Without a Doubt

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The story of Peter and the sheet from Acts 11 is an odd one, even by Biblical standards.  It has so many supernatural elements as to almost be absurd.  In fact, it seems to read more like a hagiography than a historical account.  There’s the vision Peter has while in a trance.  There’s the exact timing of the arrival of the men from Caesarea.  There’s the Holy Spirit descending upon Gentiles just as it had upon the first believers at the beginning.  If you were trying to write a story that would carry spiritual gravitas, you couldn’t have scripted one better.

Lost in all of the supernatural events, however, is the deeper truth which Peter is trying to articulate to the Apostles in Jerusalem – the radically inclusive nature of the Gospel message even for the Gentiles.  Mired about halfway through the fantastic story, just after the three men arrive at Joppa, Peter, now removed from his trance, receives another word from the Holy Spirit, “to go with them and not make distinction between them and us.”

That phrase has always caught my attention.  In digging into it a bit, I’ve realized that it is another example of English trying to convey in a lot of words what the original Greek handled with simple eloquence.  Other translations say “The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry” (CEV).  “The Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (KJV). “The Spirit said to me: Go with them, without hesitation” (PNT).  The original Greek word means “to evaluate, consider, doubt.”

While the NRSV’s take, “make no distinction between them and us” works, I think it missed the mark on what Peter is really saying the Spirit said to him.  What seems to be happening here is an opportunity for Peter to trust God.  Not unlike that experience with Jesus walking across the water, through this vision and the call to Cornelius’ house, Peter is being invited to step way outside of his comfort zone.  As the story is relayed to us, it appears as though Peter’s actions have raised a lot of questions within the rest of the leadership of the Way.  He certainly knew, based on his faithful Jewish upbringing, that stepping into Cornelius’ house would forever change the game.

When the Spirit speaks to Peter as his stares, probably dumbfounded, into the faces of the three men from Caesarea, what I hear the Spirit saying is, “Without a doubt, go.”  “Go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Go and fling open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go and let the whole world know what God is up to.  Go and don’t doubt.  It isn’t for you to decide who is in and who is out.  Step out of the relative safety of this Jewish sect and watch what God has in store.”

Yes, it put Peter in an uncomfortable spot for a while, but because of his ability to trust, a skill that we know was hard earned in Peter, the Kingdom of God was opened to all and God was glorified.  I can’t help but wonder, what doubts are holding me back?  What is God calling us to do that will fling open the gates of the Kingdom?

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Already Restored

The focus of a lot of [my] preaching on John 21:1-19 has been the somewhat uncomfortable exchange between Jesus and Simon Peter that takes place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  We know it well.  Three times, Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves Jesus.  Three times, Peter replies in the affirmative.  Three time, Peter is invited to care for the flock.  This encounter is often lifted up as the restoration of Peter.  After his three-fold denial of Jesus late Maundy Thursday and early Good Friday, we often read this text as Peter’s three-fold renunciation of that denial.  This is Peter’s moment of redemption.  If he was a Baptist seeking ordination, it is the charcoal fire story that he would tell as his salvation event.

This morning, however, I noticed something.  John notes that this conversation happens “When they had finished breakfast.”  Jesus, Peter, and the rest of the fishing crew had already shared a meal together.  Remember back when Holy Week first started?  The complaint levied by the religious authorities against Jesus was that he “ate with sinners and tax collectors.”  The act of eating together in first century Judaism was a symbol of relationship, an act of intimacy.  Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup.  They didn’t pass the broken bread around.  They weren’t allowed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus.  Yet, in Jesus’ kingdom, those food laws weren’t as important as the community that he was sent to establish.  Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love.

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So, what if Jesus and Peter sharing breakfast – breaking bread and picking meat from the same freshly caught fish – was actually Peter’s moment of restoration?  What if all that back and forth that happens after, the thing that ultimately breaks Peter’s heart, is really just an exchange between two friends, one who was the leader, and one who will take that mantel shortly?  What if that conversation is less moment of restoration and more Peter’s moment of ordination?  What if the three-fold invitation to care for the flock is Jesus anointing Peter for his ministry?

Spontaneous Volunteerism

The sermon begins at about the 15 minute mark.


My older half-brother, Ed, served in the United States Air Force for more than thirty-two years.  He was active in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom and was awarded several medals and commendations.  Ed is quite a bit older than I am, so we really only see each other at major family events like weddings, funerals, and graduations.  I remember one time listening to Ed talk about his time in the military, I think from when he was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.  He was talking about the lessons life in the Air Force had taught him, one of which was “when they ask for volunteers, always raise your hand.”  “At worst,” he said, “you’ll have to wash a truck, but you might get to go home.  No matter what, it is better than sitting around.”

I can’t help but wonder if Simon Peter subscribed to a similar life philosophy.  I like to joke about Peter’s impetuous nature.  He certainly was of the “ready, shoot, aim” school of ministry.  He was always ready to say or do something, whether it made any sense or not.  In reading our Gospel lesson for this morning, however, I’m beginning to think that this style was cultivated in him by Jesus from the beginning?  What if Jesus chose Peter precisely because he was always ready to raise his hand and volunteer?  In fact, between the story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke and the calling of the Prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson, it seems as though God rather enjoys working with those who are ready to jump into service without quite knowing what that service will actually look like.

In the lesson from Isaiah, we hear God’s initial call to the prophet.  It is a majestic scene, in which Isaiah actually comes face-to-face with the Lord God Almighty, an event thought to be so holy that it would cause any human being to die instantly.  There, standing before the throne of God, hearing a voice so powerful that the very foundations of the earth shook beneath him, Isaiah was so keenly aware of his unworthiness that he cried out to God, “Woe to me!”  Even after an angel touched a live coal taken from the altar of God directly to Isaiah’s lips, he was eager to answer God’s call with, “Here am I; send me!”  Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with Isaiah’s work, but lessons from his book have been the Daily Office readings of late, and let me tell you, he had no idea what he was signing up for.  His stinging words of rebuke to the leaders of Israel brought him significant hardship, and yet, Isaiah stood firm, answering again and again God’s call to proclaim judgement.

You are likely more familiar with the trials and tribulations of Peter, who in our story for today makes his first appearance in Luke’s Gospel.  We find Simon Peter tired after a long and frustrating night of not catching fish on the Sea of Galilee.  He and his companions were doing the work that you have to do at the end of a day of fishing – work that is a lot more fun when there is the promise of fresh fish when it is over.  The only thing on Simon Peter’s mind at that moment was going home and going to bed.  Tomorrow night was already coming quickly, and rest was the order of the day.  That is, until a commotion rose up around them.  Jesus had been preaching further down the shore, when suddenly, the crowd was upon them.  As Peter looked up from his net, he was just in time to see Jesus stepping over the gunwale of his boat.

“Can you put out a bit so that the crowd can hear me?” Jesus asked.

“Get your own dang boat,” might have been my reply, but that’s not what Simon Peter did.  Impulsive Peter hopped in and pushed off.  As he sat there at the feet of Jesus, something seems to have clicked in Simon’s mind.  The message of the Kingdom of God coming near spoke to a deep longing that Simon Peter might not have even known he had.  Who knows how long he sat there as Jesus taught the crowds, but when he was done, Peter once again looked up at Jesus just in time to be put to work.

“Head out to the deep water and throw out your nets for a catch,” Jesus suggests.

This time, Peter pushes back just a bit, “Master, we fished all night long and didn’t catch thing.”  His retort didn’t stick however, as he quickly changes course, “but if you say so, I’ll give it a try.”  Peter threw his net over the side of the boat, not knowing what was going to happen next.  This Jesus character promised him a catch, but he didn’t say what kind.  Was he hoping just for enough to feed himself?  Did he want to feed the crowd that had gathered or the entire Village of Capernaum.  Peter didn’t know, and thanks to his spontaneous streak, Peter didn’t seem to care either.  Out went the nets and the haul of fish was so enormous that it threatened to sink both his boat and the one James and John had brought out to help.[1]

Peter’s response to this miraculous scene is not unlike Isaiah’s response to seeing the throne of God.  Immediately, he fell to his knees and worshipped Jesus in fear and trembling.  “Go away from me, O Lord, for a I am a sinful man.”  Again, just like it was for Isaiah, God won’t let Peter off quite so easily.  From Isaiah’s “whom shall I send,” to Peter’s “Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people,” in both cases the response was the same – they dropped everything and followed God’s call, with no idea what was going to happen next.

I am not like Isaiah, nor like Peter.  I don’t have a spontaneous bone in my body.  I hate surprises, and I almost always have a plan.  Following God, however, often means throwing the plan out the window, raising your hand, and saying, “here I am God, what do you need?”  In October of last year, in the midst of all the amazing things we have going on here at Christ Church, a crowd arrived on our doorstep.  We have named them the Cloister Community, but that just a fancy church euphemism for people who are experiencing homelessness and find themselves sleeping in our Cloister.  At first, I didn’t really know what to do.  I mean, we all knew that folks have been sleeping out there for years, but all of a sudden, they were visible.  It is as if I looked up from cleaning my nets one day and suddenly saw a whole group of people that I had never seen before.  It was a rocky start.  People, personal belongings, blankets, pallets, bikes, and even shopping carts seemed to multiply by the day. I’ll admit that my initial reaction was to push back against this change, to fear for our beautiful campus, and to want to shoo them away.  Something kept that from happening; probably the influence of Deacon Kellie, Mother Becca, and other lay leaders who would soon develop into a group called Sacred Conversations that is devoted to praying for our Cloister Community and seeking ways to help them move on to long-term, sustainable housing solutions.

After a painfully slow six weeks or so, in December, we published a set of community expectations, and for the past eight weeks, we’ve been working daily to help ensure those expectations are being met, building relationships, and generally following the Peter model of ministry – ready, fire, aim.  It hasn’t always been pretty.  There have been unintended consequences both good and bad, but we are making progress toward our goal of providing a safe, temporary place for those experiencing homelessness to sleep.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  I wish we had a grand plan.  I wish there was a flow-chart I could post in my office, but it seems that God’s ways are not my ways.  All God asks is for you to raise your hand and volunteer.  Slowly but surely, the rest will be revealed.

If you want to raise your hand and say “here am I; send me,” come pray with us on the porch, Mondays at 4pm or join our Sacred Conversations meetings on Wednesdays at 4 in the Conference Room.  Jesus loves to make use of Peters and Isaiahs who are flexible and spontaneous, just as he loves to make use of me, a planner and organizer.  I don’t know what will come of this latest invitation to walk with our neighbors; but as my brother would say following Jesus brings a whole lot more blessing than sitting around.  Amen.

[1] I am grateful to Lauren Dow Wegner for her imagery. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/february-10-epiphany-5c-luke-51-11-isaiah-61-8-9-13 (accessed 1/5/19)

 

There’s that word again

As I mentioned several weeks ago, the word “church” rarely occurs in the Gospels.  The English word shows up five times, all in Matthew’s Gospel.  Twice (18:15 and 18:21) is is used to expand the gendered Greek word for brother to “member of the church.”  The other three occurrences (16:18 and twice in 18:17) are direct translations of the Greek word ekklesia, which generically meant an assembly or a gathering of people.  When I read this word in Matthew’s Gospel, my very faint Biblical criticism streak begins to show, and I wonder, if only for a moment, if these are really authentic words from Jesus or Matthew’s later attempt to wrap the teaching of Jesus around the institution that followed his resurrection and ascension.

My first stop down the rabbit hole of ekklesia in Matthew was Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed., which showed no textual controversy on the word in 16:18.  Next, I went to Ye Olde Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew co-authored by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann.  Albright was a polymath who was well versed in archaeology and German Biblical criticism, and began the project that has become the Anchor Bible Series, now 120 volumes strong.  Over his many years, his archaeological research led him to believe more and more of the scriptural story and rely less and less on historical critical reading of the Biblical narrative.  Knowing that, it makes sense that his volume on Matthew would argue, “It is hard to know what kind of thinking, other than confessional presupposition, justifies the tendency of some commentators to dismiss this verse as not authentic.  A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew” (1971 ed., p. 195).  In the end, Albright and Mann suggest that ekklesia may be the Greek translation of “kenishta, which in the Syriac versions is used for both ekklesia and synagogue” (p. 196).

I warned you this was a rabbit hole.

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What does all this tell us?  Well, first of all, it is a reminder that Biblical study is worth it. There are words we find in the English translations of scripture that leave us scratching our heads, wondering how and why they say what they do.  It is worth the preachers time to do some digging, in order to come to better understand the meaning behind these words.  It is also a warning to be wary of bringing a desired outcome to one’s study.  I’d have bet a whole dollar that Matthew wedged the concept of church into his Gospel, but it seems that in the time of Jesus, the idea of an ongoing community of disciples wasn’t beyond reasonable thought.  Finally, it tells us that Peter’s confession and subsequent commissioning means something.  If Jesus really did think this thing would be perpetuated by a community, which it seems he did, then he needed to make plans for the future, and it was upon Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah that the institution would be built.

For those of us who continue to be a part of that ekklesia, this is the most important bit.  It isn’t about keeping buildings built or salaries paid or denominational shields protected, but all of this exists for one reason only, the same reason Matthew had in mind when he translated Jesus’ words into Greek, to empower a community of faithful disciples to go and proclaim that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.

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At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Maundy Thursday 2017 – The Church’s Petrine Moment

Before I get too deep here – a joke for you to keep in mind as you read this post.  What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

You can negotiate with a terrorist.

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Peter gives Jesus a pass on the foot stuff

“You will never wash my feet.”

How long must those words have hung in the air?  Peter, Jesus’ most petulant disciple, again springs into the limelight on Maundy Thursday as once more he directly challenges the will of his teacher and friend.  The first disciple to name Jesus as the Messiah, you would think he might be more willing to go along with what Jesus asks of him, but for whatever reason, Peter is constantly fighting with Jesus like my four year-old fights with me.

Jesus is undeterred.  Here is the line in the sand.  “Foot washing is a part of this discipleship thing, and unless I wash your feet, you will have no part with me.”  This is, to be very clear, a non-negotiable.  Jesus is modeling for his disciples, which includes us, what it means to be a servant leader.  “I have given you an example to follow.  Do as I have done to you.”

“I don’t really like washing feet.”

“It doesn’t mean what it did in the first century.”

Of late, some clergy have taken on the role of Peter when it comes to Maundy Thursday, choosing to skip the foot washing (n.b. I know it is an optional rite) or somewhat inexplicably choosing to wash hands instead of feet (Honestly, just take the rubrically allowed path and don’t do it at all).  As I reflect on my own discomfort with feet, with touching feet, and with slathering on hand sanitizer, but still feeling like I’m celebrating the Eucharist with feet covered hands, I know, in my heart of hearts, that I’d rather not do it.  Like Peter, I’d like to say, “I’ll never wash feet,” but Jesus didn’t let Peter get away with it, and I doubt if he’ll let me either.

The very fact that the washing of feet is so awkward and strange is the reason we should do it.  Ignoring for a moment that Jesus said, “do as I have done for you,” every Episcopal Church in the land should be washing feet tonight because it is a part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Discipleship calls us out of our comfort zones, it asks us to talk to our neighbors about Jesus, to get up early on Sunday and come to worship, to donate time during the week to serve our neighbors, to give sacrificially of our money for the Kingdom, and it is all summed up in one terrifically uncomfortable act on Maundy Thursday.  When we wash feet, we take our part with Jesus who shows us what it means to walk the hard road to redemption.

With whom do you eat?

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There is a lot to love about Pirates Cove in Josephine, Alabama. Legend has it that the hamburger served as the muse for Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”  The Bushwackers are legendary and poured with a strong hand by just friendly enough barkeeps.  The beach is littered with boats of all shapes, sizes, and seaworthiness.  But my favorite part of Pirates  Cove is the eclectic clientele.  On any given afternoon, you can find yourself enjoying a cheeseburger and a cold beer next a penniless alcoholic, a college student looking for a bit too much fun, a family of four trying to keep it all together, and a multi-millionaire.  It is the sort of crowd that would have made the circumcised believers in Jerusalem pretty uncomfortable.

In the culture of first century Palestine, eating with someone was the sign of an intimate friendship.  With elaborate washing rituals, a general lack of understanding around food born illnesses, reclining on the floor next to each other, and eating without silverware, you can imagine that one might be careful when deciding on what and with whom you are going eat.  When the leadership in Jerusalem hears that Peter has been eating foods considered unclean with people who are considered unclean, we can imagine that they get pretty nervous, pretty quickly.

“Why do you eat with them?”

Peter’s response is a risky one, both in his era and in ours: “The Spirit told me to make no distinction between them and us.”  The tendency to overindulge in frosty cold alcoholic beverages notwithstanding, it seems to me that Peter is suggesting that the Kingdom of God is like Pirates Cove.  It is a place where the only distinction that gets made is between those who choose fries over the delicious onion rings.  People of all socioeconomic stripes gather together and eat with one another, sharing the commonality of our shared status as children of God, enjoying the fruit of God’s good creation on a beautiful piece of sandy back bay beachfront property.  Does your community have a place like Pirates Cove?  A place like Cornelius’ house?  A place where all can come together with the potential energy of the Holy Spirit to change a people and build the kingdom?