Some years ago, I was surprised to see a couple of uniformed police officers show up at our fellowship time after church. I watched as they approached and then forcibly removed a man from the building. He had come in after the service looking for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. He was clearly living rough on the streets.
Now, I think of myself as a person who intervenes when I see someone being mistreated. I know there is much injustice in the world that I am largely powerless to prevent, which makes me more determined to address the injustices right in front of me. I can do something about those.
This fellow had threatened no one and caused no trouble, but one of the congregation members felt uncomfortable and phoned the police. As the officers escorted him out, I thought, “This isn’t right.” I wanted to step in, to let folks know the man was welcome to stay, but my feet remained rooted as my mind swirled with doubt. “Maybe something happened that I didn’t see,” I told myself. But I knew that wasn’t the case.
Then they were gone.
I immediately felt deeply ashamed that I had watched and done nothing while an innocent man was kicked out of my church simply because of how he looked. That experience helps me identify with Peter in the Good Friday story. Peter’s last words to Jesus were, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never. . . . Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you.” The other disciples said the same — they promised to have Jesus’ back.
I have no doubt they meant it, even with the Romans breathing down their necks and with the chief priests and scribes seeking a way to get rid of Jesus. But when the time came and Jesus was arrested, their nerve failed them; they deserted Jesus and fled.
I wonder if the memory of his promise caused Peter to turn around and follow Jesus’ captors at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. Here, warming himself by the fire, trying to figure out his next move, Peter was confronted by a servant girl and others, and three times he denied even knowing Jesus. When he heard the rooster crowing, he realized what he’d done and he broke down and wept.
Most of us, if we are being honest with ourselves, can identify with Peter in that moment. It’s the horrible realization that we have broken a promise and betrayed another’s trust. It’s the shame we feel at letting ourselves and others down. Despite our deep and genuine desire to be true to our words, we all, from time to time, fall short of our best intentions. Maybe it’s out of fear. Maybe it’s because, in the moment, we don’t recognize the consequences of our actions. Maybe it’s just much harder to act on our convictions than to hold them.
For years, I carried guilt about the man forced out of my church. How could I have let that happen? Why didn’t I stop it? Maybe I wasn’t the kind of person I thought I was after all. I suspect Peter had similar doubts about himself. Perhaps he felt he wasn’t cut out for discipleship. According to John’s Gospel, Peter and half a dozen others went back to Galilee and once more took up fishing.
But then an amazing thing happened. Christ appeared on the shore and prepared breakfast for those tired, hungry and defeated disciples. He asked Peter, three times, “Do you love me?” Just as Peter had denied even knowing Jesus, he was given three opportunities to once again declare his love. With each affirmation, Jesus commissioned Peter to care for those he loved and once again invited Peter to be his follower.
This story reminds us that even our worst and most embarrassing failures do not place us outside God’s redeeming grace. Christ still wants and needs us, flaws and all, as allies and partners in the work of healing and transformation.
It took me a while to forgive myself for not standing up for that man. But once I did, I came to see how that experience has shaped me. I am less afraid now to intervene when I sense something is wrong because I know how awful it feels when I don’t. I hope I’m also less judgmental toward others who hesitate to get involved. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care.
My failure to be what I thought I was helped me become who I want to be. I am so grateful that God uses even our worst failures and the sources of our shame to transform us and make us whole.
Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell is the 42nd moderator of The United Church of Canada.