Getting Past the Past

Read John 21

You can’t get a new past. Nor can I. The arrow of time points ever forward. The path of life is cluttered with “No U-turn” signs. Three times in the darkness of Maundy Thursday, Peter denied his discipleship. “Are you one of his disciples?” they asked. “I tell you I am not!” Peter replied. The words poured out of his mouth and hardened into the pavement of the past. There was no denying the denials. There was no reversing the regrets.

You are probably now remembering your own Maundy Thursday moments. You hear the words you cannot take back. You see the deed that cannot be undone. You imagine unchoosing a shameful choice. You remember a risk rejected for the sake of safety. The words and deeds, the choices and chances–they are fixed in history and memory and consequence. You can’t get a new past.

I know, from my own heart, what Peter is doing. Easter Sunday has come and gone. Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!). Hurray for Jesus! But Peter’s past persists. My denials are etched into the bedrock of the universe. Nothing can change that. Best to return quietly to what I know. Resigned to his reality, Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”

Riddled with regret, Peter tries to stop thinking. Perhaps he can lose himself in work. Maybe he can be too busy to be bothered. Other disciples join him in this conspiracy of silence. Nets and boats, gills and guts–just put one foot in front of the other. Nobody can change the past. Just plant yourself in the unthinking present.

Then Jesus shows up. “How’s the fishing?” The present collapses into the past. There was another conversation on the shore. Jesus commandeered Peter’s boat and preached to the crowd. He said to the disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” They dropped their nets and abandoned their boats. They followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem, but not to the cross.

The scene goes from bad to worse. Jesus fixes a little breakfast on the beach. He serves bread and fish. Can you remember the menu when Jesus fed five thousand? He cooks over a charcoal fire. In the glowing embers, perhaps Peter sees the fire in the courtyard of the High Priest. He warmed himself at that fire and hotly protested, “I am not one of his disciples!”

We all avoid places that are thick with memories. We all have words and phrases that wrench us into regrets. We all have calendar dates that propel us into the past. It’s like tumbling backward off a cliff, like plunging into a dark pool. “How’s the fishing?”

Does Jesus come simply to provoke a storm of shame? No–he comes to bring Easter into the ordinary. You can’t get a new past. But you can receive a new future. Easter means new life every day.

After breakfast, Jesus and Peter take a walk along the shore. For Peter, it’s painful. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks. Not once or twice, but three times. The past will not be erased. But it can be redeemed. “Feed my sheep.” When Jesus forgives, new life happens. You can’t get a new past. But you can get a new future. Peter’s call is redeemed and renewed. That’s the product of forgiveness. Easter means new life every day.

At graduation we talk about commencement–a beginning. We say that graduates have their whole lives ahead of them. That is both thrilling and terrifying. The future is filled with potential for both success and failure. No matter how we wish otherwise, they will rack up their own record of regrets, just like the rest of us.

So, today’s text is for all of us together. If you are eighteen, you have your whole life ahead of you. If you are eighty, you have your whole life ahead of you. Every day is commencement day. You can’t get a new past. But you can get a new future. That will be true for your whole life. Easter means new life every day.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Perhaps Peter felt a bit unbalanced, trying to reconcile his past and future. So he went back to what he knew. He went from Jerusalem back to Galilee. But returning to the familiar is often not only crazy but perhaps fatal. Without that breakfast on the beach, Peter might have died, drowning in regret.

But he didn’t. Peter received the reconciliation offered. He accepted his past and embraced a new call. Once again he left his nets and abandoned his boat. He went from Galilee to Jerusalem to Rome. Peter was executed during a time of persecution, crucified upside down according to Church tradition. But he found his future, his purpose, his Easter path.

This is one of those stories that convicts and convinces me at a gut level of the truth and power of the Gospel. I know that on my own I will never face and own the shame and regret of my past. It’s just too easy to move on…nothing to see here…just get on with your life. I don’t have it in me to even look in some of those places. I know that the power to do that, when I am even willing to allow it, comes from outside of me. In those moments, I find myself standing at a little camp fire on a lonely beach. A voice begins by saying, “Lowell, you love me?”

Maybe you are being called to something new. Maybe you need to accept your past and embrace a new vocation. Maybe you need to leave what is familiar and risk a new adventure. If so, you may hear Jesus whispering to you, “Feed my sheep.” Easter means new life every day.

In this text I hear a word for today’s church. We can’t get a new past. White Christian churches have underwritten racism, supported slavery, and protected white privilege. Churches have embodied and encouraged male domination, abuse of women and gender inequality. Christians use the Bible and theology to baptize smug and violent homophobia. Christianity supports colonial and imperial warfare and has baptized unbridled consumerism. We can’t get a new past. We have to face that past in all its ugliness and violence. And we have to know that the past is still running our present.

“A thread runs through the history of America,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in her book, Native, “a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness,” Curtice concludes, “of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed ‘unworthy’ of humanity.” (p. 13).

The “thread of whiteness” is part of our past and present as the dominant, white Church in the United States. The history of that thread has been suppressed, denied, papered over, and (in some quarters) celebrated as essential to who we are as (white) people. We know that thread has been a threat, carried out millions of times, on the bodies of Black, Brown, Native, Asian American and Pacific Islander peoples. We see that threat fulfilled nearly every day in our social media feeds, often accompanied by contemporaneous video.

Like Peter we must acknowledge that past. We must repent that past. We must repair that past in the present and future. We dare not pretend that this is a merely individual issue. We live in a system of white power, privilege and property that survives by ignoring, erasing, assassinating and eradicating all who remind us that the system is a lie and our past is dark with murderous death.

“Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others, considering them less-than,” Curtice writes further. “It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the ‘other’ within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really, assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color…Because, at the end of the day,” Curtice reminds us, “whiteness doesn’t truly give anyone anything. It is a culture of taking and erasing, and we must learn from our mistakes and actively work toward healing.” (pp. 45-46).

But we can embrace a new future. Current graduates inherit a culture of declining faith and increasing fear. The Church is tempted to retreat into what we know, to pretend that nothing has changed. If we continue that course, we abandon our young people to cultural insanity.

But Easter means new life every day. In my personal life, that means continuing to confront my own whiteness and to build and receive an identity that is not dependent on power, privilege, and property. In the congregation that means embracing repentance and repair, experiment and adventure. That means taking risks worthy of Jesus’ call. In our synods that means confronting the racism that overwhelms the political culture of our states. In our denomination that means speaking Jesus’ truth to economic and political power, even if it gets us crucified.

You can’t get a new past. But Jesus gives us a new future. Easter means new life every day. .

See Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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