“Restorative Justice”

~ Psalm 30/John 21:1-19 ~

The song the choir just sang (Come, Ye Sinners) is a southern Appalachian hymn from the 19th century. It’s a revival song—a bona fide camp-meeting invitation song to get sinners to walk the aisle and get saved. Now, revival songs might make you feel uncomfortable. Too much emphasis on “sinners” – it’s in the title after all. If you hear judgment and punishment in that word, if you see in that a God who demands justice because of your sin, a God of “retributive justice” than your discomfort is quite understandable. You’d just as soon spurn such a God and avoid talk of sin. Too depressing.

But, you know, I don’t hear judgment and punishment and “sinner” in this song. I don’t hear that sinners deserve punishment. I don’t hear a God of retributive justice. Instead, I hear a God of restorative justice. I hear “poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.” I hear “weary, heavy laden, lost and wounded.” These folks are invited to come and enjoy God’s “free bounty,” to a Jesus, ‘full of pity, love and power’, to a Jesus who will embrace us in his arms where ‘there are ten thousand charms’. Indeed, I see a God who, more than anything we can imagine, wants to restore us to full health and strength. Restorative justice.

Two ways of looking at justice. Retributive justice is simply the idea that crime (or sin) must be punished. The justice system of the United States is based on retributive justice. The same with ancient Rome. If you committed an act against the “justice of Rome,” you would not be forgiven; you’d be killed. If you commit an act that is against the “justice of the United States,” you will be punished (and maybe killed). We are a nation of law and order, after all. When we hear the word “justice” that is what we think. Seems quite reasonable.

We see Jesus emphasizing forgiveness and we might think that Jesus is soft on justice, that he didn’t really care about justice. Are justice and forgiveness opposed to one another?

No. Jesus opposed ‘retributive justice’. Instead, he turned that idea of justice on its head. He enacted ‘restorative justice’. It is a justice that isn’t based on punishment. Rather, it is based on healing our souls and our relationships.

Restoration is the theme of our biblical texts this morning. Consider the psalm reading.

“You brought me back from the realm of the dead, O God; you spared me from going down into the Pit.” Restoration!

“I cried to you for help, Adonai my God, and you healed me.” Restoration!

The Psalmist sings praises to God because he was taken out of the Pit and set on a strong mountain. Restoration!

The Psalmist is down and out but by God’s power he has been restored. And so he dances, where before he was in mourning. Instead of sackcloth he is now clothed with joy. As a result he will praise God forever!

And, then there is Peter. If anyone needed forgiveness, restoration, it was Peter. Despite emotional protestations to the contrary, Peter had denied Jesus in a most despicable way. He denied he ever knew Jesus. And, thus, we have this post-resurrection account in John’s gospel. Several of Jesus’ disciples gather at the lakeshore. You get the sense they are confused and depressed and frustrated. Suddenly Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” So, the others join in. They fish all night and catch nothing. At daybreak they see a man standing on the shore. It’s Jesus but they don’t recognize him. Jesus yells out to them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. Lo and behold, they catch so many fish the net almost breaks. John, the “other disciple,” suddenly realizes the man is Jesus, yells that out and Peter jumps into the lake and swims to shore. The others follow with the “miraculous” catch of fishes in tow – the gospel even tells us how many fish there were: 153! Meanwhile, Jesus has prepared a breakfast of fish and bread and says, “come and have breakfast.”

Back in the 80’s Linda and I started a little church out of our home – Jubilee Fellowship. One Easter we decided to have a sunrise service at the city park lake. And you might have guessed it, we grilled fish for a sunrise breakfast!

This brings us, finally, to our second scripture reading today. Reading from John 21:15-19:

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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The Word of God according to the Gospel of John

Thanks be to God.


I would venture to guess that all of us, one time or another, has been in the pits, spiritually speaking. Maybe some of you are there now. Maybe a spiritual depression, a malaise if you will, characterizes your life. Maybe some of you would say you’ve been in the pits for a long time and can see no way out. Maybe you are stuck and can’t find a way to get unstuck. And so you are discouraged and frustrated. Oh, you might not show it. We all get pretty adept at hiding our spiritual ‘pittedness’ (a new word!). Some are better than others in that regard.

But there is a way out of the Pit. Healing is offered. Restoration is possible! God stands ready to restore us, full of mercy and love and power. Even if we have messed up—sinned, if you will – “God’s anger,” says the psalmist, “only lasts a moment, but God’s favor lasts a lifetime.” It is possible.

Spiritual restoration is not an easy, instantaneous happening. It comes with struggle and delays and frustration and discouragement. It mostly likely will call for large amounts of patience and persistence and determination to see it through. And it calls for keeping our eyes on the goal despite the messiness and struggle of the process. And it calls for trust. Trust in God. God, who is completely trustworthy, is the ultimate restorer and will see us through the struggle. Trust is a risk but it is the only way out.  Restoration ultimately hinges on forgiveness.

Actually, there have been some attempts to institute a restorative form of dealing with crime at a society level. There is a neighborhood program in Chicago called the “Restorative Justice Community Court.” It tries to bring victims and perpetrators together in a safe and respectful environment, with the goal of repairing the damage from a crime. It has had some success.

In the 90’s I had the privilege of bringing a restorative-type approach to child abuse and neglect cases in the juvenile court system of Denver. We borrowed from New Zealand’s system of ‘family group conferences’ in which the families of the accused would be called together to seek a restorative solution. The New Zealand approach came out of the Maori tribal system of dealing with conflicts. I understand that the Denver juvenile court still uses this approach to some degree.

But the truth is, our society, indeed, most societies are so deeply entrenched in a retributive justice system that changing that seems virtually impossible. After all, we think, when something goes wrong, when a crime has been committed, we must fix blame and the perpetrator must be punished.

My concern this morning is that, unfortunately, that approach is too often how we view God. God is the ultimate fixer of blame. God is the ultimate punisher. Sin must be punished because God is holy, we are taught, and forgiveness is available only on a very limited basis. The end result? Well, you die! Or worse, you spend eternity in unending torment and anguish in the pits of hell. The Retributive God!

However, that is not Jesus. I said it before, I’ll say it again: Jesus opposed retributive justice. Instead, Jesus practiced restorative justice. That’s what Jesus’ conversation with Peter is all about – restoration. Going back to where I started, that’s why I think we should hear that old revival/invitation song in a new way – in a restorative way.

Likewise, there is another old revival song that is quite similar, which we are going to sing now, Come Ye Disconsolate. Linda and I first heard this old hymn as sung by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway back in 1972. A pretty soulful version. We are not going to sing that version today, although Linda and our son, Joshua, have sung it in the past.

This is a song, a hymn, of restoration. It is a song for the hurting, for the despairing, for the ‘disconsolate’, those who are without consolation, without comfort. “Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish.” “Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish.” Why? Because “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”

This is not a “you’d-better-confess-or-you’ll-go-to-hell” appeal. No! This is an invitation for healing and restoration. This is where the ‘desolate’ find joy, the ‘straying’ experience light, and where the ‘penitent’ find hope. Here you will encounter the Comforter who speaks ‘tenderly’ to our hearts, saying: “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.”

We come to this table, the table of forgiveness, the table of mercy, the table of restoration. Here we see Jesus, the ‘bread of life’. Here we “Come to the feast prepared; come, ever knowing earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.”

Restorative justice. The God of mercy, forgiveness and grace invites us to be healed, forgiven and restored. May we thus believe; may we thus sing. Amen.

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