Learning Time: The possibility of new life
The video of the worship service for May 1:
That clip was from the end of an episode of the Red Green show, which dates me, and anyone else who remembers it. Steve Smith created the show as a parody of home improvement, do-it-yourself, and outdoors shows. I don’t think for a minute that in real life he’s anything like the character he played. Red Green was crafted to poke fun at certain attitudes, not to glorify them.
I don’t buy into the idea that only men have the problem pointed to in the prayer: “I’m a man, I can change, if I have to, I guess.”
It’s actually a basic human problem. We all struggle with changing ourselves, even and perhaps especially when we know it needs to happen. It’s humbling to admit we’ve been off track and need a course correction.
In many churches there has been, and still is, a lot of talk about sin, and sinners. These are words I tend to stay away from, largely because I am not a big fan of name calling. I don’t want to be called a sinner, and I don’t find it helpful to throw that word at anyone else.
When you put a label on someone, whether you mean it as a compliment, a complaint, or a diagnosis, it suggests you have them all figured out, that you know all about them, and are qualified to judge. It also suggests you have special knowledge of their identity, their value, and their potential.
My nephew is a police officer. I think he’s probably a good one. He has a big heart and has always been a helpful kind of guy. He was raised to be careful in the world, but to always look for the best in people. Not long after he graduated, and went to work as a constable, he told me something that stuck with him from his training.
When he interacts with someone on the job, he remembers two things. The first is that usually, when the police are called, the people involved are not having their best day. The second is he tries not to judge a person based on what’s happening for them right then. Can you really understand who a person is based on their worst 15 minutes, or 15 seconds?
We are in the church season of Easter, so we are still hearing stories about resurrection. Today’s story is actually as much about Peter as it is about Jesus.
We may remember Peter from the Good Friday story. He was one of the inner circle with Jesus in the garden where he went to pray. Judas led a group of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to the garden to arrest Jesus. Peter drew a sword, struck someone, and cut off their right ear. I have always wondered, since when did the disciples carry swords?
Jesus rebuked Peter and told him to sheath his sword. Then Jesus was arrested and led away. At least one disciple followed Jesus, but Peter separated himself from that group. Three times in the next few paragraphs, Peter was recognized, and asked if he was with Jesus. Peter denied it.
Peter could not have known for sure, that Jesus’ arrest would lead to his death. He could not have known for sure that the last time he saw Jesus alive, he would be acting so poorly, wielding a sword to defend someone who did not want violence done in his name.
How would he have felt when he learned his friend and teacher Jesus was killed on the same day that Peter slipped away from his closest friends, and acted like he did not know him?
It seems to me that he would feel a mixture of guilt and shame, powered by overwhelming grief. How would he live with himself, with the memory of having turned away from what had been so important to him?
We know that Judas, the other disciple who turned away from Jesus that night was not able to go on, could not live with what he’d done, and how it turned out, and he completed suicide.
Peter did not lead the troops to Jesus, but in his own way, in his own heart, Peter betrayed his friend. How did he get past that? How did he make the transformation from the one who heard the cock crow, and realized what he’d done, to becoming a leader in the Jesus movement?
The next time he appears in John’s Gospel, Peter is back with the other disciples. He was there when the women who had been to the tomb ran to them, and reported the tomb was empty. Peter and another disciple then ran to the tomb, to see for themselves.
Peter was also part of the group who went fishing and had the final encounter with the Risen Christ recorded in John’s Gospel.
The writer of John’s Gospel does not tell us how Peter changed from being someone who left the group, and repeatedly denied knowing Jesus, to someone who was back in the inner circle. That seems a huge leap. A major change of heart. Something must have happened.
I have an idea about this. You may have heard me say the four Gospels in the New Testament were each written long after the events described, perhaps as much as 75-100 years after. The writers worked from stories passed down in the local communities of Jesus’ followers.
The only way that I can think that John’s Gospel could include the story of Peter denying Jesus three times, then hearing the cock crow, would be if Peter himself had told the story.
My imagination goes to a scene in which a tearful Peter returns to his friends and tells them whatg he did the night Jesus was arrested. His regrettable choice to draw a sword, and cut off someone’s ear. His skulking off into the darkness as Jesus was taken away. His being recognized as one of the Galileans who were close to Jesus, and his choice to deny it. His denying it two more times before the night was over. The sound of the cock crowing, that pierced his heart.
So how would the other disciples respond to Peter’s confession? Would it stretch their compassion? How would you and I react?
What do we do, when someone we love tells us about a time when they went off the rails, and maybe forget who they are for a while? Do we judge the whole person based on the worst 15 minutes of their life? Do we find a way to invite the person back into community, back into family, and help them find their way back to themselves?
I think that is the real work of reconciliation, helping a person finding their way back to a loving relationship with themselves, with others, and with God.
Would it be easy for the disciples, still shaken from having seen Jesus die, to welcome Peter bac? He had turned away from Jesus, and from them, at the worst possible time. Peter broke faith, not just with Jesus, but with the other disciples.
What do we think Jesus would do? Would Jesus believe that Peter had the capacity to change, to get back on track? The other disciples must have thought so because Peter was back into the fold, and he went with the disciples on their fishing excursion. To me, that is a sign of the difference between forgiveness in theory, and grace lived out in community. Peter was welcomed back.
This is a resurrection story, a story about the possibility of new life. It strikes me the new life was as much for Peter, as it was for Jesus. Peter was given a chance to start again. After cooking a meal for all the disciples, Jesus had a private moment with Peter. Again, I think the only way this could be part of the Gospel record, was for Peter to tell his story to the rest of the community.
In the conversation with Jesus, Peter has the opportunity to say yes three times. It parallels the Good Friday story, in which he says no three times, when he’s asked if he’s part of the Jesus group.
When they had eaten their meal, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon ben-John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time Jesus put the question, “Simon ben-John, do you love me?”
Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”
Jesus replied, “Tend my sheep.”
A third time Jesus asked him, “Simon ben-John, do you love me as a friend would?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” a third time. So he said, “You know everything, Rabbi. You know that I am your friend.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
In the Gospels, maybe especially in John’s Gospel, a shared meal is always a symbolic event. Jesus fed people in more than one way. The sharing of food is about meeting a basic human need. Jesus would eat with anyone, even those rejected by the world, and by religious authorities. The meal represents unconditional acceptance, grace, forgiveness, a chance to get back on track, the possibility of new life.
It’s significant that Jesus’ questions for Peter are all about love, the answer Peter gives is always, “Yes, Jesus I love you,” and Jesus always responds, then get out there and live it. Feed the lambs, tend the sheep, feed the sheep.
The new life offered to Peter was one in which he got back out into the world, and fed the souls of others, showed them God’s love, and invited them to the table. The best response to being offered another chance, a fresh start, is to spread the word that this is how it works, for all of us. Amen