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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