Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Matthew 18 on confronting your brother

I’m re-reading Matthew right now. Was pretty amazed in a study I did last Sunday in “Life Rules” class on forgiveness. I studied Mt 18, where it tells us what to do “if thy brother shall trespass against thee”. So you first confront him alone. If the dirty bum won’t listen, you find someone who agrees with you and the two of you buttonhole him. If that doesn’t work, you drag the church into it, and if he won’t listen, you and the whole church “throw the bum out!” There!
Except that when you read Mt 18 as a whole, that’s not it at all. Good grief! This is the chapter where the shepherd leaves 99 nice compliant sheep in the fold and searched high and low for the wayward one! This is the chapter of “the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. “! Just before the “if thy brother shall trespass against thee…” passage, Jesus says “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” Then he says “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass…”; so He isn’t changing the subject. THEN he tells Peter that if his brother sins against him 70X7 times, he should forgive him!
SO! In light of the whole chapter, I think Mt 18 is less talking about dragging your lousy brother in front of the church so you can get your way, and a lot more about trying your best to reconcile with him. It is not all about me! (oh…)

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I went to the potter’s house one day. It could better be described as a cottage. It was a small home, comfortably set on a small lot on a street of similar homes. It was set back some distance from the street, and as I approached, there was only one detail that offered a hint as to the occupation of its owner. The path leading from the street to the house, raised slightly above the surrounding grass, was topped with broken pottery. Most of it was plain and colorless, but here and there a glint of color spoke of a finished piece that for one reason or another had broken and while once ornate and functional, now found usefulness only in helping to keep people’s feet out of the mud.
I found the potter in his shop working a lump of clay. He acknowledged my arrival with a silent nod and continued with his work. He had the clay in the middle of his wheel and for a time kneaded it first from one side then turning it slightly, from another. After a while he balled it up, centered it and started the wheel turning. Slowly he began to flatten the lump into a large pancake, occasionally dipping his fingers into a nearby bowl of water and dampening the clay.
Finally seeming satisfied, he pushed the edges of the clay back toward the center of the wheel until he had formed it into a short, fat column. He stopped the wheel momentarily, rinsed his hands and placed clean water in the bowl. Having completed these tasks, he once again started the wheel and began shaping his vessel. He glanced my way once or twice with a smile that seemed to invite me to guess his purpose. I stood quietly, convinced that every detail of this vessel was clearly imprinted in his mind, while I was just as clearly without a hint of understanding. I was awed by the way the clay seemed to respond to his hands. It seemed almost alive, following the movement of his fingers as he pressed, pinched, and cupped it between his hands. A hollow formed in the clay, the sides began to rise, contours began to take shape, and the sides started to thin. Just as I was beginning to think I recognized the vessel’s purpose, a frown appeared on the potter’s face and he stopped the wheel. Digging into the vessel he removed what appeared to be a small lump of hard, dry clay.
Restarting the wheel, he pressed the clay back into a formless lump and once again went through the process of flattening it out, feeling for other lumps. Finally satisfied, he pressed the clay back into a column in the center of the wheel and restarted the process of shaping it into conformity with the picture in his mind.
I marveled as, once again, the clay responded to his will and the movement of his hands. Lifting, pressing, shaping, and smoothing, he worked his purpose into the lifeless object before him. Once again he stopped the wheel and there before me stood the vessel, completed except for the firing and finishing. Even though I had watched it happen, I could not fathom how he had worked this miracle of creation that now stood before me.
He turned to me and we began to talk of his work and how he shaped each new piece according to a predetermined purpose. As we talked I commented on the uniqueness of the path leading to the house, and how I thought it a very practical thing that he used the scraps of his labor on the path rather than simply discarding them. He responded to my observation with a thoughtful look and called my attention to the dried lump that he had removed from the partially formed vessel.
“It is not an uncommon event,” he said. “Care must be taken to find those imperfections in the clay and remove them. They are often difficult to detect and so small that you might be tempted to overlook them instead of going to all the trouble of starting over.” He went on to say that if they are missed or left in the vessel, they will weaken it so that it breaks during the firing or will not stand up under normal use. “If it breaks during the firing,” he said, “it often destroys not only itself but other vessels near it.”
“As you noted, the path to my house is covered with the inevitable results of imperfections that did not get removed before the pieces were put through the fire. Most of those vessels were destroyed in the first firing. Those were the colorless pieces you saw. Some, however, survived the firing and became finished vessels. They were beautiful to look at and for a time were useful vessels, but the imperfection had weakened the vessel and inevitably it could not stand up under the stress of normal use. Those glints of color you saw were from such vessels.”
He went on to say that we are much like these vessels. Each of us has imperfections of character that have the potential to destroy us if not removed, and if they manifest themselves in the wrong way they can destroy others as well. “There are two examples in the Scriptures,” he said. “In one, the flaw is identified and dealt with early, and the person goes on to a productive ministry. In the other, the flaw is never dealt with and the person, although starting strong and showing great promise, eventually self-destructs, destroying not only himself, but also those dear to him.”
“The first of these is Peter, whose pride and insecurity brought him to actually deny his relationship with Jesus. Afterward however, when he looked at Jesus eye to eye, he crumbled under his guilt and repented. After Jesus’ ascension, Peter fulfilled Jesus’ admonition to ‘strengthen the brethren,’ and is regarded even today as one of the central pillars of the church. Peter is like the vessel I made today. Jesus spotted his flaw and warned him of it. Initially Peter resisted Jesus’ prediction of failure, but when it happened it took only a look from Jesus to bring Peter to repentance. God was able to reshape Peter into a vessel of honor.”
“The second is King Saul, whose pride was initially hidden by a false humility. He started out as a strong leader, and a good king, but before long his pride came to the forefront and, being hardened, he never repented. God rebuked him repeatedly and finally rejected him completely becoming his enemy. His final act was to lead the nation of Israel into battle where not only were they defeated, but he and his sons were killed. Saul is like the vessel that endures the furnace and is initially beautiful and useful, but does not stand up to the stress of service. He is like those bits of colorful pottery you saw on the path. The color serves as a reminder of what once was and could have been, but their only usefulness now is to help keep the feet of others out of the mud.”
I left the potter’s house with a troubled mind, for I had been struggling with the guilt of a failure of character. I, like Saul, had at one time been in a position of honor and regarded by some as a leader in spiritual and temporal matters. Also like Saul, when my defect surfaced it destroyed not only me but others, including my family.
Was I destined to serve only as a reminder of what was and could have been, and find usefulness only in helping keep the feet of others out of the mud as they tread over the broken pieces of my life?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Peter's Story

“…and He Appeared to Cephas…”

In this fleeting statement, from I Corinthians 15:5 and its equally brief counterpart in Luke’s Gospel, “the Lord is risen indeed and has appeared to Simon,” lies a story. It is a story of failure, of remorse, and a very personal and profound grief. It is also a story of forgiveness, restoration, and triumph brought about through an equally profound love.
Apart from the two references above, the Scriptures are silent on the details of this meeting between the risen Savior and Peter. Even Mark’s gospel, which is thought to be based on Peter’s recollection of events and recorded by John Mark, is silent on the subject of this meeting. Mark records only that the women who went to the tomb were instructed to, “Go and tell the disciples—and Peter.”
This story is the story of that meeting, its significance, and the significance of the silence surrounding it. The story begins in the upper room following the Passover meal. The twelve still sit at the table and Jesus has just made the statement that He will be betrayed by one of those who sit at the table with him. Quickly, from around the table, come voices of awe and confusion. “Lord, is it I,” asks each of the twelve? They do not fully understand what they are asking, or how this thing can be; all but one—Judas—who knows quite well who it is and what the statement means. He adds his voice to the chorus of questions, lest he raise questions by his silence. A brief exchange follows between himself and Jesus. This exchange, not quite heard or understood by the others, is largely ignored for they have moved from their questions of personal involvement, to questioning among themselves who it might be. Peter gains the attention of John, who is next to Jesus, and mouths silently for him to ask Jesus directly who it is that will betray Him.
From this time of questioning, the disciples soon move to a defensive posture, and the conversation begins to carry statements of, “why, it could not be me.” All too quickly the conversation becomes a debate as to who of them should be considered the greatest: How many demons had been cast out by this disciple or another; how many sick had been healed by whom; who had or had not been with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. On and on it goes, and not for the first time. In the course of an earlier trip to Capernaum, they had held a dress rehearsal of this same debate. On another occasion, James and John had gone so far as to enlist their mother in an effort to ensure their stature in the Kingdom they were sure was soon to be established.
Now, as on those occasions, Jesus intervenes with a patient but firm teaching about greatness. “You are looking at greatness through the eyes of the world,” He chides. “You should, rather, look at my example. You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so; yet even this night have I not washed your feet? The world demands that the lesser serve the greater, but I have served you at this very table. You should be less concerned about greatness, and more about humility and service.”
Still in the context of this prideful debate, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and speaks. “Peter…Peter, indeed Satan has asked to have you that he might sift you as wheat. His heart is set on your destruction, but I have prayed for you that your faith, like Job’s, should not fail.” Peter, still occupied with the question of who would betray the Lord, is adamant. “I am ready to go with you, both to prison and to death,” he declares with voice both firm and with enough volume to ensure that the others know the strength of his resolve. This declaration prompts the others, and each declares his own vow of allegiance. Jesus, still addressing Peter, speaks with a soft but insistent voice. “Peter, hear me, the cock will not crow this day until three times you have denied me.”
Some hours later, in the garden of Gethsemane, Judas appears with soldiers and an unruly mob intent on arresting Jesus. Peter, still eager to demonstrate his allegiance, draws a sword and starts swinging. Only a firm word from Jesus, himself, keeps Peter from escalating the confrontation into something far beyond God’s holy purpose. Peter is ready to start the revolution against Rome that will usher in the long awaited Kingdom with Jesus on the throne and himself at His right hand. God, however, is preparing to sacrifice His Son to redeem the world to Himself.
It quickly becomes evident that Jesus will be arrested and taken by the soldiers. Fear grips the hearts of the eleven and they flee. Peter and John are no exception. But while they flee, they flee only far enough to escape being arrested as co-conspirators in whatever crime the Romans intended to charge Jesus; far enough also for Peter to abandon the incriminating sword which he has raised against the authority of Rome. Soon both men are on the fringe of the crowd following the plight of their Lord.
Jesus is taken to the house of Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest, and Peter and John follow. John, being known to the High Priest, is allowed to enter the courtyard while Peter waits outside. After a short time, John returns and persuades the girl keeping the door to let Peter enter. As Peter passes through the doorway, the girl turns to him and asks, “Are you not one of His disciples?” Peter denies the association and quickly moves on before the servant girl can press the question.
Following the mockery of justice at the home of Annas, Jesus is sent under guard to the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest. Again Peter falls into the crowd and follows along. He remains outside with those warming themselves by a fire kindled by the crowd for that purpose. Here, Peter is again questioned about his relationship to the accused, and again Peter denies having been with Jesus. About an hour later, Peter is once more confronted, this time by one of those who was in the garden when Jesus was arrested and who also was a relative of the man against whom Peter had raised his sword. “By your speech you are a Galilean. Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” Against this accusation Peter begins cursing and swears, “I do not know the man! I don’t know what you are talking about!”
……And the cock crows.
Before the sound dies in his ears, Peter is struck by his conscience; and as the impact of what he has done delivers its blow, he looks in Jesus’ direction. Eye meets eye. Only for the briefest moment can Peter maintain that contact. Away he flees, away from that look, away from the accusations of the crowd, away from the danger of arrest, away, if it were possible, from himself. Bitterly he weeps! Down to his knees, his face buried in his hands, he then falls prostrate to the ground. The bitterest of tears stream from his eyes. Grief, beyond words, grips his very soul. Convulsions shake his body as guilt drains the strength from him. He has failed his friend, his Lord, his God! He has failed his fellow disciples! Always the leader, always the first to speak, always the first to declare his allegiance; he has failed them. Never again will he be able to look them in the eye. He has failed himself! Peter the bold, Peter the brave, does not exist. Only Peter the fearful, Peter the weak, Peter who curses in his denial, only a pitiful, guilty shell of the man he thought he was, is left.
As the convulsive sobs subside, Peter begins to think, to question himself. “What happened to me? From where did this failure of character come? Should I have seen it?” Memories of his time with Jesus and the other disciples come to his mind. Suddenly, the words of Jesus, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before the Father,” charge into his conscience like a Roman legion, laying waste what little self esteem he has left. Hope is lost!
Again he is driven to his face. Again the tears flow. This time it is not only the despair of guilt and remorse. Now, to his former despair, is added the despair of fear, the despair of hope lost, the despair of eternal damnation. Broken and without hope, the tears flow seemingly without end. Coherent thought ceases. The only thing left is the repeated phrase, “O God, my God…,” with no words to finish the cry. For the first time in his life, Peter is without words. He is left only with a remorse that cannot be expressed.
The measure of time is lost, but some time later an exhausted, bowed figure rises from the ground and walks slowly homeward. There, a fitful sleep awaits him. Somewhere near midday, emotionally drained, and without appetite, he rises, washes, and ventures out into the street. He is driven to know what has happened to Jesus, but cannot face those who might best be able to tell him. He soon realizes there is no need to search for the answer to his questions. The streets are awash with the news. “The Romans have crucified the prophet. Even now he hangs on a cross on Golgotha’s hill. Two thieves have been crucified with him.” Many in the streets are confused. They had thought, had hoped, that He might be the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel. Surely there were those who had argued as much. Others express words bordering on outright contempt. “What do you expect to become of a rabble rouser like him? He has gone about puffing himself up; creating a small riot in the temple, turning over tables, and stampeding the sacrificial animals.” Peter listens to the conversations without participating, and then with his vision blurred by tears, he seeks a solitary place and there he simply sits…alone with his thoughts.
“Why,” his heart cries, “Why? How could I have turned my back on Him? How could I have succumbed so quickly to fear? Was the danger really so great? John showed no hesitation in entering the house of Annas…” Over and over, Peter rehearses the events of the previous night as if they would change if he worked through them carefully enough. As he sits, sifting through his thoughts and feelings, a strange shadow comes over the sun and although it is only mid-day, darkness envelops the city. Almost too numb with grief to fear this strange phenomenon, he rises and makes his way back home.
The following day, the Sabbath, Peter rises from his bed and sits alone. As he sits, his mind wanders back over many other Sabbath days he has known, when his Lord had been with him and the others: The times of teaching in the temple and in the synagogues throughout Judea and Galilee; The plain and forceful teaching to the people; The parables He spoke to the Pharisees and others who seemed, in their own eyes, so important. Even in the difficult times, life had seemed so right when Jesus was there. But now, Jesus is gone and Peter is alone. As he reminisces over the many teachings of his Lord his spirit is refreshed. Then like an armed invader, the memory of Jesus’ voice comes to him as it had the previous day, “He who denies me before men, I will deny before My Father.” Down on his knees on his sleeping mat he falls, his despair wrapped around him like a heavy winter cloak. While struggling with this dark reminder, another of the Lord’s teachings comes into his mind. “If anyone has aught against you…go and be reconciled and then bring your offering to the altar.” The thought seems to mock him. He cannot go to be reconciled to Jesus, He is dead; and how can he go to the priests to make an offering? They would recognize him as one of Jesus’ close associates, and his life would be in danger. Peter has never felt so alone, cut off from his Lord by death, cut off from access to God by fear, cut off from the other disciples by shame. With these and many thoughts of a similar vein, Peter spends his day, alternately, weeping and confessing and praying. Finally, exhausted by fear and depression, he again sleeps.
Early the next morning, with the sun still struggling to crest the horizon, Peter is awakened by a knock at the door. It is Salome, one of the women who had traveled with Jesus and the twelve. Excited to the point of being barely coherent, she relates to Peter how she and others of the women had gone to the tomb where Jesus body had been lain; how they had been met by an angel who told them that Jesus had risen. “And,” she adds, “He told us to tell you, and the other disciples. The others have gone to tell James and the other men.” With her message delivered, she turns and runs in the direction of Mary Magdalene’s house, leaving Peter dumbstruck at the door.
Could it be true? Was He really alive? Wait! Hadn’t He said something about being killed and rising again the third day? But… why the specific instruction to tell him? What did it mean that he had been singled out? Was God giving him a chance to confess his failure to Jesus? Could it be, just maybe, that he could hope for reconciliation? Then, as he struggles with these questions, the words of the prophet Hosea come to him. “Return to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity; take words with you, and return to the Lord. Say to Him, ‘Take away all iniquity; receive us graciously.’” On the heels of this thought come the words of the prophet Joel, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will relent and leave a blessing behind Him?”
“Return”… “Return”… Suddenly it comes to Peter. That was the very word Jesus had used when He had warned him about his denial. “Peter,” He had said, “When you return to Me…” A hope beyond his fear and despair suddenly embraces him. He is going to be allowed to confess; he can be reconciled. If only he can find Him! Down the street he runs, toward the house of Mary Magdalene where he knows the other disciples are likely to be. He is unsure how he will go about finding Jesus, but at least he can try to be reconciled to the other ten, and maybe together they can find Jesus.
It is only a short distance he has run when there before him stands Jesus. Peter comes to an abrupt stop and collapses to his knees before Jesus, tears of shame filling his eyes. Before he can put words to his confession, Jesus takes him by the shoulders and says, “Peter, there is no need for words. I have forgiven you. There at Caiaphas’s house, after the cock had crowed, when our eyes met, I saw your sorrow and shame. It was then that I heard the confession of your spirit, and it was then that I forgave you. I sought you out so I could tell you that I love you despite the fact that you stumbled. I wanted you to know that I forgive you. Come Peter, let me embrace you.”
Slowly Peter rises to his feet, and the arms of his Lord encircle him. In silence, they stand in that embrace. A tear runs silently from each of Peter’s eyes. A tear of relief and a tear of joy in a promise renewed. From that time forward, Peter was never the same, not yet perfect, but never the same.
To a certain extent, our original questions remain. Why was Peter sought out individually, and what is the significance of the lack of detail regarding this meeting? The answer to the first question is partially answered in the story and comes from Luke’s gospel, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him…,” and more specifically from Matthew, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault; if he hears you, you have gained your brother.” Jesus knew that for Peter to experience forgiveness, the matter had to be addressed between the two of them. While it was true, I believe, that the rebuke, the confession, and the forgiveness all took place there at the home of Caiaphas, Peter was a human, a mortal, who needed more than a mystical message of forgiveness. He needed to hear the words. Jesus sought out Peter to make sure that he knew he had been forgiven, that fellowship had been restored.
If, as suggested, this personal, explicit confession and expression of forgiveness is so important, why the scarcity of detail? Why wouldn’t we be given a detailed example of how it should take place? The answer to that question is also found in the passage in Matthew referenced above. The portion of the verse omitted in the previous paragraph reads, “…Tell him his fault between you and him alone.”
I believe God felt that it was important for us to know that the counsel Jesus gave regarding reconciliation is the counsel that He followed in His own relationships. Therefore, we have these explicit, but brief references to the meeting but no detail of what was spoken between Jesus and Peter. I have taken the liberty to speculate for purposes of the story, but we will never know what actually transpired between these two men. It was a private moment between “them alone,” and we do not need to know, just as we do not need to know what transpires in the process of confession and forgiveness between our friends or fellow church members. It is important that these meetings occur, and, at times, the church needs to know that they occur, but the sanctity of the meeting should be kept between
“them alone.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

I'm too much a sinner/He's too much a sinner

Mt 18:13 "And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray." (KJV)

A friend in prison told me that he didn't know if God could ever forgive him for what he had done. He has been remorseful for years, and he loves God; but guilt plagues him. He's much like many believers.

As a believer, I know that harboring sin in my life separates me from fellowship with God. (Psa 66:18). And I know from John 1 that if I deny that I have any sin, I am only deceiving myself. But John 1:9 says that if "we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (KJV) However, many believers are stuck with a guilt that paralyzes us. "I'm too much a sinner for God to forgive," people say.

Some will say (correctly) that if you won't believe that God forgives you, that is doubt, and doubt is sin. Ok... but it isn't much of a remedy for the believer stuck in despair. I expect that is just he "Chin up; get over it" advice that doesn't help.

But look at Mt 18. It is helpful from two angles. First is that the shepherd, a type of Jesus, rejoices that he found the sheep who went astray! Look at this picture. The Shepherd has rounded up his sheep, perhaps in a stable, but maybe just in a quiet place. He does a quick count - one sheep short. The Shepherd knows His sheep well enough to figure out which one is missing; sigh! it's Petey again! He thinks where Petey might have gone astray, and as the other sheep bed down, he heads back the trail retracing their steps. Much later, the Shepherd is tired and bone-weary, when he hears a bleat. Petey! He's stuck in a thorn-bush and can't get loose. The Shepherd gently untangles the sheep, picks him up and heads back to the herd. The next day, he sees a friend and tells the friend how glad he is to have found the wayward sheep. He's surely glad the other 99 didn't run off; but he is truly glad he found Petey!

Ok, if you're one of the 99, you might be peeved that the Shepherd didn't come back and say to all the sheep: "You 99 sheep are wonderful! You followed me and followed where I led, and you make my life easier. I'm so glad you aren't like Petey!" And why? Because he loved Petey as much as the rest!

So if you feel like Petey, remember God comes looking for you because He LOVES you. Because He loves you, He may discipline you, as the Shepherd did for Petey, so he would learn not to wander. But He loves you.

And if you feel like one of the obedient sheep, relax: God loves you, too; but not more than he loves the wayward one. And remember that in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, (Lk 18:10-14), "I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (KJV) This view won't help your ego, but it will help your spiritual walk.

Quotes from The King James Version, (Cambridge: Cambridge) 1769.