“Why did you do it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said shaking his head. “It was stupid… I am so mad at myself. Everybody is mad at me. Well, except you.” He was wrong about that, though. I was mad at him too, and I was really in no mood to be gentle about it, so I pressed on.
“You didn’t need the money. You had so much to lose. I just don’t get it,” I said.
In the years since then, my friend has spent a few years in a federal prison and I’ve done a lot of thinking. Why would he do such a thing? Why do any of us do the things we do?
As a member of my company’s internal investigations team, this is going back a few years, I used to encounter people who had made mistakes every day. These were big mistakes, humiliating, life-altering mistakes. My team was good at sussing out the who, what, when, where, and even the how of most incidents. What I never could figure out was why. Oh, sometimes the reason made a fleeting appearance. It could have been an addiction, gambling debt, or just the garden-variety arrogance which eventually has to put one over on whoever is a step higher on the ladder. But, mostly, I never knew why.
I think about it though…
I wonder about myself. I haven’t done anything that will send me to jail, not yet anyway. But I do stupid things too. I’m a sinner, after all. Why do I sin in the first place? And, then, why pretend that I didn’t? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve started to get an idea. I think that mostly we do the things we do because of a great, unwieldy, unfaithful, and unnecessary quest for forgiveness.
Last Sunday we saw that forgiveness — accepting our own and offering it to others — is the cornerstone of the kingdom. It is the strong arm which rolls back the stone on all kinds of tombs. It liberated the cowering disciples, and it can liberate us too.
We have forgotten that our main job is to forgive others, not to seek it for ourselves. Yet much of what passes for everyday life is actually a quest for the forgiveness which is missing from our lives. Just as forgiveness liberates, unforgiveness enslaves. There are many, many good Christians who are trapped in a tomb of unforgiveness, unable to love or be loved, unable to experience the joy of liberation. Here’s the good news: We are all already forgiven!
I want to point out something about the reading from John which is our lesson for this morning.* Just as a recap:
The disciples had gone fishing. They stayed out all night, they worked so hard, trying their very best, but they still didn’t catch any fish. As morning dawned they saw a man on the shore and he shouted to them that they would finally catch some fish if they cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Sure enough, they caught so many fish that their nets were full. As they made their way back to the shore they recognized the man who had shouted out to them as Jesus. The Bible tells us that Peter was very excited and he jumped right into the water to prove how much he loved Jesus. Some people are just given over to drama like that. The others arrived more respectfully, dry, but probably hungry. When they got ashore Jesus had built a small fire and, interestingly enough, Jesus already had a couple of fish cooking.
We have to stop at this point and ask ourselves where Jesus got the fish? Had he been fishing? Did he bring them with him from an early morning market? How did Jesus get those fish? Why would he have brought them in the first place? Didn’t he realize that the disciples were going to have fish? In the very next verse Jesus tells the disciples to bring some of their fish, but the story is clear that Jesus already had some fish before the disciples got there and he was willing to share.
The disciples must have been tired. They had fished all night, they’d worked hard, done everything they could think of to get something that Jesus had already prepared for them. The fish were cooking when they came ashore, probably ready to eat. It doesn’t take long to cook a fish, after all.
The disciples didn’t really have to go through all that effort to get some fish. In the same way, we can stop our own crazy quest for forgiveness. It’s a false quest, and all the violence and hurt of this world can ultimately be traced back to it. Oh, I know, I know… You want to do something. I’m that way too. We feel we should somehow become worthy, do our part, work for it! But, forgiveness is already ours. The new task is not to seek it, but to share it.
We don’t have to work for forgiveness. There is no belief system, no magic prayer, or even a historic creed that can grant it. It is the established fact of resurrection. In fact, the more we strive for forgiveness… to somehow be worthy, to make it happen… the more deeply we become invested in the kingdom of violence which rules the world. Just relax. Stop trying so hard. We are already forgiven. The task, the new commandment, is to share this knowledge with others. “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus had said earlier, “Love one another as I have loved you.”* How did Jesus love us? He forgave us. It’s modeled in the way he forgave the disciples and called them back to himself*, and it’s commanded in his new commandment that we should love as he loved.
In this episode, Jesus again modeled this kind of love by forgiving Peter for his denials. Before Jesus was led away to die, Peter had denied that he knew Jesus three times. In the reading this morning Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and each time Jesus was calling him out of a tomb of shame and self-recrimination and back into service. “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says it each time. The first time Jesus called Peter he called him away from a business enterprise, Peter had been successful, but he left it all to follow Jesus. This time, Jesus called him out of himself, out of the tomb he had made out of unforgiveness. When Peter was able to forgive himself as Jesus had done he found the liberty to forgive others, to really love as Jesus had, and to spread the good news about forgiveness.
The next time you find yourself trapped in the same old sin, whatever it is, ask yourself, “What did I really hope to gain?” There’s a very good possibility that it’s something you already have. With forgiveness comes the ability to be your authentic self, to love and to be loved, and to see the image of God in your own life and in others too.
Open your heart to the treasures of forgiveness, and forgive others too. This is the cornerstone of the kingdom, the kingdom of Love.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
John 21:1-19 – The reading appointed for this week.
John 13:34 – A new commandment…
Luke 22 – Peter denies that he knows Jesus.
For more about how Jesus forgave the disciples and called them again see last week’s essay.