Yes, No, and Maybe
Scriptures: II Corinthians 1:15-22; John 21:15-17
I don’t remember my children's first words when they were learning to speak, but I remember what seemed like their favorite word. Their favorite word was "No!" They said "No" when we tried to feed them broccoli. They said "No" when we told them it was time for bed. They said "No" when any of their siblings tried to pick up one of their toys. They were quite good and quite clear at saying “No.”
Of course I know where they learned that. They learned it from us, their parents. It seemed like we were always saying no to them. We said "No" when they tried to touch the fireplace. We said "No" when they grabbed the cat by the tail. We said "No" when they wanted a cookie before dinner. Even when my children’s requests seemed reasonable, my instinct was always to hesitate, to not promise anything too quickly. About the best my children could hope for from me was “Maybe."
Which seems to be the problem the Corinthians had with the apostle Paul. We are not completely clear about the situation, but apparently the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that he would visit them twice: once on the way through Greece to Macedonia, and then on the way back. But then he changed his mind for reasons we will read about next week. But to the Corinthians Paul was like a politician who had broken a campaign promise. They questioned his integrity and reliability, which to Paul was a serious issue, because if his opponents could question his integrity and reliability, they might also question the truth of his preaching. If Paul's word could not be trusted about travel plans, how could it be trusted about Jesus?
Paul responds to this charge in our second scripture reading. First he paraphrases their complaint. Verse 17: "Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say 'Yes, yes' and 'No, no' at the same time?" In other words, am I like politicians who change their message from the primaries to the general election? Do I say one thing when appealing to my base, and something else when trying to win over independent voters? That is the kind of charge the Corinthians leveled against Paul.
Interestingly, Paul does not answer their complaint by defending himself, at least not until later in the chapter. We will read about that next week. But Paul’s first response is not to defend his record and integrity the way a politician would. Paul’s first response is not to defend his own reliability but to insist on God's reliability. Verses 19-20: "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus, Timothy, and I, was not 'Yes and No'; but in him it is always 'Yes.' For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.'"
Notice how Paul emphasizes that the message about Jesus which he preached to the Corinthians is the same message preached by Silvanus and Timothy. It is not just about Paul’s reliability; it is about the reliability of the gospel. The truth of the gospel does not depend on the trustworthiness of any single person who proclaims it.
This is important, because pastors are not always reliable, any more than parents. We have seen that too often in recent years, not just in the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, but in various forms of clergy misconduct in all churches, sometimes sexual and sometimes financial. And even when not guilty of a prosecutable offense, pastors often let people down.
Our Presbytery Executive in Spokane once stood up at a Presbytery meeting and said that at one time or another he had received complaints about every single minister in the presbytery. We were all stunned. We wanted to know who they were. These were not sexual misconduct complaints, but some kind of complaint by people about their pastor, and none of us got off unscathed.
I hate to admit this, but it’s true: you cannot count on pastors to be an example of the gospel. We’re not that good. If you think we are perfect, we will disillusion you, just like parents.
But you can count on God. That’s Paul’s point.
There are religions where God's promises are presented as "Maybe." If you live a good enough life, if you do enough good things, if you give enough money to the church, then maybe you will make it to heaven. Maybe you will be accepted by God.
That is not the God shown to us in Jesus. There is no "Maybe" with Jesus. In Jesus, every one of God’s promises is Yes. Are you loved by God? Yes. Were you made a child of God in baptism? Yes. Does God have a purpose for your life here and now? Yes. Does God have a destiny for you greater than you have yet imagined? Yes. All the promises of God in Jesus are Yes, and no disappointing pastor or disillusioning parent can mess that up.
Don't get me wrong. "No" is still an important word. I am glad we taught our children to say "No," because "No" is the word which makes you a free and independent human being. If someone at school or work offers you drugs or pressures you to have sex, you have the ability to say “No.” If they want you to join in ridiculing people because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or even their politics, you have the ability to say “No.” If your boss at work wants you to falsify a financial report in order to avoid taxes, you have the ability to say "No." "No" is the word which makes you a free and independent human being.
"No" is a very important word, but it is not the most important word. The most important word you will ever say is "Yes." If "No" is a declaration of independence, then "Yes" is a commitment to community. If "No" is the word that separates us, "Yes" is the word that draws us together. You would not exist, you would not have a family or job or this church, if people in the past had not said "Yes" to some commitment. "Yes" is the word of commitment which draws us together into a community.
How do we learn to say "Yes"? The same way we learn to say "No"—by having it said to us. You can see this in our first scripture lesson. You may recall that when Jesus was arrested and put on trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Three times Peter was asked, "Aren't you also one of Jesus' followers?", and three times Peter said, "No." The good news, however, is that even when Peter said "No" to Jesus, Jesus did not say "No" to Peter. After Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, he appeared again to Peter and said, "Peter, do you love me?" Three times Jesus asked Peter that question, and three times Peter said, Yes. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Peter can say "Yes" to Jesus, because Jesus has said "Yes" to him.
All of you have or will say some important "Yeses" in your life. You say “Yes” when you choose a college or career. You say “Yes” when you get married. You say “Yes” when you decide to have children. All of you have or will experience crucial times in your life when you say "Yes." But the most important "Yes" you will ever say is "Yes" to God. When you are baptized or confirmed or join the church, when you bring your children for baptism or when you are ordained as a church officer—whatever the situation, the most important "Yes" you will ever say is "Yes" to God, and you can say that because God has said "Yes" to you.