Sunday, March 10, 2013

To Be Lost, To Be Found, To Know the Difference

To Be Lost, To Be Found, To Know the Difference
Fourth in a Lenten series from Luke
March 10, 2013
© 2013 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Luke 22:31-34, 54-62
Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,
but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail;
and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
Just when Peter thought he was most in touch, most in sync, most able to stand next to Jesus, to defend him to the death, just then, at his point of greatest self-assumed strength, just at that very moment he was lost. This man, who was the first to raise his hand during the pop quiz when Jesus asked who they would say he was, who was first out of the gate with, “You are the Messiah!” This is the one who three times said he did not even know Jesus. There’s a lesson in there for us in there somewhere if we will attend to it. He was lost.
On the other hand, just when Peter went to weep in bitterness, just when he could see that his strength had not saved his master, had not even made a dent, just when he saw he was helpless to do anything of significance, even unable to speak up for his own acquaintance with Jesus, just then he was found. “I don’t even know the man,” Peter declared, voice shaking with the lie. This coming from the man Jesus once called, “The Rock.” Some rock...! Yet Jesus had prayed for him, interceded for him. And we all know Peter went on to become one of the bravest proclaimers of the faith. He was found again.
To be lost, to be found, to know the difference.
Sometimes we are lost and don’t even know it. Just when we think we are strongest, most capable, most in touch with the will of God, just then we may find reminders of our weakness, of our incapacity to stand by Jesus on the pedestals of our own strength and merit.
In a backward way, we love Peter for his failure, don’t we? More often than we’d like to admit, our own overconfident declarations of faith are also overstated. “I believe...” we say, unreservedly, in church, along with everyone else, as the Apostles’ Creed is recited. Easy enough to say in here, isn’t it, even though most of us really just more or less mutter it? But back at work, back in the neighborhood, back amid the hustle and bustle and jockeying for position, the elbowing for recognition, when there’s a price to pay, we turn into Peter: “No, I’ve heard of Jesus, of course, but can’t say that I really know him.”
Before we are too hard on Peter, we might recall that for all the tragedy and pain of his denial of Jesus, it is only Peter who made it to the courtyard. He followed Jesus at least that far, which is more than the others could say, apparently. He may be like us in this way too, when we feel, perhaps, that even if we are not perfect, at least we are ahead of others. Still, even that action turned into defeat. Faith, it turns out, is not a contest to see who gets there first or farthest. The culpability for the betrayal and denial of Jesus is cumulative, each little misstep, each failure to understand, each refusal to follow, all add weight to the outcome, until finally we are left with Paul saying, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[1] All. No wiggle room there.
I think one of the amazing features of the Bible that we share is that it consistently looks at our heroes with unblinking truthfulness. In Peter’s own time, the literature of the Roman world was filled with stories of gods and heroes, while ordinary people were all but invisible, mere background figures or canon fodder for the stories of the great and glorious. Not so in the Bible, especially here in the New Testament. Here, Simon Peter, unarguably one of the heroes of the faith, is clearly nothing more than a lowly fisherman from Galilee, whose language or dress or body odor gave his humble origins away amid the Jerusalem folks sitting around the fire in the high priest’s courtyard that night. An ordinary man. In terms of the literature of his own day, his story would never have even been written down. If we had been writing one of the gospels, we would likely have been tempted to try to clean up the story of Peter, the faith ancestor of all of us here. But no, the Bible is honest. It tells the whole story of who we are. Yet it is the very ordinariness, the very thought that Peter was as we are, an ordinary person who found himself in an extraordinary circumstance, this is what makes the story so convicting.
Just like Peter, sometimes, for all our good intentions and resolutions, we fall away, we fall short, we deny and betray, and we are lost. “Alcoholics Anonymous teaches its members to introduce themselves, “I’m Jane,” or “I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic, but by the help of a higher power, a recovering one.” We love Peter for embodying [what we know we are]. For most of us are quite ordinary in our sin. “No redemption would do people like us any good that required us to be heroic. We need a higher power.”[2] Sometimes we are lost.
And sometimes we are found.
Sometimes we are found, though we have no sense within us that we are worth finding. In times when we weep bitter tears of resignation and failure, we wonder how we can go on, how we can face the world. It is when this picture of Peter’s weeping misery is before me that I am so captivated by Jesus’ prayer of intercession for him, even in anticipation of his failing, even as Jesus knew Peter was bound to fail, even so, he prays for him, intercedes for him.
Throughout the gospels, Peter fills the role of the “Everyman” disciple. He says things, does things, asks things, makes mistakes about things that represent the ways all disciples are in relationship with Jesus: faltering, stumbling, sometimes falling. It is no different for any of us than it is here in the gospel.
It is interesting that in the same breath, as Jesus made a prayer for unfailing faith for Peter, in that breath he prayed also for Peter’s return when he failed, and commissioned him with his prayer to strengthen others who follow. While Peter was on the road to being lost, was destined to deny his Lord that very night, even then Jesus was praying him back into relationship, was finding him again.
Probably no hymn in the world is more well known than “Amazing Grace.” Probably even those who claim to be totally unmusical, those who may think they have never memorized a piece of music, would surprise themselves when it comes to this song. See if you know it...
 [Sing it a capella....] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...(now you...) I once was lost, but now am found...(now you...). See? We just know this hymn, it is a sort of hymn Peter could have written. In some ways, it is amazing that it is so well-loved, considering the confession that is called for in the very first line from anyone singing it: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...”
A wretch? Is that what I am? I remember back in the 1970s hearing this hymn sung with a less offensive word used there, something like “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a soul like me.” Aw, isn’t that sweet? Jesus saved my unwretched little soul. We don’t live at a time when we go around calling people wretches, much less ask them to think of themselves that way, it might do harm to their self-esteem or something. No one likes to think of themselves in this way. I remember singing this hymn across the chancel from my colleague in my church in Texas, and mouthing “...that saved a wretch like you!” to him. He got tickled and started laughing so hard he couldn’t sing for the rest of the hymn.
Do we have problems referring to ourselves with a word like “wretch?” Of course we do, who wants to be a wretch?! It offends my self-image! I’m a pretty good person, certainly not a wretch. Thinking this way, we sound for all the world like Peter, puffing himself up to size in order to tell Jesus he would defend him to the death. Yet just when we think we are most found, least wretched, that is when we are lost. It is one of the paradoxical truths of the gospel. The dictionary says a “wretch” is “a miserable person, one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune.” Just as Peter declared his willingness “to go with [Jesus] to prison and to death,” at that very moment when he thought he was the strongest, he was at that moment on the cusp of being the most lost. He was wretched, even if he didn’t know it, and we are no different.
Many of you probably know the story of “Amazing Grace.” The author, John Newton, was a new believer around the year 1750, yet after coming to faith he had continued to command an English slave ship. Eventually he saw that any role in the slavery trade was antithetical to the Christian faith, and he left the sea for good. He studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life preached the gospel in Olney and London. At 82, Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner (he was lost), and that Christ is a great Saviour (he was found).”
I once was lost, but now am found. He knew the difference after a lifetime lived between being lost and found. These are words that could well have been written by Peter. Indeed, I suspect that, given the right circumstances, they could be written by us all.
To be lost, to be found, to know the difference. The difference is in the one who does the finding. There is nowhere we can go that is beyond the finding power of Christ, who prays for us: “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail...” Jesus prays for us. We were lost, but we are found. Thanks be to God.

[1] Romans 3:23, NRSV.
[2] “Ordinary Sin,” by William Willimon, a Duke University Chapel sermon, March 28, 1999.