Third Sunday of Easter C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
We can learn a lot by reading authors like C.S. Lewis.
Lewis is considered one of the foremost Christian thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and A Grief Observed all explore Christian theology and life in both plain, simple ways and in humorous, fantastical ways.
It’s his Chronicles of Narnia series that earned him the most acclaim, though. The first book written in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been adapted into a number of television specials and blockbuster movies. I grew up on the 1979 animated version and loved the 2005 re-imagining.
The story follows the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy as they stumble upon the magical world of Narnia entered through a wardrobe. There, they find Narnia in the clutches of never-ending winter brought on by the evil White Witch. They hear whispers of prophecies and a great lion named Aslan who will come and banish the White Witch and bring spring to Narnia again.
Not all of the Pevensies like this idea. Edmund, angry at his siblings and having been lured by the queen’s promises, sneaks away to the White Witch and tells them of their plans and of Aslan’s return. She repays him by making him her prisoner, and he has to be rescued by the Narnians.
Edmund is brought before Aslan, and the White Witch makes it abundantly clear that he is a traitor, which he is. His life belongs to her, and she intends to take it as is her right. The penalty for betrayal is death.
I can’t think of anything worse we can do to each other except betrayal. Few people go throughout life without feeling its ugly, painful sting. For some, the pain is so great that it permanently severs the connection and the relationship between people. It’s almost unbearable to have someone you so trusted and cared about suddenly, without warning, turn around and stab you in the back.
The stories that precede the resurrection of Christ are full of betrayal. Jesus is betrayed by his own leaders and handed over to Pontius Pilate for trial. He’s betrayed by the crowd that once hailed him as king and now calls for his execution at the hand of the Romans. But his worst betrayals come from his own close friends, and those are always the hardest to bear.
The first comes from his friend Judas Iscariot. No one’s exactly quite sure of his motivation, but all four Gospel accounts agree that Judas met with the religious leaders of the temple and agreed to hand Jesus over to them. In some accounts he’s paid for the deed, and in some he points out Jesus to the arresting officers by giving Jesus a kiss.
Judas’s actions are worthy of study not just because of his betrayal but about his own reaction to them. The kiss he gives Jesus is no mere peck on the cheek but a firm, intense, even passionate one, which says to me that in that moment the gravity of what he was doing finally hit him. He knew he was sending his friend to death.
We also have a few stories about what happens to Judas after he commits this act. The writer of Luke and Acts says that he buys a field with his blood money, trips and falls in it and his organs all burst out. But the writer of Matthew says that he’s so disturbed by what he’s done that he repents, throws the money back at those who gave it to him, and then goes out and hangs himself in his grief. His betrayal not only cost Jesus his life, but also his own. His fate is still debated by scholars and theologians today.
Contrast that with the story of Peter. Peter also betrays Jesus, his close friend. He has the chance to speak up for Jesus or at least not pretend like he has nothing to do with him. But three times Peter denies even knowing Jesus, abandoning his friend in his time of need.
I can’t imagine the sort of guilt that Peter carried around with him. We don’t know, and he didn’t know, if he could’ve done something to save Jesus’s life. But we know, and he knew, that he had promised Jesus that even if Jesus were to die, Peter would still follow him. That promise was put to the test, and Peter failed. There was no getting around that. Peter screwed up big time and he knew it. He had betrayed Jesus.
And now Jesus is back. Or at least, they think he is. These post-resurrection stories about Jesus appearing to his disciples are very odd in the way they present things. You’d think that after last week’s story, what I called John’s “little Pentecost”, Peter and the other disciples would have felt something different, they would have acted differently. Jesus has now appeared to them twice, coming through a locked door to bring peace and the Holy Spirit to them. They have seen with their own eyes that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
But here they are, trying to figure out what they should do, and Peter decides that they’re going to go fishing. Nothing at all against fishing; it just seems like an odd choice. As if, presented with all of this new information about their Lord and their God, they just can’t think of anything else to do. They go on with life as if nothing at all has happened.
Is this in itself yet another betrayal, a betrayal of what Jesus told and commanded them? Maybe—I’m not so sure. I am sure, though, that at least the disciples still haven’t quite grasped what Jesus was all about.
The church often has the same problem. It is impossible to deny that the church has Peters, and Judases, and Edmunds in its midst. And before we go pointing fingers and say, “Aha, you Judas!”, remember that it’s rarely if ever easy to discern the Peters from the Judases from the beloved disciples, and more often than not the church as a whole has been Judas.
Yesterday was the commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor during World War II who very strongly opposed the Nazi party and the war it waged. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer had a very tough road to walk.
In 1933, Hitler effectively took over the German Protestant church. Even though it resisted, the church eventually felt it had no choice but to accept Nazi rule, and it largely became an instrument of the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer and other pastors were abhorred by this betrayal, even a forced one, and in response formed the Confessing Church that specifically renounced the Nazi incursion into church politics and its platforms.
Bonhoeffer formed a secret underground seminary to train pastors in the Confessing Church, who often served illegally as pastors of churches who rejected the Nazi party. He was recruited by the Abwehr, the German military counter-intelligence unit which had been infiltrated by agents working to overthrow the Nazis. He participated in conspiracies to assassinate Hitler and struggled with his role as, essentially, a terrorist and a pastor.
In the end, Bonhoeffer and the other conspirators are eventually found out and arrested. Bonhoeffer himself was sent to a concentration camp, where he continued to write letters and papers that he sent to his friends and students to encourage them. And on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated, Bonhoeffer was executed for his crimes, his betrayal of the state. He is considered one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of all time.
It’s true that the betrayal of the German Protestant Church that Bonhoeffer fought against was a forced one. But at other times, the church has been complicit in other acts of betrayal: supporting the slave trade and racism, persecuting native peoples in colonialism, not speaking out against the mistreatment of the poor or others. The church, like Peter, is often given multiple chances to stand up for what is right and fails miserably.
Which makes Jesus’s encounter with Peter all the more striking. Ignore for now the fact that again, nobody seems to recognize Jesus at first. But here, Peter is again brought face to face with the man, the friend that he betrayed. Three times Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Is it surprising, then, that Jesus gives Peter three chances to reaffirm his love for him? It’s almost like Jesus is giving Peter reconciliation; no, actually, that’s exactly what it is. Jesus is bringing Peter back home.
And not only that, but he takes the newly reconciled Peter and sends him out, sets him on a mission. This man who once–no, three times–denied Christ is now made right again and sent out in Christ’s name. It’s as if his earlier betrayals no longer matter to Jesus. And maybe that’s exactly what it is.
We sometimes talk of sin as betraying God, and I think that’s a fairly good description of what sin is. Isn’t it extraordinary, then, that in the face of this sin, this betrayal, Christ’s reaction is love and not hate?
When Peter denies and betrays Jesus, he’s welcomed back and sent out on a mission in Jesus’s name.
When we as children of God betray the love and trust put in us, we are offered forgiveness and reconciliation here at the Lord’s Table.
When the church betrays its calling, people within stand up and call it back to faithfulness.
The most shocking parts of all of these stories–Peter, the Penvensies, the German Church, our own lives–is not that betrayals happen. Betrayals happen every day. The most shocking parts of these stories is that the betrayals don’t end the relationships they strain; rather, the relationships are mended entirely through the act of one party who simply refuses to give up.
This is the God we worship, and the God Peter met on the shore that day; a God who is constantly betrayed, and a God who meets each betrayer face to face and offers reconciliation. This is the whole point of the crucifixion and the resurrection, and why we spend fifty whole days celebrating Christ’s victory over the death we inflicted on him.
In the face of the worst betrayals committed by human beings and even the church, God’s response is love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and wholeness. Like Peter on the shore of the sea, we are called back to God’s care and sent right back out on our mission.
Christ’s message is clear: there is no one so lost or so broken that God cannot mend them. No one.