* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, October 26, 2015

John 21: Second Chances

The postscript to the gospel of John was created with at least one clear purpose -- to redeem a leader in the early Christian movement from an embarrassing episode of disloyalty. There is some debate as to whether this final chapter of John was written by the same author as the rest of the book. At this point, there are only four or five actual complete copies of the gospel of John from the 4th century or earlier, and even among these there are apparent discrepancies. Whoever added this chapter to the end of the narrative, however, apparently felt it was necessary to address some concern in the community.

After the resurrected Jesus character prompts a miraculous catch of fish, he asks Peter to affirm his devotion three times, mirroring the three-fold denial of Peter earlier in the story. The Jesus character then foretells how Peter will die (a detail that could not have been included by the author until after this early sect leader's death), and he also mentions how the author of the preceding 20 chapters will die. The author of this postscript mentions one rumor that is being debunked here, although he does so in a way that reassures the reader that it is alright if a community leader dies.

Symbolism is prevalent here, which is one indication that this is not a report of actual incidents but a story with a metaphorical meaning. The exact number of fish caught is clearly symbolic and not actual, and many people have put forth theories about what that number might signify. There's no point in offering such a theory, however, because there is no way to prove or disprove any clever ideas about the number 153. Fishing and not catching anything until the Christ-figure shows up is also a hearkening back to previous stories, locating the tale within a larger context of Jesus stories. And of course, the three-fold redemption of Peter is highly symbolic, and some commentators have picked apart what fine distinctions might be made between "sheep" or "lambs" and "tending" or "feeding." Maybe the author had some specific nuanced differences in mind, but unless we discover some explanation written by the actual author, we shouldn't put too much stock in a "scholar" who claims to have solved a riddle that doesn't even necessarily exist.

There's no telling what sorts of rumors, myths, and doubts threatened the community for whom this epilogue was written. Obviously, if they were expecting that the leader of their community would remain alive -- at least until a mystical Christ figure returned -- it would have been something of a shock when that leader died. That could have shaken their worldview and their faith. The author of this story may have felt it necessary to remind people that they had made up this business about having a near-immortal leader, and they were simply wrong. It's a fair reason to write such a tale, if one wants to keep a community united in purpose and focused on promoting a particular set of beliefs and values.

It isn't hard to excuse first-century people for believing in supernatural beings and Christ figures that would return from Heaven and make everything wonderful for them. What's a little tougher to grasp is how twenty-first-century people still believe in something like a rapture event, and base life decisions around a delusional (and somewhat narcissistic) conviction. There are people in the United States today who make decisions about politics, finances, and who they are entitled to hate, based on an expectation that we would deem utterly insane if they were expecting Odin or Athena or aliens riding the tail of a comet instead of Jesus. None of that is really what this chapter is about though.

This chapter, should we want to make it meaningful, offers a lesson about the mutuality of second chances, and it suggests something about life that we have a hard time accepting. Regarding the primary interchange between Peter and Jesus, there is the one who has betrayed, and the one who has been betrayed. They both have to do their part in order for reconciliation to occur. The betrayed (the Jesus character) sets aside any animosity or resentment, and the betrayer humbly expresses regret and a renewed willingness to love.

Sometimes we find it very challenging to reconcile, no matter which side of this conversation we find ourselves. When we feel unloved, it feels vulnerable to reach out to someone and ask, "Do you love me?" It seems like a needy, co-dependent kind of question. Yet, in this story, we see it asked in a very straightforward manner, almost as if it is bringing things back into focus. What matters at the end of the day? Let's start there and see how we want to move forward, given everything that has happened. 

And in the story, the response is accepted, with a clear and direct way that it can be demonstrated. You do love me? Alright, here's what you can do to demonstrate that. This isn't quite the same as saying, "Prove it." We all have different things that really speak love to us. Some people appreciate receiving tokens of affection, some people find acts of care most meaningful, and some value words spoken sincerely. The Jesus character is being direct about what means love to him. This means that he knows himself well enough to clearly express what he finds meaningful.

He also gives Peter a chance to reconsider. Are you sure? I don't need platitudes. Just be honest. There doesn't seem to be any shame in the repeated question, although we might imagine feeling shame if we were on the receiving end. Before long, though, the Jesus character is done asking questions. He leaves the matter alone and the relationship moves forward. If Peter had said, "I can't (or won't) do what you want me to," we might imagine Jesus smiling gently and saying, "Alright. I understand." Can we imagine ourselves doing the same?

If we can imagine ourselves in this process, we have a clear example of how to invite reconciliation.

(1) We take the first step toward someone who has done something that we've interpreted as a betrayal or an unloving act.

(2) We bring things back into focus by asking questions foundational to the relationship. "Do you love me?" or "Is there any point to moving forward with us?"

(3) We clearly state what we want or need. "This is what means love/friendship/collaboration to me."

(4) We allow space for the other person's sincere response and trust them to speak truthfully. And we accept the outcome, whether or not reconciliation is possible at this time.

We can still have boundaries and accept people's sincere responses. We can enforce the consequences of having our boundaries trampled and still be loving people. The people who are closest to us are the ones most likely to challenge our boundaries, and sometimes this is even a way that we grow beyond our comfort zone. There is nothing about this exchange, though, that suggests we ought to be naive or willfully oblivious to someone's dangerous behavior. We care for ourselves and for the people around us when we set clear boundaries and allow there to be consequences.

Sometimes we find ourselves on the other side of this relationship -- on the side represented by Peter in the story. We discover that we have acted or spoken in a way that isn't aligned with a best possible version of ourselves. We have treated another person in a way that doesn't reflect our deepest values. Peter is patient, too. He is sad, and yet he doesn't have an angry outburst. He doesn't feel the need to defend himself when the question comes a second or third time. He answers sincerely, and (as far as we can tell) he accepts the terms offered by the Jesus character. "If this is what love means to you, I'm willing to do it."

He can say this, because what the Jesus character wants is not dissonant with what Peter wants for himself. If Jesus had asked him to do something harmful to himself or others, we would see it as manipulation or coercion -- fear-driven behavior. When we set aside our own deepest values in order to prove something to someone else, this is not healthy. When we can see reflected in someone else's request our own vision of a best possible version of ourselves, we can more confidently agree to how love or partnership can be meaningfully expressed and received.

This story is necessary because of Peter's legendary place in the hierarchy of the early Christian sect. There are a lot of traditions about Peter, including that he was the first pope. Where history has failed to leave clear evidence, people have invented traditions, and it simply would not do for the inaugural leader of the Christian movement to have a blemish on his record. The story of Peter's denial of Jesus was too much for people to accept alongside the favorable traditions and legends they had invented around this figure. He needed a redemption story to balance out a widely known story of significant failure.

In our own lives, we need stories of second chances, too. We will inevitably fail in our endeavors and in our relationships. Especially if we are committed to growing and learning how to create the relationships and lives we most want. Learning new things almost always means experiencing some failure before we get the hang of a new way of being. Strong relationships and healthy communities are not defined by a lack of conflict or painless co-existence. Strong relationships and healthy communities are places where failure is safe, because people are willing to clean up messes and seek reconciliation. Being connected to other human beings is going to painful, not all the time, but sometimes. It's important for us to have a way to reconnect when we don't live up to a best possible version of ourselves.

I also said that this chapter suggests something about life we have a hard time accepting. It's about our mortality. The Jesus character tells Peter essentially that he needs to do what's important while he has a chance. We are limited in terms of the time have. The people in our lives who are important to us aren't always going to be here. And it's alright for us to keep living after people close to us have died. We must. But while we have the opportunity, may we do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said in our relationships, and may we do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said to journey toward our own personal creative life dream. We may have a lot of time. We may have a little. The point is to use it well.

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