Scripture: John 21:1-19
Sermon: Dealing with Denial
by Pastor Todd Buurstra

Denial. Keeping tough truth in the dark. The most recent religious form of denial has been plastered all over our media in the form of the Catholic church’s alleged cover up of clergy sexual abuse. I was saddened particularly during Holy Week that the media was obsessed with this story. And not just TV, but David Dayen wrote:

The abuse can be seen as systemic, as well as the response from the church leadership – to hide the problem, transfer the abusers and deny accountability.

Sinead O’Connor, Irish popstar famous for tearing up a picture of the previous pope on SNL 18 years ago, lit in to her church in a Washington Post editorial:

Pope Benedict’s so-called apology takes no responsibility for the transgressions of Irish priests… But Benedict’s infamous 2001 letter to bishops…ordered them to keep sexual abuse allegations secret under threat of excommunication… In Ireland, it is time we separated our God from our religion, and our faith from its alleged leaders.

Sad, so sad. Such denial is not just a Catholic problem, it’s a Protestant problem. Not only because we have turned the other way when our pastors have abused others (I think of a friend of mine who left his associate pastor position because he couldn’t stand all of the rumors of the senior pastor’s philandering), but because the world paints us with the same brush. Organized religion? I believe in God but not the church! some say.

How does Jesus deal with our denials?

Well, how did Jesus deal with Peter’s denial? Remember how on crucifixion eve Peter was warming himself by the fire in the courtyard, and 3 times was asked, You were with Jesus, weren’t you? And just like Jesus predicted, 3 times he said, something akin to, Hell no! And then the rooster crowed. Peter hung his head, and even after the excitement of Jesus’ resurrection, he couldn’t quite make eye contact. So what do you do when you have some feelings of failure? You go back to the tried and true. Peter? He went fishing. So after a long night of fishing, the best time to catch fish, as the sun was rising, the Risen Son spotted a shoal of fish on the other side of the boat, not uncommon, and yelled from the shore, Hey guys, drop your nets on the right side! And the net filled with 153 fish! Peter was so excited that he jumped into the water and ran to shore where Jesus had started a fire to cook breakfast. As Peter smelled the fire, his eagerness to meet Jesus for the third time after Easter evaporated, and his eyes avoided Jesus’, because he remembered that fire the night of his denial. Jesus begins to deal with our denial by meeting us in our denial, just as he met Peter who was avoiding him by fishing.

So Peter and friends enjoyed Jesus’ freshly cooked breakfast on the beach. As he pushed himself back from the table with full belly, Jesus seized the moment to confront his denial. Peter, do you agapaw me (love me unconditionally like God loves)?

Jesus, you know that I filew you (love you like a brother).

Peter, do you agapaw me (love me unconditionally like God loves)?

Jesus, you know that I filew you (love you like a brother).

Peter, do you filew me (love me like a brother)?

Hurt that Jesus asked 3 times, Jesus, you know that I filew you (love you like a brother).

Three times. Once for each denial. Peter not able to reach up to Jesus’ love for him, but Jesus bending down to Peter’s ability to love. The Risen Christ reinstates Peter by accepting his best, imperfect love. How might the Risen One reinstate today’s church?

NS First off, there are strong parallels between this story and the current crisis in the Catholic church. Who is Peter to Catholics, but the first pope, since he was head of the church of Rome. And why 153 fish? Knowing that the book of John is highly symbolic, a few early church fathers saw the universal, or catholic, church in that number. Cyril of Alexandria says 100 for the full number of Gentiles, + 50 for the remnant of faithful Jews, + 3 for the Trinity = 153. Or, Jerome says there were 153 known types of fish in the sea. Either way, Jesus was reinstating Peter to be a fisher of all folk, Jew and Gentile.

So how does Jesus meet us in our denial today? Jesus will not let us keep the lights off on the truth. Either other folk will keep pointing it out (the media?), or our conscience will bother us (pope’s unprecedented action), or Jesus will expose it on Judgment Day. God’s searchlight will shine on the truth. God’s light cannot be denied.

In the case of today’s church, we need to acknowledge that we’ve all looked the other way. I remember how much I wanted a weird harassment issue to go away several years ago here. I hated bringing the tense case to our elders. I agonized that one family eventually needed to leave the church over it. It was the worst months of my ten year tenure here by far. And here’s where I think we Protestants can hold our Catholic friends accountable. You know their issue? It’s not sex or money; it’s power. It’s that their organization concentrates power at the top, as opposed to sharing power with laity. So that the bishops are incentivized to keep it quiet. We are blessed to share power representatively—clergy and you laity together. They need that same blessing.

Then if we do the hard work of admitting truth., Jesus will accept our best, imperfect love. Lord, you know that the church can’t say that we love you agapaw, unconditionally like you love us, but thank you for accepting our best, imperfect love. Thank you for dealing with our denial because we’re all Peter, and you love us still…

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