2019 05 05: Forgiven to Last

Posted on 06 May 2019

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is said, it is never too late to begin again. So, an old man and an old woman got engaged, and as they were strolling down the street planning their wedding they passed a drugstore. “Excuse me,” the old man said to the clerk, “Do you sell medicine for memory problems?” “Sure” replied the clerk “all kinds.” The old man asked, “How about for arthritis?” The clerk nodded, “Wheelchairs, canes and walkers?” The clerk replied again, “All kinds.” “Excellent,” said the old man “because my fiancé and I are getting married next month, and we want to use your store as our Bridal Registry.”

Our trip to Russia and the Baltic States was filled with all kinds of stories reminding us that “it’s never being too late.” Don’t worry, there weren’t any surprise engagements you need to know about. No, we heard the personal stories of men and women who believed in God’s promise that it is never too late and that he will remain faithful- even when neighbors and political powers fall away. We heard the accounts of grandparents who remained faithful and saw their own grandchildren baptized in a church that the Nazis had closed and the Soviets turned into gymnasium. We heard the stories of brave choir members who voiced their protest against the Communists by singing and joining in a choir that was one person deep and 360 miles long. And we heard the story of men and who women who courageously raised great wooden crosses in the night on a hill in Lithuania as a protest against the Soviet authorities. For all of these, after 50 years, their dreams of freedom, and the resurrection of their church and nations came true.

The story of never being too late is as old as the Christian church itself, but often we forget God’s amazing grace and power- especially when it concerns matters of sin and forgiveness. That is what I would like to share with you today. It is never too late for God’s love to change your life so that you too can begin again.

Jesus’ disciples should have been moved by the good news of their Master’s resurrection, but instead they were exhausted, disappointed and troubled. And who could blame them? They had been on an emotional rollercoaster with the events of Good Friday and Easter. Their own moral and spiritual failure on that Good Friday haunted them and had left them with deep wounds.

As the disciples sat in the boat buoyed on the dark water of the Sea of Tiberias, Peter recalled that scene over and over again. The words echoed in his thoughts. Three times he was questioned, and three denials he spoke. Each time he claimed, “I do not know this man.” Yes, the words came back stabbing him again and again. How could he have denied his friend? The other disciples felt just as guilty. They remembered their own failings. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus asked that they stay with him, they slept. Yes, they were weak. They failed the last request Jesus made of them, and when everything fell to pieces in the darkness of the garden, when they watched as Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, they ran. The sound of their footsteps running to hide, and the heavy breathing, haunted their hearts. Yes, sitting in that lonely boat on the darkened sea, they remembered it all. And they all wondered if the pain would ever subside.
Of course, they’re not alone. Men and women among us carry their burden of regret every day. Reluctantly they hide away where they are neither challenged by their neighbors nor the crowds. A daughter ponders the vow of fidelity she has made to her husband, while her parents lean to an easy and quiet divorce. Two brothers seek to enlarge their business. One prefers to embrace questionable business practices, while the other refuse- so the one simply washes his hands of the whole affair. A candidate for political office knows the secret to destroy his opponent. Rather than to stay the course, he willing exploits the secret. Perhaps, you count yourself in the lowly chorus. You have experienced the empty, dark night of the soul, when you wonder whether your life will ever be healthy and stable again, when you can hold your head up high. Poor choices, bad decisions, impolite words, and misdirected motives. You wish you could put them all behind you. But they still haunt you.

If things hadn’t seemed bad enough that night on the Sea of Tiberias, the disciples had been fishing for hours and still hadn’t caught a thing. Nothing. It was as if after abandoning their Jesus, they couldn’t even fish anymore. The one skill, they always knew that could fall back on, proved to be out of reach.

St. John writes that just as the darkest hour of night had passed and the light was dawning over the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus appeared to his disciples. He was calling out to the boat from the sea shore. For the fishermen who knew the business of fishing, the stranger’s advice seemed rather naïve. “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” We read that this was third time Jesus appeared to his disciples, and that this was the third time, they did not recognize him. As much as they had tried to return to their safe harbor, and to the familiar routine of the one work they really knew, they could not. Jesus would not let them go. Curiously, and perhaps humoring the stranger, they cast their nets to the other side, as he said, and suddenly they were unable to haul the net in because there were so many fish. It was at that moment, that the disciple whom Jesus loved, recognized their master, and cried out, “It is the Lord.” And at that moment Peter put his clothes back on, and jumped out of the boat and into the sea. Apparently, it was fine to fish naked in the dark, but you would not want to be seen naked by the Lord in daylight.

Back in the boat, the rest of the disciples were swimming in a miraculous catch. Wading knee deep in a boatload of fish, the disciples realized that Christ’s resurrection was about new beginnings and second chances- even second chances at fishing. It was about taking up the nets, and beginning again, by putting them out on the other side. Christ’s resurrection at Easter, you see, is about letting go of past regrets. It’s never too late. But often the greatest challenge is still to forgive yourself.

This was certainly true for Peter. Three times Jesus asked Peter to confess his love. Three times Peter did this, though by the third time he was disheartened, and even hurt. Peter didn’t quite catch the poignancy, but as witnesses of the resurrection, we surely do. You see, the last time Peter stood beside a charcoal fire was when he was huddled in the high priest’s court yard and denied his Lord three times. So three times Jesus invited Peter to confess his sins, symbolically wiping away the three times Peter denied him. It was Easter’s word of forgiveness for a new beginning. Sometimes, you and I need to do this as well. Sometimes, we need to face our sins and errors directly, to confess them, one by one, face to face, so that we can let them go and move on. And then be renewed by God’s forgiveness to begin again.

Dr. Joseph Fort Newton tells the story from the history of the state of Tennessee. A native American tribe had raided a white, pioneer settlement, and after killing nearly everyone, they carried off with them one little boy into the forest. Years had passed, and in a skirmish with the cavalry some warriors were taken prisoners by the settlers. Among them were a few men with faces that were almost white. Two mothers came to see if they could find their lost boys. They walked along the line peering in vain into the sullen, empty faces. Suddenly an officer asked if they remembered any melody they used to sing to the boys. One of the mothers began to sing a haunting lullaby. The effect was startling. All at once a towering figure broke from the line and came cautiously toward her. They looked at one another for an instant, she still singing, until the warrior fell on her shoulder and cried for joy. No, it is never too late?

That, my friends, is the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our God is a God of surprises, and for him, it is never too late. Our Lord is bringing love back to broken lives and spreading joy on the wings of a song. That is your work as well, so be patient, remember your call, and trust that gospel of Jesus Christ is never too late.

Our trip to Russia and Baltic States taught me again that we can dismiss those who have not followed with us at the same hour. But God refuses to be prejudiced. God alone knows the secret regrets of your heart. Yet, he is waiting for you and it is never too late. Trust in his Easter promise of forgiveness. Then heed his voice, “Come, follow me.” Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.