In January of Nineteen Ninety-Eight, I came upon an article in Parade Magazine that changed my life. (I actually still have it —all marked up with pink highlighter, and I’m not normally a saver of articles!) This was an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who was reflecting on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
If you happened to attend the Lenten study a few years ago, you might remember. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a public tribunal in which those who participated in the violence of apartheid took the stand and told the truth about what they had done. They told families about the last moments of their loved ones’ lives. They told mothers where the bodies of their sons were buried. In exchange for this testimony, these perpetrators were granted amnesty. More than that, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a pathway for forgiveness.
“So I have two lasting impressions,” said Archbishop Tutu in this interview, “[there’s] the horror of what we are able to do to each other and [there’s] almost exhilaration at the nobility of the human spirit that so many victims demonstrate.”1 Greer, Colin. Parade Magazine. January 11, 1998, Page 5. This is a man who has spent countless hours hearing graphic descriptions of torture while sitting beside family members who were overcome by sorrow. How could this happen! And. This is a man who was blown away by the human capacity for compassion…
You might have heard me say this before. In our world, I’ve seen us struggle with forgiveness for two main reasons. On one side, there’s the story that many Christians promulgate. It tries hard and means well. This is the story that goes: You better forgive. Jesus wants us to forgive, so make yourself do it. Make your heart feel forgiveness toward the person who hurt you.
And you and I know, this doesn’t work.
On the other side, there’s the story that goes: You better not forgive. If your nephew was killed, it’s your job to demand accountability, to seek justice (by which we mean retribution). If you forgive the person who killed him, you are dishonoring your nephew!
And well, this doesn’t work either.
It’s easy to dismiss forgiveness when we subscribe to either story, either the You better do it or the You better not.
Instead, through his life’s work, Archbishop Tutu shows us how to approach forgiveness with persistent inquisitiveness because here’s the truth: Even in the face of horror, sometimes people really do forgive. How do they do this? What can we learn from them?
Archbishop Tutu’s work has led me to understand, forgiveness is always two things at the same time. It’s a world-changing, mind-blowing miracle that is only possible by the grace of God; its power can bring us to our knees, and bring us to tears, and bring us back to life! And. Forgiveness is at work in all of us all the time; it’s as ordinary as every day kindness; it’s so present, you can taste it.
Our scripture today is about Peter. Before we get to the part where everything comes crashing down, the thing is, you’ve just got to love Peter. We would all be lucky to have a friend so fiercely loyal, so willing to show up and help.
Back when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes then interpreted that miracle, some of the disciples were beginning to worry that he might be the Messiah, and they left! But not Peter. He spoke up on behalf of the twelve and told Jesus that they’ve come to believe he is the Holy One of God.
At first, Peter objected to having his feet washed by Jesus. But when Jesus said Come on, Peter flipped one hundred and eighty degrees. Okay, he told the Lord. Don’t wash only my feet— wash all of me! But Jesus said, No. That’s not how this works.
Next, when Jesus told the disciples that he would be leaving them, Peter piped up again. He wanted to follow Jesus; he offered to lay down his life for his friend! But Jesus said, No. You will deny me.
Later, Peter did follow Jesus right into the seething crowd armed with pitchforks and torches, ready to make an arrest. Peter tried to defend Jesus! With his own sword, he chopped off the ear of the man enslaved by the high priest. And if you think Jesus said No to this too, you’re right.
Time and again Peter speaks up and stands up for Jesus, and time and again, Jesus shuts him down. You’d think Peter would be ready to give up! Instead, what he does next blows me away.
When the officers arrest Jesus and spirit him off to be interrogated in the middle of the night, Peter and another disciple follow them. Even though Jesus told him, you won’t be able to follow me, right here, that’s exactly what Peter does. He and the other disciple are not backing down; they’re not going home.
But once they arrive, Peter can’t even get past the gate of the courtyard. Three times he gets asked, and three times Peter says he doesn’t even know Jesus! Then the rooster crows. And it doesn’t make any sense. How could this happen!
When Peter is standing by the fire lying to the people who ask him about Jesus, he’s making a choice that violates his most deeply held values. It doesn’t make any sense. All I can tell you is this really does happen.
If you have ever lashed out at a person you love, if you’ve taken your anger out at them because they’re in the room —and who hasn’t done that —then you get it. If you’ve ever had a friend counting on you to come through, only you let them down, then you get it. There’s nothing we can say, no legitimate defense. You needed me, and I should have been there, and I wasn’t. And I cannot fix that.
We human people are spectacularly capable at failing each other. You can study it from every angle and it doesn’t make sense; it’s no wonder the cruelty of humankind made an impression on Archbishop Tutu. But it’s not the only thing that did. There’s another power that also doesn’t seem to make sense…
Here’s the thing: You can’t make yourself forgive when your heart is not ready to forgive, nobody can. But sometimes our hearts are ready. Sometimes forgiveness comes and finds us, and I can’t explain how it happens, all I can tell you is it does.
The mercy of the Holy Spirit meets up with the mercy in our own soul, and next thing we know, it will bring us to our knees on the road, it will bring us to tears, it will bring us back to life. And I know we never meant for this to happen, but look here we are, Hallelujah.
Healing is an extraordinary miracle. Not everyone survives cancer, but sometimes people do. Not everyone survives COVID, or depression, or influenza, but sometimes people do. Healing is never not a miracle. And here’s what gets me: Our bodies are healing all the time! Our cells are constantly remembering and rebuilding. Healing is both a miracle and an entirely normal part of every day.
If healing requires a body to practice it every day, what if forgiveness does too?— like a group of people dedicated to erring on the side of grace. What if there could be a community that makes it their mission to notice the mind-blowing mercy of the Holy Spirit then follow that wherever it leads?
What if that’s exactly what we’re doing here…
In today’s scripture, the rooster got the last word. It crowed, and Peter remembered, and that’s it. But that’s not really how the story ends…
After Jesus was executed, Peter did not give up on him. Nobody would blame him if he had. Here Peter had failed Jesus, sure seems like Jesus had failed Peter. Relationships come apart; bridges get burned; it happens. I can’t tell you why Peter stuck around, only that he did, and that made all the difference.
After Jesus got up from the dead, Mary Magdalene ran to get Peter. He raced back and found the empty tomb, and he had no idea what was coming. Days later, as one of the legends goes, Peter was out fishing all night with the others. Jesus came to meet him on the shore, and you know Jesus. He worked a miracle; he built a fire. The last time Peter spoke to Jesus it was the night when he stood by the fire and said he didn’t even know him. Now Jesus is here on the beach frying up fish like he’s hosting a party.
Jesus sits down with Peter and gets him something to eat —they probably crack open a couple of breakfast beers, and the two of them get to talking. Jesus calls Peter to be his disciple, Peter says Yes, and if you’re wondering how could this happen, me too!
Forgiveness is never not a miracle. It’s also right here— so present, you can taste it. Just like your body is healing right now, forgiveness is already at work in your being and in mine, and can you imagine if we began to notice its power…
What if forgiveness is humankind’s best bet for creating a credible path for peacemaking?
What if forgiveness is softening the sharp edges of our hurt? What if this is the very power that could bring us back to life? Then all we can say, is How could this happen, right?
How could this happen— Oh Hallelujah.
|Greer, Colin. Parade Magazine. January 11, 1998, Page 5.