Monday, April 23, 2012

God Speaking: Like Freedom

Preached on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 51:1-17; John 21:15-25

At the end of the Gospel of John, the disciples finished their breakfast with Jesus on the beach on the Sea of Galilee. After the meal was over, Jesus and Peter seem to have gone off together, and Jesus started asking Peter a question.

It was a shocking question, and Jesus asked it in a shocking way. And he would not stop asking it. Peter said “yes” to the question, but we see that it must not have been a very satisfactory “yes”. It must have been a reluctant “yes”, and Jesus would not accept that “yes” for an answer.

Jesus did repetitions that made his question hurt. The repetitions of Jesus made Peter hurt, and we wonder where that desire to hurt came from?

The repetitions of Jesus were like the repetitions of a physical therapist working with a patient. When a physical therapist works with an injured patient, or with a patient who needs to recover strength from an illness, or from the effects of a surgery, there are exercises to be done. There are exercises that reverse the damage of an injury. There are exercises that build on the healing of the work that the doctors have done to repair bones, and joints and muscles, and tendons. These exercises are repeated over and over, even though they cause a lot of weariness, frustration, and pain. The repetitions are therapy. They are healing. They are a gift to be thankful for.

After breakfast on the beach at Galilee, we find Jesus giving a gift to Peter; giving Peter the healing therapy that Peter had not asked for. Peter desperately needed something from Jesus, but he had not asked for it. It was the same gift that King David had desperately needed from God; and David begged and begged God passionately for that healing gift. We see this in David’s desperate prayer in Psalm 51.

The gift that Peter did not ask for (the gift that David begged for) was the gift of forgiveness. The actual word “forgiveness” is not used in either place. But the repetitions of David’s request; and the history of Peter experience of the trial of Jesus; show us that forgiveness is what was needed, more than anything else in their lives.

The same thing is true of us, as well. For us, forgiveness is what is needed, more than anything else in our lives. Forgiveness is the healing that will set us free. But we need to know what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness is more than words. You know this, when another person asks you for forgiveness, or when you are afraid they want it. Forgiveness is not a simple thing.

We tend to forgive others by making excuses for them. We forgive them because we know they had some reason, or some weakness, or some struggle that they were dealing with; but forgiveness is not about that at all. And where there is no excuse for what someone has done, it just about kills us to forgive.

If we forgive another person, we have to give something. We have to give something up; a piece of ourselves, or a right to claim something for ourselves or for others.

Actually forgiveness is something God has to do, and only God can do. The rabbis and the Pharisees were right to be outraged when Jesus forgave a person’s sins. There was a paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12) and, instead of saying “Be healed,” Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus’ point was that he can do (by virtue of who he is) what only God can do.

Jesus is the forgiveness of God and this is a part of what Jesus does in the work of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not overlooking sin, or wrong-doing, or evil. Forgiveness is the reconstruction of reality. It is the creation of a new reality by removing something offensive from the picture of another persons’ life, or from your own life.

King David’s problem was that he could not get rid of what he had done. David had done a detestable, despicable thing that was an offense against innocent lives, against the trust of his people, against his own self-respect, against all that is decent and sacred, against God himself.

David had committed adultery with the wife of one of his most trusted officers. To cover up his sin, he engineered the death of this officer by giving orders to his general to get this officer to the front of battle and withdraw in a way to leave the man stranded behind enemy lines and be killed by the enemy. David involved others in his sin, his lie, his cover-up, and in the death of the innocent man, the man who was wronged in the first place.

David saw his true self and could not face what he saw. He could no longer hold his head up. David was an outrage to himself. He could not shake what he had done, and he would never forget it. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:3)

David needed God to reach into his life, his heart, his mind, and change what was there. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:1-3)

David prayed, “Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean.” (Psalm 51:7) This takes us back to the feast of the Passover; where the blood of the sacrificial Passover lamb was dabbed on the doorways of the people’s houses so that the angel of death would pass over them. It was the sign that a death had been died (the death of the lamb) that marked them as people who had been forgiven. So they were spared. They were free.

It was a branch of the hyssop plant that was used to mark the houses with the blood of the Passover. David asked for his own Passover. He prayed that God would mark him with the sign of forgiveness; and that the death he deserved would pass over him and he would be set free.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus is the lamb who shed his blood to take away our sin and free us from the death that comes from sin. Jesus is the forgiveness of God. Jesus is God forgiving us.

The blood of Jesus removes our sins from the equation of who we are in the sight of God. The blood of Jesus declares that a price we could never pay, to be free from our sins, has been paid for us.

David’s prayer was that God would, “Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10-12)

The answer to that prayer was that, in the centuries to come, Jesus would enter the world as the lamb of God and make a new creation in the heart of anyone who trusts in the Lord for forgiveness. Just as the Holy Spirit breathed life into the creation in the beginning of time, so the Holy Spirit will breathe the new life of God into us. Our hearts become new. We have a new freedom.

When our hearts are new, when they are pure, we become simple and uncomplicated, and we only want one thing. We want what God wants. Our spirits are willing to do what God wills. This is a great gift. We receive a freedom we could never have given ourselves.

Peter was in the same situation as David, because he had become an outrage and an offense to himself. He knew what he was capable of, and he knew he was capable of betraying Jesus.

He had done it. Peter had denied Jesus three times. He denied knowing Jesus. He denied belonging to Jesus. (John 18:15-18; 25-27) Peter could not free himself from what he had done, and he would never be free of it. I don’t think that Peter believed that he was even worthy of asking Jesus for forgiveness.

So Jesus showed amazing independence that comes from being who he is: the forgiveness of God. Only God forgives sins, and we forgive others because we know that he has paid an infinite price to take away the sin of the world. But Jesus forgave Peter without being asked. This is what the forgiveness of God is like. This is what we believe in.

Peter denied three times that he belonged to Jesus, so Jesus put him through the repetitions that would heal the injury of his sin and shame. “Peter, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15)

We need to know that Peter had claimed that he loved Jesus more than any of the other disciples did. Peter had promised that he loved Jesus so much that he would go with him, and die with him. (John 13:37; Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29)

Peter couldn’t say this (or brag this) anymore. Jesus put him through the repetitions until they hurt. And Jesus asked Peter if he “truly loved” him.

There is more than one Greek word for love. The question and answer repetitions between Jesus and Peter play on these words. The “truly love” of Jesus’ question (in the New International Version) refers to a love that will deny itself and give of itself sacrificially.

Peter would be a liar if he claimed to love Jesus nearly so well. Peter’s answer was to lay claim to a much humbler kind of love. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 12:15)

This is a different kind of love; a different level of love, a love with a lower profile. It is not the love that denies itself and gives itself sacrificially. It is the love we call brotherly love, but this also includes the love called “belonging”. It is a belonging love.

Peter didn’t claim to love Jesus with a love like the love shown on the cross. Peter claimed only to love Jesus as someone who belonged to him. It hurt to not love Jesus the way Jesus deserved to be loved.

Then Jesus used Peter’s humbler kind of love. He didn’t use the “truly love” for Peter. “Peter, do you love me like a brother? Will you love me as if I belonged to you and you belonged to me?” It hurt Peter to think that Jesus was settling for a lower kind of love than the love he deserved.

How could Peter rise above his failure? He knew he could promise nothing more than this. “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you not sacrificially as you deserve, but as one who simply belongs to you and nothing more.” (John 21:17)

Then Jesus made a mysterious prediction that when Peter was old he would be dressed and taken where he didn’t want to go, and his hands, his arms, would be stretched out. And, in this way, John tells us that Jesus predicted that Peter would be crucified for him. Peter would grow to love Jesus with a sacrificial love.

Jesus took Peter’s failure, Peter’s outrage, away. Jesus took it out of the equation. Jesus washed that sin away. Jesus did not remove the past, but he removed the burden of the past. He removed the past as an obstacle to the future. He said, in essence, “Your sin does not always have to be before you. You sin does not always have to be in front of you.” Jesus set Peter free from his sin.

Jesus said, in essence, “You can love me as much as you can love me and feed my sheep.” It would be like Jesus saying to you, “You can give me less than I deserve, and I will still give you more than you can ever deserve.”

But it really isn’t a matter of what we deserve, at all. Peter loved Jesus with a love that said he belonged to Jesus. The truth is that Peter did belong to Jesus, no matter how badly he had failed. It is the fact that we belong to Jesus, and that we belong to his forgiveness, that gives us a gift worth giving to others.

Serving Jesus has nothing to do with knowing what you have to give. Serving Jesus has nothing to do with knowing that you have anything special to give. When you do nothing but belong, and when you know that belonging is a gift, it is then that you have everything you need to serve.

You belong because you know that Jesus loves you. You are claimed, and there is a calling to you, in Jesus, that claims you completely. You don’t dare object to that. You just go ahead and feed his sheep because you belong to him.

Jesus has given you his sheep, just as he gave them to Peter. You have the sheep of Jesus to feed. Who are they?

You are one of those sheep. Who are you and where have you been? That tells you a lot about who they are.

They might not even know they are the sheep of Jesus yet. They might not know who Jesus is, or what Jesus means. Yet they are the people of Jesus. They are his sheep.

They include the people who do know him. They include the people who live, and worship, and work together as his church, his body.

Even some of these people may not completely know what Jesus wants them to know about belonging to him. The truth is that a lot of us don’t know who we really are. How can we really know what it means for us to be his sheep? Jesus wants us to see them as the sheep of Jesus. Take care of them just as you want to be taken care of.

You will find that many of Jesus’ sheep have devoted themselves to feeding his sheep. That is what they are bred to do, just like you.

At any rate, those sheep might not know who you are! You have to talk to those sheep, and look into their eyes and into their souls as well as you can. You have to take care of them, even if they don’t think that’s your job; because they don’t know who you are. They don’t know that you are a feeder of the sheep. They don’t know that you belong to Jesus.

How do you feed Jesus’ sheep? You just see what they need and do it. That’s all.

And then you have to remember that Jesus is the true shepherd. Jesus is the Good shepherd. (John 10:11) We are only helpers. We are under-shepherds of the good shepherd.

If we thought about this, we would realize that this is a good job for us. It is much better than we deserve. It is a huge honor.

We are like people who are in need of physical therapy, only the therapy we need is spiritual. Physical therapy makes people who can’t walk free to walk, and people who can’t work free to work, and people who can’t take care of themselves free to make themselves at home in their real home. The therapy of Jesus gives us freedom to walk, and work, and live together in the presence of Jesus.

Jesus gives us freedom in the forgiveness of our sin. Sin is disabling in a way that only those who truly know their sins can understand. The forgiveness of our sins makes it possible to live in ways that can only be understood by those who have been changed by that forgiveness.

The love of Jesus who died for us takes us to a new place where our old failures and burdens no longer tell the story of our lives. The love of Jesus tells our story. Our story is how we learn the love of Jesus and how we live a new life because of it.

Sometimes it may be painful to learn that new life, and it may take practice and countless repetitions. Like any good therapist, Jesus can do those repetitions with us longer than we think we can bear them.

Jesus sent Peter into the world with the healing of the forgiveness of his sins. There was a time when Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” And then he said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36)

Jesus does his repetitions with us because he died for us and he chooses to make us belong to him. He makes us answer him until we learn to surrender to his love, because he knows all things and knows that we love him.

The only holiness that makes a church fit to serve the mission of God is the holiness of knowing our sin and knowing his forgiveness. The freedom of giving this world the love of God only comes from the freedom that we have from being forgiven by God in Christ.

It is the healing of forgiveness that gives you something to give. It is the healing of forgiveness that sets you free to follow Jesus when he says, “Follow me.”

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