John 18: 12-27 3-4-18 ACCUCCC Rev. Tony Clark
We are still three weeks until April Fools’ Day, which will fall this year on the same day as Easter. This is apt because Easter is when we reclaim that God foolishly loved the world, that the cross was foolishness, that it is foolish to love in a world so broken as ours.
We are three weeks past the day we celebrated love and marked ourselves as human. We are three Sundays past Valentine’s Day when we sent cards to those we love. Valentine’s Day was also Ash Wednesday when a dozen or so of us stood together to receive a sacred symbol of our humanity, a symbol that reminded us of our commonality with all life—that we will all end up back as the mud from which we came. As we marked our own biology, we asked God to create a new heart in us. Yet, how quickly my heart was broken.
Even before the ashes were put on my forehead we knew that 17 people had been killed in yet another school shooting using a rapid-fire AR-15. My heart broke, and perhaps yours did, too, as I heard the NRAs fear-mongering call for arming teachers and denying the need for stricter gun laws. My heart continues to break as our country remains polarized in an all-or-nothing approach to gun control. Can we not stand on a solid middle ground listening and loving both those who rely on hunting for food and those who want certain guns removed from circulation? Or am I one of the insane ones who believe that restricting the deadliest of weapons does not mean restricting every gun? It seems that, like Peter did, we are denying Jesus’ words to love one another.
While on vacation, my heart filled again with love for our world, for the creative forces of fire and water, of lava and ocean, and the interconnectedness of it all. Yet my heart was quickly broken again when I returned to hear that ICE had done raids in the Bay Area over the weekend, arresting 150 undocumented members of our community Love seems so far away, three weeks behind us and three weeks before us, but not right here with us. It feels to me that we are denying Jesus’ teachings to love your neighbor.
How many times must we deny the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and his teachings of love?
Peter denied his relationship with, his love for, and the words of Jesus three times. “Are you not one of his disciples?” he was asked twice; “No, I am not,” he said, twice. “Were you not with him in the garden?” he was asked, and he said, “No.” Peter did not only deny Jesus’s words and Jesus’ love, he denied his own identity as a disciple of Jesus, a person of faith, a human being who was formed out of mud in order to love others and to love God. He denied his own connection to Jesus and to God.
Peter’s words are a denial of who Jesus and God are; Peter’s “I am not,” is the opposite of God telling Moses at the burning bush, “I AM;” Peter’s “I am not,” is the opposite of all of the times in the Gospel of John when Jesus said, “I am”: I am the light of the world, I am the way the truth and the life, I am the gate, I am the shepherd, I am the vine and you are the branches, I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus said, “I am,” and Peter said, “I am not.”
That night, after Jesus’ arrest, Peter stood by a gate and denied the voice of the shepherd who was calling him to follow. Even when he stepped through the gate, he stood by a warm fire on a cold night as a lone sheep in the midst of thieves and wolves and denied his relationship with the shepherd.
Peter denied Jesus three times. After that he did not see Jesus again alive. However, Peter did meet Jesus again, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, twice with the disciples in the room behind a locked door, and then once on a beach after a fruitless night of fishing. On this third meeting, after Jesus told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and they gathered all the fish they could ever eat, Jesus took Peter aside and gave him a chance to repent of his denial. Jesus asked Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?” and three times, Peter responded, “Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord.” And Jesus after each of those three reversals of the three denials, Jesus said, “Take care of my lambs,” “ Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” then Jesus, always the head shepherd, left these words for Peter, “Follow me.” Do not wait by the gate like you did that night, when you denied my voice, when you denied my love, when you denied following the Shepherd through the gate to the good pasture. If you love me, Feed my sheep, and Follow me.
As Peter denied his connection to Jesus, he also denied who he had become in the last three years. Jesus, though, did not deny anything. He was unafraid to step through gates, to lead the way. On the night of his arrest, after washing his disciples’ feet and delivering a long prayer for the disciples and all future followers, he led his disciples across a stream to a garden, a grove of olives, which I can only suppose was behind a gate. He herded his disciples through the gate, and then, as the guards approached, he stepped back out through the gate and asked, twice, “Who are you looking for?” The guards said, twice, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and Jesus answered, twice, “I am he.” Later, when the High Priest asked Jesus to deny his teachings, Jesus replied “My teachings were in the open, in the synagogue, and the Temple. Why do you question me? Ask the people who were there what they heard me say.”
Remember the man who was born blind, on whose eyes Jesus placed the mud of creation giving him sight? The authorities asked that man three times who had healed him. “It is he,” he said twice. The third time he said, “I have already told you. Why do you want to hear it again?” The authorities’ denial of his truth about his sight was a precursor to their denial of Jesus’ truth about his teachings.
Are we again in a place where authorities are denying the truth of those who speak out in love against gun violence and those who offer love to undocumented community members?
When the guards approached to arrest Jesus, Peter defended the life of his teacher and friend by pulling a sword and doing violence. Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its sheath. In the face of violence, Jesus chose love, saying, “I AM. I WILL BE.” Even as love that rose through violence, Peter chose denial, saying, “I am not.”
Jesus did not resist arrest, but went peacefully. As the Shepherd, Jesus walked through another gate to the High Priest’s home, while Peter stayed outside the gate waiting for the voice of the unnamed disciple whom Jesus loved (could that have been Mary Magdalene?). Peter entered the gate following that Beloved Disciple’s voice, but only after he had, for the first time, denied the voice of his Shepherd.
The authorities could not hear, they could not listen, they could not follow. They denied the I AM. They denied the Word of God, the Light of the World, the Way the Truth and the Life. And the fear-mongering of the authorities made Peter step into that space of denial, denying himself, and his connection to the I AM. We know that the I AM seeks life, not death; the I AM seeks life lived in the fullness of a beautiful green pasture, where the I AM makes us to lie down beside cool waters.
Always the Shepherd, the I AM offers pardon to those of us who, out of fear, deny the truth, but then step through the fear into the truth of love. The I AM is Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The I AM is the Shepherd who calls to his sheep, over and over and over again, until they cannot hear the fear, calling us to follow the voice of love beyond the gate to the beautiful pasture. The love reaches through the fear, the denial, the trial, and the death. And the love pulls us to life.
When we, like Peter, deny the I AM, even then, if we can say, “Yes, Lord,” when Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” he will pardon us, trust us, offer us love, and say “Feed my sheep. Do not deny them life. Love them. Follow the Word of God, the Light of the World. Follow Me and full of love, our fishing nets will catch more fish than we handle.”