eucharist when Jesus takes Simon for a walk on the beach. He asks him only one pointed question three times: “Simon, son of John [who he is before he ever met Jesus or began to follow him] do you love me?” And once again -- Simon Peter begins at the beginning again with Jesus’ command: “Follow me” (John 21:15-29).

After Eucharist, after eating together in communion with God’s beloved, with Our Father and the presence of the spirit of the risen Lord among us all, then there is time for questions; time for asking for recommitment; time for putting things right. After welcoming back everyone in the church to Eucharist -- with no ifs, ands, buts, or first you do this, etc., after breaking bread and sharing the cup of forgiveness and sustenance as brothers and sisters in the family there can be time for recommitting ourselves to the following of Jesus and the preaching of forgiveness and good news to the poor.

After the welcome has been extended and the family eats together again, then the church can begin the tasks at hand in the grace of the Resurrection and the gift of the spirit. Earlier in John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper -- when it is Jesus who does not eat with his friends, he tells them and us: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming” (John 16:12-13).

Perhaps now is the time, when we can bear it -- we can hear it -- and we need to listen to the truth of the spirit speaking what he hears now in the world, in the church among all the faithful followers of Jesus, calling us to live with deeper integrity and follow Jesus with stronger devotion. After welcoming all and inviting all to Eucharist, after everyone in the church asking for forgiveness and offering it for how each and all have failed in the love of our God for us, then we can look at issues beyond what has been the experience of the past -- looking to the things that are coming. What are some of these things coming?

  1. What if we are to look at the difference between marriage as a universal institution in every country, religion, culture, geographical area and marriage as a sacrament within the preaching of the Gospel? What if we speak of all being married as citizens of their respective countries and then what it would mean to be married as a believer -- a Catholic or a Christian -- separate from that reality shared as human beings?
  2. What if we admitted that we need a theology of marriage based on the mystery of the Trinity, where the third party is God, marrying the two persons? (Even now the sacrament can be celebrated without a priest -- the couple marrying one another in the presence of God, and having it witnessed later by a representative of the church.) What if this sacrament — of two married in the presence of and with the Trinity speaks of communion and universal family and incorporation as one for all people, revealing the mystery of our God as community?
  3. What would the preparation and celebration of this sacrament look like? Would it be based on a process much like the RCIA where the two adults (and their children and family and friends) study the Scriptures in relation to their singular commitment to one another and relationships within the family that speaks of faithfulness, freedom, commitment and expressions of love beyond what marriage stands for in society -- now embedded in the Good News to the poor and the coming of God’s way of relating for all on earth? It could include prayer/mediation/conflict negotiation/forgiveness/reconciliation/and experience from those longer-married on how to deal with economics, failure, sexuality, personality and day to day conflicts in business and extended family.
  4. At the same time perhaps the spirit is calling the church to look at the 25 percent of the church that is single/unmarried or widowed and what that lifestyle/vocation can reveal to the world. And perhaps it is time to look at the reality that families are not primarily based on a Western cultural experience of romantic love, one man/one woman and children — but the diversity and richness of families are found in other experiences of love, support, solidarity and faithfulness. (For example, in many parts of the world where grandparents are raising not only their own grandchildren but the grandchildren of others not related by kinship or marriage, orphaned by AIDS, violence and poverty.) This would include single parents raising children, their own biological children or those adopted. Can it be time to encourage families of single gender parents raising children, often the children that others do not want to care for or adopt? All families would be honored so that the Spirit can reveal what each group of the beloved children of God reveals of our God, within the Trinity -- where we all dwell as one.

Perhaps it is time to return to Jesus’ reminder of what his invitation to follow him means, as time passes -- “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).  Earlier Jesus has prayed aloud saying that “these things are revealed not to the learned and the clever but to the merest children” -- the poor, the majority of the church, the people who have been struggling with the burden of relationships and family life in the world these past years -- often without the Eucharist that is God’s gift meant to be what sustains us as we live. Often many have been sitting at the table, but not fed and so they have had to rely more on the power and the presence of the spirit to live with grace and forgiveness, reconciliation and faithful endurance.

It is time for the church, its leaders within the institution and structure to stand down and stand aside from their demands that are primarily human laws, canons and practices -- not the words and practice of Jesus, and to ask forgiveness for denying the bread of life and the cup of forgiveness to so many for so long. This is the new starting point for discussions and theologizing. Once this first step is taken, then the church -- all the people of God -- can begin to look with the spirit of truth and the hope of God in Jesus at the future and what needs to be redeemed, made holy, converted and transformed so that all the world can give glory to our God the community of the Trinity who lovingly uses all of us to reveal how our God intends for all to live in communion and as a blessing for all.  May it be so, O God, may it be so. Amen. Amen -- let the people cry: Amen!

[Megan McKenna is a theologian, storyteller and the author of more than 45 books, the latest Listen Here: Seven Steps to an Enduring Relationship with God. She travels and works extensively in the areas of justice, reconciliation, peace, and poverty, using the Scriptures and storytelling with groups for transformation and hope. She resides in Albuquerque, N.M. She can be contacted through her website MeganMcKenna.org.]

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