Forgiveness and Service

I have long said that the Gospel at my funeral will be from the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, if only because that would probably be my last chance to be in a church where someone else had to preach on that text! Due to a number of peculiarities, both in the church’s lectionaries and the preaching schedules when I was the Curate at the Cathedral in St. John’s, it seemed like I was always scheduled to preach when that passage came up. At one point, I calculated that I had preached more sermons on John 21 than I had on the Christmas or Easter Day Gospels, a trend that I only managed to buck the other year.

And yet it’s a story that I never get tired of hearing or reflecting on. Beyond the joyful story of Jesus appearing to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and their gradual recognition of him, John also presents a powerful story of forgiveness and renewal in the encounter between Jesus and Peter. It highlights how forgiveness is intertwined with service and calling.

When he asks, ‘Do you love me,’ Jesus uses the Greek word for profound Christian love: ‘Do you love me (with the deep, profound, self-giving love that I’ve shown you)?’ But Peter answers with a different word: ‘Yes, Lord, you know I’m your friend.’ Jesus had already told the disciples ‘I no longer call you servants, but I call you friends.’ Peter is not backing off here. Being Jesus’s friend is a significant honour. But it’s not what Jesus is asking.

Again he asks, ‘Do you love me?’ But Peter can’t bring himself to say the word. He knows how he has let Jesus down. If he says ‘You know that I love you,’ Jesus could quite rightly ask ‘Then why did you deny even knowing me in the courtyard?’ So he says, ‘You know I’m your friend.’

Finally, Jesus comes to his level and uses his word. ‘Simon, son of John, are you my friend?’ and Peter is grieved, hurt, sad, not because Jesus asked three times. He’s hurt because the third time, he asks ‘are you my friend?’ It’s as if he’s been admitting his unworthiness to Jesus, who finally agrees, and says, ‘that’s right, you’re not worthy.’

But in the whole exchange, Jesus has been giving Peter new jobs. Shepherd jobs. And this is significant. This plays into the next thing he says. ‘When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’

This is more than just a grim prediction of the decrepitude of old age. Jesus is telling Peter, ‘Just like they put me to death, the powers that be are going to do the same to you. I am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for the sheep. If you’re going to be a shepherd too, this is what you can expect.’

There is a certain expectation that Jesus will say some words of forgiveness for Peter here. That he will say ‘I know you’re sorry for what you did, but I forgive you.’  But he doesn’t say that, at least not explicitly. Instead he gives him work to do. Forgiveness and reconciliation go hand in hand with vocation and mission. In fact, every time in John’s Gospel Jesus appears after his resurrection, it is to put his disciples to work.

We, who have been saved by Christ, who know firsthand from our own experience what it means to be so deeply loved and forgiven, are to be sent out to make that love and forgiveness known to the world. The good news we are called to share is not something that we are selling without first experiencing it. We are not just a people sent out into the world to preach salvation and the forgiveness of sins. We are uniquely positioned to preach that good news. We share it not just because we have heard these resurrection stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, but because we have already lived them in our own lives.

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