Cha-cha-cha! – Br. Mark Brown

John 21:1-19

In this morning’s gospel we read about Peter’s Damascus Road experience. Yes, in Acts we read about Paul’s Damascus Road experience.  In the gospel we read about Peter’s Damascus Road experience: an encounter with the risen Christ that changes his life in a dramatic way.

We might try to imagine Peter’s emotional state at this point. A confusing mix, most likely. The devastation of grief mixed with the astonishment of mysterious encounters with the risen Christ.  A state of not knowing quite which direction to go with his life.  And, I would imagine, a paralysis.  A paralysis of shame and guilt.  In spite of those mysterious encounters.

We remember that during that awful night Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.  Then the cock crowed.  He had promised Jesus, boasted to Jesus, that he would never abandon him, even if everyone else did (Mark).  But he did. He denied knowing Jesus three times.  A betrayal as egregious as Judas’.

The shame of cowardice does not dissipate easily: shame is toxic and it can poison a soul for a lifetime.  The guilt of betrayal can lodge in the heart and block the door to anything else.  These toxins can induce paralysis—a paralysis of the soul.

The conversation we overhear today goes directly to the heart of the matter.  Peter might have said how sorry he was and asked for forgiveness.  And Jesus would have forgiven him—as he had told Peter once, 70 times 7 times! But he is silent before Jesus.

So, Jesus asks a question.  Jesus asks a shockingly intimate question: Do you love me?  A shockingly intimate question—and a very clever maneuver.  Do you love me? He asks three times. The three times echoing Peter’s three denials. Jesus does not rub Peter’s nose in his cowardice—he senses that Peter is too ashamed to even ask for forgiveness.  In Luke’s version of the fishing story Peter says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Just go away, Jesus, I’m not good enough for you!  So Jesus asks: do you love me?  That is, after all, the heart of the matter.

And he asks not to find out whether Peter loves him (which he already knows), but so that Peter hears his own words, so that Peter hears himself saying “I love you.” A conversation with so few words, but so much implied.  Instead of framing the conversation in terms of sin and forgiveness (a legalistic way), Jesus invites Peter more deeply into the reality of his love—the life-giving reality of his own love.

And then, in place of an explicit absolution, a commission, a double commission: “feed my sheep” and “follow me”, he says to Peter.  I need your help—even if you think you are a “sinful man”.  This double commission serves as Peter’s absolution, as Peter’s validation as a person, as his validation as apostle.

This forgiveness, this restoration is Peter’s liberation.  His Damascus Road experience, his life-changing experience.  His new lease on life.  Now there can be a future worth living for—a future worth living for even if it leads to the cross again.

This is the Jesus MO: forgiving the sinner, restoring the one who fails.  Why?  Lot’s of reasons probably.  But mainly, I’m thinking today, to keep the door open to the future, to give us a new lease on life. It’s about God’s preferential option for the future (to borrow a phrase).  What’s past is past; the future opens before us. Forgiveness is about setting us free for the future. It’s about neutralizing the toxins of shame, it’s about liberating us from the paralysis of guilt so we can move on.  Archbishop Tutu has said, “there can be no future without forgiveness.”

Forgiven and restored, we’re free to follow him into God’s future.  Liberated from shame and guilt, we’re free to “feed the sheep”, or whatever our personal mission is.  Christ sets us free from the weight of our sins and failures so that we can join the procession into God’s future—with a certain lightness of being, maybe even dancing a jig along the way.  Dancing a jig along the Damascus Road.

God is eager to forgive; God is eager for us to forgive.  For our sake; for the sake of the future that opens up before us.  God is eager to embrace sinners and stumblers and set them on their way forward into the future.  And God knows how often our nobler intentions are out-maneuvered by strong emotion—like, for Peter, fear for our lives. And, we are to understand, no sin is too great, no failure too great.

God forgives us. We forgive each other.  And, by the way, we shouldn’t forget to forgive ourselves. For our sake, for the sake of the future.

I’ll end now with a colossal platitude: church is for sinners, not for saints.  What could be more cliché?  What could be more true?

Have you been dishonest?  Covetous?  Stingy?  Judgmental?  This church is for you.  Have you been hateful or ornery?  This church is for you. Gluttonous or greedy?  This church is for you. Prideful?  Idolatrous?  Unfaithful? Have you been just plain crabby?  This church is for you.

So, “Come and have breakfast.” Says the risen Lord.  Then let’s dance a jig along the Damascus Road.  Or you may prefer to waltz or tango or rumba.  Or maybe the style of your lightness of being is more minuet or gavotte.  Or something balletic: a romantic pas de deux, perhaps.  Or break dancing.  Or a wild Hungarian Csardas—whatever! Your sins are forgiven, he says, so cha-cha-cha!

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  1. A Gordon on May 7, 2014 at 11:55

    A work of great value many thanks and God Bless

  2. Kathy on May 7, 2014 at 00:27

    I love this message – especially seeing Jesus so intimately rebuild Peter’s faith and forgiveness of himself. Can you imagine how it would be to hear Jesus ask “Do you love me?” Well, he does all the time – we just need to say “.Yes, Lord!!” And show our love by loving others.

    I am so thankful God led me to SSJE this past Lent – what a gift! Thank you to all the Brothers and all who post their reflections!

  3. Claudia Booth on May 6, 2014 at 22:53

    Great job with those texts Mark. You sound so happy. The Gospel has freed us from guilt and shame, a life of regret, and paralysis in exchange for a life of contagous joy and freedom. What a joyful meditation! Cha-cha-cha. Ole’! Wow! What a transformation!

  4. John Gishe on May 6, 2014 at 11:07

    I came across SSJE during Lent 2014. What a wonderful discovery. I particularly loved this: “Peter might have said how sorry he was and asked for forgiveness. And Jesus would have forgiven him—as he had told Peter once, 70 times 7 times! But he is silent before Jesus. So, Jesus asks a question. Jesus asks a shockingly intimate question: Do you love me?..The three times echoing Peter’s three denials. Jesus does not rub Peter’s nose in his cowardice—he senses that Peter is too ashamed to even ask for forgiveness.” What a lover of sinful souls we have in Jesus!

  5. Tom Bailey on May 6, 2014 at 09:50

    It seems to me that God is always offering forgiveness. The challenge I am offered is to accept it.

  6. Joyce McGirr on May 6, 2014 at 09:35

    Yesterday on the news we heard about the men in Nigeria who kidnapped girls from their school and are enslaving and selling them and rejoicing publicly in their cause. Thousands of girls and women are being sold into sexual slavery right now in the year 2014.
    I wept. Not sure I can forgive. But I can pray and I can work for justice and I can continue to love only with God’s help. And I pray that those girls who were all in school ready to take their exams will be saved from this horrific crime. I pray that we are all forgiven for the endless cycle of sin that turns us away from God’s love.

  7. on November 17, 2013 at 20:50

    I have spent many a day regretting many of the things I did in my life….it is much more difficult , I find ,to forgive yourself than it is to forgive others

  8. Anders on November 17, 2013 at 09:16

    Thank you. I appreciate your words on forgiveness and release from the past of shame and guilt. I will answer my questions before I pose them with the insight Br. Curtis Almquist’s meditation provided me yesterday: it is through philoxenia, the love of strangers, that we find grace to change our heart, to convert.

    How do we define forgiveness in terms of the forgiver and forgivee, when shame and guilt become rationalized and institutionalized? Do we forgive the apostle Paul for his zeal and sexual repression used to base church clergy’s abusive practices we suffered? Do we forgive ourselves for really wanting to have a relationship with Jesus Christ as a “personal lord and savior” despite the conditions of no personal questions and no emotion other than cheery? Do we forgive our institutional cultures of origin, the denomination and ethnicity so afraid of stepping out of the familiar that it literally refers to dinner guests (the Swedish word främlingar) as strangers? Can we dance or feel lightness of being when dancing was traditionally forbidden or now at best seen as purposeless? Who and how do I forgive?

    As a father, what teachings do I embrace, what behaviors do I model, what boundaries do I define to my young children clamoring for love and guidance? Where do I look when many childhood peers are unwell or dead, and I see depression and anxiety being handed down through the generations of my own extended family? What do I offer my sons after losing faith, friends, personal wealth and my wife in divorce? I kept Christianity as the language of my soul and family as mirrors of community and belonging, despite their warts of shame and alienation.

    My children provide me a container since I cannot teach without modeling. It is the love of those darn främlingar-strangers who show me a path of love and light. They are the ones dancing. I am welcome to join with both my left feet and my beautiful sons. I am grateful. Let me look at the forgiveness thing later.

  9. Carole Robie on April 1, 2013 at 13:50

    Dear Br. Mark, Thank you for continuing to remind me of the sense of rejoicing, joy and forgiveness the church offers each of us. Thank you also for providing spiritual guidance, historical perspective and a wonderful sense of humor on our pilgrimage in Jerusalem.


  10. Polly Chatfield on April 1, 2013 at 10:07

    Dear Mark, you have a blessed way of evoking the small joys of life – good food, happy dancing – to send us on or way rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Thank you for such a precious Easter present.

  11. sandy tieman on April 1, 2013 at 07:37

    This really hits home, it is all about LOVE and forgiveness for others and ourselves. How many times do we need to say I LOVE You to JESUS ?

    • judy on May 6, 2014 at 08:18

      70 x 7

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