11 May 2009

After the Betrayal

Katy Moore

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.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
John 21:15–19

Remember Eliot Spitzer? You know, our former governor. He’s been out of the public eye for a little while now, but it seems like he’s back. He’s been writing a regular column for the news website Slate, recently he did an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show, and then just a few weeks ago he was the focus of an in-depth cover story in Newsweek. It doesn’t seem like there’s any real news to report, but he’s been cited as a qualified voice on the economic situation, especially considering his previous experience challenging fraud at AIG and elsewhere.

No, the real thrust of the Newsweek story was about Spitzer’s recovery from the prostitution scandal that undermined his career-long fight against corruption and cost him his office. He has mainly been seen, since his resignation, with his family, walking his dogs, trying to have a semblance of normal life. But after a year out of the spotlight, it seems like he can’t stay away for long. So now he’s back to his strengths as a political and economic commentator, but after such a spectacular betrayal of everything he had stood for, how can he possibly regain New York’s trust—the country’s trust—and reenter public life?

In the passage I just read from the Gospel of John, we get a little snapshot of Peter and Jesus together at the very end of the story. According to John, Peter has been in this since the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He is one of the very first followers in chapter 1. Now flash forward to chapter 21, only a few verses from the end of John’s long and wordy gospel, and Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” As if he hasn’t been following for the last three years!

Well, that’s not the whole story. Peter’s relationship with Jesus has not been an easy one. In all the gospels, Peter is one of the most vocal and enthusiastic disciples, the first to ask questions, the first to step out onto the water and follow, the first to proclaim the depths of his devotion to Jesus. When Jesus takes only a few disciples with him, it is almost always Peter and James and John. Peter is part of the inner circle, Jesus’ closest followers, his most beloved friends. And yet it is Peter who, as soon as Jesus is arrested, three times denies that he is a disciple. This has been a passionate friendship, and the intensity of Peter’s devotion is matched by the intensity of his betrayal.

John gives us a postscript to this story of Peter’s betrayal. Three times Peter denied his love for Jesus, and now Jesus gives him three chances to reaffirm his love. The trust has been broken—shattered, really—but Jesus offers Peter the opportunity to come back. If Peter can accept it, Jesus has a charge for him: “Tend my sheep.” This is not an easy charge—John tells us that Jesus went on to predict Peter’s crucifixion for his faith—but Peter takes it, and goes on to be affirmed by centuries of Christian tradition as the first head of the church. Peter has quite a story: he started out as a fisherman named Simon; dropped his nets and left everything behind to follow Jesus, becoming one of his most trusted intimates; but as soon as things got tough he denied even knowing Jesus; and then, somehow, Jesus gives him another chance to follow, and gives him leadership over his whole flock, the church.

Our particular corner of this flock, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been experiencing some fractured relationships and broken trust of its own. Our constitution includes a provision that everyone ordained into service, whether Ministers or Elders or Deacons, must live in “fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” The original purpose of this language, and the way it has overwhelmingly been used, is to exclude gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer people from ministry. As it is written, our constitution claims that this language is sufficient to describe the only ways of living faithfully in relationship with one another. And yet, as our divorce rates continue to climb, and people, especially women, begin to speak out about abuse and distrust and sexist assumptions in their own relationships, it is becoming clearer every day that this language is not enough to tell us how to live faithfully in any of our intimate relationships. In recognition of this fact, and of the God-given calls to ministry of many LGBT and queer people, the General Assembly (our national governing body) this past summer passed an amendment to this standard, calling for “lives obedient to Jesus Christ ... through the witness of the Scriptures, ... [and] fidelity to the standards of the Church,” and sent it to be voted on by the presbyteries.

Less than two weeks ago, on Saturday, April 25, Boise Presbytery and Northern Plains Presbytery became the 86th and 87th to vote against the amendment, meaning that although the voting is not over, the amendment has now, definitely, failed. The vote has been closer than ever before: already, over 30 presbyteries (out of 173 nationally) which had previously voted to keep this inadequate language have voted to change it, and a huge majority of presbyteries have seen shifts towards the inclusive and Christ-centered new language. And yet, the breach of trust between the PC(USA) and its non-heterosexual children has not been healed. If anything, this vote has exposed, again, how very deep are the divisions in our church. On all sides of the issue, beliefs and opinions are incredibly strongly and passionately held. We are not simply debating semantics, we are debating bodies and lives and faith and convictions. A simple vote will not heal these wounds, no matter how it comes out.

As these debates continue, our body splits and the wounds deepen. We are losing whole congregations to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and almost daily we lose my talented and Spirit-filled colleagues in ministry to the United Church of Christ, or to academia, or often they are discouraged from even acknowledging their call in the first place. And yet, many of us stay. Our denomination is not yet divided. We stay and continue these conversations. My friend Lisa Larges has been pursuing her call for 23 years now, and she has still not been certified for ministry.

It is not easy to heal the wounds of broken relationships. Broken trust can take a lifetime to repair—just ask Governor Spitzer! And yet, somehow, Jesus has given us an example of betrayed trust restored. Even then, it does not seem to be easy, and yet they do it. After all that Peter and Jesus have been through together, Jesus does not let betrayal have the last word. Jesus takes this dear friend aside and says, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” It won’t be easy, but this is a good start. Talking to one another, and affirming our love for one another and for Jesus Christ is a good way to begin.

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