Every so often you see somebody on TV struggling to say ‘sorry’. It’s a word that’s surprisingly difficult to say in public when the desire for a bit of self-justification kicks in and you find yourself coming out with something convoluted and evasive like: ‘well we all recognise that the outcome wasn’t ideal but in my defence I’d just like to say ...’. My favourite was from a footballer a while ago who apologised for some disgraceful episode or other by saying, ‘I made a mistake - I let myself down’. We tend to get being sorry mixed up with being sorry for ourselves. We want things to go back to being how they were before everyone was mad with us - but part of the difficulty is that our actions change reality. Part of being sorry is the recognition - just a bit too late - that our relationships with one another are the basic fabric of our lives. When we act as though we don’t recognise that we are connected to each other we are not just making a mistake, we are actually cutting off the possibility for goodness and growth in ourselves and others. And then we realise - too late - that it’s easier to wound and damage our relationships than to heal them. We get stuck, and we lock ourselves in to a limited and damaged version of what our lives might be.
There’s some woolly thinking in our society about right and wrong, about what is just a matter of personal choice and what choices need to be re-thought in the context of the responsibility we have to one another and ourselves. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend you have a look at Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’s wonderful little article about ethics and morality which has been re-printed in this month’s Messenger. Sacks says it isn’t true that a society without religion will become a society with a moral compass, but he says without the basic view of reality that religion provides then all we have to fall back on is the civil ethics of the Ancient Greeks that distinguishes between the public sphere - where standards apply and we all need to respect the rights of those around us - and the private sphere where we owe no duty to anybody else except ourselves. Sacks points out true morality depends on the building of relationships, on how we nurture loyalty and love, and on how we see the building up of others as fundamental to who we are ourselves.
When we forget this we get stuck, and we spiral downwards into a limited version of who we ourselves are, and of who other people are. We get stuck, because we recognise when its too late that there’s no going back to an idealised past, and we don’t know how to move forward because we don’t have a coherent vision of the future.
Our Gospel reading this morning shows Peter in the double-bind that we ourselves know all too well. The problem for Peter is, of course, that he has reneged on everything that he himself insisted gave his life meaning. In swearing blind that he doesn’t know Jesus he trades the temporary companionship of a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house for the true context of his own life. It would have seemed as if he didn’t even have a choice at the time, the sort of instinctual reaction to save his own life that actually we can hardly blame him for. We actually know what it’s like to fail to stand up for something or someone we love because we are suddenly afraid. When it comes down to it, Peter is no better or worse than every one of us, when our actions betray our beliefs, when our self-interest betrays our loyalty and our fear gets the better of our love.
I wonder what the news of Jesus’ resurrection would have meant to Peter. Was it entirely good news for Peter, that Jesus - who knew all along that Peter’s courage wasn’t as strong as his rhetoric - was risen and victorious? Because Peter now found himself on the outside looking in, excluded from Jesus’ resurrection life by his own self-protective words, ‘I don’t know the man’. And so he says, ‘I’m going fishing’. And in John’s account at least six of the others say, ‘we’ll come too’. It’s a way of saying, ‘well, that’s the end of that, then. Back to where we all started. None of that really happened.’ It’s another denial not only of who Jesus is, but also who Peter himself really is. We do it ourselves, when we want to hold on to the comfortable and familiar, old patterns, because we are unable to believe in the resurrection promise of restored hope and new possibilities in a future we can’t control and don’t trust. We do this in the Church when we refuse to move on from past patterns that no longer give life, when we can’t trust in the one who persistently points us in the direction of the future.
What ties Peter - and us - to the past is our need for forgiveness. Peter, of course, has seen Jesus’ practice of forgiveness in action, he knows the power of forgiveness to make possible what is impossible, he just doesn’t believe in it for himself. Forgiveness is easier to believe in theoretically than to put into practice in our own lives, in our own community. But I don’t think we ever really understand what forgiveness is until we take the risk of actually practising it. Until we take the risk of accepting the forgiveness of others, the chance of forgoing the luxury of our own hurt and extending forgiveness to others. Jesus’ three-fold question to Peter is of course not by way of making him squirm - although it clearly does - not an accusation but an absolution, a way back into relationship and a way forward into the future. Forgiveness creates a possible future, and it confers a new way of being, a new set of priorities, a new imperative for how you live your life. Forgiveness is not a passive exercise - it implies purpose, and it implies mission. Forgiveness is the everyday practice of resurrection - because forgiveness creates a future where there was none.
But it also seems to me that one of the keys to practising forgiveness in our own lives is to reflect on it in advance. To - so to speak - live forward into the possibility of forgiveness even before there is anything to forgive, even after forgiveness has been extended and received. It begins with how we look at ourselves, and how we look at each other. If we look with a critical eye, focused on our own rights, our own status or our own choices, then we will measure the world around us by how it affects us. We become judgmental, quick to lay blame, good at assigning fault, expert at spotting errors in others. We create a moral universe in which we ourselves are at the centre, checking who or what offends us or doesn’t measure up to our standards. And we overlook or excuse ourselves for the ways in which we hurt others. Or else we turn the critical eye on ourselves - we learn the lesson that we ourselves are not good enough, that we are defined by our own failures, that nothing we do can be good enough, that nobody can enjoy or appreciate us for who we are, that we can only ever let other people down. Both of these patterns are sinful, they arise from our own sin in putting ourselves at the centre of our own moral universe, and they arise from the sins that we inherit, the sinful structure of a society that has retreated into unhealthy individualism.
Peter’s greatest challenge is to forgive himself. Psychologists tell us how crucial this is, how often what it is that we most criticise or condemn in others is a projection of what deep down we most hate about ourselves. If we feel guilty, we try to make ourselves feel better by projecting it onto somebody else, blaming somebody else or making somebody else responsible for how we feel. Blaming others is a common escape from having to look too closely at ourselves. We all do this sometimes, it’s part of being human. But the antidote is to practice resurrection, which means to take ourselves out of the centre of our own moral universe, to learn the way of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not the overlooking of sin, it is not the denial of justice and it is not about refusal to show compassion to the victims of injustice. Forgiveness means the clear-sighted naming of what has damaged relationship - three times Peter says to the servants of the High Priest, ‘I don’t know him’, and three times Jesus says to Peter, ‘do you love me?’ Forgiveness is painful and it has consequences in honesty and restitution, but forgiveness creates a future that is free from the past.
One of the alternative readings that we didn’t hear during Lent was from John, chapter eight, when Jesus says to the accusers of the woman caught in adultery, ‘Well, OK then, but the one who has no sin should be the first to throw a stone’. And a moment later, when no stones have been thrown and the accusers have all gone home, he says to the woman, ‘neither do I condemn you. Go home, and don’t sin any more’. The point is, Jesus is not in the condemning business, and neither should we be. Condemnation focuses on the error of others, and compounds it with the sin of rejection and unforgiveness. Condemnation is a denial of resurrection, it is a denial of the goodness of the future to which resurrection orients us, condemnation is a refusal to let go of the sins and limitations of the past, condemnation is practical commitment to the tomb that will never be empty, it limits us and it limits God’s creation.
Condemnation, bullying, back-biting, gossip - inappropriate self-blame and inappropriate blame of others - are all alive and healthy in the Church, and they happen right at the same time as we claim to be following Jesus. This is the inglorious truth about who we are. Peter is a klutz, he is faithless and fickle and his flaws are all too obvious, but thank God Peter is Peter, because in Peter we see ourselves. Peter, the rock on which Jesus promises to build his Church, is us, Peter is the mirror in which we see ourselves clearly. In Peter we see our unforgiveness and our self-centredness, and we also see the possibility of taking hold of resurrection. We see ourselves as we are, we see ourselves as God sees us, and we see the grace of resurrection that brings the two versions of ourselves into focus.