We have this old phrase, “misery loves company.” Peter and the Beloved Disciple were keeping company in their misery, but not for the same reasons. The Beloved Disciple was grief stricken over the horrendous crucifixion of his dearest friend, Jesus, with whom he had stayed until it was finished. Peter, on the other hand, was frightened and appalled by his own betrayal of Jesus, whom he had denied and abandoned from the bitter outset. The two disciples were together but in very different places when they hear the news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus’ body is gone. They run towards the tomb independently, no surprise. The Beloved Disciple would be ecstatic, remembering Jesus’ promise that if he were killed, he would come back to life; he would be resurrected. Peter, on the other hand, would be in agony. He, too, had heard Jesus’ prediction about his resurrection. But Jesus’ resurrection for Peter would be so very, very difficult because of his having to face Jesus. Peter would need to ask Jesus’ forgiveness… again. Not that Jesus would not forgive Peter, but that he would, as Jesus had undoubtedly forgiven him so many times before. How many times had Jesus forgiven Peter already? More than Peter could imagine.[i] You may recall Jesus had renamed Peter “his rock,” not just because he was so strong, but because he was so hard-headed.[ii] Peter here is running in very familiar territory as he races to Jesus’ tomb, only this time it’s much worse. This time, Peter has crossed a line; he now is more a follower of Judas and than Jesus.
And it happens. We know in the days following, Peter is reconciled to Jesus. Jesus had long predicted that Peter, whom he knew well and loved greatly, would betray him, which he does, three times. Peter is now asked by Jesus, three times, “Do you love me?” to which Peter says, “Yes, I do.” “Yes, I do.” “You know, I do,” and the reconciliation happens. What’s so amazing and so humbling for Peter is that, eventually, it’s Peter (not the Beloved Disciple) but Peter on whom Jesus decides to build his church.[iii] Peter is the least innocent of all the living disciples, which seems to be Jesus’ point.[iv]
In this ancient prayer, the Exsultet, which Br. Geoffrey has just sung from the Paschal Candle, we hear the word innocence: “How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed way. It restores innocence to the fallen….” Innocence. Christ’s offering us not just forgiveness, not just reconciliation, but innocence. If Jesus, knowing you even better than you know yourself, were to say to you, “You are innocent,” could you take it in? “You are innocent.” This is not the adjudication of our innocence but rather the restoration of our innocence. Our being made innocent again by Christ.
Our English word “innocence” is borrowed from the Latin, and at its core means “not guilty, simple, pure, blameless,” words that are hard to come by for me and, I suspect, for many of you here. What would this “restoration of innocence” Christ promises us look like for you? Innocence: to be not guilty, simple, pure, blameless. Several things come to mind.
For one, “innocence” is related to what Paul Riccoeur, the French theologian, calls “a second naiveté.” Here’s an example. You have probably had the experience having a very negative impression of someone. Then there may have come the occasion when you learn something more about them. Maybe someone tells you something new about them; maybe you observe them or have the opportunity to listen to them as they tell you about their life, or as they tell you about your life. And you come to see them differently. It’s as if your vision is given a corrective lens, not to see less but to see into them, to see more of them, more deeply. What first appeared to your eyes as a stain on this person is, in actuality, a scar that they probably bear well, bear miraculously well, given all the givens they’ve been handed in their life. This an experience of the “innocence” that Christ promises: an interior experience of being cleansed and enlightened. Often times the truth we know about another person has to be washed. Not washed away but washed clean before it can be fully received. If there is a hard person in your life, pray the cleansing of the eyes of your heart to see them as Christ sees them.[v] Beneath their scars, their surface layer of soil is this most beautiful person.
The baptismal water in the great basin here in the center of the chapel represents Christ’s invitation for the cleansing of the truth, as we renew our baptismal promises.[vi] Many of us here may need to pray this way almost endlessly in our relationships with others: for the cleansing of the truth. Seeing people with new eyes is a restoration of innocence that Christ promises: a kind of “second naiveté” in how we see other people, especially people whom we may otherwise find irritating, or offensive, or disappointing. They are a child of God, whom God adores and whom God shares with you. That will dawn on you.
Another experience of the restoration of innocence Christ promises is our experience of identification with another person. One of the earliest things we learn in life is how we are different from others. We are younger or older; taller or shorter; left handed or right handed; male or female. We are more or less beautiful, or charming, or eloquent, or successful, or wealthy, or educated, or devout, or whatever. And it is true. We are very different from one another. But how much the same we are also. Jesus preaches one gospel and opens his arms very wide, for all. An experience of the restoration of innocence that Christ promises us is the movement away from separation from others, to compassion for others, to identification with others. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, spoke not just of living around another person but living in another person. This person whom you may be quick to discount or disown or reject: you are this person. This person who gets under your skin belongs there. This is the “grace of identification,” the healing of our judgmental faculties to see ourselves in the face and form of the other, to come to love them as we love ourselves: a manifestation of the restoration of our innocence.
Lastly, whatever has compromised your own innocence, God knows you before that, and God knows you in that, and God will see you through that. That’s why we call Jesus our Savior. Jesus says to his disciples, to us, “I go to prepare a place for you,” that is, a place for us to dwell with God beyond the grave, forever.[vii] In the meantime Jesus is unbinding the knots in your soul, healing your broken heart. Jesus wants to whisper in your ear, “I know you. I love you. You are why I came to this earth. You belong to me.” A century ago, Father Benson, asks this wonderful, passionate question: What will it be like for you, for your body, in the day of the Resurrection, to feel yourself really belonging to Jesus, to be enclosed in His embrace, and be locked in [his] heart of love? Father Benson says, we are being prepared for the particular glory that awaits each of us in the day of our resurrection.[viii] Jesus recovers us, redeems us, restores us as we were intended to be in God’s eyes. It starts in this life; it will take an eternity to complete which is why we call it “the hope of heaven.” It includes the likes of Mary, mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the likes of the Beloved Disciple and of Peter. It includes you.
The restoration of innocence is not about forgetting. It’s about remembering, remembering who, in God’s eyes, we were created to be and become, and taking Jesus at his word in his promise to give us new, abundant life, beginning now and for all eternity.[ix]
[i] Matthew 18:21-22 “Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
[ii] The name “Peter” comes from the Greek, Πέτρος, Pétros, “stone, rock.”
[iii] Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
[iv] The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, writes that “the secret of the Christian is not that he is always in the right and puts other people in the right, but that he is a forgiven [person]. That is the secret of a Christian’s humility, and his liberation to love God and his fellows with a new impulse. So the strength of the Church is not the strength of its members, but the strength of Christ who forgives them, humbles them, and can do something with them. So no one is excluded who is ready to say, ‘I am sorry. God help me, a sinner.’ In the final crisis all that St. Peter could say was, “I am sorry,” and Christ made him the rock man of the Church.”
[v] Ephesians 1:17-19 “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
[vi] The Baptismal Covenant is found in the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305.
[vii] John 14:2-3.
[viii] Richard Meux Benson in Instructions on the Religious Life, p. 31.
[ix] John 10:10 “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
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