Forgiving and Forgiven

April 15, 2007

John 21, 1-19

It’s bad enough being asked a personal question when you’re stood in front of lots of people who are listening out for your answer. But when the question is repeated a second time – and then a third time – you begin to think you must have something wrong. Did you not hear correctly? How can the answer you gave have been wrong? What on earth is going on?

No wonder Peter felt sad and confused when he sat by the Sea of Galilee eating breakfast with the disciples and their Risen Lord and was asked three times “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”.

We know that Jesus did not usually deliberately humiliate people in public. So why did he ask this question and repeat it three times?

What is going on here is a visible demonstration of The Atonement – the reconciliation between God and the human race which our faith says was brought about by Christ’s death on the cross. What is happening here happens each time we repent of what we have done wrong, and receive forgiveness.

The Old Testament shows us a God who is long-suffering, who is patient, and, no matter how many times people turn away, is always ready to forgive and start the relationship again. But it also shows us a God who will not force repentance on the human race – they always have the option to ignore God’s offer of reconciliation.

In Jesus Christ we see God’s love and forgiveness lived out in a human life. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself – undeservedly – the sin and evil and wrong of human life. He was betrayed by someone he trusted, deserted by those to whom he was closest, traduced by those who shared his faith, abandoned by those who had feted him shortly before. He was stripped of freedom, of human dignity, of his own clothing. He was imprisoned, questioned, tortured, unjustly condemned and killed in the most painful and cruel way.

Yet he did not retaliate. He took into himself all the hurt and pain and evil, and continued to love those who were inflicting it. Even as he died, he asked forgiveness for those who had contributed to his death. And after his resurrection he continued to show that same love and forgiveness – a love and forgiveness that were truly divine.

Human forgiveness is rarely that complete. Even the most generous of us finds it hard to forget wrong done to us; we hold on to the memory, even when we think we have forgiven the perpetrator, because it gives us the feeling that we are more righteous than the other.

Forgiving is immensely costly. The person who forgives does not escape the shock, the pain, the hurt of the wrong done. But by absorbing it into themselves without retaliating, they turn what is evil into good. It can only be done when someone is prepared to put their own feelings aside, and let the needs of the other person come first. Forgiving also restores the relationship – and so leaves the forgiver vulnerable to being hurt again – perhaps in exactly the same way. Only being filled completely with the endless, unconditional love of God enables a person to act in that way.

But being forgiven is also costly. It demands that we meet a person we have wronged. It demands that we acknowledge, if only to ourselves, the wrong we have done; and it demands that we change, and we may not want to do that. Being forgiven brings us to a situation where we have to go through death and resurrection – the person we were, the person who hurt – needs to die in order that we can start again. For some people, this may be extremely difficult. Our sin and failure are often so deeply ingrained in our character that our deepest self has been built around it. Accepting forgiveness can rip that old self apart, and leave us lost for a time while we get used to living with the new forgiven self.

Being forgiven by God gives us freedom – freedom from the past and freedom to begin again, freedom to be our true selves, the person God created us to be. And freedom can be frightening. God’s forgiveness brings home to us that God accepts us just as we are for what we are, not what we do or don’t do. God loves us just as much when we are bad as when we are good – and nothing we do can make God love us more. His love and forgiveness are ours by grace – we do not earn it. So the choice of how to live our lives is ours – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Being forgiven also brings demands on us – to live as people who are forgiven and accepted by God – and that means we have to become forgiving and accepting – and so vulnerable ourselves. Accepting God’s forgiveness changes us from the old Adam (and Eve!) who were blame passers – “the woman tempted me and I did eat”, “the snake tricked me and I ate” – into the new Adam – who are blame bearers, just as Christ was: “ Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin” (2 Cor. 5).
This is the spiritual drama that was being played out on the shore of Lake Galilee between Jesus and Peter.

As they ate breakfast, as Jesus served and fed his disciples, there must have been an awkwardness between Peter and his Lord, caused the memory of Peter’s denial in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house.

It is probable that none of the others knew about it. Jesus had no intention of shaming Peter by revealing what he had said – but he needed to give Peter the opportunity to repent in full of what he had done.

So, he didn’t upbraid him for his betrayal or his cowardice; he simply asked him to declare his love – three times, to mirror the three denials. It was a risk – Peter had declared at the Last Supper that he would never desert his Master – but when the crisis came, his desire to save his skin had been more important to him than his relationship with Christ. Even now, he could retreat from the relationship again, and refuse to accept the offered forgiveness.

It was also possible that he had not been changed by the experience, that the old boastful Peter was still in charge. After all, after Christ’s death, he had gone back to his old life, fishing on Galilee. Would he be prepared to return to the service of Christ, knowing the risks? So, the first question:” Do you love me more than these?’ was an opportunity for the old Peter to respond, “Yes, I love you ten times more than any of them”. But it was a new humbled Peter who responded: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And as the question was repeated, and repeated, and Peter affirmed his devotion to Jesus, the threefold denial before the cock crew was wiped away, and the new Peter was born.

At that moment Peter knew that God does not judge us by what we do, but by who we are – and we are always Christ’s brothers and sisters, God’s beloved children. Then came another invitation – not a command, because God does not command, only asks. “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs”. Feed them with the Good News that they are already accepted and forgiven by God, feed them with the continuous acceptance and forgiveness that Christ showed us, feed them with the unconditional love and vulnerability that Jesus demonstrated, feed them with the invitation to begin to enjoy the eternal life that was opened to us by Christ’s death on the cross.

And finally, there is another invitation: “Follow me”. Follow me in fishing for people, in service, in evangelism. Follow me in becoming an accepting and forgiving person, follow me in taking the pain and sin of the world onto your shoulders, follow me in the way that leads to the Cross.

We are used to being told that the Last Supper was the institution of a sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Communion. Perhaps we can also see in this ‘Last Breakfast’ the institution of another sacrament, the sacrament of Reconciliation, in which we are offered and accept in repentance the forgiveness of God for all the ways in which we fall short of what God wants us to be – a sacrament which we need to return to again and again as we try to live out Christ’s invitation – to Peter and to us – ‘Follow me”.