The Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, 2016 – Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
I am going to violate my own advice about preaching, and be a bit more confessional today. Confession, and testimony of a sort. Like John in today’s Gospel, I want to tell you – my Peters – as I look out on to the lives around me, I want to tell you, “It is the Lord!” (Jn. 21:9).
So, I will speak of people who have truly hurt me. Bizimana, the student I taught in Burundi Africa, who it turned out was a spy for the police –- all those years I worked with him and taught him and prayed with him and counselled him – a spy for the security police who told lies about me to the point that I was arrested, interrogated and deported. I lost my friends, home, place in the church there, and really a sense of integrity, because all the work, including my students, that depended on me came to an end. Dear Bizimana. I felt deeply betrayed by him – as I was! — and for a while had great anger. Now I got over that by and large. He wrote me a letter years later, asking for help for something. And I replied normally enough, without any great emotion. Then I heard he had died, and sort of lost interest. But if I had met him, I would not have been angry; we would have smiled and shook hands, even embraced perhaps. I could have carried on and worked with him, furthermore.
But what I want to emphasize is that none of that was forgiveness. It was the counterfeit forgiveness most of us deal in, because it was devoid of any real hope.
People “getting over” some problem with another person; “learning to live with them”, shrugging off a slight, carrying on with someone who has been mean to them, “trying to act like an adult” and ignore another person’s craziness and malice. No real hope; only a kind of resigned and pragmatic adjustment.
How far does forgiveness go? Somewhere very far indeed. Ananias, after all, is being asked a lot when it comes to Paul. Paul the persecutor; Paul the murderer.
“How much evil has he done to the saints in Jerusalem!”, Ananias exclaims (Acts 9:13). He is meant to accept Paul as a “chosen vessel” of God. Search him out; heal him; take him in, not only as brother, but as a kind of elder brother, though whom God is fulfilling divine purposes that go even beyond Ananias’ own small role as a disciple.
His enemy is now the Lord’s place of revelation, of “great” things.
A couple of years ago, I came into my office at Wycliffe, and saw I had message flashing on my phone. I listened, and there was Bizimana’s voice. He wasn’t dead at all; he was in the US somewhere, and wanted to say hello. He left a number for me to call him back. I quickly copied it down on a piece of paper, and left it on the desk. I had to think about this. Emotions were swirling again, unexpectedly. A few days later, I was in Moosejaw, SK and gave a sermon in the church there. It was about our common life as Christians, forgiveness included. It wasn’t part of my prepared sermon, but Bizimana came up in my remarks and I mentioned the phonecall: I admitted that I was reluctant to respond to him; but standing there, I realized that I needed to call him back. That was my resolve on returning to Toronto. I was convicted: speak to your betrayer.
But when I got back to Toronto, I couldn’t find the piece of paper with his phone number. I must have thrown it out. And the phone message was erased. “Oh well”, I thought. It wasn’t to be. Anyway, I soon forgot about it all, perhaps with relief. A bullet dodged.
I don’t expect much from this kind of stuff, anyway. You know, the fellow I once read about in Hartford, CT whose daughter some thug murdered. And the father went to visit him in prison, regularly; got to know him; prayed with him; and, I guess, really forgave him. This is beyond my grasp. But it’s also too neat – not that it’s untrue or unimportant. Most of our messed up relationships, most of our angers, most of our sense of betrayals and disappointments in the world, and in people, are not so clear as what to do with the murderer of your daughter. Usually, we’re not even sure what we’re angry about; and if we knew, and could articulate it, we’d say, “boy, that’s silly; why can’t I get over that”, though of course we don’t.
What gets me about Ananias and Paul is how this isn’t just about getting over something; or about resolving an infinitely complex strain in a relationship. It isn’t even about the hard work of reconciliation. This is something where the whole set of relationships explodes. Ananias doesn’t do anything, except obey God; and Paul – well, he is simply, but profoundly kicked off his horse, blinded, and overwhelmed by the Lord’s own thundering presence and calling. What completely challenges me here is that this is about God at work, not about me at work. And that is both frightening, and breathtaking in its freeing possibility.
I should say something about Bizimana again at this point. The months went by. Then, maybe 7 months after he left that message, I was cleaning off my office desk in the middle of the summer. You got it: there was the scrap of paper with his phone number, stuck in between some other papers. What to do? I took a deep breath, and called it. Bizimana answered. I won’t bore you with the conversation – after 30 years, and a lot of who knows what going on in my heart. He didn’t ask for money. He didn’t ask for forgiveness – although perhaps his call itself was a little about that. He just wanted to say hello and tell me about himself after all these years. And what did I learn? I learned about his running away from the church after his betrayal of his teacher and moving to Kenya; how he became a bus driver; that he married, and that his wife and young child were massacred in Burundi’s civil war. I learned about his becoming a refugee in the US. His struggles. A new marriage and two children. Volunteering at a small church. What does he do for a living now? He works for the State of Maine with troubled adolescents.
That’s my enemy. I didn’t do a thing with him over all these years. I don’t think I even prayed about him. In fact, I avoided him.
God did things with him. Things I don’t want to think about; things I am in awe of. But that’s what God did to my enemy. Surely, I must ask what God is doing with me.
For that he is! It’s an obvious point, in this story of Paul and Ananias – which, by the way, is a true story, as true as me and Bizimana; truer even, because the history of the world moved on its axis from just this encounter that Luke tells us about in the book of Acts. What is God doing? The point is so obvious as perhaps to sound sentimental but still deeply important.
God is at work in those we most dislike, mistrust an even fear. And it has nothing to do with me.
I don’t have to convince them for something to happen and they don’t have to convince me – it’s God’s business. But God’s it is! That history-changing thing. It is happening, right now, as we speak, though in ways we cannot predict.
We all have favorite verses to memorize, and one of mine is John 5:17, where Jesus says, “My father is still working, even now; and I am working.” He says it before the resurrection; and there is a resurrection precisely because he says it, and it’s true. It is a favorite verse, not because it is comforting – although it is, in a way – but because it is explosive, creative, transforming. It pushes me where I don’t want to go, but also where most profoundly I yearn to be allowed to go: into a place finally of hope.
After all, I am not only Ananias – worrying about, or knotted up or even twisted because of those who have betrayed me or wish me ill or somehow messed me up. I am also Saul, a “blasphemer, insulter, persecutor” of my own Lord (1 Tim. 1:13), perhaps just because of my unwillingness to let my Lord be the Lord of others; and because, of course, of my own concrete betrayals and destructions of others. For me – “unfit to be called” a follower of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9) — ever and any day, to stand before you and presume to preach the Gospel or stand before students and presume to teach them of God, is a sheer, wondrous, and unmerited act of his mercy.
I remember one young man named Jeff who showed up in a church I worked in. Destitute, alcoholic, lost. I ended up getting too involved in his business – bailing him out of jail, getting him into detox programs, dealing with his money issues. I resented him deeply – and every time he called or came around, my heart sank. You know the drill: “I’ll do this, I’ll do that!” Then he does the opposite. A journey of lies to everyone, including his own self. Then he got religion, started going to these kinds of “victory” churches that appeal to the down and out.
He would come by and go on his preachy harangues, and I would roll my eyes and wish he left.
After all, there were still the binges and calls from jail. Then one day, he announced to me that he was going to Finland on an evangelistic outreach. I almost laughed out loud.
Do you remember that place in the Gospels where John comes up to Jesus, exasperated, and says to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us’.” (Mk. 9:38). That was me too. Saul, John, the rest of them. I am ashamed. But Jesus’ answer to John — “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us” (v. 39f.) – that answer is not about the intrinsic goodness of Jeff, or of this or that person; it’s about what God is up to, the “in my name” power of God in Christ who is alive and “still working”, working in such a way that I, even I, can have the opportunity to see his glory in the life of others, and hence in my own.
Look: I gaze out at the world around me, both widely and in my own small circle. It’s not all that pretty; it’s frightening. And I’m something of a pessimist by nature. It wears me down – even as I wear myself and others down. But just because of that, when I see the Bizimanas, the Jeffs, and here too, among you; or the very face of my spouse or my own children (these too come out of nowhere, as it were. in terms of my deserving or expectations); when I turn my gaze there, as if in response to a voice that says “come and look at them”, then, with all the “unfit” apostles, standing before that voice calling me to look and these persons, I am driven to exclaim, with the apostles on the beach, long ago: “who are you?” … knowing full well, that is it he Lord (Jn. 21:12).
In brief: We must hope for our enemies.
No one is beyond the work of the Living Lord. No one.
We must hope for ourselves. Never give up on what God not only can do, but is now doing for you – untimely born, as Paul says of himself, though you may be within this difficult world. And yes, we must hope for our world; which God “so loved”.
This hope is the great impulse of our prayer which “never cease” (1 Thess. 5:17; Rom. 12:12). It is why we are here – we hope, not out of our uncertainty, but out of the very act of God in Christ Jesus, alive and at work. This is he who told his disciples – you and me: “I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” [Luk 11:9-10 RSV]. This is he who, taking his disciples – you and me – aside, “told them a parable, as Luke puts it, to the effect that they ought always to pray and never lose heart.” [Luk 18:1 RSV]. This is he, who with the Father and Holy Spirit, is alive and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.