The Archbishop Desmond Tutu said:
“We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven.
God has a soft spot for sinners.
His standards are quite low.”
God’s standards are quite low. And that is good news for all of us.
Sadly, however, many people outside the church think we in the church think consider God’s standards very high. The perception is that the church is made up of people who think of themselves as morally superior, instead of: people who are seeking to know God; instead of people who are seeking to understand God’s call in their lives;instead of people who are seeking to love God with heart, mind, and soul by caring for the weak and vulnerable.
It seems like the world’s perception is that to be a Christian, the primary requirement is that one is morally upright – and maybe with a little self-righteousness mixed in.
Sadly, many think that if they don’t see themselves living up to that standard, they’d better not darken the door of a church.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m afraid if I walk into a church it will fall down”? Or, “I’ll get struck by lightning”? As if being here is the last place a sinner should be.
The perception, and maybe for good reason, is that Christians haven’t battled – or don’t battle – with their own demons. That church folks never face hardship or doubt. That church folks don’t know what it is to mess up – I mean, really mess up. That church folks would never be sympathetic toward those who have come from colorful backgrounds, who’ve had dysfunctional families, who struggle with mental illness, or who have betrayed someone who trusted them.
It’s safe to bet that there are more people who stay outside the church, not because they don’t believe in God, but because they don’t believe the church would believe in them.
They say to themselves, “The church has no place for the likes of me.”
Something’s gone seriously wrong when the world has to strain to hear the Easter proclamation that God does believe in the likes of us!
The proclamation that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our lives can always begin anew.
I’ve always been a fan of thrift stores. Like many of you, I like wearing clothes others have given away; I get to give them new life. Many years ago, I saw in the window of a Seattle thrift store a sign that said: “Gently Used and Repurposed” items.
I think Heaven’s going to be like one great huge thrift store! Full of gently used souls like us. Repurposed lives of great value.
The church at its best is not a place where one has to meet a set of standards to enter in. But the church is a holy space into which any stranger can enter and feel that whatever the secret is that they’re holding tight to their vest will never be too horrifying to share.
The danger when wearing our Sunday best is that we might be tempted to forget that beneath the nice clothing is our real self, a sinner just like every other sinner. Each one of us, capable of the same god-awful sins as the next guy.
I frankly do not want to believe that deep down, at my core, I am no different than, say, the prisoner who is in maximum security serving time for doing really bad stuff. I carry enough shame as it is, thank you very much.
But at my core, there really is no difference between that prisoner and me. We’ve made different choices; most likely. Our brokenness is manifest differently.
But our potential for going and doing likewise is real.
“Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Jesus asked Peter.
Not “Do you believe the right things? Have you lived a perfect life? Can you recite the Apostles’ Creed?” Rather, “Will you offer who you are and follow me?”
Some of the very best stories we have of Jesus are also stories with loveable, impulsive, and at times dense-as-a-rock Peter in them. He is the most visible disciple throughout the four gospels. Peter was with Jesus from the beginning.
Here are a few scenes from Peter’s life:
- Peter, called by the seaside, impulsively dropping his net and following Jesus.
- Simon being affectionately renamed “Peter the Rock” by Jesus.
- Peter leaping out of the boat to walk on water to meet Jesus in the distant fog.
- Peter wanting to build three tabernacles on the mountain so they could live there.
- Peter professing that Jesus indeed was the Messiah, the son of God. And saying to him, “Lord, where would we go? For you alone have the words of life.”
- Peter refusing to have Jesus serve him or wash his feet, but when Jesus said that he must, Peter saying “Wash everything!”
- Peter drawing a sword in the Garden, striking the high priest’s slave, and cutting off his right ear. (Jesus re-attaching it of course.)
- Peter proclaiming that he would never desert Jesus, and that he would willfully lay down his life for him.
- Peter painfully, excruciatingly, three times denying even knowing Jesus, just as Jesus predicted he would.
- Peter weeping bitterly.
And now in this morning’s story, we have Peter leaping into this post-resurrection scene naked and unashamed. This man – the most vulnerable, dressed down, uncovered, exposed disciple Jesus had.
This post-resurrection story from John has three scenes. The disciples have returned from Jerusalem discouraged and uncertain what their futures would be. Talk about identity crises.
They left Jerusalem and returned home to Galilee, about 70 miles north of the last time they saw Jesus. Peter announced, “I’m going fishing.” I suppose he decided to return to what he knew best. Who could blame him? After the hellish week they all had just lived through, going back to the familiar seemed reasonable. Any time we experience a crisis, we long for the normal. After tragedy strikes, regret quickly seeps in that we did not appreciate how good normal was.
Peter and Andrew were fishermen before they were called away by Jesus to follow him and fish for people. Here, they fished all night. But no fish. Had they lost their identities as fishermen too?
After the disappointing night fishing, Jesus appeared at daybreak on the beach around a charcoal fire making a special breakfast for the weary fishermen. Peter, without thought, scrambled out of that boat – putting on his clothes first – and raced toward the man on the shore.
And Jesus addressed and called him – yet again. Asking three times, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” To the point where Peter’s feelings were hurt.
Just like Peter, we are commissioned and re-commissioned every day to follow Jesus.
It won’t be a commission that leads to power though. It won’t be a call for greater success. It won’t be a call to leadership that gives you proper attention. It will be a call to servant hood. Caring for others. Seeking out lost sheep. Carrying lambs back home. You will probably be overworked, underpaid, overstressed, and under-appreciated.
The newly elected Pope Francis, in his March 19, 2013 installation homily, said this about his new call as Pope:
Today…we are celebrating the beginning of [my] ministry [as] the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power. Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. (cf. Mt 25:31-46).
What you do matters. Your life has value.
You don’t have to be the Pope. You can be parents, children, friends, employees, volunteers, neighbors, citizens, students, bosses. But whatever role you play, you are gifted and called to be a witness to the forgiveness and acceptance of God. And when others are around you, I hope they see that you are gentle with yourself because you understand and accept that you yourself are a gently used soul, and one who has been re-purposed for valuable work.
We will disappoint and fail each other. We will fall short of our own goals or the goals others have for us. But that’s okay. We start again. We extend grace to ourselves, and grace to others. Because God does not give up on us.
Jesus certainly did not give up on Peter. On one hand, Peter had followed Jesus from the start; he had given up all he had; he knew the cost of discipleship. On the other, he wavered and hedged in his faith. He was definitely a man “frayed around the edges,” but that’s what Jesus loved about Peter. He didn’t come spanking-new and well-pressed.
If there’s one thing I pray people could embrace about Christianity above all else is this:
We believe God is never done with us. God loves us so much that we are given the chance to begin again and again and again.
Whether gently or not-so-gently used, you are:
- Forgiven and re-purposed.
- Loved and sent.
- Fed and deployed.
Because God’s standards are quite low. What a relief. Thanks be to God!