I was a pastor in a small rural town in South Dakota. I started as the Associate Pastor back in May of 2014. In February of 2016 the founding pastor and former lead pastor accepted the call to serve in a new ministry context in Washington. He’s a godly man and dear brother. In the short two years of working together, he along with the elders felt convinced that I should be the first lead candidate to present to the church family for the lead pastor position.
A few months later I was voted in unanimously by the church congregation. Tears were shed. Many came to assure me of their support and confidence that God would guide us through this huge and historic transition for our church.
The last Sunday in May, we bid farewell to our Lead Pastor and the church installed me as their new pastor. That was the last Sunday several families attended our church. Not a word. No meetings. Just silence.
By the end of the month roughly 7 families left. Some reached out to me and sought to leave in a gracious manner. Most only spoke by their absence. Phone calls were made. E-mails were sent. Doors were knocked on. No response was given.
By the end of the 2016 year nearly half our congregation and attendance had left. Some looked me in the eye and told me they were going nowhere and that they were committed and loved the church only to leave a few weeks later with out explanation. Others left and passed on false reports about me.
All of this takes a heavy toll on a person.
It’s easy to become skeptical. To believe the worst in people. Or even fall into a panic over the smallest disappointments from loved ones as you assume they too may be abandoning you. You want to trust, but you are afraid. You want to be vulnerable again, but it seems impossible.
What does the Gospel have to say to the betrayed, abandoned, and disappointed?
Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. -Matthew 26:35
and just a few hours later…
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. -Matthew 26:69-74
Luke 22:21 records immediately following Peter’s third denial of Jesus; Jesus being present responded thus:
And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.”
Peter disappointed Jesus, hurt Jesus, abandoned, and betrayed Jesus. Jesus when he was most vulnerable was betrayed by his closest friends that He had been through thick and thin with. Jesus knows what it is like. He knows our every pain and sympathizes with us and prays on our behalf.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
I speak from deep experience and pain, that in times of abandonment and betrayal, I need a LOT of mercy and grace. It more than qualifies as a “time of need.” The Gospel reminds us that we have a Savior and Great High Priest who not only knows exactly what it is like for us but also is powerful to intercede for us and give us the grace and mercy needed.
Pain can tend to isolate us. We think because no one knows our pain, we are alone. So we begin to close ourselves off from those around us. Besides, they might just hurt us more. And we can’t afford anymore scars on our soul. The Gospel reminds us that we are not alone. Jesus knows our pain. More than that, God will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5-6). By union with Jesus Christ; we not only have fellowship in our pain with Jesus, the Father, and Holy Spirit, but also with the body of Christ (the church).
Our identity is not found in our experiences whether they be pain or joys. Our identity is found in who Jesus Christ is, what He has done for us, and what He calls us to.
What do we do with all the broken relationships? In short, we love and forgive. I know that sounds impossible. That’s because it is. We can’t love those who have hurt us in the most profound and deep ways. But I know a man who did.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” -John 21:15-19
Jesus forgave Peter. Jesus Loved Peter. Jesus invited Peter once again to follow Him. And Peter went on to be an Apostle of the Church. Jesus being a man in every way like us forgave, loved, and made Himself open to being betrayed again. Find healing in this.
It would be easy to see all the pain I have experienced and see myself as a victim. But unlike Jesus, I am not an innocent victim to a horrible environment. The sins that I have done against God and others far outweigh any wrongs against me. The chasm is not me and God against the world. Rather it’s the world against God. My sins put me in this mess. Unlike me, Jesus was entirely innocent and pure. Yet, He left His beautiful Paradise and crossed the chasm to bring me to God the Father.
This is a powerful truth! But that isn’t all! Because Jesus’ sacrifice makes peace with God the Father; not only am I redeemed but also all the sins done against me are too. For though, my guilt put me in this fallen place, it is not as though every wrong done against me is God getting even or even punishing me. Rather, my Abba Father is so Loving, Good, and Sovereign that He can use people with sinful motives and actions against me to bring about good for me! This honestly is a truth that I have yet to fathom. The abused and redeemed Joseph knew of this powerful truth:
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. -Genesis 50:19-20 (ESV)
Peter isn’t the only one who has betrayed Jesus. I have betrayed Jesus. Countless times sadly. And every time you sin, you betray Him too. And yet the promise of forgiveness to the repentant sinner is held out to us. Let us be humbled in this truth. And let us find grace and mercy at the throne of grace to love as He has loved us!