I’m Only A Sinner 2nd Class

I learned it from Clarence. At Christmas. ‘First time I was old enough to watch the film, “It’s a Wonderful life”. Clarence appears as semi-proof-positive there’s such a thing as Angels 2nd Class! Before Clarence, the only angels I ever knew were Bible angels. They all seemed pretty 1st class to me! Here’s why I mention this on Easter’s 3rd Sunday. The existence of 2nd class angels suggests that at the other end of the spiritual spectrum there must be Sinners 2nd Class. And merely 2nd class sins. What a relief! I’m off the hook. You, too. ‘Surely, ain’t nobody here. ‘Not among Methodists. ‘Nobody here a Sinner 1st class. No one here rises to the level of Bernie Madoff, who made off with billions. Oh, we mighta fudged a few bucks on the beloved 1040 Form, pocketed the error in change from the Super Fresh clerk, or conned the doc into some diagnosis so insurance would cover. But compared to Bernie? Pssh, we’re strictly Sinners 2nd Class. We might fudge on the algebra test, but we’re not the sub-prime loan officers at Goldman Sachs! Some of us fellas mighta let our eye roam a little this week, but we’re not Larry King, over 80 and on-the-make with our sisters-in-law. We yell at our kids and our dog. But we don’t beat them. We over-schedule our kids or neglect ‘em, but don’t physically abuse or abandon them. Granny might not get a visit or a call enough. But our hand doesn’t harm, and our prescriptions don’t stupefy her. Surely Jesus died on the cross for our sins, too. But they were minor. ‘Barely a whack on the nails or a breath on the cross covered our transgressions. Mostly, the gravity of our sin pales against the sins of Sinners 1st Class! … RIGHT?

Peter. Peter could have said amen! OK, there was that courtyard appearance while Christ was in the courtroom. Peter’s denials. 1ce. 2ce, 3X! (I do not know the man!) But he was the 1st to call Jesus the Christ. He was, the Rock! ‘A disciple first among equals. Runner to the tomb. Now, two weeks from Easter Evening, invited to breakfast with Christ-Raised-Up. If anybody coulda, Peter mighta said it to Jesus. “Lord, compared to Judas, Pilate, the soldiers or their Caesar, why shucks, Lord, I’m only a Sinner 2nd class. For heaven’s sake, let’s have some fish. ‘No big deal!” …BUT, this isn’t how it went!

See, Peter understands the magnitude of his sin. That’s why he gets how deep is Good Friday; how high, Easter Sunday. He knows it’s not about me compared to them, but me in touch with God! Sin always calls us to look up, not look around!  True enough, Christ takes us by the hand, our advocate for mercy at the Throne of God-the-Just. But when we are seen with Christ beside us, surely the difference is plain and palpable to God! You and I, we always want to compare our best to somebody else’s worst, our sin to someone else’s. Peter knows better. He knows that God will not see his denial overshadowed by Judas’ betrayal. God will hear his “I don’t know him” insistence in the courtyard in the light of his own, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I’ll lay down my life for you,” said at the Table, just a little earlier.

Peter will come to testify to Jesus! But (as Colby Knoll puts it) there’s no testimony without a test! Peter’s had his and failed miserably. And he knows it! O, how he would love to make it right with Jesus! What about you? Is there a test in your life you have had, or keep on having? ‘Some missed chance to say and show you know and love Jesus, love God, love others? How are you doing with it? … How are you doing? O, the stories I could tell. I know of a young boy who’s mom tried so hard to teach him to tell the truth, the whole truth. In reward of his progress she sent him on winter break to a ski retreat. He wrote back. “Mom, having fun. But to tell the truth, I’m not good at this. I fell and broke a leg! ‘So glad it wasn’t mine. Love, Bob.” Bob flunked the test. I know of a soul that passed. John Braatan clued me in. An elder gent suddenly ill. Hospitalized. John visits. ‘Sees a chair at bedside and apologizes for disturbing rest. “I see you’ve already had company.” “O no, pastor, let me tell ya. I used to fall asleep at night prayin’ my prayers. A friend suggested I put a chair by my bed and imagine Jesus there listening. He promised, you know. ‘Been doin’ that ever since. ‘Makes a big difference. John was moved. 'Communed the soul and left. Later that night, he got a call, “Dad just died. Can you come?" The man’s daughter reported, “I was in the room. Dad seemed okay. I left a minute. I came back. He was gone. Strange. Somehow, he managed to turn over, stretch out, and place his hand on the chair.” First the test. Then the testimony. How’re you doin’?

Well, PETER! No excuses or weaseling. Sin’s a sin and he knows it. A test’s a test and you face it. Peter’s in need of another chance. A 1st class grace for a 1st class sinner. That’s the need. So. When Christ Risen tells this boatload of dejected-disciples-turned-flops-at-fishing to make their haul on the right side… and they do… Peter’s stoked! A word from John, “It’s the Lord,” and Pete’s over-the-side.

But get this! He stops to dress 1st! Now he knows. It IS the Lord. All honor and glory! Put your glad rags on! There’s lots we could say we won’t. ‘Can’t remind Christ has readied the meal, this resurrection breakfast. ‘Needs no help. ‘But asks for their fish, of the 153, the full harvest of every kind of fish, a foreshadowing clue of fishers-of-souls who bring all the world to Christ. No, let’s not mention this. Stick with Peter. And a fresh start. A clean slate. Says Jesus 3X, “Peter, do you love me?!” 3X Peter gets to say, “Lord you know I do!” Here is the perfect proportion of grace, forgiveness. Every denial, now wiped away. Christ offers us just the same! Imagine. Better, believe! Whatever the boat you’re in, get out of it and come to the shore/the meal Jesus makes ready. And he’ll offer you exactly the portion of grace/forgiveness you need for a new, even eternal life.

1st Class forgiveness for 1st Class sinners whose 1st sin was believing they were only Sinners 2nd class! What Jesus says to Peter he says to us. “If you love me, feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Love for Christ exceeds sentiment, is not so flimsy as a feeling. It’s not a noun but a verb! Reach the most vulnerable and least lovable. Stay with them as Christ stays with us. Let no soul hunger, no soul thirst. That’s our job! Our glory! Frederick Buechner's The Final Beast pictures a pastor begged to declare forgiveness to a deeply disturbed soul. The pastor replies, “I’ve done it.” The member replies, “But [my friend] doesn't know God has forgiven. That's the only power you have, pastor: to tell that. Not just that God forgives her [sin]. Tell her God forgives her for the faces she cannot bear to look at; for being lonely, bored, not full of joy every day in a house filled with children. Tell her: she’s forgiven whether she knows it or not! Tell her what she wants, what we all want, is true! Pastor, what on earth do you think you were ordained for?” 1st Class forgiveness for 1st Class sinners whose 1st sin is believing we are only Sinners 2nd class! Let no one be hungry, or left alone for that! Feed. Tend. Share. That’s our calling. Even Peter’d say “AMEN.” What about you?

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