April 14, 2013
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
A few years back I tried my hand at writing a hymn. You may have noticed we have not sung any songs that I have written. This would be a fair and accurate indication of my success rate. In discussing this with Maria Davis after she wrote the song for our latest building campaign, she said, “Songwriting is either easy or it is impossible.” My take on her words is that this is about inspiration, about the Holy Spirit. There are moments when it feels like the Holy Spirit whispers, “write this,” and the words and music, or the sermon, or the whatever-it-is, just seem to show up. And there are times when it feels closer to slogging through hip deep molasses.
Somehow forgiveness also feels like it is either easy or it is impossible. Have you ever had something that weighed on your heart and mind, which you just had to find a way to tell someone you were sorry for what you had said or not said, done or not done, only to find out that they have difficulty even remembering the incident?
Or someone apologizes for something and you never took it in a negative way so it feels like there is so little to forgive, even though they look like they just carried a few yards of fill dirt up the hill to be able to say it?
These would fall into the “easy” category.
But what about those moments when we say, “Oh, it is unforgivable.” Or “Well, I can forgive…but I will never forget!” What happens when we carry their words or their actions with us, whether they know it or not, whether they care or not? What about those things that we have done or said (or failed to do or say) that haunt our relationships, our conversations, our very living?
Peter and Paul stand as powerful figures in the life of the church. For all the influence these two have had, what is most remarkable is how they got there.
Peter, the first to enter the empty tomb; the one who said, “Call me out onto the water with you, Jesus!”; the leader of the Apostles, the rock on which Jesus will found his church. More importantly, Peter was the denier of Jesus. Three times in the courtyard, the man who said he would fight and die to save Jesus said he never met him, he doesn’t know him, he wasn’t with him.
In fear of pain and death, three times Peter denied Jesus. And now, in the resurrection, three times does Jesus ask Peter, “Do you love me?” (By the way, did you catch that this is the third resurrection appearance in this Gospel? John is saying, “Listen up!)
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.”
A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep, these are what Peter was
supposed to do as the leader of the Apostles. But Peter is grieved by
being asked three times. It hurts him.
But what we find here is a question for each time he denied Jesus.
And with each answer, there comes forgiveness.
For each fault, forgiveness.
For each lie, forgiveness.
For each denial, forgiveness.
And with forgiveness, a command to live in covenant, in love, in service.
Paul did not start out as Paul. He started out as Saul, persecutor of the church, holder of the cloaks while they stoned Stephen, the first deacon, to death. Saul is on the road, setting out to take out the church in Damascus when he is struck blind, asked by Jesus why he is persecuting him.
In Saul’s blindness he starts to see, in his prayer and fasting he starts to change. God is working on him.
Ananias is also changing. He has heard of Saul, and fears him. So when in his prayers he hears that he must greet him and welcome him, it is a difficult moment. God is working on Ananias as well. And when he sees Saul, he does not greet him as “persecutor,” or “evil,” but as “brother.”
In these stories, we find something remarkable. Before Ananias could ever greet Paul as “Brother,” before Peter could truly lead the church of the resurrection, the Lord speaks, Jesus asks. Forgiveness begins in God.
Before Peter could be restored, before Saul could become Paul, before Ananias could see past Saul’s past, they had to experience what the “love of God that dared the cross” means. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Forgiveness, where it matters most, often feels impossible. It is like we try to will ourselves to let go, and at the same time, we hold on as tightly as possible. We demand more apology, more restitution, more something that will make the hurt go away. Or we try to deny that anything is wrong, that all is well, that we are fine…
It feels impossible. The bad news is, if we are relying on our own abilities to forgive, it is impossible. The good news is that the love of God that we see in Jesus is the love that loves the unlovely, the unlovable, the unloving. And so we lift these unforgivable moments to God and we say, “Okay Lord, I can’t do this. I need your love to take this and make of it something that serves you, because all I have here is pain (or bitterness, or anger, or fear, or whatever it is we are wrestling with). I need to live, Lord, and I cannot live carrying this burden any longer.”
And if the love of Jesus is so readily poured out for the one so close to Jesus who denied him, and so readily poured out for the one who persecuted his body, the church, then is it not also readily poured out for us, for you, for me, for (even) them?
If we have trouble forgiving, welcome to the human race. Then let us lift it to God. God is good at this. God has lots of practice.
Thanks be to God.