I have come to know a young man who is now incarcerated in prison. He was charged and convicted on multiple felonies. If you knew the gentle family who raised him, you would be as shocked and numb with despair as they are, asking how in the world could it have come to this… for their son, whom they love and thought they knew so well?
I haven’t been able to get that question out of my mind: how did it come to this? As I’ve read what we all see relentlessly in the media, I often ask myself, “how has it come to this… for them?” Why do people make wrong choices? How do people come to be broken as they are and, and then, so often, do unto others the harm that was done unto them? Sometimes, it seems it’s with only a fleeting moment’s reaction, and sometimes from a day or week or many years of planning, preparing, and anticipating, a person will act or react in a way that proves tragic – tragic for them or others or both. It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself a good many times.
It is a question, particularly about two of Jesus’ disciples: Peter and Judas. We know so little about their upbringing and background. How were they raised? What did they value? What did they need? Why were they attracted to follow Jesus? And why, among the multitude of his followers, did Jesus choose the two of them to be in his closest circle? We know from so many stories in the Gospels that Jesus was a shrewd and intuitive judge of character. What did Jesus see as so special in Peter and Judas? Were they charismatic? Were they eloquent? Were they passionate or articulate or extremely bright? Were they, like Jesus, riled by hypocrisy and injustice? Did they have a whimsical sense of humor, a hearty appetite, nerves of steel, the wisdom of a serpent, the innocence of a dove, a love for children, a certain way with the erudite or with the poor? They must have been very impressive, both of them. Was Peter called “the rock” because he was stubborn or because he was strong? Maybe both. Was it because Judas was so responsible, so accountable that he became the disciples’ treasurer, was entrusted with so much among those who had so little, having given up all to follow Jesus? We don’t know. Surely Judas was a very special person, especially wonderful, to have a place so near to Jesus’ own heart. Surely the kiss of betrayal was not the first time he had expressed his closeness to Jesus.
So what happened? However similar, however different they are to one another, they end up in the same place: both of them in the Garden of Gethsemane, and both of them, to their own horror and to others’, they became betrayers. What, ultimately, is the difference between Judas, remembered for his deception, and his friend Peter, remembered for his sainthood? I suspect they had so much in common… except for one little thing. For reasons which we do not know, following the crucifixion Judas was precipitous; Peter was not. Judas takes his own life; Peter is given his life back by Jesus’ gift of forgiveness. And on that forgiveness Jesus uses Peter to build his church.
When Jesus cries out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” Jesus is making the plea of a lifetime. He’s imploring God’s forgiveness, not just for those who had a role in his crucifixion… which was most everyone. Jesus was speaking for the entire human race: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”1 Does anyone ever fully know what they are doing, for sure, absolutely? The tragedy in the Garden of Gethsemane mirrors the tragedy in the Garden of Eden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is something ultimately that only God can bear. Only God knows all. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as a wrong, nor am I implying that evil does not exist, nor do I believe that the only response to a perceived wrong is passive resistance or silence, nor am I saying that justice does not matter. But I am saying that behind the most heinous of actions is a person who cannot know fully what they are doing or why. If they could, I think it would be otherwise. And I am saying that from Jesus’ perspective on the cross, this person needs to be forgiven. What Jesus is up to on the cross is forgiveness, his arms opened wide for all, whether or not they ask for it, whether they be friend or neighbor or enemy.
The etymological root to our verb “forgive” comes from the Old English word forgiefan: to give or grant completely. Which is to say that forgiveness comes as a gift and not as a right, nor as a condition. The metaphor that Jesus uses in the Gospels to describe forgiveness is the setting free of a prisoner; it’s to “unbind” someone.2 Without this kind of liberation, someone is simply chained to their past – probably to repeat their past – and shackled from changing. They will likely stay the same, as will we, their judges. Jesus’ first words of his public ministry are about forgiveness and his last words from the cross are about forgiveness. The Gospel begins and ends with forgiveness, and in between, Jesus seems to talk almost incessantly about forgiveness. That if we choose to follow him, we will be shared, not spared, but shared the need to forgive and to be forgiven. How many times? Oh, seventy times seven: an infinite number of times, each person, and in the most profound and petty of ways, an infinite number of times.3 Which is to say that life will likely be that offensive, that disappointing to us. You can count on it, and might as well. The posture of forgiveness is the Christian’s distinctive gift.4
In a moment we will pray in the Solemn Collects, “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection… through Jesus Christ our Lord.”5 The miracle of Jesus Christ’s Gospel is that people can change, and change for the better. Much better. Radically better. The only way the people of our world – our corner of the world – will understand that God knows them, loves them, and forgives them their offenses will likely be through us: what we say and do. We will make Jesus really present others, Jesus who loves us and liberates us. We are – all of us – are who St. Paul calls “ambassadors for Christ.”6 All of us here are Jesus’ followers, except when we’ve strayed off the path, and need to be rescued again by Jesus. We may well be able to relate to Judas or Peter or both. And Jesus knows it.
The poet Luci Shaw writes:
because we are all
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask each again
do you love me7
4 The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said: “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 man. 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.”
7 “Judas, Peter” by Luci Shaw in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation. The poem makes reference to Jesus’ encounter with Peter following the crucifixion and resurrection, recorded in John 21:15-19: “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs. A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep. He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep…’ After this [Jesus] said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
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