Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

A Second Chance

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
April 26, 2020

John 21:15-25

“A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”         ― Ling Ma, 1983-present, American Novelist and Professor

A lot of us are getting antsy. We’re wondering, “When do things return to normal?” It’s a question that has no easy answer. Some governors are considering starting to phase out social distancing restrictions in May. A lot of health experts are warning that these restrictions need to stay in place through the summer and there might be a “second wave” in the fall. Experts warn that making America “open for business” again will likely only lead to a Covid-19 relapse unless three key things are in place: Number one, that communities have been provided with enough reliable tests that anyone who wants can get a test easily; number two, that in every community there is a “contact tracing” team that can trace all the people that someone with Covid-19 has been in contact with; and number three, that a community can claim authoritatively that the number of Covid-19 cases has flattened out or begun to decline. All of those prospects are far off for most communities, including Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Even if all three of those are in place, the process for returning to “normal” will be phased. The national plan unveiled last week has three phases, gradually moving to something that is almost, but not quite, what just last month we were calling normal. 

But this “normal” won’t be the normal we knew. For one thing, until there’s a cure we have to remain vigilant. For another thing there are now dozens of millions who have been adversely affected by the virus and the economic shutdown, and we’ll have to figure out how to address their needs while also keeping ourselves safe and our nation vibrant.

What is important to understand is that we are not going to return to find the world we knew before the Corona Virus is completely intact. We are hoping for a second chance, and we’ll get it. But a second chance is a quite different situation from what preceded it.

Ling Ma’s recent satirical novel Severance tells a surprisingly prescient story of a worldwide pandemic and its aftermath. It raises questions like, “How do you rebuild the world? How should you rebuild the world?” At one point a character comments, “A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”

Much of our conversation around our upcoming second chance sounds like we want to return to the blind optimism of ignorance. We just want everything the way it was. It reminds me of a joke we used to tell when I lived in Virginia: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Seven. One to change the bulb, one to hold the ladder, and five to talk about how good the old one was.

We want the blissful naiveté of the pre-pandemic world when we didn’t think something like this could happen. And whenever anyone mentions Covid-19 we wish we could just put our fingers in our ears and say “Na na na” ‘til it goes away. So it’s important to take Ling Ma’s advice to heart: A second chance doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. In many ways it is the more difficult thing, because we have to rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus’ disciple Peter has been given a second chance. He sees the resurrected Lord walking along the shoreline while they fish. It’s a throwback to the old days, as if they are starting all over again, when Jesus walked along the shore while they fished and invited them to be fishers of people. Maybe Jesus’ resurrection means that we start all over again! He longs for the innocence and excitement of those early days of following Jesus, this radical new teacher, the feeling of being special because Jesus had hand-picked him to be one of only twelve people in the whole world who would be privy to God’s plan to save the world. He is so excited that he puts on his clothes and dives into the Sea of Galilee, as if to symbolize how ready he is to dive back into the way things were in the good old days.

Standing on the shore, Jesus sees Peter dive into the water; but he also sees the other disciples in the boat struggling to haul their net in and clearly resentful that Peter has shirked his responsibility and left them to their own devices. Jesus shakes his head, perhaps with a sad smile. Clearly, Peter still has some lessons to learn.

After they eat together, Jesus takes Peter aside. Three different times, he asks Peter if he loves him. Each time Peter, stunned and hurt by the repetitive question, answers yes. And each time Jesus tells him “feed” or “tend” my sheep. And he concludes, “Follow me.”

Peter is shamed by this because he knows that Jesus asks him if he loves him three times—because on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter had DENIED him three times. Peter had thought that the resurrection meant that the past was forgotten. He thought that his slate was wiped clean. Like you and me, he wanted to think that since he was forgiven of his sins, and since Jesus had given him a second chance, then it was as if the whole thing hadn’t happened. But it had happened. Jesus may have forgiven it, but he hadn’t forgotten it. Forgive is not forget. Forgiveness is a second chance, but “a second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”

When Peter had first become a disciple, so long ago, and had responded to Jesus’ call to “Follow me,” he had been ignorant of what Bonhoeffer calls “the cost of discipleship.” Discipleship requires sacrifice. It requires a clear-eyed understanding of yourself and of the reality of the world in which we live. Peter has seen Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. He’s seen Jesus arrested, tortured, and crucified. He’s seen himself fall short when the time of testing came. He cannot be naïve, no matter how much he wishes to be. The new reality, the resurrected reality, brings with it a clear-eyed honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. To follow the resurrected Jesus requires taking responsibility.

Friends, we are already in a changed world. What we have experienced has left a mark, and it should. We can’t go on naively wishing for a pre-COVID world. A lot of us aren’t going back to the same job, or any job. A lot more of us will be homeless and providers will have to adapt to a new reality. A lot of people will not be with us, and a lot of people will experience life-long health issues, and a lot of people will be grieving for the one and supporting the other.

But most of all, our myth–that as Americans living in the modern world, we are immune to the plagues that afflict the rest of the world–that myth will need to bite the dust. We need to expect our governments, local and national, to adapt and take these things seriously. We ourselves will have to be more cautious for our own health but also for the health of others. The great mistake will be to think this is an anomaly, a one-off, that it won’t happen again.

Critically, we need to take science more seriously. If there is any universal lesson to be learned from this crisis, it is that science offers the best hope of keeping us safe when Nature arms itself against us. Over the past twenty years or so, science has been discredited, criticized, made fun of. Scientists have been painted as partisans out to get rich via research dollars, which frankly is absurd on its face. The reason this happens is that science is warning us of issues like climate change that seem to challenge the basis of our economy, and so science has become politicized. Funding has dried up. Cities like Fort Worth have shuttered their public health departments and counties like Tarrant just don’t have the resources they need when the time comes.

Now a crisis has come where doctors, medical professionals and research scientists need every resource to battle it and to provide a cure, and we’ve been caught with our pants down. It has been heartening to hear the president, governors, and local leaders all say that any decision they take to “re-open” the economy will be made with the guidance of science. As your pastor, I want to assure you that any things we do to “reopen” St. Stephen will be informed by the guidance of public health experts.

But once science has gotten us out of this mess, we need to support the science needed to make sure that this never happens again. We’ll have been given a second chance and that requires us to learn the lessons of the past. It will be harder, because we can no longer have the blind optimism of ignorance, but the clear eyes of responsibility.

Our story about Jesus’ new commission to Peter there on the Galilean shore gives us hope because it is set in the context of resurrection. Peter is not being told you need to be realistic and clear eyed because things are looking bad. On the contrary. Peter is hearing this call to responsibility directly from the mouth of the Risen Christ. He is called to take responsibility in the new world that Jesus’ resurrection has created. This is a world, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8: 28, where “… all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” 

We can and should grieve what’s been lost and fix what we can. But we Christians believe that in the post-resurrection world, change can lead to new life and new possibilities. And so we face the future not with dread, but with hope.

We don’t have to look that far back in St. Stephen’s own history for an example of that. After our education building was vandalized in 2017, we were all in a bit of a panic. It was, as now, during the season of Lent and Easter. How were we going to do our ministry and properly celebrate Easter when we have to leave the education building for months? But clear-eyed, creative lay leaders figured things out. We moved everything to the sanctuary building—something that once would have been unthinkable. Homeless people sleeping in St. Stephen’s magnificent sanctuary? No way! But we did it without blinking an eye. We figured out how to use the crisis to advantage by clearing out old junk, getting better equipment, and reorganizing the upstairs offices. Everyone who could found a way to contribute. When we were done, it was like we had a new lease on life. The seemingly negative publicity actually raised our profile in the community, meaning we had tons of community support and also many new folks found their way to St. Stephen and became part of our community. Social media and the website became essential resources. And the congregation itself experienced renewed enthusiasm. Yes, the vandalism created difficulties and unpleasantness—but we emerged stronger for it.

It’s vital to remember this. In the post-resurrection world, when things change, or when we need to change, this is not the end. It’s a new beginning. It is new life. And this is so because this isn’t our world—it’s God’s world and we’re just living in it. It is Christ’s world, and in that world, resurrection never stops—it is always going on.