Wednesday, April 25, 2012
After Easter (John 21)
The text before us this morning is another text about forgiveness and reconciliation. That is a common, if not predominant, theme in Jesus’ post-resurrection, post-Easter visits with his disciples. We have already called attention to this in last week’s homily where we noted that Jesus’ restoration of the disciples after they had deserted and denied him would assure that the church in its formative years, in the power of the Holy Spirit, would be formed into a community that, when it is true to its calling, will be easily recognizable as a place where people know by experience the radical importance of God’s forgiveness. The church, when it is true to its formative moment, is easily recognizable as a community that cherishes and lives by the truth that “God does not forgive us because we are good but makes us good by forgiving us”. And again this morning, here in this text (John 21), everything has to do with Jesus’ desire to help Peter face himself, his shame over his denial of Jesus, and his fears and uncertainty that led him to desert and deny. Peter had denied Jesus three times by a charcoal fire, as John has recorded it for us earlier in this gospel. Here, Jesus, also with a charcoal fire nearby, a literary nuance that John would not want us to miss, creates three exchanges with Peter that allows Peter to affirm three times his commitment to follow Jesus in mission, to care for God’s flock as a young leader in what will become Christ’s church - three affirmations, one for each of his earlier denials. I want to note two things about all of this that I hope will help us get our heads and hearts around what this passage might be saying to us this morning. First, Jesus suggests that Peter’s way forward to flourishing will be by taking responsibility to serve others in the way that Jesus has served him. Three times Peter says I love you, and three times Jesus says in so many words: “then love and care for my flock”. This is Jesus, in other words, reminding Peter of what he said to the disciples as he turned to face Jerusalem and the cross: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. What will hold Peter’s confession of love for Jesus in the future is not his will-power or his inherent goodness. What will hold Peter fast is his experience of Jesus’ restoration of him, reinforced and made solid through the discipline of pouring that same love into the lives of others. Peter, waking up each morning with a concern for the well being of God’s people and his neighbors, whoever they may be, will create the foundation from which he will not fall. So many times people will say to me, I don’t know how to deal with my doubts about my faith. I just feel like I can’t really commit to my faith because of all of these doubts I have. While it is important to face doubts genuinely and not feel ashamed or weak for having them, it is also important to not allow doubts to paralyze us from living in the flow of God’s love. In other words, what I think Jesus is saying to us, through Peter, is something like this: if you want to experience the authenticity of God’s love for you, then take responsibility for loving others as God has loved the world in Christ. Or, as the Carmelite Nun, Ruth Burrows puts it in an interview about her book, Love Unknown, “Many people think they have no faith because they feel they haven't. They do not realize that they must make a choice to believe, take the risk of believing, of committing themselves and setting themselves to live out the commitment. Never mind that they continue to feel that they do not believe. Under cover of being "authentic" we can spend our lives waiting for the kind of certainty we cannot have.” One thinks here of John’s words in 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” It would do us well as a church community, as we ponder this deep truth together, to note that there is very little in our socio-cultural setting to reinforce the truth that an authentic experience of God comes in a life of serving and loving others. There is so much in our advertising, in our consumerist mentalities, and in the spirit of free-wheeling hedonism that tempt us to think that a life well lived is a life where the bucket list is checked off - and the bucket list doesn’t seem to include a great deal of occasions of sacrifice for others. Contrary to our zeitgeist, the gospel says that a life well lived will conform to Jesus’ pattern of self-giving love. Interestingly, speaking of bucket lists, there is also here in this passage a remarkable reference to Peter’s death. Jesus says to him: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The tradition of the early church, going back to the early church historian, Eusebius, tells us that Peter was martyred (as also was Paul) in the persecution of the church at the hands of the Roman emperor, Nero, in about 62 AD. There is also a tradition of the early church going back to Origen that Peter insisted on being crucified upside, declaring that he was not worthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus. What is most significant, though, about Peter’s death is not that he was a heroic martyr but that the life that took him to martyrdom was a life poured out in love for others. The Peter who denied Jesus three times became the leader of the early church who, Luke tells us in Acts, when the governing authorities forbade him from preaching the gospel said to them: ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.* Finally, Peter tells us in his own words in the first of two epistles bearing his name what sort of life he found to be worth living. It was not a life of religious self-confidence, or intellectual certainty but a life marked by living in the flow of God’s love for people. For Peter, the purification of the soul came through obedience to Jesus’ self-giving love and produces a community known by that love. In Peter’s own words: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth* so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply* from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22) May God enlarge our faith and expand our imaginations so that we might understand how to order our lives so that we might live for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ and for the neighbor. 1. Do you find that sometimes you are guilty of the condition Burrows speaks to above? (i.e. “under cover of being authentic”, spending our lives waiting for a kind of certainty we cannot have. 2. What do you do when you struggle with doubt? Have you ever considered facing your doubts with action (e.g. taking responsibility to pour God’s love into others)? Assuming that most of us could be doing better with all manner of disciplines, what it would like for you to take a greater responsibility for pouring God’s love into others? 3. Does the exercise Jesus went through with Peter (three opportunities to affirm, one for each of the denials) make you think more deeply and imaginatively about the practice of confession of sin and affirmation/absolution? What comes to mind?