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Atonement Versus Cancel Culture

I love stories with surprising endings.

Leon Uris, author of the 1958 bestseller Exodus failed high school English three times. When Lucille Ball began studying to be an actress in 1927, she was told, “Try any other profession. Any other.”

In 1959, a Universal Pictures executive dismissed Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds at the same time — telling Burt “You have no talent,” and Clint, “You have a chip on your tooth, your Adam’s apple sticks out too far, and you talk too slow.”

In 1962, when a group of four young musicians played their first record for the Decca Recording Company, an executive told the upstart rock group, the Beatles, “We don’t like your sound… Groups of guitars are on the way out.” The list could go on.

What if we lived our entire lives through with the labels others have given us?

What if the Apostle Peter got stuck in that courtyard — forever hearing the rooster, each crow — announcing this one whom Jesus had called the “Rock,” was now the one who turned his back on his savior? The story could have ended there, but it did not, did it?

In the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, we are witnesses to what has been called the reinstatement of Peter. Peter had thrice denied knowing Christ on the eve of his crucifixion (John 18:15-18; 25-27). After Jesus’ resurrection, he and Peter have a reunion on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; and Jesus, thrice, asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter says “yes.” It was likely more for Peter’s benefit than anything.

Peter no doubt was plagued with guilt, and in this intimate moment, Jesus’ three-fold question and answer session made him king of spiritual therapy — allowing Peter to release the three-fold burden not of one denial, but three. Jesus had forgiven Peter, but Peter needed to “release” the guilt with his own lips. In doing so, Jesus reinstated him. But it was more than that.

This passage is a living parable — a revelation about the nature of God’s grace and mercy and the purpose behind it. As God in Christ was with Peter, so God in Christ is with us. And so this story holds at least two lessons for us, both of which answer the question, Why were we forgiven?

First, we see in Peter’s restoration the entire purpose of the passion drama of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was all about restoring what we’ve broken by our sin.

Think of the things that keep you up at night. Once you take worry and woe about those you love off the list, is it not, for most of us, those things we wish we had done, but failed to do? Those things we did, and wish we had not? The gospel offers us freedom for these things.

I kind of hate nametags. You know, those kinds you pick up when you come into a party. One reason is that I have rather terrible handwriting. Often when we go into a party, my wife will rescue me from my own hand by writing my name on my tag so that people don’t give me that squinty eye thing with the words, “I’m sorry, what’s your name? I can’t read it…!”

What if Peter were wearing a nametag in the Courtyard of Denial? What might it say? Coward. Denier. Betrayer.

What label of shame might you feel is affixed to you? Maybe it’s something from your distant past: Abuser. Gossip. Liar. Adulterer. Maybe it’s a label someone else gave you: Failure. Loser. Joke. Maybe it is a label that was forced on you: Victim. Maybe it’s a label you’ve given yourself: Never measures up. Purposeless. Addict.

Some of you probably think that’s the label you have and the one you will always have — it was applied not with a sticky back, but with permanent glue — no matter how you pull, it will never come off.

I suspect Peter felt that way. In the scene just before his restoration, he was not out preaching the gospel; he’d gone back to fishing, and I can only imagine that when the risen Lord called out to him from the shores of Galilee, Peter wanted to just jump under the water and die.

But Jesus does not let Peter wallow in his despair. Instead, he shows up, shows grace, shows mercy, and allows Peter to claim his own forgiveness.

Notice, Jesus does not come to condemn Peter, but to transform him. He does not say to Peter, “Do you need my forgiveness?” Jesus knows he does, so instead he reminds Peter who he is called to be. Jesus’ question is not “Are you sorry?” It is “Do you love me?”

It is a reminder that Jesus had already forgiven Peter on the cross. It is a reminder that he has already forgiven you. Jesus begins to rip off those old nametags — sin, guilt, death — and replace them with new ones — loved, forgiven, redeemed. That’s what Jesus wants to do for you, for each of us.

Roasaline Goforth was a well-known missionary to China. She and her husband Jonathan enjoyed a long season of service in Asia for many years. But she came to a point in her life when she felt oppressed by a burden of sin. She felt guilty and dirty, and she nursed an inward sense of spiritual failure. Finally, one evening when all was quiet, she settled in at her desk with her Bible and concordance, determined to find out what God wanted to do with her failures and faults. She wrote at the top of the page, “What God Does with Our Sins.” Here is what she found:

  1. He lays them on his Son, Jesus Christ (Isa. 53:6).
  2. Christ takes them away (John 1:29).
  3. They are removed an immeasurable distance, as far as east is from west, (Ps. 103:12).
  4. When sought for they are not found (Jer. 50:20).
  5. The Lord forgives them (Eph. 1:7).
  6. He cleanses them all away by the blood of his Son (1 John 1:7).
  7. He cleanses them as white as snow or wool (Isa. 1:18, Ps. 51:7).
  8. He abundantly pardons them (Isa. 55:70).
  9. He tramples them under foot (Mic. 7:19).
  10. He remembers them no more (Heb. 10:17).
  11. He casts them behind his back (Isa. 38:17).
  12. He casts them into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19).
  13. He will not impute us with sins (Rom. 4:8).
  14. He covers them (Rom. 4:7).
  15. He blots them out (Isa. 43:25).
  16. He blots them out as a thick cloud (Isa. 44:22).
  17. He blots out even the proof against us, nailing it to his Son’s cross (Col. 2:14).

God is about the business of not just healing, not just forgiving, but transforming.

You do not have to be “defined” by your past. Let Jesus take those nametags off. Look into his eyes and hear his words: “Do you love me?”

That is reason one why you were forgiven: because God loves you. God does not want you to live with that burden of sin. He wants you to be free of that. This brings us to the second reason.

When Peter says, “Yes Lord, I love you,” Jesus says not once but three times, “Feed my lambs…. Tend my sheep…. Feed my sheep.” Peter was not just forgiven to be forgiven, he was forgiven for a purpose: to join Jesus in a lifetime of serving others.

Can you imagine how Peter felt that night he denied Jesus? The moment he heard the rooster crow? Despair probably doesn’t even come close to capturing it. However relieved he felt by the end of this episode of restoration, my guess is he still had no idea what was coming.

Only fifty or so days after Peter’s great sin, forgiven and reinstated by Jesus’ grace and mercy, we see Peter as the keynote speaker on the day of Pentecost. How far he had come.

We are not just forgiven so we can feel free from the burden of sin and death. We are forgiven so that we can continue Jesus’ work.

And this brings me to the matter of the so-called “cancel culture,” which I believe is the greatest stumbling block to removing those old nametags. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that people should not apologize for things they have said or done in the past. Nor am I saying that criminal, unethical, moral behavior should be excused, wiped away with cheap grace that demands nothing, and ignores everything.

But I am saying that cancel culture — which demands a pound of flesh for everything done and left undone in one’s past — is completely antithetical to the atonement offered by Jesus Christ. It simply does not square with what we Christians believe and it offers no hope, not just for some offenders, but for anyone.

Late last year Ligaya Mishan wrote an article for the New York Times on cancel culture. She connected cancel culture to the ancient practice of scapegoating, writing, “The modern scapegoat performs [the] function, of uniting otherwise squabbling groups in enmity against a supposed transgressor who relieves the condemners of the burden of wrestling with their own wrongs.”

In other words, calling out others for their past deeds and sins allows us to turn our gaze from the mirror. It empowers a false narrative that what “they” did is worse than what “I” did. Jumping on the bandwagon helps us to avoid coming to terms with the ancient words: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

And yet, when Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant it. And perhaps for today’s purposes, he might as well have said, “It is cancelled.”

Yes, we are responsible for our actions, and in this world there are certain prices we have to pay. They may range from merely saying “I am sorry,” to paying restitution, and in some cases, the loss of a job, or even jail time.

But the Christian hope has a response to the endless tirades of accusations in 2021 — and it is right there in the First Epistle of John:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness…. I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 1:8-2:2)

As a priest, who believes and holds fast to the hope found in the gospel of our Lord, I am exhausted by our human attempts to try and exact atonement from others — there is absolutely no hope in that. I’d rather turn to the one who died and rose so that my sins, whether of a decade ago, a year ago, last week, or last weekend can be healed, forgiven and made whole. That’s a far better pathway out of the past than constantly looking for the next one to cancel. As far as I am concerned, it is time to “cancel” cancel culture, and turn to the hope there is in the one who says to us with his dying words, “It is finished,” and offers us the same thing he offered poor, old guilty Peter on the shores of Galilee.

The Rev Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr. and his wife, Laura, live in Houston, Texas where Russ has served as rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church for the last twelve years.  He is a father of three, grandfather of two and author of four seasonal devotionals — the recently published Bits of Heaven, (Summer);  and A Place of Shelter, (Fall); and the soon to be released Preparing Room, (Advent); and A Path to Wholeness, (Lent) – available at Church Publishing.


  1. I agree. Great sermon.

    (There’s also the change of verb in question #3. Is Jesus saying to Mr. Top Dog, give me brotherly love in service, and perhaps in its wake, agape will come too. That’s enough.)


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