Healing Betrayal

Third Sunday of Easter: John 21:1-19


Do you remember your first love?  The first person you fell head over heels for? It is an all encompassing feeling, as if you could eat, sleep, and breathe that person. 


Now maybe you are one of those people who marry their first sweet heart. But most people get their hearts broken. And a first break up is just as instructive as a first love. It’s as if the betrayal of love is one of the rites of passage in human existence, part of the way we grow up. 


The backdrop for today’s story from the Gospel of John is this theme of betrayal. Jesus had been explicit with his disciples: on his last night with them, he called them friends. He told them of his love for them, and that they should love each other the same way. And then he told them that one of them would betray him. The comment is of course directed at Judas, who would hand him over to the authorities. But it could have been a comment about any of his disciples who turned tail and fled rather than risk their life to stand with Jesus.   


For Peter, it was the worst. Because by a charcoal fire, he denied knowing Jesus three times. He betrayed Jesus, leaving Jesus all alone in his time of deepest need. Psychologists say that betrayal leaves a deep wound. It’s different than being wronged by a stranger or an enemy. Betrayal by definition involves someone close to you, an intimate. Betrayal is the pain of having someone you love and trust completelydisregard your well being, cast you aside as if you didn’t matter. 


Betrayal leaves in its wake disbelief, sadness, and anger—all the steps of a grief process. If the relationship isn’t repaired, betrayal leads to resentment, contempt, and finally, disgust. Remember what it was like to be dumped? After the break up, it can be hard to ever imagine you loved that person you have a visceral reaction to even the thought of them. But it turns out disgust is as necessary step in healing. It gives you the critical distance you need in order to look at the situation in a more balanced way to get over the loss. 


This is the emotional territory that would have been Jesus’ walk. He was essentially dumped by his closest friends. But he did not take the route of contempt and disgust. He did not wash his hands of these so-called friends. Instead he repeatedly came back to them—today’s passage is the third of such visits, and on this visit, Jesus deals with Peter’s betrayal. 


Peter was clearly the leader of the disciples. He says, “I’m fishing” and they all go along. He sees Jesus across the sea, and is the first to go to him. He hauls in the great catch fish. It’s as if Simon Peter is trying to prove himself. 


Jesus gives him the chance. Over breakfast, Jesus asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Scholars see this as a story about Peter, his public restoration after his denial of Jesus and the signs are there—Peter, confessing his love for Jesus three times over a charcoal fire just as he had denied Jesus over the fire in Herod’s courtyard. 


But you can also look at this story from Jesus’ point of view. Jesus could have cut off his relationship with Peter, moved through contempt and disgust, but instead Jesus handled betrayal in another way. Jesus offers Peter an opportunity to behave in consistent reparative behavior. It doesn’t undo Peter’s betrayal; it doesn’t take away the pain of his rejection. But it does begin to repair the broken bond; it does rebuild trust. And Jesus knows that Peter will have ample opportunity to back up his words with action-even to giving his life for his belief in Jesus. 


As Christians, we hold the value of forgiveness as central. We see it as central to Jesus’ life and a Christian responsibility. Sometimes when we have been hurt or betrayed, we feel we should forgive but we cannot summon the good will to do it. Instead feelings of pain, resentment and even hatred come up without us even bidding them. We can feel guilty for being unable to feel any forgiveness in our hearts when Jesus has so freely forgiven us. 


But I think it is instructive to note that in this passage, Jesus does not say the words, I forgive you. He does not ask for an apology, or even tell of his grievance. Instead Jesus acts for the healing of the relationship in a different way prompting the words from Peter that he surely longed to hear—that Peter longed to say: Yes, Lord, I love you. He directed Peter toward the behavior that would demonstrate Peter’s love – to serve others. In healing the relationship, Jesus also healed Peter, releasing him from his guilt and shame.


I take heart in a couple of ways from this story. First, when we are betrayed, we are not alone. Jesus has covered this territory. Sometimes he forgave people outright, like his words from the cross for those who crucified him. Other times he chose a different route—providing steps to live into a relationship in a new way, a healing way, so that eventually forgiveness may come.


As we consider our own deepest wounds, perhaps our role is not to rush to forgiveness, but rather, to attend to the process by which we may be healed. In some cases this may mean limiting contact or leaving the relationship behind. But in others, we may be more like Peter and Jesus, and in these cases, our healing includes a process of learning to demonstrate and accept love. It is about sharing positive experiences in a way that gradually rebuilds trust. Forgiveness and love are shown, tested, and proved, time and time again. 


Jesus ended his conversation with Peter over the fire with these words, “Follow me.” Jesus meant, follow me, in giving and serving others. He meant, Follow me, giving your life as I did. 

  • But I believe Jesus also meant, Follow me, in loving others and yourself well. 
  • Follow me in feeling the hurt. 
  • Follow me in the courage to move toward healing and forgiveness. 
Follow me. 

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