The New Creation: Works of Love
The New Creation: Works of Love
May 13, 2018
I was talking with a friend this week about how lucky each of us was to be born into our respective families. It’s not like everything was perfect. In fact, at an earlier time in our lives, we might have focused too much on the ways that we wished things could be different. Part of the wisdom that comes with years, though, is being able to look around ourselves and see the bigger picture: there are so many people who are born into unspeakable difficulty. Their parents are non-functional human beings, probably because their parent’s parents and their parent’s parent’s parents were non-functional. The basics just weren’t there for them—which is what makes the people who rise above all that dysfunction and become reasonably whole people so amazing.
My friend and I were talking about how lucky we were. We had parents who had integrity, who lived beyond the surface of life and who challenged us to do the same. Our parents loved us and paid attention to us and cared about us. They made real sacrifices on our behalf. Whether we agreed with them in a particular moment or not, there was never any question that one of the guiding principles of their lives was: “What is best for our children?” They even had the foresight to pursue what was best for us when we let them know just how much that particular “best” wasn’t what we wanted. In other words, in order to be truly loving parents, they understood that sometimes that would mean not being our best friends.
On Mother’s Day, I find myself thinking about how concrete the expressions of this love really were. My family wasn’t necessarily the most physically expressive or verbal when it came to loving one another. Instead, the language of love in my house was loving actions. As an example, the “idea” may have been that in this family, we want you to become everything you can become. However, the concrete expression of that in high school, though, boiled down to this: “If you want to play basketball and be in the play, then do it. I’ll meet you in between the practices with a hot meal all wrapped in foil.” My Mom had a huge stake in the success of her children, to the point of doing whatever it took to support any of us in whatever success we might pursue. It’s just that this stake was expressed so concretely: the breakfast that was waiting for you in the morning, the efforts that were there to help keep our complicated schedules straight, the stack of neatly folded, clean clothes that were waiting for us at the end or our beds, the special treat of a meal that was waiting before the big game.
Our families are who they are. If we’re lucky, they not only love us but have real ways to show us that love that enable us to grow and develop into loving human beings, ourselves. The truth is, though, that almost always, we take our family for granted. Whether they are amazingly loving or whether they are unbelievably impaired, most kids just assume that their family is just like all the other families out there. Why? Because we just don’t know any better.
The thing we really should never take for granted, though, is how lucky we were to have parents who were willing to defer their needs and do what they really didn’t want to do for our sakes. Who really wants to change a diaper? Who really wants to be cooking and going to the store all the time? Who really wants to do the work to make the money to pay the bills so that there’s enough left over to send your kid to camp or to save for the day that they go to college? Who wants to read “Goodnight Moon” for the thousandth time? The answer is—your parents, if you were really lucky. And the ultimate incarnation for most of us of that answer was probably our moms.
Our mothers weren’t perfect. Of course, neither were we (which somehow takes us a few years of growing up for us to see!) Everyone did their best and somehow that was enough—enough to lead us years later to think to ourselves, “Man, was I ever lucky! Thank you, Mom…”
Or, if your mother or your parents weren’t able to be there for you in that way (and I’ll tell you that most often it probably wasn’t because they didn’t love you; they didn’t know how), I hope and pray that you had others who entered your life in that way. I hope there were people who loved you and told you and showed you that you mattered and who “had your back” when things got tough. I hope you’ve had the honor of being loved so thoroughly by someone that your happiness and success and well-being mattered more to them than their own. I hope you’ve had someone who was like a mother to you.
Most of all, I hope that if you were lucky enough to be loved, then you’ve been wise enough to work at being loving, too. Think of all the disappointing things you ever did and yet, people forgave you! Ask yourself, “Am I a forgiving person?” Consider the thousand different simple ways that those people tried to say, “I love you.” Ask yourself, “Am I a person who would try to say, ‘I love you’ a thousand different ways and still jump at the chance to try way number 1001?”
This is where we meet Peter in our text for this morning. Peter had insisted that he loved Jesus so much that he would never let anything bad happen to him. The truth in this life is that no matter how much we love someone, we never get to keep the hurts of this life away. The best we get to do is suffer with them. However, Peter even failed at that. When the going got tough, Peter ran for his life. He put his own well-being ahead of Jesus’ needs. His love of self prevailed over his love of Christ. And having been told by Jesus, himself, that he would deny ever having known Jesus at all before the sun rose, Peter does exactly that—three times.
Again, the fact that Peter fails to love perfectly isn’t news to Jesus. It probably isn’t even news to the people around Peter, who maybe weren’t quite as convinced about Peter’s perfect love as Peter seemed to be. The only person who was shocked when Peter wasn’t perfect was Peter. That shock and disappointment and horror—that shame—threatened to utterly break him.
Consider this: sooner or later, every long-lasting, loving relationship in your life is going to come down to this question: “Can we forgive each other for being human, for being imperfect, for who we are in our worst moments?” When you fail to be who I know you can be, will I forgive you or will I hold it against you forever? (Or will I just hold onto it and pull it out on an “as needed” basis?) When I am at my most vulnerable, will you forgive me? If there is not forgiveness, our relationship will become destructive or simply end—so that we can go find another “perfect” person or find someone to fool into thinking we’re perfect for a while. Love is a lot of things but it can’t be anything at all if we can’t be real. Being real, sometimes, means being really broken.
Peter is stuck. He can’t forgive himself. He has publicly made a fool of himself and abandoned the one person whom he loved the most. When all seemed totally lost, he went back to what he used to do which used to make him feel good about himself—fishing—and he even failed at that. After a long night of no fish, he’s had it—so much so that when the guy starts taunting him from the beach about catching no fish and then offers him a tip, he doesn’t even realize that it is Jesus. It dawns on him when the nets are breaking with fish that something is going on… The disciples have breakfast with the risen Jesus on the beach. Like going to visit you mother years after you’ve grown up, Jesus does what he has always done—he feeds his disciples. There had to be such comfort in sharing one more meal.
Then, Jesus takes on the hard work of forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t interrogate Peter systematically about his every bad decision. He doesn’t look him in the eye and shame him. He doesn’t gather the evidence of Peter’s brokenness and say, “See, I told you so!” No, the hard work of forgiveness is not making someone else feel terrible. Rather, the question is, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks that question three times (the same number of times that Peter denied knowing Jesus). Peter answers three times, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” Jesus answers each time, “Then here’s what you need to do.” “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” Peter, stop groveling in your imperfection. There’s work to be done. Get over yourself.
Forgiveness is hard work. The hardest work required in forgiveness may be forgiving ourselves and believing that someone else could truly forgive us, too. Yet, the reason to do that work in the end is to free everyone up to do the most important work of all—the works of love that can only be done by us (with God’s help, of course.) The risen Jesus needs Peter to “get over it” because Peter is an essential part of what’s going to come next.
God needs us, too. God needs us not to walk around feeling all ashamed of our worst moments. God needs us to quit trying to hide our humanity from each other. God needs us to get on with the concrete business of becoming a loving person. We’ve been given the chance to be the best parent we can be. We been given the chance to be the best son or daughter we can be. We have been given the chance to be the best friend we can be. We’ve been given the chance to be like the mother or father that other person never had. First, though, we have to get over ourselves. We have to learn to forgive. We have to learn how to put someone else’s needs before our own. We have to learn to make a meal or do a load of laundry or wait to pick someone up—lovingly. We have to learn to be led by God’s calling.
Chances are…if you have some clue about what any of this means, well…you should take a moment today and thank your Mom!