Grace, peace, and forgiveness to us all from Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen!
This week I have been dipping into a book from 2007 titled unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why it Matters. Though the book is 15 years old – its ideas are still important for us to consider. The most dominant view about Christians today is that we are judgmental. According to a study of people ages 16–29 in the United States, nearly 90 percent of respondents articulated this opinion of Christians and the practice of our faith.
Now, it’s not hard to make the case that some judgments are, in fact, necessary and good. We can judge that the COVID virus is too prevalent and we must maintain our social distance, or that our coffee is too hot to drink, or that a particular relationship is toxic to us. But these types of judgments are not the issue at hand.
Rather, it is the act of judging someone personally, derogatorily, and unfairly that the study’s respondents keyed in on so overwhelmingly. According to the discussion of the study results, “Being judgmental is fueled by self-righteousness, the misguided inner motivation to make our own life look better by comparing it to the lives of others.”
In John’s Gospel we may find an antidote to our perceived “judginess.” Jesus did something amazing in the face of confusing, disappointing, and upsetting behavior by his friends. Maybe if we look at it carefully this morning it will suggest to us how we might react if we find ourselves surprised by the behavior or ideas of other people.
The Gospel story is straightforward. On his first post-Resurrection visit to the disciples Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” On his second visit, a week later, Thomas is present this time –the disciples incredibly are still behind locked doors in that upper room. Shame on them, right? Way to follow Jesus’ instructions! But Jesus doesn’t seem to be distressed at all by their inaction. And faced with Thomas’ doubt Jesus once again displays no annoyance. He’s a lot calmer than I would be. He merely notes that those who believe without seeing the nail prints are blessed – but doesn’t chide Thomas for asking to see the evidence. In today’s Gospel, we consider the third visit of Jesus – this time by the Sea of Galilee. Why there? We are told that Peter, the Denier, has decided that his best course of action is to go fishing. Imagine what Peter is thinking and feeling as he comes face to face with his friend and rabbi who he has so recently and vehemently denied. Peter retreats to something familiar to deal with his shame – “I’m going fishing” – and six of the disciples follow him to the lakeside. That complicated, wounded Peter returns to his fishing boat. Isn’t that what we all do when we’re ashamed? Retreat to whatever is safe, comfortable, and familiar? Run headlong towards something — anything– that will help us feel competent and worthy again? Peter flees to his boat, his nets, his livelihood before he met Jesus. Perhaps the old ways dilute his pain.
Before we check on what Jesus does with Peter’s unworthiness – let’s focus on what he does not do. In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment on revenge or retribution. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his. Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends. He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she cries. He offers his wounds to the examination of a skeptical Thomas. He grills bread and fish for his hungry disciples. He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.
Jesus isn’t in the shaming business – he’s in the business of loving and reconciling in a way that we, if we are to be followers of Jesus, must imitate. It is instructive in this story that Jesus saves Peter by returning him to the very source of his shame – does Peter love Jesus or does he still deny him. Jesus doesn’t coddle. Jesus doesn’t avoid the hard conversation. He doesn’t pretend that Peter’s denials didn’t happen and didn’t wound. But neither does Jesus preach, condemn, accuse, or retaliate. He feeds. He feeds Peter’s body and then he feeds Peter’s soul. He surrounds the self-loathing disciple with tenderness and safety, inviting him to revisit his shame for the sake of healing, restoration, and commissioning: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
Contemporary American theologian, Rachel Held Evans notes: “Religion has torn a lot of people to pieces. Whenever it has embarked on a quest for purity, crusaded for certainty, striven for survival, religion has done so at great cost, asking so many humans to ignore their consciences, to pretend to believe things they don’t really believe, to squeeze into ill-fitting gender roles and cultural norms, to snuff out desires and squander talents, to live one way during the week and another on Sunday morning, to sacrifice sons and daughters on the altar of conformity, to feign certainty, to fake happiness, to strive for perfection, to look the other way in the presence of injustice—indeed, to renounce some aspect of their very humanity.”
Shame is the ultimate connection killer, for it tells us that our flaws make us unworthy of love. The exact opposite of Jesus’s new commandment to love each other. Shame mutters in our ears. Its voice somehow finds the express lane into our hearts and heads. Its voice identifies deeply hidden, deeply rooted insecurity and toys with it, amplifies it, multiplies it. We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, bullying, and suicide.
What would it look like if we offered each other the safety Jesus offers Peter? The safety to return to the heart of our wrongdoing and despair. The safety to wrap fresh language around our failure. The safety to experience unconditional love in the midst of our shame. The safety to try again. Can we set aside our judgementalism? What would Christianity look like if we “followers of the Way” epitomized Jesus’s version of reconciliation? What would the world be like if we Christians were known as the people to run to in times of humiliation instead of to flee from? Can we, like Jesus, become sanctuary for the shamed?