Roy W. Howard
What begins in failure ends in forgiveness. What begins in separation ends in reconcilliation. That’s the sum of the Christian gospel and of this sermon.
We know that the communities of Christians that emerged after the first Easter were quite diverse: Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds. Yet, for for all the diversity, they were shaped by a common conviction of being forgiven by the Risen Jesus, and because of that forgiveness, their relationships with the living God, with one another, and their neighbors were all profoundly changed. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, forgive those who hurt you as your heavenly Father has forgiven you. These became the central practices of this new radical community of Christians.
It may surprise you that being forgiven was the unifying center of the Church. You might be among those who can’t think of a reason you need to be forgiven. Or among those who think forgiveness is too easy to pronounce; the victim of the reckless practice of cheap grace. Bonhoeffer was right: If it’s that simple, it’s not real. The simple fact remains, whether we acknowledge it or not, that no one lives very well if you are carrying around a burden of guilt over deeds done that can’t be undone, words said that can’t be unsaid, secrets untold that gnaw at you. I am convinced that we all need forgiveness for something. To think otherwise is foolish and often dangerous. No one knew that more than Peter facing the Risen Jesus that post-Easter morning by the lakeside.
The best friend of Jesus had become the betrayer of Jesus. The faithful one who declared he would never ever turn away, had raced into hiding at Jesus’ darkest hour. Peter, the one who demanded Jesus wash him all over as sign of his unwavering devotion, had become the one who declared emphatically, “I don’t know him!”; not once, but three times. That is one load of guilt! Imagine for a moment your closest friend, your partner, your spouse, your children – abandoning them, betraying them or just letting them down in the hour of need. Imagine for a moment the magnitude of guilt.
So when Jesus appeared along the shore, it must have been a moment filled with ambiguity. After all, the One who had been crucified with the complicity of all the disciples, the innocent victim of capital punishment, had returned to face his closest friends who abandoned him without excuse. Would Jesus judge their guilt with condemnation? Isn’t that precisely what is due for the whole lot of them and by implication all the rest of us who are complicit in the killing of Jesus? A past deed done cannot be undone, it can only judged. Or you bury your burden so deeply that its effects linger long under the surface of every relationship. Right? So when Peter jumped out of that boat so enthusiastically, one wonders what was passing through his mind. Would he be judged and condemned for his betrayal; or would he be given a reprieve? Is Peter simply overwhelmed by the shocking possibility of another chance to be with the One he loved most?
Here is the short definition of forgiveness: “Come and have breakfast.”
Jesus, given the chance to condemn those who betrayed him, refused. Rather than condemn as the world would have him (and us) do, Jesus, in a shocking display of grace, offers the guilty hospitality, inviting them to be a community of the forgiven, breaking bread with each other as a sign of their forgiven-ness and His presence among them forever. The guilty past with all its deeds was neither erased nor denied; instead, Jesus’ forgiveness rendered the guilt void and the past powerless to dictate the present and future. Come and have breakfast is the invitation to let go of the old relationship with all its miserable offenses and embrace a new relationship grounded in God’s forgiving love that enables us to forgive, love and serve others.
Of course, we know that a truly liberating sense of forgiveness requires an honest admission that we need to be forgiven. Maybe that’s the reason forgiveness has fallen out favor: we’ve lost the capacity to acknowledge the chains that bind us, the habits that disable us, the secrets that subvert us, the lies that corrupt us, all the sins that enable us to assume our enemies are the only ones who are wrong and our ways the only ways that are right. It is they who are under the searching eye of God’s just judgment and never we who deserve the punishment for subverting the justice of God or making our way of life an idol to be preserved at all costs including the cost of death.
For Peter on the shore that day this was not a problem. He knew he fallen further than he ever dreamed possible. Forgiveness was the only way to the future. So it is for all who live by the forgiveness of Jesus. Accept that you are forgiven and live it now.
Brennan Manning was a remarkable writer and witness to this grace of God who died this past Friday. In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up and Burnt Out, he said:
To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”
Still we know that if the words that Christians use so frequently, like love and forgiveness, are to have any meaning at all, they must be practiced in concrete ways over our life-time. Jesus seemed to recognize this when Peter insisted again on declaring his undying love for his dear friend. Do you love me? Of course, I love you. Then, do this one thing: tend my sheep. A declaration of love for Jesus is virtually meaningless unless it is demonstrated in some concrete practice. Tend my sheep, is a particular summons to Peter to care for those in his care.
The summons will be different for each one who belongs to the community of the forgiven. What you can be sure of is that once forgiven, your life has a purpose in God. Forgiveness is not simply for its own sake, it is for the sake of others.
Do you love me? Jesus asked his friend. Of course, I love you, replied Peter. Then practice that love, feed my sheep. As if to be sure no one missed the point, he asked again, do you love me? Again the reply, oh my, you know everything, and you know that I love you. Well then, said Jesus, tdo this one thing: Follow me.