I have a love/hate relationship with golf.
I’m not sure how any new players ever get recruited to the game. The goal is almost impossible: to hit this tiny ball into a cup about 4” wide… a cup that’s about 300, maybe 500 yards away… and the path from here to there is lined with trees and sand and water designed to trap your ball. Who thought this up?
This impossibly hard game is wildly frustrating to me. Sometimes my drive goes way off to the right, onto the next fairway, and it didn’t feel like I did anything different from my last swing but I guess I did something wrong. Too many times my chip goes right over the green, 20 yards further than I normally hit that club – why did that happen? Why?!?
I hate golf.
But do you know what helps?
A mulligan is basically a do over. No one is 100% sure where the term came from, but a lot of people point to a guy named David Mulligan, a Canadian hotelier who played a lot of golf in the 1920s. It’s said that one day he hit a wayward drive off the first tee, and on impulse, he just teed up for another swing. When his friends asked what he was doing, he said, “I’m taking a correction shot.” That term didn’t stick, but “mulligan” sure did.
When you watch professional golf you won’t see any mulligans, but if you go out and play around with an average foursome you’ll see plenty. Mulligans are popular because they make golf way more fun. So when I hit that drive and it goes way off to the right and I hate golf… Mulligan! I tee it up again and try to remember to roll my hands over as I swing through and sure enough – long and straight!
I love golf!
Golf is so much better with mulligans.
Let’s be honest; life would be so much better if we got mulligans. Right?
Well – sometimes we do. Actually, I think we get them more often than we realize.
Today’s Scripture is a “mulligan” story. It’s a redo. In order to appreciate that, you have to turn back to John 18 and remember what happened before. While Jesus was being interrogated by the authorities Peter was waiting outside by a campfire. Some of the people hanging around with him thought he looked familiar. “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples?” they asked him. “Aren’t you with the guy who’s in deep trouble right now? The one they’re talking about crucifying?”
“Oh, no – not me!” Peter said.
This happened once. “No, not me!”
And then twice. “I don’t know the guy! I’m not with him!”
And then a third time. Three times someone asked if Peter was a disciple of Jesus Christ, and three times Peter said, “No, I swear I’m not with him!”
Now, let’s turn back to John 21. The resurrected Jesus has come back to the disciples for a last time. He helped them catch some fish and he’s cooked them breakfast. As they eat, standing there by another campfire, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”
“You know I do!” Peter says.
“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus tells him. (In other words, “Take care of my flock, my people, all God’s people.”)
This happened once. “Do you love me?” “You know that I do!” “Feed my sheep.”
And then twice. “Peter, do you love me?” “Lord, you know that I do!” “Tend to my sheep.”
And then a third time. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and three times Peter gets a chance to tell Jesus, “Lord, you know everything – you know I love you!”
Do you see it? The Peter who point-blank denied Jesus three times got to point-blank claim Jesus three times. He got a mulligan! Peter hit a terrible, wayward shot – he messed up big time. And Jesus tee’d it up again for him and said, “Here you go, buddy – don’t count that last one. Adjust your grip and take another swing at it. I know you can do better.”
Isn’t that awesome?
So tell me: what moment does it make you think of, right now?
Oh, you don’t have to say it out loud. You probably don’t want to. But isn’t there some moment, some mistake you’d like to redo? Do you have some “shot” you’ve taken in life that could really benefit from a mulligan? Sure there is. We’ve all got them. I know we do, because it started happening to us humans right away. Remember Adam and Eve eating that fruit? They knew right away they had better hide from God because they had messed up. We have a long history of making mulligan-worthy mistakes.
And then came Jesus. Jesus, who was willing to take all those sins with him onto the cross. Jesus, who died as a perfect sacrifice for those sins. Jesus, who made our forgiveness possible – a forgiveness big enough to cover everything.
(Yes, even that thing that you were thinking of. That, too.)
But forgiveness is only half of a mulligan. Forgiveness is an un-do. It’s the first crucial step. I mean, that mulligan shot isn’t any good if the first stroke still counts. First you have to wipe the score card clean.
But then – there’s more. The second half of the mulligan is the chance to do better with your second swing. To take that drive or that putt again and get a different result. Jesus gives us that, too. When Jesus left his disciples, he sent the Holy Spirit as a guide, an advocate, as God’s presence with us on earth. So by the strength of the Holy Spirit we can be more than just forgiven; we can do differently next time.
In other words: we get a mulligan.
It’s not often as obvious as Peter’s – a perfect threepeat to redo his denial (by a campfire both times, to make it crystal clear!). But very often we can choose to do differently in the next similar situation. Let’s take a really common sin as an example: gossip. You were talking behind someone’s back. Maybe it was true, even, but it doesn’t matter; later, you realize it was very much not loving your neighbor as yourself, because you wouldn’t want to be talked about that way. So you ask God to forgive you.
(There’s the un-do.)
The next morning you wake up to a new day, a new chance to tee up your shot. And what will you do with it? Will you run your mouth again, just like yesterday? Or, will you start your day by asking the Holy Spirit to help you be careful with your words?
Maybe, this time, you can keep it long and straight – in the way following Jesus Christ.
The really amazing thing – where God’s grace becomes exceptional – is that we can do this as many times as we need to. In a round of golf, you traditionally only get one mulligan, or maybe one on each nine if you’re really feeling generous. But in our life with Christ, we are given the power of forgiveness and a second chance all the time.
Even today. Right now. And really, why wait?
Try praying these words from our communion liturgy. As you do, notice: in them, you’ll find forgiveness… and also a request for God to help “free us for joyful obedience.” As we go into this day, may that be the character of our second shot (or third, or 123rd…). May use our forgiveness to go and live lives of joyful obedience for Christ.
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.