July 15, 2009
Our Past—Graces or Regrets
by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.
Jesus’ Important Question
There is a dramatic scene in John’s Gospel shortly after Jesus’ Resurrection. Jesus asked Peter a question, “Peter, do you love me?” A strange question, really! Recall that Peter had abandoned Jesus in his time of need even though just hours before at the Last Supper, he was protesting that he would lay down his life for Jesus. But only hours later, a servant girl in Herod’s courtyard saw Peter warming his hands by the fire and told bystanders that Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples. He folded like a house of cards. Peter, scared to death, swore under oath and shouted three times that he did not know Jesus. Was his sin any less serious than that of Judas?
Now, the risen Jesus had every right to say: “Well, Peter, I can’t tell you how much you disappointed me. All I did for you, and you denied even knowing me!” On the surface, all the evidence would convict Peter. People who love do not turn their backs on their beloved. Jesus, the good shepherd, had laid down his life for his sheep. But don’t expect that of Peter. He was nowhere to be found.
Peter’s Unexpected Answer
What is surprising is that Peter seems to have the gall to answer, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” How in the world did Peter get the intestinal fortitude to ever make a statement like that? We would expect Peter to fall on his knees and tearfully confess: “Oh, Lord, I have failed you miserably; I am unworthy to even look upon your face, to be your disciple. I am no good.” Wouldn’t we have said the same thing? Come to think of it—maybe in tears—there have been days in our life when we have spoken those words to Jesus.
But this is the gospel, the good news, and the gospel teaches us just the opposite. God’s name is LOVE. Every act of Jesus was that of love and mercy. Why was it sinners clamored to get near him? There was something about his face, his look, his compassion and understanding. Jesus did not die because humanity was sinless. He died out of love for us because, in fact, we are sinners. What was Jesus’ motivation? Jesus died to save us, his brothers and sisters, children of the father. No matter what our sins and those of all humanity, Jesus saw us as worth dying for.
And so Peter, moved by God’s grace, was able to say, “Yes, Lord, in spite of my terrible sin and failure and denial of you, in spite of my weakness and inconsistency, my unworthiness, deep in my heart I love you and you know it. But Lord, now I realize that I am in total need of you and your strength and grace. Left to myself, I am lost, I am nothing. Lord, in spite of all that, yes, I do love you. When I see those wounds on your hands and feet, I know you love me.”
And with that, Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs and his sheep, to lead his Church into the future and to bring the mercy Peter himself has experienced to the entire world.
The Past: Regret or Moment of Grace?
This incident is in the gospel for a very important reason. There is not one of us who can look back on our lives without a sense of regret. If we are old enough to run the gamut of life, we shake our heads and say, “How could I have been so dumb and blind? How in the world did I ever do that?” Yes, that’s true. But there is a trap like a tar pit that can keep us stuck in our wounded past. That’s the last thing Jesus wants us to do.
How did Peter ever recover from his terrible sin? His past and his sins became for him, as they can for us, a time of grace, of thanksgiving and humble self-awareness. He, a sinner, knew he could never stand in judgment over another person. Neither can we. Peter knew at the same time that the Lord’s mercy was so great that Jesus could brush away his worst sins in a flash. And thus the past, sins and all, became a source of life and deeper faith and love. The past cannot be changed, but it can help us change.
There is one moment in which we are in control: the present moment. I can say, “Poor me, terrible sinner, I’m no good. How could Jesus love me?” Or I can say, “Merciful Lord, I love you, I choose you, you are mine in spite of my sins and mistakes.” Thus, that moment becomes the most precious moment in my life; a moment of life rather than a moment of death. What statement do you think would cause the Lord to smile and truly make him happy?
Dear Friar Jack: Wonderful article on President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world. I see this president as a peacemaker. There were a lot of us against the invasion of Iraq, but like you, we always supported the troops. Somehow we were made to believe if we were against the war we did not support the troops. Change has come. God bless you and God bless our president! Mary
Dear Friar Jack: Your thoughts and comments (re: President Obama’s speech) reflect accurately the tensions between the Muslim and Christian world today. The journey of Francis to meet the sultan was a timely reminder of the Christian response to turmoil, evil and war. Frankly it has been irritating to me for the past many years to listen to our “prayers of the faithful” Sunday after Sunday and pray for our soldiers stationed in the Middle East and completely ignore praying for the citizens of Iraq who daily endure the horrible outcome of our war, and have lost millions of innocent citizens and children in this war. Does it ever cross our minds to pray for the welfare of those troops we oppose?
Does it never cross our minds to pray for the peace of all people? Thanks for your words and thoughts. Continue always to preach the good news. Jack
Dear Friar Jack: I know you will probably receive many critical e-mails for your recent post re-opening prior comments on the U.S.-Iraq War. Please let me assure you that you have brothers and sisters in faith who understand the distinction between criticizing an “unnecessary war” and praying for the safety of U.S. troops sent to fight such wars. I am a U.S. civilian deployed abroad in support of our military, and I face and honor that distinction every day. Indeed, it is to our benefit as a nation and as followers of the humble lamb to be “personally open to positive values present in the Muslim faith and culture.” Islam is not our enemy. Totalitarianism and the suppression of the most human impulse to always seek the truth are contrary to our Lord’s teaching. Thanks for your grace and discernment on this most difficult issue. Laura (from Seoul, Korea)
Dear CAG: Yes, the prayer that I wrote above certainly applies to “innocent babies in the womb.” We are, indeed, seriously charged by our creator to do all we can to protect and save these unborn children. And this charge also applies to President Obama.
I also want to say to say a big “thank you” to the many readers who responded favorably or unfavorably to my E-spiration of June 24, 2009, regarding “President Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World” and other related topics. This E-spirations edition triggered a larger than usual amount of often very heated responses. Other readers asked me other pointed questions for which they sought answers. Again, I must remind you, with regret, that my schedule seldom allows me to answer personally the many questions that come in—beyond what I am able to include in Friar Jack’s Inbox.
And let me also assure you once again that I pray often for your needs and those of your loved ones. May our God and savior bless you all and give you peace! Friar Jack
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