Sermon: Reconciliation with Jesus by Pastor Margaret
Alyce McKenzie tells a story about a Sunday School class she led in which she invited participants to reflect on all the different responses people had to the empty tomb. They looked at the women fleeing in terror and amazement at the end of Mark (16:8). They discussed the women worshiping at the Risen Lord's feet in Matthew 28:9. Several described the women running to tell the disciples at the end of Luke (Luke 24:8). Finally, they came to the foot race between the beloved disciple and Simon Peter in John's gospel. The more aerobically fit "beloved disciple" got there first, but remained hovering outside the tomb. Simon Peter arrived second, but bold and brash as usual, went right on in to check things out. "Then the disciples returned to their homes" (Jn 20:10).
Alyce asked the class, "Why do you think Simon Peter, after making this amazing discovery of the empty tomb, went home?" One of the men in the class said, with a grin, "He went home to hide from Jesus!" Everyone laughed.
I wonder how many of us have thought of these events this way before. You betray someone three times. You feel terrible, but since they're now dead, all you have to deal with is your guilt. But if they are actually alive, what you have to deal with is them, standing before you, demanding a reckoning.
If I were faced with that possibility, I might have gone running, too… and then there would have been all that toxic waiting to get through, similar to “Just wait until your father gets home, young lady/man.” When it came to meting out discipline and punishments, the waiting often was the hardest part when I was growing up. Can you imagine waiting for Jesus to show up if what you expect is condemnation and punishment? Especially after committing the utterly foolish and terribly human act of denying Jesus when Jesus needed you most? Scary, huh.
But that’s not Jesus. But what actually took place on the beach was no tirade… there was no string of accusations, nor even a moment of reckoning in which Peter was forced to say “I’m sorry.” Neither did Jesus actually utter the words, “I forgive you.”
Apparently, the person who needed to forgive Peter was actually Peter himself. If forgiveness was even the issue at all. We like to fall back on forgiveness, assuming its what’s needed in order to fix or mend our relationships. But what if the nature of Jesus as God-incarnate means that there’s nothing wrong as far as Jesus is concerned? Being the embodiment of grace, what if Jesus saw no need to forgive because no action was egregious enough to separate Jesus from Peter? What if there was no problem to deal with except what was internal for Peter? Hmm…
If we go back to Peter’s denial of Jesus, we find that in John’s gospel, Peter was asked, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” And Peter’s response was, “I am not.” In this reading, Peter didn’t deny Jesus, he denied his own identity. How many of us know something about that?
In my experience, we deny who we are because we worry that we won’t (or can’t) meet expectations. We deny who we are because we are afraid of disappointing others. We deny who we are because we could be judged and even rejected for that truth. We deny who we are because we don’t believe we’ll be liked or accepted or loved for who we truly are. And so we play it safe in an awful lot of circumstances, pretending to be someone other than who we really are, because we don’t trust that our fragile inner truth will be received with kindness or treated gently. And so we hide… deep within ourselves… in a well-barricaded interior room… averting our eyes, hoping not to be seen or found out… taking note of how Jesus interacts with Peter as a warning about what we might expect.
If your soul tends to shake in its boots a bit, let me offer some reassurance. For Jesus did not blame or shame Peter. He didn’t demand an explanation or shout accusations or anything else. There was no lecture or “What were you thinking?!” diatribe. There certainly was no demand for repentance. All Jesus asked was, “Do you love me?”
Every time I encounter this exchange between Jesus and Peter, I cannot help hearing the words set to the song from Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye asks his wife, Golde, “Do you love me?” to which she answers, “Do I WHAT?!” “Do you love me?” “Do I love you?”
Obviously, Peter is far from the last person to struggle with the concept of love. Not unlike a couple in an arranged marriage, like Tevye and Golde, there were no hormonal fireworks to remember or romantic gestures of love for them to hold onto. Instead, the love both Jesus and Tevye inquired about is the love that is found in action on a daily basis, where we are reminded that love is a verb.
We know that Jesus loved Peter because Jesus offered him the gift of identity as a disciple which Peter earlier denied. By asking Peter “do you love me?” Jesus reminded Peter that he was part of a larger group of followers and disciples who did, indeed, love Jesus.
Our culture today tends to believe that identity is an individual thing… something we carve out for ourselves and by ourselves. But even for us, there are components of our identity that are given to us by our families of origin, by our community of faith, and through our closest relationships. For instance, I am someone of Southern heritage. Even though I haven’t lived in the South since I was 4 years old, this aspect of my identity still shows up in the foods I love and the manners I was taught to use. Saying “yes ma’am” and “no sir” in this part of the country doesn’t help me fit in as these are not basic “good manners” in this region. So, here we have a difference between fitting in and belonging. For fitting in is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is being found acceptable by your group just as we are.
We ALL need to belong. And Peter needed to be reminded that he belonged to the group of Jesus’ followers and disciples just as much after Peter’s denial as before it.
In addition to belonging, we all need a sense of purpose; we all need to believe that what we do matters, that if we didn’t show up, people would notice. Purpose, as it turns out, is one of the greatest motivators of life. Believing that we have something of value to contribute draws us again and again into challenging circumstances with joy.
In response to each of Peter’s confessions of love, Jesus offered him the gift of purpose with good work to do. Feed my sheep. Be a leader. Be a protector. Be a care-giver. Devote yourself to this community. In that conversation on the beach, Peter was reconciled to Jesus and reinstated into the community of the faithful, giving him both belonging and purpose.
We, too, are also blessed by Jesus with belonging and purpose through our baptisms. We are told, you are a member of the Body of Christ. You matter. You belong. And, we are invited to live out our faith in small ways and large, each and every day. Like Peter, we are called to feed God’s sheep with a good word or message of hope, perhaps through a card in the mail or a phone call or Facebook post. We are invited to be leaders… sometimes through a phone call from the Nominating Committee and sometimes through the basic character of heart that has us willing to serve and thus raising our hands to volunteer to help out. We are called to protect others… something we are ALL doing right now by continuing to worship online instead of in person. We are invited to care for others, which some of us do as parents or teachers, as health providers and all manner of other vocations and roles. Those offers to pick up groceries or in some other way give assistance… ALL of that counts.
The thing is that not only are we commissioned as Peter was, we are also loved like Peter was. Because Jesus does not give up on us. EVER! Whenever we fail or fall short, Jesus invites us to try again. He provides encouragement and nourishment – often through each other in fellowship and through the gift of worship – and then calls us to depart from each other and return to our meaningful work in the world.
Beloved, may the reminder that you BELONG and that you MATTER bring you hope, confidence, and if needed, a sense of restoration. Take that gift and use it to live into YOUR purpose, doing good work in our world that needs all that we have to offer.