Easter 3 / Year C
Christianity stands alone among the world’s major religions for the way in which its sacred texts honestly portray the flaws of its major characters. It begins with Adam, who manages to mess up paradise. Then there is Cain, who murders his brother. Joseph dreams of being superior to his siblings and they, in turn, sell him off to a passing caravan. Moses commits manslaughter. Aaron rallies the people to make a golden idol. David enters into an adulterous relationship with a neighbor and then arrangers to have her husband killed in battle. I could go on, but you get the idea. And this is just the Old Testament.
Today’s readings highlight the foibles of two of the most prominent figures in the New Testament: Peter and Paul. Three times Jesus inquires of Peter, “Do you love me?” – a not so subtle reminder of the three times the Apostle denies knowing Jesus. And after eight chapters focusing on the life of the early Church, the Book of Acts finally gets around to introducing us to its lead character – Saul of Tarsus. And how do we meet him? By finding out he participates in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and by vigorously persecuting those who are known to be a part of “The Way” of Jesus.
And it is not as if these flaws are incidental to each Apostle’s character. The Scriptures present them unvarnished in order that readers will know their heroes, warts and all. Following Peter through the gospels is something akin to riding a rollercoaster. There are some highs and a lot of lows: stepping out of the boat and sinking, refuting Jesus’ teaching about how he must die (to which Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan”), lashing out in violence as Jesus is arrested, and the three denials. Paul, for his part, refers often in his writings and in his testimony to his past life as a persecutor of the faith.
Why do you think the bible presents its leading figures in such an honest and unflattering manner by constantly bringing up the past? And what does it mean for us as we (like them) seek to be faithful followers of Christ?
They say anxiety has to do with fear of the future; fretting about all the things you can’t imagine or control. Depression, on the other hand, is rooted in the past. It is dwelling on (maybe even obsessing about) mistakes and what ifs; what we rue and what we regret. And the more you live with this, the more you begin to think of yourself as the mistake you made. You become a prisoner of your past.
An opposite approach is equally possible. It involves a recasting of the past in a way which is not faithful to what actually happened. The other day I read a rather interesting (but dense) review of a book by David Rieff titled In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memories and Its Ironies. He argues over time cultural memories of triumphs and defeats, things we got right and things we got wrong, pains we inflicted and pains we endured, “inevitably fade into caricature or cliché as time passes.” I’ll spare you the details of his thinking. Interestingly, as our country struggles with how to make sense of and tell the stories of our past, Rieff believes our failure to remember “what really happened” is both inevitable and positive.
In Peter and Paul we find two people who neither are prisoners of their past mistakes nor have succumbed to the temptation of rewriting the histories of what they have done wrong. They remind us no one is perfect, which is neither a controversial nor enlightening insight in and of itself. But they add to it none of is defined by our actions.
You may tell a lie, but this does not make you a liar in God’s eyes. You may rob a bank, but God does not see you as a bank robber. You may have an addiction, but God does not see you as being an addict. Our actions don’t define us because God already has told us who we are. We are beloved children of the Holy One, dear and precious beyond imagining to the One who created us. It is a self-definition we embrace at every baptism. It means… God sees you as a beloved child who told a lie, as a beloved child who robbed a bank, or as a beloved child who suffers from an addiction. Nothing you do ever will change the beloved part of who you are. Nothing.
Peter denies Jesus three times, but he is still beloved. Jesus redeems him and commissions him for leadership in the church. Paul murders and persecutes God’s faithful followers, but he is still beloved. Jesus appears to him and calls him to a new and more noble purpose. Each is an example of what Oscar Wilde once quipped: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future!” By owning up to their faults, Peter and Paul point us toward God’s grace. Each reminds us if Jesus can use them, given all they did wrong, than Jesus can use us too! We do not just have a past. We have a present and we have a future.
How do you live in the present with the memories and consequences of your past? Well, Peter and Paul tell us we do so not by moving forward either by punishing ourselves or be excusing ourselves, but by living into God’s unfailing love for us, by building the foundation of our lives on God’s unfathomable grace, and by embracing the fact we are God’s beloved child.