This Lenten reflection is devoted to the theme of freedom from the past through forgiveness received and forgiveness offered to those who have wounded us.
We are never fully comfortable with the past. We carry broken bits and pieces in our memories and our emotions. There are times that we may unexpectedly meet people from the past. Our happiness in seeing them again is coloured by difficult memories of painful events that we can never quite forget.
We bring the past with us into each new day. Victims and witnesses of violence understand this reality. A woman that has been abused may never feel safe. A man wakes up at night sweating in terror because of a flashback. My friend Shadrack Mutabazi, a refugee from the DRC, could not watch a video about Oscar Romero because the violence resonated so deeply with his own experience of killers in his country. Those that have committed deeds of violence live with their own harsh memories of acts of cruelty that they can scarcely believe. They seek explanations of madness or possession by evil spirits.
The struggle with the past is less intense for most of us. But it is there. The flashbacks are different in nature. Words said in anger. Unfair accusations leveled against us. Feeling abandoned and without defence. A conflict that you could have handled better. A confidence betrayed. Someone you loved that seemed incapable of receiving that gift. A time when you remained silent rather than defended the vulnerable. A career decision taken or not taken. An accident caused by lack of attention. We all have these memories that are painful reminders of past wounds that never fully healed.
For me, travel to Vancouver forces me to face my brokenness and pain in an intense way. When I am with my children and grandchildren, I can never free myself from remembering the night we told them that I was leaving the home. I would be their father but I would not live with them. I was betraying my marriage vows and my relationship as a father. I am grateful that words of forgiveness and actions of love have been graciously extended from each person around that table. But the healing is never complete. The emotions of that night never go away. I suspect we all have times, places, and people that are painful to recall. We carry them with us.
Forgiveness is such an easy concept. But in practice, forgiveness can be hard to extend and hard to receive.
My wife Regine has a haunting story from Rwanda. A man in a village murdered his Tutsi neighbor in the madness of the 1994 genocide. A few weeks later he became part of the mass migration of Hutus to refugee camps in the Congo under the protection of French soldiers in Operation Turquoise. He repatriated to Rwanda in 1996 deeply troubled by his participation in the violence. In his village, he dug up the body of his victim from the place where it had been buried. He took the skull, wrapped it, and turned himself in to the authorities. He was sent to prison immediately. He put on prison clothes but refused to give up the skull. He clung to it. He took the skull to work duties. He placed the skull beside him when he ate food. He took to skull to bed when he slept. This man was eventually killed by other prisoners. He made them uncomfortable and afraid. He died, a wounded soul in a wounded country in need of healing. He died unforgiven.
Scripture: John 21.1-19
I know it is strange to use a story of the Risen Lord in a Lenten reflection. I can only say that the breakfast on the beach is the response of Jesus to things that happened earlier in Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem. The apostle Peter had very painful memories of exuberant promises and cowardly betrayal. It is a credit to the early Christian tradition that these difficult stories were retained and not covered up.
Peter had been the first disciple to confess that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. When Jesus began to explain the mystery of the cross, Peter had taken him aside and rebuked him. Jesus had said the harshest words in the gospels: “Get behind me Satan.” Later in Jerusalem, at the last supper, Peter had promised that he would not abandon Jesus. “Even if all fall away, I will not.”
A moment of crisis comes in the courtyard outside the staged trial of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Three times he saves his skin by denying Jesus. “I do not know this man that you are talking about.”
A relationship is betrayed. Promises are broken. Try to imagine the pain of Peter. How does he deal with his cowardice and expediency? How does he handle the embarrassment? How does he come to terms with his disloyalty? How does he imagine the pain inflicted on Jesus who is left alone before a violent mob? How does he face the past and find freedom to live his role as the rock on whom Jesus would build the church?
We know these questions in different places and different circumstances? How do we free ourselves from the past? How do we forgive and find freedom from a pain that was inflicted on us? How do experience forgiveness and find the freedom to live into the calling of God for our lives?
The story in John 21 is about the Risen Lord who comes to us. He shows us the way forward in finding freedom though forgiveness received and extended. The narrative is for you when you long to be forgiven and healed. You can keep coming back to it. The story in John 21 is for you when you feel the Spirit leading you to forgive someone else and are praying for God to walk with you.
Peter decides to go back to fishing. Resurrection appearances do not take away his deep sense of shame and failure. He goes back to his old life in Galilee. Some of the others join him. They fish all night without result. A voice from the shore encourages them to put down the net on the right side of the boat. The catch is amazing – 153 fish. One of the men realizes that the person shouting from the shore is Jesus. Peter cannot wait for the boat to land. He jumps into the water and swims to shore.
Jesus has made a fire on the beach. He invites the group of fishers to share breakfast with him. They offer their fish for the meal. Jesus has bread. When they have finished the meal, Jesus turns to Peter. The three questions must have been so painful to hear:
- Do you love me more than these?
- Do you love me?
- Do you love me?
Each time Jesus extends again the call to mission to Peter. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. And then there is the warning that the call will be difficult. He has failed in the past. Now he will have another chance. People will forcefully take him to places he does not want to go. And then the final words: Follow me! These are the same words with which Peter began his friendship and discipleship with Jesus.
He is not thrown on the rubbish heap of failure. The Risen Lord extends to him the freedom to come to terms with the past and then to leave the past. The three questions respond to the three denials. Each question lifts the burden and shame. Peter is re-commissioned to a life of meaningful service to God and to others. He can celebrate the freedom of forgiveness.
We can readily identify with Peter because we have all been there. His story is our story. The challenge is to also identify with Jesus. Are there times when we are called to make a fire on the beach and share a meal with someone who has betrayed us? The technical vocabulary of forgiveness is not as important as actions of restoration. An embrace. A hug. A smile. A task that is shared.
So where does this Lenten mediation leave us. The Methodist theologian Gregory Jones says that forgiveness is a way of living and a craft to be learned. It does not come naturally. It is more natural to hold on to resentments or to bury ourselves in feelings of self-recrimination. We may need help and guidance in both receiving forgiveness and in humbly offering forgiveness to those that have offended us. Forgiveness offered and forgiveness received express a determination to live in the new creation that God is fashioning even in the evil and brokenness of our world. Forgiveness is a key part of finding freedom from our past.
- Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
- Recall a time when you experienced forgiveness from someone you had offended? Were there internal barriers to forgiveness that you faced? Dwell for a time on the feelings of a relationship restored.
- Recall a time when you extended forgiveness to someone that had offended you? How did you handle the pain of betrayal? How did the other person respond? Dwell for a time on this experience?
- What do you long to leave behind? What is the Spirit whispering to you about forgiveness either received or extended?
- What grace from God do you seek during Lent?