The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
April 10, 2016
Easter 3, Year C
If I were to ask all of you gathered here today to raise your hand if you experienced teasing or bullying in your life, I imagine most of us would be raising our hands. For some of us it was a searing experience that has impacted much of our lives since then. For others it may have been a time that brought some reality into our lives without much lasting consequence. Yet, we know that for many being bullied was, and is, an ongoing serious concern.
I remember the pleasure with which I heard my daughter’s seventh grade headmaster say to all the children and parents on opening day that there was no bullying at their school, and that those who bullied would be expelled. What was almost 30 years ago a rarity has become more common. Whether we as a people have become less tolerant, or the problem far more prevalent, I don’t know. However zero tolerance for bullying and efforts to assist those who are bullied, as well as those who bully, is increasingly frequent.
A response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help is compassion. Compassion has two parts. First an awareness of suffering in which we have an emotional response. Second, action. To feel sorry for another, to pity them, even to enter into a more parallel relationship by feeling empathy for another isn’t compassion. The emotion evoked must lead to helpful action.
In describing Jesus’ strengths and attributes we can often go through a long list before we come to compassion. In effect, we often devalue the significance of his compassion. Yet throughout the Christian Scriptures we read again and again that Jesus “had compassion” on them--the hungry, the sick, the blind, the leper, the demonized, the bereaved, the sinful, the lost. His compassion was seen in self-sacrificing and continual caring response to the needs of the one who evoked his compassion.
Today there may be a sense that we, as a people, suffer from a lack of compassion. Certainly recent efforts to teach compassion to children betray a fear that we ourselves are unable to take the initial step toward compassion—that of having the suffering of another evoke emotion within us. Perhaps it’s a natural outcome of our continual exposure to suffering through television, movies and social media. Horrific situations, that one might only rarely be exposed to in the past, become a daily part of life. The experience can be so overwhelming that we just want to shut it out.
One of the gifts tome of living in the semi-rural Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake was getting to know people who had lived there all their lives. They were proud of farming, hunted and fished to feed their families, and deeply valued a way of life they knew they were losing. I met a woman who spoke of the neighbors who helped her keep her family together and raise her brothers. Her mother died when she was 12 and her father when she was 20. They were very poor and that community kept them going. The children stayed in their home. Food and clothing would appear on their doorstep. People would stop by to see how they were doing. If they really needed something all she had to do was ask “Miss Claire” and they would be given it. Something she said would never happen today.
In his simple book Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe author Andrew Boyd writes: “Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” (1)
In today’s Gospel reading we see another example of Jesus’s compassion. It is considered by many to be part of an addendum—the whole chapter added after the Gospel had been concluded in Chapter 20 with the words that Jesus did many other signs but these are written do that we may come to believe.
We come to the story of Jesus appearing to the Disciples as they fish. A figure on the shore suggests that they put their empty nets on the other side of the boat and the catch is almost too much to haul in. The disciple whom Jesus loved tells Peter, “It is the Lord.” And Peter swims to shore, to Jesus.
Peter must have been in agony in the days since the crucifixion. His fervent desire to die with Jesus had disappeared in the face of the reality of Jesus’ arrest. Just as Jesus had predicted he would, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. In the Gospel of Luke we’re told that Jesus heard the denials from a room where he had been imprisoned. Peter’s suffering and his shame must have been immense.
While Jesus had been in Peter’s presence twice in the house where he had appeared to the disciples. It isn’t until this appearance that Jesus addresses Peter’s betrayal. Just as Peter had denied him three times, Jesus asks, ”Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” Each time, with more fervor, Peter proclaims his love for Jesus.
Yet, there’s more here than meets the eye. In the original Greek there’s a subtle difference in the question asked and the response given. Jesus asks two times if Peter loves Jesus with agape love, that is the love of God—unreserved, unwavering, totally oriented toward the good of the other. Each time Peter responds with a different kind of love, filios, friendship or brotherly love.
So Jesus is asking "Peter, are you fully devoted to me?" and Peter is responding, "Yes Lord, you know I am your friend." The third time Jesus meets Peter where he is, and asks Peter if he loves him using the word filios, to which Peter responds in kind. (2)
Peter can’t say he loves Jesus at the level of love Jesus requests. The language of Jesus’ final request is an act of great compassion. That one word for filial love carries forgiveness as it envelopes Peter in Jesus’ love.
Compassion can be forceful and passionate, tender and loving. It can be toward an individual or for the benefit of many. You and I know the compassion of our God who accepts us as we are— whoever we are, whatever we are doing, and moves with us from that place toward our ongoing transformation. The tenderness of Jesus’ love for us lets us see our indifference, as it breaks open the shell of our self-protection. The love of Jesus sets us free to act. Where is Jesus touching your heart? Where are you being led to the suffering of another? How is Jesus nudging, calling, leading you to respond?
(1) Boyd, Andrew. Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being connected to Everything in the Universe. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002
(2) Ewart, David. Holy Textures. www.holytextures.com 3 Easter 2016