Archive for April, 2010

Who Can We Do Without?

April 20, 2010

Easter 3C Trinity Cathedral.

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that – in today’s readings from Scripture – we are witnessing the calling of two of the greatest figures in the New Testament Church.  Peter and Paul!

Now it’s true that Peter had actually been called to be a disciple of Jesus several years before when his brother Andrew had found him and brought him to meet Jesus.  It was on that occasion that Jesus had nicknamed him “Cephas” which is Aramaic for “Rock” (Petros, or Peter, in the Greek of the New Testament).

But Peter had been anything, but a Rock during much of his time as a follower of Jesus. He had loved him and wanted to serve him, but Peter almost always seemed to be getting it wrong in some way, missing Jesus’ point time and time again. And, of course, finally (and famously) he had denied even knowing Jesus three times on that terrible night and must have wondered if there was any hope for him even when he had become convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Yet in today’s Gospel, the risen Christ appears to Peter in the midst of his daily work of fishing, blessing him with a great catch and even joining him for breakfast!  But it was only after that incredible meal that Jesus asks him three times “Do you love me?” And Peter is invited to respond – each of those three times – “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 21) It could not have been lost on him that he had to affirm his love three times…the same number of times he had denied even knowing his rabbi and friend because of his own fear.

I’ve often wondered if, when you and I meet Jesus face to face, if part of that moment of judgment will be affirming our love as many times as we have denied him in this life.  I don’t know about you, but if that’s so, I’m going to be standing there a long time. (Pause) But then, I guess we have all eternity!

The conversion of St. Paul – which we heard about in our First Lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles – is not all that different in some ways. Once again we have a notorious sinner – Saul the Pharisee – who was zealously going about his business of threatening and arresting followers of this same Jesus.  When he too is confronted with the Risen Christ – this time experienced in a brilliant light from heaven.  And a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (And when) he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9)

It would take Saul (who also, later, has his name changed to Paul) twenty years to figure out how in the world he could be persecuting Jesus – the man who had already been arrested, executed, and whom some were claiming had been raised from the dead. It would, I believe, only be while dictating his First Letter to the little church in Corinth, two decades after his conversion, that Paul would realize that those whom he was persecuting were actually members – limbs and organs – of Christ’s Body.  And that what he was doing to them….he really was doing to Jesus!

So, with the conversion (or perhaps in Peter’s case the “re-conversion”) of these two men, the stage is set for the greatest missionary movement in the history of the world.

Peter, the conservative leader of the Jerusalem church who initially thought that you had to be a Jew first in order to become a Christian. Paul, the revolutionary, who seemed to believe almost from the beginning that God was doing a new thing in this crucified and resurrected Messiah and opening the door of salvation to all people, to all who put their trust in him.

These two men didn’t even get along very well. They could not have been more different! The “conservative” working man and the “liberal” scholar. The “traditionalist” leader of the original apostles who had actually spent time with Jesus, and the “progressive” missionary and tent-making evangelist who was willing to risk it all for the sake of One he never met “in the flesh” but certainly encountered “in the Spirit!”

Yet somehow God used them both to transform a local “movement” into a worldwide phenomenon. Peter becomes the model for apostolic leadership and a voice for the unity of the Church across time and space. Paul not only planted individual Christian communities all across the Mediterranean world but wrote most of the New Testament in the form of letters and exhortations to those young Christians about how to remain faithful.

Is there a lesson in all that for us today?  In a church and a secular society which are, all too often, rent asunder by partisanship and division, it’s so easy to want to choose sides and identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”  To believe that we have all the truth and that “they” (whoever the “they” are!) have none of it. But what if the early Church had done that in the case of Peter and Paul?

What if they had seen these two men bickering as they regularly did – by letter and sometimes even in person – and decided that the Church could do without one or both of them? Would we be any better off without Peter’s remembrance of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry (which may have eventually become enshrined in the four Gospels)? Or, how would it be if the church had decided that only good Jews could become good Christians after all?  How many of us would be sitting in this church if that had been the decision?

No, good Queen Elizabeth the First had it about right when she fashioned a balanced English Christianity which sought to hold together the Petrine Catholics and the Pauline Protestants in her Realm by refusing to “make a window into men’s souls” but to provide space at the Altar for any Christian who could embrace the Gospel, worship with the Book of Common Prayer, and come forward to receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist (even if they didn’t all understand it in exactly the same way!).

It all goes back to Peter and Paul who, I believe could affirm with Queen Elizabeth and, I hope, US the words of this morning’s Collect: “O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread:  Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in ALL his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In Port-au-Prince…they are singing

April 5, 2010

In 2008, I celebrated Easter in the Cathedral Church of St. George in Jerusalem…with Bishop Suheil Dawani and the Presiding Bishop whom I had accompanied on a visitation there.  We sang a wonderful hymn text set to the tune of “Praise my soul the King of heaven” which I’m going to ask Krista Mays to use sometime during the Easter season.  The verses read like this:

Easter people, raise your voices/ sounds of heaven in earth should ring/ Christ has brought us heaven’s choices/ heavenly music, let it ring/ Alleluia! Alleluia!  Easter people, let us sing.

Fear of death can no more stop us/ from our pressing here below/ For our Lord empowered us to/ triumph over every foe/ Alleluia! Alleluia! On to victory now we go.

Every day to us is Easter/ with its resurrection song/ When in trouble move the faster/ To our God who rights the wrong/ Alleluia! Alleluia! See the power of heavenly throngs!

I thought of those words last week when I read an article in “The Christian Century” magazine by William Willimon, a Methodist bishop who used to be a professor at the Duke Divinity School.  It was entitled “Now can we sing?” and he writes: “On two mission trips to Haiti with undergrads, there was widespread agreement that the most disarming thing about the country was the laughter of the children, along with their raucous singing.”

“How dare they sing when their life expectancy is so horribly short?  Was their laughter an escapist respite from the unmitigated tragedy of their lives… or a smart rebuke to our assumption that their lives were trapped in tragedy?  As darkness fell upon Port-au-Prince after the earth heaved that January night, people danced in the streets and sang hymns.  On CNN, Anderson Cooper was incredulous.” (1)

Yes, I imagine he was…but are we? Are we “incredulous” at Christians singing in the midst of tragedy? I mean we just heard the story of women coming to a tomb and finding the stone rolled away…women who discovered that Jesus was not there, but had risen. They told that Good News to Peter who checked it our for himself and, not long afterwards, was able to preach that:

“We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us, who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  He commanded us to preach to the people…” (Acts 10:39-42

And one of those preachers was Paul the Apostle.  We heard from him today as well: that “since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being: for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (I Corinthians 15: 21-22).

The Presiding Bishop wrote in her Easter letter this year that: “The Christian community is meant to be a mutual hope society, with each one offering courage to another whose hope has waned, insisting that even in the darkest of night, new life is being prepared. That work is constant – it will not end until the end of all things. And still the community persists, year in and year out, in time of earthquake and war and flood, in time of joy and new birth and discovery. Together we can shout, “Alleluia, he is risen! Indeed, he is risen, Alleluia!” even when some among us are not quite so confident as others. For indeed, the body of Christ is rising and risen when even a small part of it can rejoice and insist that God is renewing the face of the earth and light has dawned upon us.”

Dear friends: It is that story, that testimony, that proclamation, which somehow makes us understand how Christians could dance in the streets and sing hymns on that January night when the earth heaved in Port-au-Prince.

On one level, of course, it makes no sense at all!  And if Paul’s preaching is all fantasy, it doesn’t make sense. If Peter’s testimony is nothing but a fable, it makes no sense at all.

“But what if the grieving women who came to the tomb on Easter morning are right?  What if Friday isn’t the end of the story?  What if God is rewriting human tragedy into surprising comedy?  What if Jesus told the truth when he declared, toward the opening of his ministry, that he was turning today’s tears into tomorrow’s laughter?”

“… Luke’s Good News ends not with the disciples grim determination to right what’s wrong with the world, but with their turning toward Jerusalem, the scene of the greatest of tragedies, ‘with great joy’ (the text says)”

“This world is full of death.  Open your eyes and you will see the weeping all around.  Human life can be, even for the undeservedly well fixed among us, one long series of funerals…

[We’ve certainly seen that here at Trinity Cathedral since the first of the year! We’ve lost some wonderful members of this parish this year – seven of them already…the same number we buried in all of 2009. But we’ve celebrated the resurrection at each one of those funerals! We’ve celebrated their earthly lives and we’ve celebrated their eternal lives.  And many people have joined us, marveling at our ability to do that.]

“As far as I can tell,” concludes Bishop Willimon in his “Christian Century” article, “there’s only one thing we know that the world doesn’t…we know another story.  In the gloom, on the margins, there are women singing…without earthly justification.  Their only rationale is theological.  They have learned the secret about God and can’t help singing.  The God who could have been sovereign chose rather to love.”

“…Listen, in Port-au-Prince they are singing: Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!” (2)…and Amen!


(1) and (2) “Now Can We Sing” the Christian Century; March 23, 2010

Friday Morning

April 2, 2010


It was on a Friday morning/ that they took me from the cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter/ to crucify as well.
You can blame it onto Pilate/ You can blame it on the Jews.
You can blame it on the devil/ It’s God that I accuse.
It’s God they ought to crucify/ instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter/ a-hangin’ on the tree.
To hell with Jehovah/ to the carpenter, I said,
I wish that a carpenter/ had made the world instead.

-Sidney Carter