Risen. Renewed: Forgiveness - Rev. Louis Timberlake

Risen. Renewed: Forgiveness
John 21:1-19
Rev. Louis Timberlake
April 10, 2016

So, I’m going to backtrack this morning. And I mean, way back. In the beginning of the scriptures, in the third chapter of Genesis, there is this story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Many of you know the story. They live in this wonderful garden, they have all they need, they have an intimate relationship with God. The only stipulation is that they cannot eat from one tree. As the story goes, the serpent convinces Eve to disregard that warning and she convinces Adam to do the same. And it goes downhill from there. It completely throws their relationships with God, with Creation, and with each other out of harmony. Now, why this rule existed in the first place and exactly what they violated when they disregarded it--that’s another topic. However, what is interesting is their response. They hear God in the Garden and, in the midst of their shame and the realization of their nakedness, their response is to hide and cover themselves. We have been doing the same ever since.

This isn't a story about why we wear clothes, whereas other creatures do not. It is a story about the human capacity for shame and guilt, which drives us to hide and cover ourselves. There are things about us that we are fearful to let see the light of day. We put everything we have into constructing these masks, these images of what we think we should be, what we think we ought to to project, so that people do not see the cracks under the surface. At times, we even convince ourselves that they don’t exist. 

Peter does this, earlier in John’s Gospel, when Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. Peter responds, “I would never deny you. I would lay down my life for you.” But Jesus sees through the mask. Even when Peter cannot see or acknowledge his own fear and fragility, Jesus recognizes the cracks in the veneer.

You see, somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves and each other that it’s not ok to vulnerable, to show our imperfections. We’ve decided that it’s not ok to reveal our true selves. To share our fears, along with our hopes. Our weakness, along with our strength. Our failings, along with our wins.

It takes a lot out of us to maintain the images we project. To hide our faults. And, if we let the mask slip, the imperfections that are revealed bring with them feelings of shame and failure. That’s a struggle for us, isn’t it? No one wants to feel like a failure. So often our sense of worth is tied up in how we answer, “What do I have to show for my life?” or “What do people see when they look at me?” Why is worth so often about results or perception, rather than being something inherent? Why do we feel that our worth as individuals is based upon how we see ourselves or how others see us?

Don’t you see this in Peter? In his eyes, he has utterly failed. When things got difficult, when things seemed hopeless, he folded. And, the worst part about it is that Jesus told him he would. Jesus said, “you’re going to deny me,” and Peter said, “I will die for you before that happens.” But, even with this warning, Peter collapses under pressure.

You know, it’s interesting, while Peter goes to see the empty tomb the morning of Easter, we don’t get anything else about him, post-Easter, until this passage. By this point, Jesus has appeared to the disciples twice. Death has been conquered, and this movement is back on. You know that the disciples are raring to go. So, how does Peter respond? “I’m going fishing.”

You remember how Peter started this journey, don’t you? In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter and his brother, Andrew, were fishing. They were fishermen. Until this strange man came to them and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” They drop their nets and followed him, never looking back. So, it is significant that Peter goes fishing. It is significant that he goes back to what he knew in his previous life. It is significant because, in Peter’s eyes, he was no longer worthy of fishing for people. He is a failure. He didn’t live up to his own standard. So, he goes back to the nets. He goes back to what he once was. And there, for the second time, Jesus calls him.

In the story, they’re having an awful time. They aren’t catching anything. Until a strange man shows up on the shore–again. Finally, they realize that it’s Jesus. Peter’s reaction is fantastic. It says, “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.”

Now, this is important. If you hear nothing else, hear this. The moral of this passage is that fishing naked is biblical. Like, we should all get shirts that say, “True disciples fish naked.”

But, did something sound familiar? Remember that passage from Genesis?

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

Peter’s response is to cloth himself, for he realizes he is naked.

Our base tendency is to cover ourselves. To not reveal what is under the surface. To not show our true selves. Even at this point, Peter cannot bear his shame. He runs to Jesus with such enthusiasm that he can’t even wait for the boat to make it to shore. He jumps in the water and swims. But, he covers himself first. In his eyes, he is still a failure. He is still not worthy.

A while back, I listened to a podcast interview with Rob Bell. He talked about how church exists to remind us who we are. To remind us of what it means to be human, in light of the gospel of Christ. To remind us that our failures and our shortcomings are not the final answer.

The role of the church involves calling people to understand who they truly are in Christ, not just who they think they are. We tend to focus on our failures and our shortcomings. I find it so much easier to remember those times I’ve messed up than to remember those times I’ve done well. But, the gospel tells us that our identity is not found in our failures, but in Christ and in the forgiveness and new life that He offers.

In the interview, Rob talked about parenting his kids. When his son would leave dirty, smelly gyms cloths in a bag over the weekend, it would be so easy to respond, “That’s disgusting. Why did you do that? What is wrong with you?” The problem with that response is that it anchors his son’s identity in his failure. “What is wrong with you?” But, the gospel response, the response that Christ offers us, in the midst of our failures is, “You’re better than that. Your identity is based on somethings greater than your mistakes. You are better than that.”

Christ invites us to be who we truly are. Not a people defined by our failures and shortcomings, but by the grace of God. A people who are better than our perception of ourselves. A people who were created in the image of God and in whom that image is renewed by the Risen Christ.

At the end of this passage, we get this exchange between Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks, three times, “Do you love me.” Now, some people think that these three asks are connected to Peter’s three denials and there’s likely some truth to that. But, I think it’s also because one time just isn’t enough. Peter is still caught up in his mistakes. He still sees himself as unworthy, as a failure. So, Jesus is calling him to remember who he is, to remember that his identity is not defined by his failures, but by the love and grace of God.

So, he asks, “do you love me?” Because that’s enough. If you love me, then it doesn’t matter what you’ve done or not done. You are forgiven. You are worthy. And, you have a part in this story. So, if you love me, “feed my lambs.” Go play your part.

And, I think that Jesus asks this and responds multiple times because we need to hear it multiple times. “Yes, you have messed up, but I love you. Go and be who I have created you to be.”

“No, seriously. You are forgiven. Now go.”

“I mean it. You are loved. Go.”

We are not defined by our failures, we are defined by Christ. And He says that our worth doesn’t change. He reminds us that we are better than our failures. So, let us go and be better. Amen.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you ever feel that you need to project an image, to mask your true self?
  • Why is it so difficult to be vulnerable? Why do we have this tendency to want to cover ourselves?
  • When is this good and helpful? When does it become harmful?
  • What does it mean to find your identity and worth in Christ? What helps you to do this?
  • How does Christ’s question (“Do you love me?”) and call (“Feed my sheep.”) speak to you? Do you ever need to hear this multiple times?