On October 29, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Harrow School, the school in which he was educated as a boy, in order to give a graduation speech to the students. The war with Germany was going badly. The German Luftwaffe was engaged in its blitz of London, and England was preparing for a Nazi invasion of the British Isles. Churchill’s speech there at Harrow was one of his more famous speeches. In it he said:
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
During World War II Churchill was seen as “The British Bulldog,” a leader with unbounded determination and steadfastness. After the war his detractors depicted him as merely stubborn; his virtue morphed by his political enemies into a vice. The British electorate voted him out of office in the late 1940’s and sent him out to pasture.
Many of us have faced and suffered from such unfair judgments. Some people regard us as loyal, constant and steadfast friends. Others think of us merely as stubborn, inflexible and unable to adapt.
The most difficult critic each one of us must face is our own selves. How do we see and judge ourselves? Surely it is good to be determined and steadfast. Surely it is good to hold to singleness of purpose and never lose sight of our principles and ideals. But just as surely it is good to adapt, to be willing to listen to reason, and to change course when necessary without compromising our principles. The problem, of course, comes in distinguishing between the two.
This is, of course, different from merely “giving up” in order to be popular and pleasing to others. Giving up is surrendering to weakness or even despair. Do we give up merely in order to take the easy way out? Do we give in to despair? The temptation to give up comes to us in many forms on a number of occasions, sometimes appearing to us as a good thing to do.
Giving up can be the work of the devil. Giving up was found in each one of the three temptations Satan presented to Christ when He was out in the desert preparing to embark upon His public ministry. Giving up was the last temptation Satan hurled at Jesus as He hung dying on His cross. Giving up can come at the cost of losing our very souls.
Another form of “giving up” is when we give up on others. I’ve known parents, and you have too, who have simply given up on their children. We’ve known spouses who simply gave up on their marriages without going through the effort of counseling and working for reconciliation. We’ve all known family and friends who have given up on the Church, or on religion, or on their spirituality, or even on God.
God, however, never ever gives up on us… even when we’ve turned our backs on Him or betrayed Him. That’s what today’s gospel account is all about.
Here we find Jesus encountering some of His disciples after His resurrection. The encounter is situated on water’s edge, reminding us of the waters of chaos in the Book of Genesis from which the Creator brought out order, creating all things, and eventually creating us from the slime of the earth. The waters of the Red Sea, the waters of the River Jordan, and the waters of baptism are all hinted at by this location.
The disciples were all gathered there together on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus came to them in their midst, foreshadowing how He would come to us thereafter. There were overtones of the Last Supper there, along with all future celebrations of the Eucharist.
It was in that encounter that Jesus asked Peter those three famous questions, questions that obviously recognized the triple denial of Peter during Christ’s passion. Implicit in those questions, however, was the fact that Jesus had not given up on Peter. Jesus’ love for him and commitment to him were still there, even after all that both He and Peter had gone through. After all, we must remember, Peter had not just hurt Jesus, he had betrayed Jesus!
We need to reflect on what might have happened had Judas not despaired and had stayed with Peter and among the Twelve Apostles. Would Jesus have forgiven Judas? We know, of course, that He would have. It was not Jesus who had given up on Judas, it was Judas who had given up… given up on Jesus and given up on himself.
The entire bible, from beginning to end, presents us with the truth that God offers Himself to us and then waits for our response. The most marvelous and awe-inspiring truth lying deep within is that God has offered Himself to us and will never withdraw His offer! His love is everlasting and His mercy endures forever. His love and His commitment to us stay forever, no matter what sort of disgusting and horrific sins we may have committed. God never, ever, gives up on us. Any “giving up” is on our part, not God’s.
“Unconditional love” is something we’ve all heard about. Theologians tell us of God’s unconditional love. Unconditional love is something we want to give to our children, our spouses, and our family members. We all, however, have our moments when we’ve abandoned unconditional love and slapped others with conditions on our love, telling them we’ll love them or forgive them “if…” Each one of us has our own set of “if’s”. And, to be honest, we all must admit that we have had our moments when we’ve felt that unconditional love is impossible for us to give.
Which is why we need to seek God’s forgiveness… not simply to save our own skins but so that we, in His forgiveness, might have the power to forgive others as He has forgiven us… so that we will not give up on them. Without God’s power unconditional love is most likely impossible. But with God’s love and power, all things are possible… even loving others unconditionally… even not “giving up” on them.
Maybe, in the last analysis, we should all stand before God as Peter did. Maybe we should all stand in his shoes… and have his power to forgive… the power that Jesus gave him… there on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.