Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 11, 2016
Taken from John 21:15-25
Do most of you have Facebook accounts? Show of hands? Karen and I got Facebook accounts when our kids, Thomas and Emily, went off to college, our thought being, “What a great way to keep up with them!” So, Thomas and Emily faced that horrifying moment when they realized Mom and Dad had just sent them a friend request.
A few weeks went by in our new venture with “the Facebook” when I myself started getting friend requests. What amazed me was that these were my high school classmates, most of whom I had not seen since that day we had graduated together way back in June of 1973. Somehow, through the magic of Facebook wizards, they had tracked me down and wanted to get back in touch.
I looked at their profile pictures and I thought, “My goodness…what happened to you people?! You look…old…I mean, like really, really old…like, grandparent old, some of them! Then, what came next was really disturbing: they hadn’t seen me in several decades either. What if I look as old to them as they look to me?
Now, that will mess with your head. That will send you running to look in the bathroom mirror…could it be true?
Of course, there really is only one good way to avoid that shock to the psyche, other than just staying in hiding: which would have been for me to have stayed in touch with these friends across the decades. As we went through our own early years, as we stumbled around through our 20s trying to figure out what we really were going to be when we grew up and romances and failures and marriages and children getting born and all the rest.
Then they wouldn’t be these “old people” who suddenly appeared out the blue onto my computer screen. They would simply be friends whom I had just seen the other day or the other week. They would all be current friends, and we would have real-time relationships.
Which is true for us with God. In matters of the soul, it’s all about sustaining a real-time, present relationship with the Divine, as in any other personal relationship. We know that.
We all have ways of experiencing God: the ocean or the mountains, for example. We could go through an endless cataloguing of all in this vast universe that may speak to us of God. But, surprisingly, somehow, at some time, we came upon God’s own Self, because God desired that meeting with us. God desires to have that which is most personal and most intimate with us. For us as Christians, this is the Gospel taught and lived in Jesus of Nazareth, over 2,000 years ago, and that continues in this present moment of our lives.
Jesus’ first followers discovered the truth of that Divine encounter when Jesus first met them by the Sea of Galilee. Among them were Peter and John. It is these same two, Peter and John, to whom Jesus goes on this day which our Gospel reading this morning describes. Much as Jesus first called Peter and John those few years ago by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus once again, by that very same Sea, calls out to them to come follow him.
But, with this difference: a lot of water has gone under the bridge and over the dam. The call continued to be the same, yes, but neither Peter nor John were the same men whom Jesus first encountered by that Sea. They have aged far more than the passing of a few years might suggest for them.
Consider what has happened as Jesus comes to them now. Jesus is coming to restore them as his followers, but restoration implies that something has happened, doesn’t it? Restoration implies that something broken that requires mending. Peter and John require mending because they have suffered a great violence, and they have sustained deep wounds because of following Jesus.
There’s all kinds of violence that we may experience. There’s physical violence, of course. When we suffer physical violence, we know it, don’t we? We usually have a pretty good idea about how the violence came upon us. Whether it was intentional or accidental: it usually comes by way of another person.
There’s what we might call unanswerable violence. It’s usually physical but there’s no apparent culprit who we can pin it on. There’s no conceivable rationale for it. A lot of the time we just end up saying of unanswerable violence, well, it was an “act of God”, or, well, “God had His reasons.”
Then, there’s a third kind of violence, which we might call “psychic violence”, but which I do not mean palm reading or clairvoyance. I mean violence inflicted upon the human psyche…our minds, our emotions, our souls. As with all violence, psychic violence may be sudden or it may be gradual and chronic. Sometimes we know its source, but often psychic violence confounds us. We can’t say how or why this came, but we know, we have suffered wounds and we bear scars.
Peter and John have suffered violence in these few years they have followed Jesus. Sometimes we say, “No good deed goes unpunished!”? So true for Peter and John. All they’ve done is follow a man who taught a message of love and compassion and hope and healed people…what could possibly go wrong with that? Who could possible punish people for doing that?
Peter and John never saw it coming. In these recent weeks, they and the others have just barely escaped an early and cruel death, but Jesus was not as fortunate. They got Jesus, and they crucified him.
The “they” in this case, were Peter and John’s own religious authorities, of all people! The folks who were supposed to be leaders of all things godly and good; it was they who had conspired with the local Roman ruler. The High Priest and the Roman Governor had gone back and forth but finally decided it would really be best for all concerned if they went ahead and killed Jesus and then got on with life.
So, they arrested Jesus, ran him through a series of show trials, and then they executed him. That’s some brutal physical violence, and at this point at least, it was unanswerable violence. It most definitely was profound psychic violence, for which Peter and John and the other followers of Jesus were totally unprepared.
What they were most unprepared for though, was this: Jesus did nothing to stop it. He didn’t try to escape even though he knew by supper time earlier that night that somebody had betrayed him. He didn’t put up a fight when the temple soldiers came to arrest him. He just let it happen.
How could Jesus do that to Peter and John? How could Jesus be so reckless, putting himself and his closest followers in danger that way? If he didn’t care enough to put up a fight, if he didn’t at least have the good sense to run away and come back to fight another day, then why should they care anymore?
So deeply wounded were Peter and John and the others, that even after God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus had appeared to them on that third day, and all the Happy Easter hoopla, they still labored under this burden: the close-call with physical violence; the unanswerable nature of it; the deep psychic shock in them. They would be cautious to take up with Jesus, even with a Risen Jesus this time around.
You know, no rope I’ve ever seen was made up of a single strand of fiber. Ropes are woven of many strands, all inter-twined. You start pulling out one strand, you’re going to have deal with the others, too.
I’ve talked about three kinds of violence and the injuries they cause us as though they’re three separate strands in our lives, hanging off in isolation from each other. We know that’s not true. It’s real plain to us that physical and unanswerable violence inflict violence on our psyches.
What’s not so plain is how psychic injury affects us physically. But, we are of a whole piece of human cloth all woven in intricate ways in body, mind, heart, and soul. If I were really mischievous, I would illustrate my point by telling you about how I stepped into a nest of chiggers while hiking in the woods back in June.
If I were mischievous, I would describe how I got home and later that night started feeling distinct spots of intense itching. I would tell you about how I examined my legs and waist and suddenly spotted those little buggers digging under my skin. And I would guess that about then, many of us would literally discover ourselves itching and so much wanting to scratch. But, I wouldn’t do such a thing to you folks, but consider how what is in the mind finds its way out into the body.
Patiently, Jesus comes again and again and again to Peter, John, and the others. As he’d first met them by the Sea of Galilee, he meets them once again. He’s prepares a meal to share with them, as he’d shared so many meals with them, right up to that last supper just before he was arrested. Jesus speaks to Peter first.
Three times, Jesus allows Peter to profess his love for Jesus. Persistently, Jesus asks, do you love me? With equal persistence, Peter says, yes, Lord, I love you. It’s as if Jesus is allowing Peter to erase one by one by one those three curses which Peter had shamefully denounced against Jesus only days before. Jesus, of course, is restoring Peter.
That’s what we need to understand: violence is about us and life on this earth, restoration is about God and the life God desires for us on this earth. We commit violence against one another, whether intentional or accidental. Unanswerable violence comes: that is its own particular horror. That psychic violence…it’s all of us, we who inflict it and we who suffer from it. We receive violence, and we mete it out; we bear wounds, and we wound others right back. We do it in our homes. We do it at work. We do it in church.
But, restoration…that’s what God is all about, and restoration is what God want us as God’s people to be about with God in this world. The root meaning of the word “salvation” is healing. God is all about healing us and healing this earth. God begins within and keeps on working healing outwards. No, it will not be complete in this present realm of space and time, but it sure can started and even get pretty far along in even the worst places and worst moments of this life.
This is Jesus, the sacred healer who walked among his fellow Jews in ancient Palestine. Jesus, himself healed three days after receiving wounds which killed him. Jesus, who lives within us and among us, this Jesus who comes again and again and again, to restore us to himself and to God.
By verse 20, Peter finally perks up, all good to go it seems, ready to take up with following Jesus, when Peter notices John following off a ways behind them. Jesus has had nothing to say to John. No three-fold interrogation…do you love me, do you love me, do you love me? No instructions issued to John as with Peter. Not even the command, “Follow me”, does Jesus give to John.
What’s up with that? Peter wonders. In verse 20, Peter looks back at John, and then Peter looks at Jesus, and says, “Uh, Lord, what’s up with John? You got something you need to say to him? Hmm?”
Jesus replies in verse 22. Verse 23 repeats it just to make sure we hear it right along with Peter. Jesus answers Peter, “What’s it to you, Peter? That’s between him and me. You know what I want of you, though, don’t you? Come follow me!”
That’s a mistake we Christians so often make. We might assume that our experience of Jesus is what somebody else’s experience of Jesus must be, too. That may be what Peter is saying, and Jesus is vetoing.
Or, conversely—and what’s more likely—we may think that because someone else’s experience of Jesus is different than ours, then their experience must be better and more correct than ours, so we discount our own way of knowing the Lord.
That has always been the constant bugaboo in my own spiritual experience. There have always been some other Christians whom I’ve admired and looked up to and to whom I’ve deferred because I was experiencing God somewhat differently at the time.
When I was 26 years old and getting ready to go to seminary, I came across a book with such a silly title that I almost didn’t bother getting it off the shelf. The title was, On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style. The cover illustration was a cartoon bear, with gossamer wings coming out of its back, flying over a field of flowers and playing a toy drum. Very odd.
But, I went for it and began reading it, and it truly began to speak to me, about prayer and contemplation and the long tradition of Christian mysticism. Nothing I’d grown up knowing about, so somewhat odd but interesting.
Well, in my church was a married couple about my age. They were good friends whom I really looked up to as spiritual mentors. They had invited me over to their house for dinner about that time. And, at some point after dinner I began telling the woman about this book.
And she looked at me with this stunned look on her face that I can still see, and she said, “oh, Gary, you don’t really believe that about God, do you?” I answer, “Oh, no, of course not!” So, I went home that night and put the Musical, Mystical Bear book on my shelf, never opened again and eventually lost it.
Over the years, there were other books that reach out to me in similar ways. When I was in my mid-forties, one such book was by a Catholic theologian named Matthew Fox, called Original Blessing. It’s a book I came back to as I moved through my fifties, and is probably a significant part of why I continue as a follower of Christ today.
A little over a month ago, I read that Mathew Fox had published his autobiography, so I ordered it and it’s what I’m reading right now. I reached the part where Fox talks about writing his doctoral dissertation and then how he eventually found a publisher for it. So, young Matthew Fox published his very first book. Care to guess what its title was? On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style. Ouch.
What God perhaps was trying to start in me when I was 26, I deferred from another two decades. All because I deferred to someone else who in effect said to me what Peter was saying to Jesus about John: Lord, what you’re doing now with me…certainly, that’s what you want for John, too, isn’t it? Jesus tells Peter, you let me and John work out what’s right for John following me. As for you, you follow me!
None of us escapes unscathed in this life, neither in body, mind, or soul. But, we know this hope, don’t we? God welcomes us into God’s own Divine Presence within us. God’s healing Spirit always works at restoring us, and it is always a work in progress. It’s a work that requires us to participate with God, as real-time, real-life disciples of the Lord Jesus.
How that gets literally fleshed out in you or in me does not have to look the same. We are not meant to defer to one another in ways that delay our spiritual progress. Most certainly, we are not meant to suppress one another as Peter seemed to be angling to do with John.
We encourage one another. We share of our testimonies of our own experiences with one another. Most importantly, we help one another learn how to listen to the Lord’s leading in each of our lives. We help one another, and we help this world, find that sacred restoration which is of God.