When forgiveness gets down deep inside to that place we’d rather hold on to, that place where we hide our failures, that place we push down our insecurities; when forgiveness gets that deep inside – that is the moment when Jesus Christ lifts us up to healing and wholeness.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very 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.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
I suspect it’s easy for most mainline Christians in America today to name one of the most essential parts of what Jesus did on Easter Sunday. Jesus Christ forgives my sin. I am forgiven, alleluia! That’s not something to hard to rattle off and that is something I suspect most people with any knowledge of the church at all might name as the point of Christianity.
What is sin? That’s a harder question. What does forgiveness do? Maybe I could say it gets me to heaven, maybe it sets me free…but what I’m free from and for is a harder question; what heaven means for me here and now is not self evident. Who is the I that is forgiven? It would take days for me to even scratch the surface of who I think I am and there’s no telling what all Sallie could name that I might miss.
And in the face of the uncertainty and the ambiguity of definitions, it’s easy to retreat back to that simple foundational truth of our faith – Jesus Christ forgives my sin. Period. End of story. And in a sense it is the end of the story, in those five words is the essence of the faith. There’s a reason so many people might name that fact as the essential part of what Jesus did on Easter Sunday. It’s not wrong; but there is so much more depth and meaning to the abundant life Christ is and makes possible if we are willing to drill a little deeper and ask the harder questions. Not just what is sin, but how have I sinned? Not just what does forgiveness do, but how does forgiveness change me? Not just who am I, but what is my place in the body of Christ?
To ask these questions is to begin to probe the mysteries of God and of salvation. These questions require a certain amount of self awareness and submission. Being self aware isn’t easy because it forces us to consider those parts of us we’d rather deny; the parts we’d rather not be there and would do just about anything to get rid of or at least not have to deal with. For me, one of those parts is the voice that says you’re not good enough. I sometimes start strong! I’m a pastor. I can start to spin the drain thinking I just made a mistake. That mistake hurt someone’s feelings. I’m stupid for doing it. I should be better than that. I’m a pastor. And it gets worse. I’m a screw up. I better keep it all inside. I don’t see why anyone would want to hear from me, I’ll probably just make the same mistake again. I’m a pastor… That voice can be so defeating when I think about it that I’d rather just deny it’s there. But denial only lets the voice grow stronger under the strong person becomes the weak person becomes the sad and dejected mess. Self awareness is hard.
Submission is no easier for me. Submission is a four letter word when I’m having a bad day and I’ll bet it is for some of you too. You are free to be anything you want to be – we are told early and often by our culture. Whatever is holding you back from being free is a problem to be overcome. Don’t submit to anything, we are told. Pull yourself up and you can get through anything, you can become anything you want to be. Submission can be treated like that thing that happens when I am defeated and I fail to reach my potential and I just give up and let go of control and get defined by someone or something in my life.
Self-awareness and submission are difficult to embrace and difficult to sit with. Both require us to let God in and to give up control of what happens next. As appealing as it might be to think that I can decide who I’m going to become and simply take control and make that happen, so much more is possible when we encounter the love and the life that God desires for us. The kind of love that makes possible a new kind of life is shown to us through the story of Jesus and Peter by the fire in John’s gospel. Peter takes a moment to sit with the Lord and through the Lord’s embrace Peter is restored to a life he never could have created for himself.
Our reading from John’s gospel comes to us from the very end of the book. The life and Ministry of Jesus has already happened. Good Friday has come with all its confusion and chaos and hurt and brokenness that led Jesus to the cross. The tomb was closed for 3 days. And on that first Easter morning the women had found the empty tomb and went and told Peter of the good news. Here we find Jesus sitting with the disciples around a fire by the lake just a few days later. And after breakfast, Jesus turned to his disciple named Peter and began to question him.
“do you love me more than these?’” Jesus asked him. He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ ok, so far. Jesus asking Peter to affirm his love, no big deal. And then a second time Jesus asked, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ I don’t know if Jesus wasn’t listening the first time. It’s a little weird since I’m sure Jesus knows the exact depth of Peter’s love, so it’s odd that he’s asked again. But he’s Jesus, whatever. He gets to ask what he wants. But then it happens a third time. “do you love me?” Jesus asked. Peter felt hurt this time. And he said to Jesus. ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.”
It is strange that Jesus would ask Peter 3 times. It feels almost cruel to keep pressing deeper and deeper and deeper. But to understand this moment between Jesus and Peter we have to go back to another campfire just a few days before. Peter, The Rock upon which Jesus said he would build his church, was standing around a fire at the same moment Jesus was being put on trial and questioned leading up to the crucifixion. Jesus had told Peter he would deny Jesus three times. Peter was adamant that he would not. He would go to the cross with Jesus if he had to, he would never deny his friend and his Lord.
But standing around that fire a young woman asked him, aren’t you one of his disciples. And Peter said no I do not know the man. And a short time later he was asked again aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples? And again Peter said I do not know the man. That’s not me. You must be thinking of someone else. And a third time he was confronted. He was asked are you not one of Jesus’ disciples? Peter knew the consequences of saying yes, he knew the fear inside of him holding him back. And so again a third time he denied it. He said I do not know that man. And as Peter said this the rooster crowed. What Jesus told him had to come true. He had denied his Lord and his friend three times.
And so we move back forward in our story, back to the disciples sitting around a fire after the resurrection. Jesus questioned Peter 3 times. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Each time Peter felt the question go deeper and deeper and deeper inside of him. Lord, you know I love you! Feed my lambs. Lord, you know I love you! Tend my sheep. Lord, you know I love you!
In this moment Jesus guides Peter to experience his forgiveness. When forgiveness gets down deep inside to that place we’d rather hold on to, that place where we hide our failures, that place we push down our insecurities; when forgiveness gets that deep inside – that is the moment when Jesus Christ lifts us up to healing and wholeness. Jesus was offering the chance to be restored. Forgiveness is not complete in the words we say. Forgiveness isn’t finished when you accept my apology. The forgiveness of Jesus restores Peter back to relationship. Forgiveness overcomes the betrayal and the broken promises Peter made. Around this campfire, all that Peter had done wrong as he stood by a fire just a few nights before, it all was washed clean by the forgiveness of Jesus.
In this story of deep forgiveness and restoration I invite you to look deeply into yourself. The good news, is that through the grace of God we are offered the same chance to be forgiven as Peter. What is it that sits deep within you, what is it that you want to hide from me and from God? What is it that you hold so tightly inside that you just can’t let go? Jesus tells us to look deeply inside of ourselves and see that, that is the person I love. Jesus says submit your life to me and follow where I lead. It is you that I love, imperfections and all!
You are a beloved child of God, wonderfully made, relentlessly pursued. You are restored by the grace and love of our Lord.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, you are forgiven. Amen!