A Wideness in God’s Mercy, IX: Condemned to Everlasting Redemption
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” —John 21:15
On Maundy Thursday, I told the first half of the story of Peter’s Holy Week, if that is what you want to call what for St. Peter must have been the week from hell. First he'd promised an everlasting fidelity to Jesus which in fact lasted not much more than two hours. Then he fell asleep in the garden. Then he sliced off the ear of an unarmed servant boy, not an entirely accomplished thrust-and-parry. And then of course the worst of all, the three-fold denial. And in the gray light of a Good Friday dawn, the cock crows, and Peter goes out to weep bitterly, to drown his inadequacies with the tears of his sorrow.
Peter couldn't possibly have felt anything but tragic sorrow when it took Jesus 6 hours to die on the cross that sad afternoon, but I wonder if when it was all over, there wasn't at least a small part of Peter which was glad that the whole sorry escapade was done and gone, that he would never lay eyes on Jesus again, and now he could go back to being what he was—a simple fisherman.
Wouldn't it be great if our failures just died, and stayed dead? Wouldn't it be great if God simply foreclosed on the possibility of resurrection, so that we wouldn't have to worry about past mistakes any longer?
In my first church there was a young father who walked out on his family when his children were ten and eight. It didn’t look like a loveless marriage to the rest of us, there was no other woman, there was no depression that we could see. He just didn’t want to be a husband and father any longer. He moved to California to surf or something. I ran into him ten years later and asked him how his now college-age kids were doing, and he said, “We’re not in touch. I messed that up so bad there’s no fixing it, so I just stay far away." Wouldn't it be great if you could just forget that they are alive in the world?
Simon Peter thought there was no fixing his mistakes either. After meeting what might have been the Risen Christ, twice, Peter went back home to Galilee, confused and lost, and not knowing what else to do, decides to go fishing. That's what he is and that's what he does, and after this unfortunate adventure into a larger, more challenging world of discipleship, Simon Peter finds this out about himself. Like Popeye of old he says, "I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam." "I'm just a fisherman. I tried being a disciple and I wasn't cut out for it, so I'll just be a fisherman. I'm going fishing."
The other disciples say, "Hey, that's a great idea. We'll go with you. Unravel the nets! Raise the main! Unfurl the jib! Cast off! Let's go get us some bluefish!"
But even that goes badly. Peter can't catch any fish. There is an apparition on the horizon, a lonely ghostly figure, who tells them where to find the fish, and sure enough, there are the fish, a haul bigger than George Clooney’s and Mark Wahlberg’s in The Perfect Storm.
When they finally make it to shore, Jesus has spread a picnic on the beach. And then around that fire on the beach at dawn on the shore of that Galilean Lake begins what has come to be known as the Rehabilitation of St. Peter. It is a beautiful but harrowing scene. Jesus says, "Simon, do you love me?" Peter says, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." "Then feed my lambs." Three times like that.
Now, what must Simon Peter have been thinking when he heard this? "Feed my lambs!? I'm a fisherman; I don't know anything about sheep. Feed my lambs? What do lambs eat? Where do you put whatever it is that they eat so that they can get at it? How do you know when they stop being lambs and start being sheep? What do you do then? Jesus, you got me confused with somebody else."
But do you see what Jesus is doing? He is giving Peter a brand new, bolder, broader, bigger task. The Risen Lord won't let Peter stay dead in his failure. Jesus himself has been raised from the dead, and now he is determined that his own resurrection will not be the only one. The rehabilitation of St. Peter.
The rehabilitation of Tiger Woods. How do you put your life back together after you deny your best friend three times? How do you put your life back together after you destroy your marriage, alienate your kids, and wreck your car? You go back to work. It might take ten years, but so be it.
There was Tiger, standing on the 12th green at Augusta on Sunday, about to regain the lead, with his arms crossed, glaring with a lot of confidence and a little menace at the twosome playing the hole with him, both of them struggling with double-bogeys. U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka saw Tiger standing there with that long-vanished insolence and said, “Tiger’s Back.”
Michael Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I had a chance to win the game with a final shot, and I missed. I’ve failed over and over again. And that is why I succeed.” I’m not sure what he meant by that. Maybe the agony of defeat is such a powerful motivator you’re determined to get it right the next time, or maybe every time you get it wrong, you learn something about getting it right. Whatever, success very rarely arrives without failure.
Jesus answers Peter’s three-fold denial with three-fold invitation: Take care of my people. Be the rock on which the Church is immovably anchored. When Jesus is around, there is always forgiveness, there is always a broad mercy, there is always another chance. There is always resurrection. What is the sentence for Peter’s failures? Work to do. Peter is condemned to everlasting redemption.
Good Friday fell on April 19 this year, almost as late as it can be, and when Good Friday happens during the third week of April, we’re reminded that there are only two sure things in this world: death and taxes. April 15: Tax Day. Abraham Lincoln dies. The Titanic sinks. The Boston Marathon kettle bombs. April 16: 33 dead at Virginia Tech. April 19: 76 Branch Davidians dead in Waco; 168 killed in Oklahoma City. April 20: Hitler’s birthday. Columbine. Not a coincidence. Twenty years ago yesterday. Now we have Sri Lanka to add to that horrifying litany.
The temptation is to submit to the failure of love in the world and to make friends with death. "I'm going fishing." I am what I am and that's all that I am.
But just then, an apparition appears on the horizon and says, "Robert, Dorothy, George, do you love me? Then feed my sheep."
A while back I told you my favorite Shakespeare play is Much Ado About Nothing, and that’s mostly because of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film. Do you know the story? The soldier-prince Claudio falls in love with a beautiful innocent named Hero, but he thinks she has been unfaithful to him, and on their wedding day standing before God and all God's witnesses, when the priest asks Claudio if he will take Hero to be his wife, he says "No! Never, I will never knit my soul to an approved wanton, for she hath known the heat of a luxurious bed, and she is but a pampered animal that doth rage in savage sensuality."
But Hero has not been unfaithful to Claudio, and his ruthless accusations put her into a swoon, and she faints. She is carried away as if dead. But she is not dead. Claudio thinks she is dead, and he doesn’t care; she deserved it, because she had known the heat of a luxurious bed.
But later, of course, Claudio learns that he was wrong. Hero has been true. They tell him that his violent attack upon her character has killed her, and thinking that she is dead, he begs her father for forgiveness, and asks him to choose his method of revenge. But Hero's father, like God Godself, is not in a vengeful mood, and says that Claudio's atonement must be to marry the man's niece. Another marriage is arranged, and when Claudio meets his intended bride for the first time, she is veiled.
Claudio’s condemnation is that he must pledge his eternal fidelity to a woman he does not love and has never seen. But when he does pledge his faithfulness, and the bride's veil is lifted, it’s Hero after all, the woman he loved and betrayed.
It is one of the greatest moments from the comic stage, a true moment, a Gospel moment. Claudio the treacherous has been given another chance. His retribution is marriage to his beloved. He is condemned into love.
It’s the hopeless, hapless, clueless Sheriff Dogberry (Michael Keaton in the film), who says it most true. He says, “O Villain! Thou wilt be condemned to everlasting redemption for this.” I love that malaprop: condemned to everlasting redemption. That’s a phrase that takes a left turn between the verb and the noun, right? You can say “condemned to everlasting retribution,” or you can say “rescued for everlasting redemption,” but “condemned to everlasting redemption” is an oxymoron.
Malaprops are sometimes called Dogberryisms, because Shakespeare’s Sheriff Dogberry is always getting it wrong. But in getting it wrong, he gets it right. It’s what happened to Claudio; his treachery is rewarded with lifelong covenant to the woman he’s always loved. It’s what happened to St. Peter; Jesus answers his three-fold denial with three-fold invitation. It’s what happens to us all—we are condemned to everlasting redemption. There is always resurrection. There is always redemption. There is always another chance.
Do our nets not burst with the catch when we throw them out to the other side of the boat? Is springtime, though late, not here once again? Have we not extravagance beyond our capacity to hope or dream? Is it not true that our failures are never final and our mistakes never ultimately killing, and are we not condemned to everlasting redemption?
Bill Pennington, “Tiger Woods Showed He Was Back Not with a Shot, but with a Stare,” The New York Times, April 14, 2019.
Eric Zorn, “Without Failure, Jordan Would Be False Idol” The Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1997.
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV, scene 1.
Ibid., Act IV, scene 2, ll. 56–57.