Reconciled to God and to one another

Easter 3. 2013

John 21:1-19

Marian Free

In the name of God, who in Jesus, redeems us and sets us free from all our sins. Amen.

One of the most extraordinary things associated with the end of apartheid in South Africa was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead of seeking retribution and/or reparation for the events of the past, the new government committed itself to a process of listening to the stories, the pain and the hurt of the past and trying to bring about healing rather than creating further division. Perhaps the most courageous aspect of this process was the commitment to those who had carried out atrocities that they would not be prosecuted if they came forward and told the truth.

If you have the stomach for a harrowing experience, I suggest that you watch the movie, Red Dust. In it a former South African police officer, Dirk Hendriks, wants to confess to the torture and beating of Alex Mpondo – a member of Parliament. Alex is anxious about testifying. It means reliving the horror and dealing with the death of his friend Steve. When the trial starts, Hendriks accuses him of denouncing Steve, which causes his own community to abandon him. Alex is sure he did not betray his friend, but his memory is not sufficiently clear nor can he produce evidence to prove his version of events

Hendrik’s former boss, Piet Muller, wants to ensure that only a sanitised account is made known so that he is not implicated in the events. He has a vested interest in discrediting Alex.

So we watch as Alex finds the courage to testify and to re-live the experience of his own torture and the agony of having to watch his friend’s horrendous suffering and death. We are indignant when we discover that Alex’s version of events cannot be supported by other evidence and when his fellow ANC members turn against him. We are relieved when his account is proven to be true. We witness the grief and relief of Steve’s mother as her son’s remains are recovered and she acknowledges that he is indeed dead.

The story doesn’t end there. When Muller realises that his part in Alex’s torture and Steve’s death has been exposed, he makes the decision to protect himself by confessing. In order for this to work, Alex has to allow the process to proceed. Alex is furious. He can see that Muller is only protecting himself. He cannot bear the thought that this man will walk free despite the atrocities he has committed. Gradually, Alex works through his anger, his need for retribution and reparation and he comes to the decision that he must let go of the past no matter how unpalatable that decision may be. He comes to the understanding that withholding his cooperation will solve nothing so he allows the process to continue.

Of course, I don’t know how well the process has worked overall, but from a Christian perspective it seems to me that it is a more positive (if extraordinarily painful) way to deal with conflict resolution especially on a personal, neighbourhood or national level. If the perpetrators of violent acts can acknowledge what they have done and if the victims can find the strength to surrender their need to have their suffering validated by the punishment of the other it just might be possible to find a way to escape the cycle of retribution and violence that keeps some conflicts going.

Our sense of justice is finely honed, but storing up bitterness, anger and hatred does no one any good. Vengeance does not lead to reconciliation or to the restoration of relationships. That is not to say that the perpetrators of abuse should not be held accountable or that crimes and misdeeds should simply be overlooked. Unacceptable behaviour remains unacceptable and must be named as such and it must not be allowed to continue. On the other hand, no matter how insincere a person’s “confession” might be, any admission of wrong doing means that their behaviour is exposed and they can no longer pretend to be what they are not. The past is laid open for others to judge.

The scale is different, but accountability and restoration feature in today’s gospel.

Despite having said that he will follow Jesus to death, Peter has denied Jesus not once but three times. Confronted with Jesus’ arrest, Peter has revealed that he was not as courageous as he had thought he would be. Even though he followed Jesus’ progress through the court system, Peter did not want to be identified as one of Jesus’ followers. Having promised complete and total loyalty, he lacked the courage to stand up and be counted. He watched Jesus being unjustly condemned but did nothing to intervene

You would think, wouldn’t you, that such behaviour would be hard to forgive. You would understand if Jesus, having undergone the excruciating agony of crucifixion, might want to extract some sort of reparation from those who abandoned him. He would be justified in thinking that Peter should accept the consequences of his denial. In fact, it would not be surprising to us if Jesus had given Peter the cold shoulder and frozen him out of any further involvement in the movement.

Jesus however, acts in a way that is contrary to all our expectations. He does not confront Peter (or any of the other disciples for that matter) and accuse him (them) of cowardice, desertion and betrayal. He doesn’t demand recompense from Peter for his treachery, his abandoning him in his hour of need. He doesn’t make Peter prove his loyalty and demonstrate his commitment before they can be friends again. Instead he does what by human standards is almost unthinkable. Not only does he overlook what Peter has done, but he gives to Peter the preeminent role in the community. “Feed my lambs, shepherd my sheep.” Peter is commissioned to take over where Jesus left off. Peter, the deserter is to become Peter the leader

That does not mean that Peter is not held accountable for what he has done. His crime may not be named, but Jesus’ threefold request and Peter’s obvious discomfort are evidence that Peter is being asked to accept responsibility for his weakness and for the fact that he turned his back on his leader and his friend. Without having to make recompense, without being isolated, excluded and punished, Peter is restored to his place in the community, his place in Jesus’ affection and given new responsibility. History shows that Jesus’ confidence is not misplaced.

And this, brothers and sisters is the extraordinary thing about the God in whom we believe. We abandon and betray God, but God does not abandon us. We nail God to a cross and still God continues to trust in us. It is this, I hope – God’s love and trust in us, not the threat of punishment or the fear of the fires of hell – that makes us respond, that encourages us to behave in ways that deserve such confidence. Even at our worst, God sees the good in us. Let us do all that we can to live up to God’s faith in us.

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