During my years as a clinical chaplain in a psychiatric facility, I met several people who had committed horrific crimes while in a psychotic state. Generally, these were individuals who were kind and gentle when they were well. They also struggled to believe that they could be forgiven for what they had done. I had many conversations about God’s capacity for forgiveness and how God’s love is not limited by anything, not even drug abuse, violent crimes, and psychosis.
These kinds of conversations usually left me and the individual wishing for more. I wanted to be more convincing so as to bring a degree of peace and healing. They wanted to believe me but could not. Fortunately, there was worship which is often where unexplainable things happen.
Every Sunday afternoon we’d gather for worship in the hospital’s small chapel. The chapel seated about 30 and there was frequently an overflow crowd in the hallway. We had 45 minutes for worship and it was a challenge to make it meaningful each week. Looking back, I should never have worried too much about that. When the Holy Spirit shows up, it’s meaningful.
Each weekly worship offered communion to all who gathered. I know my understanding and perception of people changed as I offered them bread and wine saying, “This is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of salvation poured out for you.” In those moments a person who seemed lost or difficult or unreachable became one of God’s Beloved. Before we got to this point in the service, though, I would speak words of absolution after the prayer of confession. Every Sunday I would say something like, “You are beloved children of God. In Christ you are forgiven and set free to live in God’s love.” During my last few weeks at the hospital, more than one patient told me that they never believed they could be forgiven. Yet when I said those words each week, they began to think that maybe even they could be forgiven. And then maybe they could forgive themselves.
I find myself thinking of these folks as I read the scriptures this week. God’s love and forgiveness really is without limit. Think of Paul. We know the story of his conversion, but do we hear the message? It isn’t so much about the dynamism and power of his being knocked off his horse and blinded as much as it is about God’s startling capacity for forgiveness and redemption. Saul was a brutal man. He sought out, persecuted, and sentenced to death many Christians. He believed he was right and good doing this on God’s behalf. Until God told him otherwise. If God can forgive murdering Saul and transform him into proselytizing Paul, how much more can God do for my former patients, for me, for you? Why do we hold on to sins far less damaging than hatred and murder when God is ready to grant us new life and freedom right now?
Still not convinced? Then let’s look at the Gospel text. The disciples are fishing in the days after the Resurrection. What else can they do? Jesus has left them and they are grieving, but they need to eat and provide for their families. They aren’t having much luck until Jesus shows up and shows them something about abundance.
This is followed very shortly by a conversation with Peter. Jesus askes Peter, “Do you love me unconditionally?” Peter responds, “I love you like a brother.” Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” And then this is repeated. “Do you love me unconditionally?” “I love you like a brother.” “Feed my sheep.” And once more with a slight change, “Do you love me like a brother?” “I love you like a brother.” “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus is asking something of Peter that he isn’t quite able to give. There’s an honesty here. Peter can’t say that he loves Jesus without condition when the memories of denial are still so fresh. But Peter does love Jesus, truly. Jesus, ever gracious, meets Peter where he’s at. It doesn’t matter whether Peter can love Jesus the way Jesus is asking. Jesus’ response to Peter is still the same. Take care of my children, especially the vulnerable ones.
We place a lot of conditions on our love for God. Sometimes it’s guilt and shame as was Peter’s problem. Sometimes it’s memories of painful experiences. Sometimes it’s reluctance to accept that God is God and we are not. It doesn’t matter, though. If we love God in any way, no matter the limits or conditions, the required response is to care for the children of God, especially the vulnerable ones.
These two passages present the Gospel for all reluctant followers of Christ. First, nothing you have done or said prevents God from loving you and forgiving you. Second, no matter the limits you place on your love for God, the call to care is evident. It’s time to get out of our heads and change the world for the sake of the most vulnerable among us–children, immigrants, refugees, those without homes, those who live with mental illness, the elderly, those who are food insecure, trans people, women, and the many more who are feeling lost, alone, and forgotten. You never know when your words or actions will awaken someone to the hope, the promise, the redemption found only in the abundance of God’s love for the whole of creation.
RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Eater – April 10, 2016
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)