When you look at a teenaged boy wearing droopy pants, what do you see? When you see a child acting out in WalMart, what do you see? When someone you know posts something political on FaceBook that you think is absolutely awful, what do you see?
If you’re like me, often you see someone you don’t think very highly of. You see a suburban teen who needs to stop pretending he’s a gangsta, or a spoiled child whose parents need to give her a time out, or someone who believes something absolutely ridiculous and is too oblivious to even know how off-base their post is.
You may be right. All your judgments may be spot on…or not. We’re all pretty adept at seeing what we want to see, at judging what we see, and then turning away. We’ve decided they’re failures in some way…
Today we hear two powerful stories of people whom we might judge very accurately as failures when it comes to following Jesus. At first glance, what we see isn’t pretty.
The first one is the obvious one: Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, who was aggressive in pursuing and punishing those who followed Christ. He was present at the stoning of St Stephen, the first martyr. He thought Jesus and those who followed him were heretics. He was very clear that he opposed Jesus, and would do whatever was necessary to destroy a heretical sect.
We hear that story and we think “how awful! How could he do that? He’s clearly an enemy of all Christianity…” and we keep on thinking that until we hear the rest of the story. He is knocked off his horse and hears the voice of Jesus saying “why do you persecute me?” He is blinded, shocked, desperately confused, and he sits in silence in a room in Damascus, trying to figure out what it all means. Then a stranger comes in and says, “I’m not really sure why I’m here, but it seems God has a plan for you. I’m supposed to bring God’s healing to you, in the name of Jesus whom you persecuted. May the Spirit fill you and heal you – you are one of us now.” I suspect no one was more surprised than Ananias that this awful person, this persecutor of Christ-followers, would be converted into a Christ-follower himself, and would even be a proclaimer of Christ. Ananias probably looked at Saul, soon to be renamed Paul, and only saw someone evil. But somehow there was more to him, something that God saw even if Ananias did not.
Okay – conversion of Paul. We get that story, and it’s a dramatic story of the early church, and how even the most unlikely people could serve God.
So what’s the other story?
It’s a little more subtle, and a little stranger. It’s the gospel. Let’s put aside the first half, where Jesus miraculously shows up on the beach where the disciples are trying to catch some fish. Instead, let’s focus on the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Peter is the rock upon whom Jesus built the church…the top guy, in charge of everything…but then when the soldiers come and take Jesus away to his death, where’s Peter? Hiding, denying Jesus, not once but three times. And it isn’t like he’s being tortured and denies Jesus…it’s just some strangers hanging out in the courtyard who say, “aren’t you one of his followers?” A servant girl asks him. And how does he respond? “I do not know the man.” A coward, just as Jesus predicted at the Last Supper. Some rock, eh?
You’d think that this cowardly blowhard is not deserving of any respect. Any reasonable person would make that judgment.
But something different happens. Jesus reveals himself to the disciples on that beach as they share some fish and bread, and then he turns to Peter and asks him a question. “Do you love me?”
I wonder what goes through Peter’s head when Jesus asks the question. “Is this his weird way of reminding me of how I failed him? What is he getting at?”
But Peter answers him in a straightforward way. “You know I love you.”
Now I wonder if Jesus is thinking: “Yeah, you loved me a lot when that servant girl was asked if you were one of my followers.” But no. Jesus isn’t going there. He simply says “Tend my lambs.”
So now we are back to Peter being given an assignment, just as he was given an assignment when Jesus said “Peter. You’re the rock upon whom I build my church.” Redemption after failing in the most dramatic way…it’s a sweet thing.
But Jesus isn’t done yet. He has another question for Peter. “Do you love me?” And Peter thinks, “well, maybe he’s asking again because he really didn’t hear me the first time.” And so he says “Yes, I love you.” And Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” Peter nods…he gets the message. He’s supposed to be a leader by taking care of everyone. That’s the way it is…but Jesus says one more time – one more time! – “Do you love me?”
Peter may be thinking that Jesus has utterly lost his mind, or worse, that Jesus doesn’t trust him at all anymore. Why else would he ask three times? And he says “Oh, for goodness sake, you know that I love you.”
And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep….follow me.”
Three times, Jesus asks him. Might it have something to do with the fact that Peter failed three times, denying Jesus in his time of crisis? Might it be a way to make completely sure that Peter is now ready for the task at hand?
Or is it something different? Is it three times of forgiveness? Is it a reminder to Peter that Jesus really does trust him to lead, even after what had happened? Is it a way of telling Peter and telling us that despite our flaws and failings, the Lord sees something in us that others might not? The Lord recognizes the possibilities within us and encourages us to fulfill those possibilities.
That has a bearing on how we look at ourselves, of course, because we are remarkably good at criticizing ourselves, seeing our limitations. But it also has a bearing on how we look at others.
I’ve been thinking of a YouTube video I saw a few days ago. It was the story of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. As is often the case with children with this syndrome, it didn’t take much stimulation to cause the youngster to melt down. I suspect when that happened, he looked an awful lot like kids I’ve seen melting down in the supermarket, kids who’ve caused me to think “why doesn’t that parent take the kid outside?,” not realizing that this is autism, not bad behavior.
After a lot of exploration, the youngster’s parents decided they would get him a service dog, much like the service dogs that guide blind folks. Such dogs are trained to calm children who cannot cope with excess stimulation. The child got the dog. But the school system balked…they couldn’t see how the dog would work out with other children, particularly other children with pet allergies. Finally, they let the dog come to school with the youngster, and he thrived. His relationships with classmates improved too, since he now had a four-legged ambassador to help him make friends. But there were still challenges with the school system, until the legislature passed a special bill specifically to allow children like Nathan (that name which means “gift from God”) to bring dogs like Sylvia into the classroom. Someone saw what Nathan was capable of, if the system was willing to reconsider him not in terms of his limitations, but in terms of his possibilities.
If Jesus had seen in Saul only a persecutor rather than a potential champion, the Gentiles, like us, would never have been converted. Bu he saw possibilities in Saul-turned-into-Paul, and we know what happened.
If Jesus had only seen Peter as the one who failed to support him, the one who denied him, the one who hid, there would not have been a church. The disciples would have gone back to their fishing boats – the boats they were in when Jesus came back for a visit in today’s Gospel – and would have shared their stories, but they might not have spread the word of Jesus. But Jesus saw that Peter was not a failure…he had failed at one point, but Peter had learned from his failures and there were still possibilities. Peter could be the rock upon which the church was built. Jesus did not see the limitations. Jesus saw the possibilities.
Nathan, the young man with Asperger’s, was not merely a kid with a disability. He had possibilities…all it took was a dog and some advocates who helped make it happen.
So maybe the lesson to us is that it is quite easy for us to see what’s wrong with others. They dress the wrong way, they act the wrong way, they believe the wrong way. They rub us the wrong way. But what if we saw beyond the limitations and recognized the possibilities? Might we see an artist rather than an annoying teen with tattoos? Might we see a beautiful child with lots of energy instead of a screaming brat? Might we see a person who cares deeply about contemporary issues rather than somebody who is uninformed because they think differently than we do?
Might we see the possibilities that Christ sees in others who are different, regardless of dress, social status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, education, musical tastes, abilities and disabilities?
Wouldn’t we want others to see us the same way too?