Message for Luke 15:1-10

14 Pentecost C

September 11, 2022

I wish I could have a tranquil faith. I wish I could never stray from the safe path. I wish I could always jump in the right direction. Alas, that’s not me – never has been. When it comes to following Jesus, I’m a lot like the lamb in this video.

Some of that travail is years in the past. But it’s no less painful or powerful. So, when God reached out in Jesus to find me and bring me back, I thought it was a joke. When I heard the voice of God telling me to go to seminary, I was sure God had the wrong number. When the Holy Spirit blessed me with a call into ministry, I was positive that someone would figure out pretty quickly just how much of an imposter I was in this God and grace business.

Yet, the joke was on me.

That’s why I connect so personally to our gospel reading. Jesus will eat with anyone. Prior to Luke 15, Jesus has eaten with Pharisees at least three times. These meals erupt in controversy, but that doesn’t mean the meals were failures. That’s just what happens when you get some teachers together to debate the finer points of the Torah.

Jesus will eat with anyone, regardless of theological, social, or political inclination. That’s worth noting in a time when we tend to gather more and more only with people who look, think, talk, and behave like us. Then, as now, eating with anyone and everyone is a countercultural activity.

Jesus also accepts dinner invitations from the “wrong” kinds of people. He parties with the poor and the rich, the reviled and the respectable. It’s not bad enough that he sits down at the table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. He’s having a good old time with traitors and collaborators, with those who play fast and loose with their religion and probably fast and loose with a lot of other rules as well.

Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? Maybe it’s because, as Billy Joel noted, “the sinners are much more fun.” But I think it’s also because when there’s a chance to throw someone a lifeline, Jesus is going to do it. If Jesus finds someone who’s lost, Jesus is going to move heaven and earth to find them.

That message saves lives. I was privileged to be part of a congregational prison ministry called the FEAST. Part of that ministry was and is a Sunday meal together including inmates from the community corrections center, members of the congregation, and other volunteers, family, and friends.

I remember a FEAST partner (we call our inmate friends “partners” in that ministry) who was sure there was a catch to all of this. Nobody in their right mind would do this for free, he thought. “What do you people really want from me?” he asked. “We’d like to know how you want your burger cooked,” one of the volunteers replied.

We hoped our time together might change all of us for the better. But that wasn’t a condition for being together. Over time, my friend began to soften a bit. He was less defensive and paranoid. His shoulders relaxed. He even smiled a few times. After a few months, he came to me with a broad grin. “I’ve figured it out,” he told me. “I know what you people want.”

“Well, tell me,” I said, “what is it that ‘we people’ want?” He laughed as he spoke. “You don’t want anything. You just give yourselves and your time and your love for free. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think such a thing was possible. But do you know what really gets me?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I have no idea. Tell me.”

“All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I don’t want anything either. Because,” he took a deep breath, “I know that God wants to give me everything.”

If I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet, nearly twenty years later, that conversation rings in my mind as clearly as the Sunday we had it. It didn’t work that way every time. Some never got over their suspicion. Some took what they could get and left. But many more had precisely the same experience. After a lifetime of judgment and punishment, grace changed their hearts and their lives.

The story may sound like a cheesy exercise in self-congratulation. I apologize if that’s what you get. What I know is that those of us who appeared to be on the “giving” end of the deal were (and are) the ones who benefitted the most. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a greater privilege than to watch week in and week out as living, breathing human beings were transformed by the power of God’s grace in Christ. That grace was embodied in meals, friendship, acceptance, and love.

I still get chills when I remember this experience.

Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? The sinners are more fun. I suspect there really is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance. The challenge to the ninety-nine is to accept the joy when such a transformation happens.

This works out different ways in different settings. But the challenge of the Good News is there for all of us. In the last few weeks, Jesus has made it clear that he offers real freedom to those who fully follow him. When we receive and accept that invitation, can we take joy in offering that freedom to others?

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, we Jesus followers won’t be satisfied while any sheep and coins are still lost. Part of our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we settle for flocks made up only of people like us.

God won’t settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced.

But today we meet the impractical God. Today we meet the God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. When God finds us in Jesus, will we join the search for the others? God wants all of us, and God wants us all. Let’s pray…

Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Six)

You may not have known that April 2022 was “Second Chance Month.” I only knew this because of the “Second Chance” emphasis at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I regularly take in the worship and preaching at OSLC (online) and have recommended Pastor Tobi White’s sermons here on more than one occasion.

Second Chance Month was supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The purpose of the observance was “to help individuals, communities, and agencies across the country recognize the importance of reentry and their role in supporting safe and successful reentry – building second chances!”

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

The “reentry” under discussion here is the transition from incarcerated offender to law-abiding citizen. The official resources offered for this transition are paltry in amount and pathetic in impact. Just imagine being released from a state prison after months or years inside. Your family and friends may have decided to end their relationships with you. Corrections officers deposit you at a local bus station with your clothing, personal effects, and a hundred dollars. And they wish you good luck.

It may be that you have accumulated some funds if you were fortunate enough to participate in the Community Corrections part of the state carceral system. Perhaps you have a job waiting for you because you made connections during that time and demonstrated your value as an employee. Those things do happen – but they are very much the exception to the rule. For the most part, the official approach to reentry historically has been the YOYO rule – “You’re On Your Own.”

In recent years, governing bodies have begun to recognize that the YOYO rule creates a closed loop from prison to the streets and soon back to prison. The difference in recidivism rates for those with reentry support and those without is astonishing. Those with support tend to re-offend at the rate of somewhere between five and twenty-five percent, depending on the jurisdiction. Those without such support tend to re-offend at the rate of somewhere between sixty and ninety-five percent. Thus, financial support, such as grants through the “Second Chance Act” has been created to dismantle the closed loop.

Essential to reentry support are community efforts that provide structure, resources, community, accountability, and friendship to those who are seeking a second chance. The FEAST ministry at OSLC is one such community effort, now fifteen-plus years in operation. This is a ministry of friendship, food, study, serving, singing, and support – and all of it as partners in Christ. If you are interested in second chance stories, take some time to get better acquainted with the FEAST ministry and its related activities.

I mention all of this, because I wonder about the lens of the “second chance” as a way into our text in John 21:1-19. One of the things I learned early on in my association with the FEAST ministry was that “you can’t get a new past.” For the ex-offenders in the program, there was no going back and starting over. There was, instead, going forward and starting new. Of course, that’s true not only for ex-offenders, but for all of us who continue to be offenders – since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

One of the most difficult parts of the reentry process for these ex-offenders was the completion of a job application. If you do not have a felony criminal record, you have not had this experience. You have come to a certain question on the application, marked it without a second thought and moved one. That certain question is something like, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony offense?” For the ex-offender, this question creates an intolerable dilemma.

In my experience, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of employers who got a “yes” answer to that question simply discarded the application on the spot. That “yes” was a deal-breaker. Therefore, the ex-offender could tell the truth and be fairly certain of frequent rejections. Or the ex-offender could lie on the application and risk being found out and fired later. I discovered that I was in no position to give advice on how to respond to that question.

It was another demonstration that in very practical ways, you can’t get a new past. Life doesn’t offer “second chances.” There is no going back and starting over. There is only going forward and starting new. I can start new by denying my past and living a lie. Or I can start new by dealing with my past and risking rejection. Those are the options in a universe where the arrow of time points relentlessly to the future.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” The details of the inquiry vary from question to question. But the import is clear. Peter, how will you go forward after denying your discipleship three times in the courtyard of the High Priest? Will you deny that past and tend to your nets? Or will you deal with your past and take on a new identity?

Jesus doesn’t confront Peter in order to condemn him. He confronts Peter in order to free him for the life of loving service Jesus wants to give him. The French proverb tells us that to forgive is first of all to condemn. Unless I have offended, there’s nothing to forgive. The converse is that to repent is first of all to admit. Unless I have offended, there’s nothing to repent. Any conversation about setting things right means that at some point things were wrong. That’s not being judgmental. That’s just acknowledging the facts.

In John 21, Peter doesn’t get a second chance. Instead, he gets a new life. That’s what I really learned in my association with the FEAST ministry. If it is possible to offer apologies and make repairs to past damage done, without doing more harm than good, then we should do that. If I need to suffer the just consequences for my actions, then I should do that. But none of that past-oriented behavior determines how I will live in the future. That’s where the new life is located. And that’s where Jesus invites Peter to do his best work.

“If you love me, Peter, feed my sheep,” Jesus says. Love the people I love in the way that I love them. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus told his disciples in John 10. We learned there that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In the Johannine account, the crucifixion takes place at the time when the Passover lambs are slaughtered for the sacrifice. Jesus loves his flock (including us) and loves them to the uttermost. Now, he invites Peter to be a partner in that life-giving mission.

One of the choices we made early on in the FEAST ministry was how to refer to our new friends from the Community Corrections Center. We settled on the title of “partners.” We didn’t minister “to” our new friends, as if we were doing one-way “charity work” – although sometimes we did respond to specific and concrete needs they had. We didn’t minister “for” our friends, as if we were their saviors or rescuers – although sometimes we did engage in individual and systemic advocacy for them. We ministered together as partners in the reentry project. And we in the “outside church” benefitted at least as much from the ministry as did our partners in the “inside church.”

Jesus doesn’t, I think, merely offer Peter a second chance. I don’t want to denigrate the language of second chances or the experience of those who get them. I just want to think and see further. Jesus offered Peter a new life, a first chance to become what God had created Peter always to be.

Repentance and repair are important and necessary parts of dealing with our past (and present). But repentance and repair are not the end of the journey. They are stations along the way. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, “there is a New Creation.” It’s not merely that the person in Christ is made new. Instead, all of Creation is renewed every time new life in Christ is given. That’s a second chance, but more than a second chance as well. That’s a first chance to become what God has created us always to be.

And the ministry of that new life, as Paul reminds us, is the ministry of “reconciliation.” That doesn’t mean putting things back together the way they were. That won’t do. Instead, reconciliation is the making right of all Creation just as God intended from the beginning. When Jesus calls Peter to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, and to die as Jesus died – Jesus calls Peter into his part of that ministry of reconciliation.

I can’t get a new past. But I can live into a new future. I can be part of the ministry of reconciliation that sets things right in Creation. That will likely cost me something. It may well cost me everything, as it did Peter. But what it costs me is a past that is passing away. Jesus is loving you and me into the world where He makes all Creation new, always beginning right here and right now.

P. S. I hope you might consider a gift of support to the FEAST ministry or some similar ministry of reentry and reconciliation. Thanks!

References and Resources

Allen, Jennifer M. “John 21 and Christian Identity: What John’s Gospel Reveals about Cultural Trauma.” https://www.academia.edu/42951581/John_21_and_Christian_Identity_What_Johns_Gospel_Reveals_about_Cultural_Trauma. Accessed April 28, 2022.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

Schreiber, Melody. “What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future.” Scientific American, March 29, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-one-million-covid-dead-mean-for-the-u-s-s-future/. Accessed April 28, 2022.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.