The Future & Forgetting
The Future and Forgetting
Acts 9:1-19; John 21:1-17
July 2, 2006
Focus: We need to learn from the past but not be trapped by it. God focuses on the future.
One day a poor girl ventured into the garden of the Queen’s palace, and approached the gardener, telling him that her mother was lying very ill, and that she longed for a flower, such as she had seen in the Queen’s gardens. It was winter time, and the flowers were rare at that season. The child had saved a few pennies and wished to buy a rose for her sick mother. The gardener had no authority to give away the Queen’s flowers, and he said when she offered to pay, “The Queen has no flowers for sale,” and would have sent the poor child away. But the Queen herself just happened to be in the greenhouse, and, unobserved either by the gardener or his little customer, had overheard the conversation. As the child was turning away sorrowful and disappointed, the Queen stepped from behind her flowery screen and addressed the child, saying: “The gardener was quite right, my child, he has no authority to give you the flowers you want, nor does the Queen cultivate flowers for sale; but the Queen has flowers to give away”; and, suiting the action to the word, she lifted from the basket into which she had been snipping the flowers a handful of rare roses and gave them to the child, saying: “Take these to your mother with my love, and tell her that the Queen sent them. I am the Queen.” So let me say to you, God has no forgiveness for sale; you cannot buy it with your poor penance of tears, prayers, or repentance; God has forgiveness to give, and you may take it by faith, but not barter for it with anything you can do
Let’s read today’s Scripture passages together now. If you have your Bible with you, please turn to the book of John and we’ll read verses 1 through 17 in chapter 21: “Later Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. This is how it happened.
Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples.
Simon Peter said, "I'm going fishing." "We'll come, too," they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.
At dawn the disciples saw Jesus standing on the beach, but they couldn't see who he was.
He called out, "Friends, have you caught any fish?" "No," they replied.
Then he said, "Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you'll get plenty of fish!" So they did, and they couldn't draw in the net because there were so many fish in it.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and swam ashore.
The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only out about three hundred feet.
When they got there, they saw that a charcoal fire was burning and fish were frying over it, and there was bread.
"Bring some of the fish you've just caught," Jesus said.
So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn't torn.
"Now come and have some breakfast!" Jesus said. And no one dared ask him if he really was the Lord because they were sure of it.
Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish.
This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead.
After breakfast Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," Peter replied, "you know I love you." "Then feed my lambs," Jesus told him.
Jesus repeated the question: "Simon son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord," Peter said, "you know I love you." "Then take care of my sheep," Jesus said.
Once more he asked him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, "Lord, you know everything. You know I love you." Jesus said, "Then feed my sheep.”
I. Simon Peter and Saul of Tarsus in Crisis
Most historians agree that the two most influential leaders of the early church were Simon Peter, the big fisherman, and Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul. Christianity would not be as we know it today had it not been for the influence of these two individuals. These two individuals could not have become who they were had it not been for the experiences described in Scripture.
Our Gospel reading focuses on a time of upheaval and confusion in the life of Simon Peter. He was one of the original followers of Jesus. Early in Jesus’ ministry, Andrew had met Jesus and was so impressed he brought Peter. Impulsively, Simon Peter signed on. He saw Jesus rise out of obscurity and become a national celebrity. He also watched as Jesus’ fortunes changed and the opposition in Jerusalem hardened. He stood with the rest in absolute amazement on that Friday afternoon as he saw Jesus crucified on a Roman cross. There was nothing left of the Jesus movement: crucified, dead, and buried.
Simon was among the group that first heard the women coming back from the tomb on Sunday morning and claiming that it was empty. He heard the rumor that Jesus was alive again; the Abba-Father had raised him back to life. Simon Peter even went to see the grave site, and he was present on those two Sunday nights in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared to the disciples. He saw Jesus extend his hands and let Thomas examine the nail prints.
Peter saw all of it, but he didn’t know what to make of this last phenomenon. His world had been turned upside down three times. The first when he met Jesus, the second when the whole thing seemed to collapse, and now these bewildering stories of resurrection.
Alvin Toffler taught us a few years ago that the human psyche can process only so much radical change before it tends to shut down. People either blow up in frustrated violence or they regress back to some earlier, simpler mode of being. It was this latter course that Simon Peter seems to have taken. In the midst of all of this confusion, Simon decides to go back to the one thing of which he is certain: making a living as a fisherman. He’s not the first person to return to his roots under the pressure of great complexity.
The story of Saul of Tarsus is different. As far as we know, he never had any direct contact with Jesus during the days of our Lord’s life. After Jesus had been killed, the disciples claimed he was resurrected, and Saul began to hear a great deal about Jesus, and it was utterly repulsive.
Now, let’s turn to Acts, chapter 9 and we’ll read verses 1 through 19: “Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath. He was eager to destroy the Lord's followers, so he went to the high priest.
He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.
As he was nearing Damascus on this mission, a brilliant light from heaven suddenly beamed down upon him!
He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?"
"Who are you, sir?" Saul asked. And the voice replied, "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting!
Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
The men with Saul stood speechless with surprise, for they heard the sound of someone's voice, but they saw no one!
As Saul picked himself up off the ground, he found that he was blind.
So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days. And all that time he went without food and water.
Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord!" he replied.
The Lord said, "Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you arrive, ask for Saul of Tarsus. He is praying to me right now.
I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying his hands on him so that he can see again."
"But Lord," exclaimed Ananias, "I've heard about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem!
And we hear that he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest every believer in Damascus."
But the Lord said, "Go and do what I say. For Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.
And I will show him how much he must suffer for me."
So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you may get your sight back and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
Instantly something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized.
Afterward he ate some food and was strengthened. Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days.”
Saul was a highly educated, sophisticated theologian. He’d had the best of rabbinic training, which meant that he had a very exalted concept of what God’s Messiah was going to be like. Jesus of Nazareth was not it by a long shot. In fact, the mere suggestion that a Galilean peasant, who had wound up being crucified by the Romans, would be God’s Anointed, seemed to Saul to be an absolute insult to Judaism. He proceeded to do to these heretics what his hero King David always did to his opponents: he eliminated them as quickly as possible. Saul was intent on obliterating believers in Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus when our first lesson begins.
Perhaps we’ll have to say that these two men who were so radically different (Saul and Simon) encountered Jesus Christ in different ways, and most unexpectedly he spun their lives around 180 degrees. In both cases Jesus came, and their worlds were never the same.
You could say that next to the resurrection itself no two events were more significant for later church history than the reassimilation of Simon Peter as a follower of Jesus and the radical conversion of Saul to become a witness to the Gentiles. These stories are so brimming with implications and so mind-boggling that all kinds of things could be said about either one of them.
This morning I want to focus on one feature that is common to both of these stories. In both of these cases, Jesus showed more interest in the present and the future than in the past of either one of these men.
II. Two Men Fearful of the Past
The amazing truth is that, at the moment of their encounter with Jesus, each of them was burdened with terrible memories of the past. I imagine Simon Peter could not get off his mind the way he handled himself on the last night of Jesus’ life. That evening at supper our Lord had been unusually somber.
Then in the middle of the meal, he had said to the disciples, “We are about to be tested as never before. We could betray everything we have worked for. We need to pray for strength not to crumple under the pressure.”
Simon Peter was so full of himself, so naive, so unconscious, so arrogant that he responded brashly by saying, “Jesus, you don’t have to worry about me; I’m strong. I don’t know about the rest of these guys, but there’s nothing in me that is capable of betrayal. I will stand with you even to death. When it comes to me, Jesus, not to worry.”
A few hours later, after Jesus was arrested, the whole ground shifted under Simon’s feet. Fear did what it’s capable of doing to any one of us. It turned him into a frightened animal. All it took was a slave girl saying casually, “Aren’t you one of the followers of the man they’ve just arrested?”
That pushed Simon over the edge. He began to fill the air with angry recriminations and denunciations. He was saying, “I don’t know him. I’ve never heard of him. I’m not one of his followers.” While those words were still echoing back and forth, there was this rustle up where Jesus was being interrogated. They brought him out. You could see he’d been roughed up pretty badly. Jesus looked at Simon, and Simon looked at Jesus. Simon realized that Jesus had heard everything he had just said.
The thought of it broke Simon’s heart. There was Jesus surrounded by enemies, being treated like an animal, and there comes to his ears the sound of his best friend’s voice. What is that voice saying? “I don’t know him. I’ve never heard of him. I’m not one of his followers.”
Simon thought how utterly abandoned Jesus must feel. What a total failure his life must have seemed at that moment. The one Jesus had poured the most of himself into is now denouncing any connection whatsoever. The memory of it was enough to crush absolutely Simon’s heart.
My guess is that it’s the memory of that humiliating failure that may explain why Simon reacted as he did after the resurrection. I’m suggesting that when the women came back and said the tomb was empty, that there were some angels saying that Jesus is alive again, Simon was elated at the thought. On another level he was filled with terror. He knew that if Jesus was back again, he was going to have to look into those eyes and account for that terrible time of betrayal. Maybe the reason he decided to go fishing was not just to get back to a simpler mode of life. Maybe he was running from contact with this one who remembered so much. A certain reading of our lesson this morning would support that premise.
Later we see the seven disciples who’d gone back to the Sea of Galilee. They were either so rusty in their skills or so discombobulated about all that had happened that they weren’t having any success in their fishing. They’d been at it all night. As the sun was rising, a figure appeared on the shore and called out, Have you caught anything?”
The figure said, “Why don’t you cast your nets on the right?”
They put them down and could hardly believe the catch they were getting. Maybe it was the sound of the voice or what happened when they obeyed, but at that moment, the beloved disciple made the connection and said to those in the boat, “That’s Jesus over there. That’s the Lord who met us here first. He’s back again.” On hearing those words, Simon who had been stripped for work, put on a garment and dove into the sea.
The traditional interpretation is that Simon was so elated to see Jesus that he jumped in to swim ashore ahead of the other disciples. But if you’ll read the lesson carefully the very opposite could be the interpretation. He may have jumped in the water to escape seeing Jesus. He may have been so filled with horror at having to come to terms with his past that he actually tried to avoid contact. But as he jumped into the water, maybe he came to himself and realized that there is no spatial solution to a guilty conscience. If you try to run away, you take the conscience with you. There’s an old saying that if an ass goes on a journey, it’s not going to come back a horse.
Where we are does not change what we are or what we have done. Maybe Simon realized there’s no way to run from the past. Even though he may have jumped into the sea in terror, he finally straggled up on the shore after the rest had brought in the fish. The burden of his past likely filled him with horror.
Saul felt much the same during his three days of blindness after his encounter with Jesus. Jesus had literally knocked him off his high horse with a blinding light and a voice, saying, “Why are you persecuting me, Saul?”
Saul, realizing that this is God himself, said, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you persecute.”
That must have come as an incredible surprise. This one that had so repulsed him was, in fact, God’s Messiah. Suddenly it dawned on Saul that he had been fighting God himself. He had been opposing the very one he was supposed to be serving. To a person of no religious concerns, that might not be important. But to Saul God was everything. He wanted to be on God’s side above all else. To discover that he had been contending against God instead of serving God must have been a terrible humiliation. Then there must have come the terror. What is God going to do to me after what I have done?
An ancient saying reminds us it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. Saul must have thought, How can he be anything but angry, given what I have done?
III. God’s Perspective on the Past
Both men, Simon and Saul, came to their fateful encounter with all kinds of luggage from the past. When Jesus begins to deal with these two people, he doesn’t say anything about their past mistakes. He talks about the present and the future. God is more concerned for the future than the past. He’s more interested in what we can yet become than in all the things we used to be.
If you ask how God could have this kind of mercy and this kind of hope, you need to go back to something that Jesus said all through his ministry. He said, “I came not to condemn the world but to save the world.”
If that is God’s intention, then no wonder he’s focusing on the future. The future is the only place of creative possibility. The past is unalterable. No matter how intensely you feel about what you did and didn’t do there is no way to go back and undo or redo the things that make up our heritage. The only place left open and fluid, like clay in the hands of the potter, is the realm called the future. God is more concerned about that than he is about all things that make up the great past.
Simon and Saul became spiritual giants because they accepted God’s way of looking at time and chose to focus on the future not on the past. I guess we’ve all known people who simply can’t let go of the way it used to be. They are filled with their own remorse, regret, and anger at what other people did to them back there. All they can do is rehash the past and stay so enmeshed that they’re crippled in terms of the future. They don’t know how to lay down what used to be.
There is a story of two Buddhist monks walking in a drenching thunderstorm. They came to a stream, and it was swollen out of its banks. A beautiful young Japanese woman in a kimono stood there wanting to get to the other side but was afraid of the currents. In characteristic Buddhist compassion, one of the monks said, “Can I help you?”
The woman said, “I need to cross this stream.”
The monk picked her up, put her on his shoulder, carried her through the water, and put her down on the other side. He and his companion went on to the monastery.
That night his companion said to him, “I have a bone to pick with you. As Buddhist monks, we have taken vows not to look on a woman, much less touch her body. Back there by the river you did both.”
The first monk said, “My brother, I put that woman down on the other side of the river. You’re still carrying her in your mind.”
That is characteristic of so many of us. We cannot meet something in the road of life, do it, put it down, and move on. We continue to be obsessed with the past at the expense of the future. Because Jesus came not to condemn but to save, he was more interested in what Simon and Saul could yet become than all the terrible things they had already done.
Our past has a tremendous gift to give us in terms of its teaching. To forget the past completely would be a great tragedy, but we can remember the past too much. We can be too obsessed with the way it was and never glimpse how different our future could be.
Pastor John Claypool relates the following incident from his family history: Years ago a thunderstorm came through southern Kentucky at the farm where my Claypool forebears have lived for six generations. In the orchard, the wind blew over an old pear tree that had been there as long as anybody could remember. The story is that my grandfather was really grieved to lose the tree where he had climbed as a boy and whose fruit he had eaten all his life.
A neighbor came by and said, “Doc, I’m really sorry to see your pear tree blown down.”
My grandfather said, “I’m sorry too, it was a real part of my past.”
The neighbor said, “What are you going to do?”
My grandfather paused for a long moment and then said, “I’m going to pick the fruit and burn what’s left.”
That’s such a wise way of working with the past. We do need to pick its fruit. We do need to learn its lessons. Amnesia is a sickness and not an asset. But having learned what the past can teach us, we need to pick the fruit, burn what’s left, and go on.
People have come to me and said, “If I hadn’t made that decision to get married to that person at that time, I could have been a great servant of Christ.” They’ve lived with that regret. Don’t look like that. Divorce isn’t the answer to those questions. It is recognizing that God has given you that. Your decision is made; be blessed. Be determined to be blessed in it. If you’re unhappy, and there are people unhappy in their marriages because they’ve made those decisions, then know that God says that the believer sanctifies the unbeliever. Know that what you have is his grace, not to destroy, not to break down, but to see how it might be used to his glory.
We live in the present, not with the regrets of the past. Many of us put our place back there, and we lose the sight of the word that God spoke to us. He spoke through the prophet Joel and he said, “I will restore to you the years that the locusts have wasted.”
And you say, “But how—wasted years, barren years, years that locusts and canker worm and caterpillars have destroyed?”
“I will restore them,” says the Lord. “I can do it.”
If you think of it in terms of what you can do, then it’s all over. But we’re in a realm where our effort is not the first and the most important thing. We live in the realm where God by his grace speaks and achieves. He comes in and he gives to us a crop one year that will make up for the ten that we have lost. That’s the character of our Master. That’s the character of the Lord. That’s our God.
Don’t look back; don’t waste your time and your energy. Put the regrets of the past behind you and rejoice that by his grace we are where we are and are what we ought to be in him. Because of it, stand in his kingdom for his sake and find that even in our case, the Lord will lift us up and bless us just because he is the Lord and that’s his nature.
Now let’s close with some words of wisdom:
God does not forget the sinner; he forgets the sin.
An apology is a good way to have the last word.
Christ offers comfort for the grieving and cleansing for the guilty.
The first step to receiving eternal life is to admit that we don’t deserve it.
Never bury a mad dog with his tail sticking out of the ground.
Everyone should have a large cemetery in which to bury the faults of their friends.
Forgiveness should be like burning the mortgage—it’s gone and forgotten.
It is better to forgive too much than to condemn too much.
No one is ever stronger and stands higher than when he forgives.
It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.
Some forgive their enemies, but not until they are dead.
Education can polish men, but only the blood of Christ can cleanse them.
The only petition in the Lord’s prayer that has a condition attached is the one on forgiveness.
The best way to get even is to forget.
Forgiveness means God buries our sins and does not mark the grave.
It is far better to forgive and forget than to resent and remember.
Love is asking to forgive what courtesy would have avoided.
Law keeps us limping in dark; grace keeps us walking in the light.
There are none so good that they can save themselves—none so bad that God cannot save them.
Getting revenge makes you even with your enemy, but forgiving him puts you above him.
Christian love bears and forbears—gives and forgives.
God forgives our sins, buries them in the sea of forgetfulness, and puts up a sign: “No fishing.”
Getting even with a person means putting yourself on his level.
Quarrels would not last long if there were not faults on both sides.
You will never get ahead of anyone as long as you are trying to get even with them.
Forgiving makes a comfortable life—resentment is a sharp bedfellow.
Forgiveness has been called the virtue we profess to believe, fail to practice, and neglect to preach.
Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.
The bigness of any man is manifest in the number of little things he is able to overlook in others.
Never does the human soul become so strong as when it dares to forgive an injury.