Divine Love has no trouble loving imperfect things!

Reflection for Easter 3 2019 – Rev’d Barb Messner

Last Sunday in his daily email, Richard Rohr wrote: “The human soul is being gradually readied so that actual intimacy and partnership with the Divine are the result.” Later he qualified this by saying: “It is important not to confuse divine union with human perfection. The choice for union is always from God’s side; our response is always and forever partial and feeble.

Jesus came to give us the courage to trust and allow our inherent union with God, and he modelled it for us in this world. Union is not a place we go to later—if we are good; union is the place from which we come, the place from which we’re called to live now. We wasted centuries confusing union with personal perfection. Union is God’s choice for us in our very imperfect world. Divine Love has no trouble loving imperfect things! That is just our human problem. If God could only love perfect things, God would have nothing to do.”

The stories of Peter and Paul we heard today are revealing examples of Rohr’s statement that “Divine Love has no trouble loving imperfect things!” Peter, after years of following Jesus, and being given responsibility as a leader among the disciples, denied three times that he ever knew Jesus. In that moment, fear and powerlessness defeated all his good intentions to stand by Jesus and lay down his life for him, as he offered in John 13:37 at the last supper. Jesus warned Peter that he could not follow him in what was about to unfold, and that he would deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Jesus also said “but you will follow me afterward.” The passage we heard from John 21 today is the beautiful story of how the resilience to follow Jesus even unto death was restored to Peter in that life-changing encounter with Jesus on the beach. Although Peter has experienced the empty tomb, and the resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples in the upper room, a more personal and searching encounter with Jesus is needed to lift Peter from his bitter remorse at his weakness and failure. He has suffered a humiliating blow to his ego strength. While he could wave a sword, his courage was high, but Jesus told him to put the sword back in its sheath, healed the wound it had made and let himself be taken without a fight. That left Peter powerless to act on Jesus’ behalf, and without any ability to control the situation, Peter found his fear overwhelmed all that he thought he could do. Even in the wake of the resurrection, Peter seems to have wanted to retreat into an earlier and simpler life, out with his mates fishing, doing what he once could do well. Perhaps he felt as though he had lost the new identity that he forged in following Jesus, and was searching in the past for who he once was. Significantly when Jesus asks three times “Do you love me?” he prefaces each question with Peter’s birth name, Simon son of John, not the identity Jesus gave him, Peter the rock on which the church would be built. In this encounter Peter reclaims this identity by reaffirming his love and commitment to Jesus and being commissioned by Jesus to the new phase of his calling to follow and care for others.

There are so many significant aspects to this encounter that lead up to the crux of it, the three questions that match Peter’s three denials. The companions on the boat are an interesting mix: James and John, the other members of Jesus’ leadership team, are also identified by their family and fishing connection, the sons of Zebedee. Then there’s Thomas who has just had his own life-changing personal encounter with Jesus, and Nathaniel, who features in the first chapter of John’s gospel, and who Jesus recognizes as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. There are two others not named, making seven in all, the number of days of creation. Significantly, the erstwhile fishermen have caught nothing all night, but when Jesus appears just after daybreak on the beach and suggests that they throw the nets to the right side, the nets are filled. Trying to return to the past is empty; only in responding to Jesus will they be fulfilled. This miraculous catch of 153 fish is reminiscent of the incident in chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel, when a similar miraculous catch forms part of the calling of Simon and his fishing partners, James and John. In chapter 21, it is the catch that prompts the beloved disciple to recognize that “It is the Lord.”, the risen Christ, their Lord and Lord of creation Another almost humorous but symbolic detail is that Peter is naked on the boat but puts his clothes on before he jumps into the water to swim to meet Jesus on the beach. This covering up impulse reminds me of Adam and Eve, who, knowing they have transgressed, hide themselves from God because they are ashamed of their nakedness. God provides them with clothes before they are sent forth from the garden. Peter is one step ahead of them in going willingly to meet with Jesus, but he still has the impulse to “cover up”. Peter is embarrassed by his failure, but all Jesus focuses on is his love and commitment, and the renewal of Peter’s calling to leadership in the early church. Failure has not disqualified him for that role; instead it has prepared him to lean on God’s grace, not his own strength.

Paul is another key figure in the early church, but only after he was forced to confront the bankruptcy of all his striving for religious perfection, and the persecution of Christians he had undertaken in the attempt to ensure that perfection. Once again, the life changing realization comes in the form of a searching question from the risen Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The naming is significant because it is a name that Paul will leave behind, along with who he thought he was, a Pharisee of the Pharisees. The question brings him up short, forcing him to relinquish all his attempts to make God in his own image and to control others by force when they question that image. One thing I find particularly thought provoking in Jesus’ encounters with Peter and Paul is that Jesus makes no mention of sin, no accusation that they are guilty of weakness or arrogance and should repent. Neither is there any overt offering of forgiveness from Jesus, although it is implicit in his presence with them. As Paul experienced physically on the road to Damascus, Jesus confronts them with a light that enables them to search their souls, and to realize that it is not their imperfection or their search for perfection that matters, but their relationship with the risen Lord, and their commitment to the vocation for which he commissions them. Peter is told to tend and feed the sheep and lambs, in other words to take on the pastoral responsibility for a Christian community. Paul is told “Get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do.” How many times in his ministry did he enter a city, knowing there would be those who opposed him and might arrest or attack him, and yet he would do what he had to do. His compelling mission was to speak and write of the light and love that had found him and shaken him out of his sense of worth and power into acknowledgement of weakness and vulnerability made sufficient through God’s grace. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of his “thorn in the flesh” which keeps him from” being too elated”. When he appeals to the Lord that it would leave him, God says, “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” This is the paradoxical nature of our acceptance of our imperfection: the space taken up by our ego is reduced, and into that space flows God’s grace, which awakens our love and commitment to Christ and is sufficient for what we are called to do.