Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

“Do You Love Me?”

Readings: Ez 34:11-16; Ps 87; 2 Tim 4:1-8; Jn 21:15-19

Today we celebrate the martyrdom of two great icons of the church, St. Peter and St. Paul. There is an irony to this joint celebration, for they were very different people. Peter was poor and unlearned; Paul was a scholar. They came to know the risen Christ in very different ways. Most of all, these are two people whose ministries constantly clashed. They headed two distinct Christian missions, Peter to the Jews, Paul to the Gentiles. They came at ministry in very different ways.

In their humanity, they give us insight into our own inadequacies when it comes to the faith. Peter is remembered as the one who denied Christ. Paul is known for his persecution of Christians. Both were brought to their knees by Christ’s redemptive love. Their faith in the grace of God brought them face to face with the risen Christ. They answered the call of God and preached the word faithfully. Their faith ultimately led to their deaths. These two great leaders, literally founders of the Christian faith, give us a dynamic picture of the Christian Church in its infancy.

In the reading from Timothy Paul is reflecting on his life of faith. He sees it as a race that he has won well, not so much by his success, but by keeping faith through all the trials and difficulties of his life. He knows that through it all the risen Christ has been there beside him sustaining him so that he can continue to spread the Good News of the Gospel.
Paul underwent many trials. His safety was assured not by the Christian community or even the Jewish community but ironically by the Roman authorities. They respected Paul’s birthright as a Roman citizen. That gave him the right to a fair trial. Though he languished in prison for many years while the Roman officials tried to keep peace with the Jewish authorities, he was able to reach many through his letters to the fledgling Christians. One writer describes Paul’s prison cell as the “first Christian seminary”[i], an apt description if you think about it. It was certainly the central hub of Christianity as the Gentile world was brought into the fold.

Then there is Peter, one of the twelve chosen by Jesus, the rock on which Christ would build the church. Under Peter’s leadership thousands of Jews were converted to the Christian faith.

The dialogue between Jesus and Peter in the Gospel is a turning point in Peter’s life. A conversation that began between them before the crucifixion needs to be completed. Peter had denied Jesus. The shame and guilt remained a barrier for him in their relationship and in his ministry.

“Do you love me?” Jesus says to Peter. The question must have startled him. When the question comes again he wonders, "Is it all a nightmare? Is there something I should say?” He sees himself as a traitor. All he can think of is how guilty he feels. For the third time Jesus questions Peter. He continues to call him back into a loving relationship. He knows that going through failure and coming out on the other side strengthens us.

Peter finally gets it. "You know that I love you. I love you with all my heart." It is a turning point in Peter's life, a moment of conversion for him. And Jesus calls him to ministry. This is not a prize for getting the right answer. This is an affirmation, his ordination if you will. "Feed my sheep!" Jesus says to him. It is the beginning for him of a lifelong ministry of literally building the Christian Church from the ground up.

Paul’s experience on the Damascus road although a very different experience from that of Peter, is a turning point as well. His conversion is sudden and dramatic, seemingly coming out of nowhere. As that light from heaven flashes around him he realizes that Christian faith means much more than he could ever have expected. He realizes the life-bond that exists between Jesus and his followers. It is a moment of transformation that is reflected in everything he does from that moment on. There in the dust of the road, blinded by the brilliance of the light, he realizes how Jesus identifies with him. “Do you love me,” Jesus is saying to him. He realizes that God is calling him to build up the Church he has set out to destroy.

When has Jesus said to you, “Do you love me?” More importantly, what was your answer? Perhaps there was a time when your faith was challenged and some almost inexplicable experience brought you closer to God than you could imagine. And you found yourself saying, “Yes Lord! I love you.”

Perhaps it was a time of denial, of floundering and then you finally found the words to articulate your faith clearly. The words that came out of your mouth were, “You know that I love you.”

Perhaps there was a time when you felt utterly alone and abandoned by God and then somehow you discovered that you were not alone, that you were not abandoned, but that you were beloved. And you found yourself filled with joy as you cried out, “I love you, Lord!”

Perhaps there was a time when you felt such a burden of guilt that you thought that you would never be able to face God again, and then you experienced an amazing sense of forgiveness washing over you. The only words you could possibly utter were, “I love you Lord!”

Perhaps there has been a time in your life when you felt such grief that you never expected to be happy again, and then that sense of calm, of peace, of joy, came into your heart like a ray of sunshine. And with a sense of relief you said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Such experiences of turning to Christ are uniquely our own. Often it is difficult to even articulate such times in our lives. Whatever the experience, the heart of the matter lies in our response to Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” That has, after all, always been the question when coming into relationship with another.

In a real sense this celebration is about us, about you and me, about our call to ministry. Like Peter and Paul, we are all called to build up the Church, not this particular church, but the Church of God. As we preach the gospel in our daily lives, as we live our life in Christ, as we live out our faith, as we form community, we willingly lay down our lives for the faith. We respond to the great love of God. Amen

[i] “Daysprings” Sam Portaro

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Day of Pentecost, Year A

The Power Working In Us

Readings: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

There is something quite wonderful about the ebb and flow of Anglican liturgy. Following the lectionary as we do, we know the changing of the seasons. One that often gets overlooked is the Feast of the Ascension, coming as it does on a Thursday. Now I have to say that it was always an important feast day for me growing up. At the Anglican school that I attended it was marked, first of all with Eucharist at the nearby St. Thomas Church, affectionately known to us as Smokey Tom's, and then followed up with a picnic at Toronto Island. So for me Ascension Day has always been about a picnic. That is, until shortly after my ordination I had to preach on it. As I read over the lections I realized that it was anything but a picnic. Jesus was telling the disciples that he was about to leave them, and even more, he was leaving them holding the bag.

I have a good sense of what that is about as well. I felt it as I stood at my father's graveside and realized for the first time that there were no other living generations before me. I was now the 'older generation'. It was a burden, not simply because it meant that I was getting older, but because it meant that there was no other generation to blame. It made me consider whether or not I was up to the task.

Following Jesus' ascension the disciples felt that same burden of responsibility. What he began, the disciples were left behind to continue. He left them a commission to witness to what they had seen and experienced and to proclaim the Gospel they had heard. He left them a promise that they would be fully equipped to accomplish the task. He promised that they would be everything they were meant to be.

It was a promise that set them free to be exactly that. It left them with a huge responsibility to carry on in his name what he had begun. But it left them with the ability to do so. The Spirit poured out upon the whole Christian community, the Spirit within them, enabled them to begin the proclamation of the Gospel. The sign of the Holy Spirit visibly at work in the world made it possible.

And so we come to Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. It celebrates, not the coming of the Holy Spirit. That has always been God's gift to the Church. Rather it celebrates a fresh outpouring of the Spirit set loose in the world. It is the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to pour out the Holy Spirit on the disciples.

Yet the gift of the Holy Spirit is not some special and unique gift given only to a chosen few. God's Spirit is to be enjoyed by all of God's people. I’ll say it again! It is not God's Spirit suddenly present at Pentecost. It is the same Spirit that moved over the waters of creation. It is the same Spirit led the people of that Israel through the desert. It is the same Spirit that Jesus breathed on the disciples as he commissioned them to continue the work that he began. And it is that same Spirit that is our primary motivation as Christians. If Christmas is a celebration of 'God with us' then Pentecost is a celebration of 'God still with us'.

The writer of the Book of Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost the Christian Church was assembled for worship. Were they still in mourning? Were they pondering on how to carry out the mission that Jesus had left in their hands? As they were worshipping together they heard a loud, rushing noise. The sound gave way to tongues of flame that settled on each person. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak in other languages. More importantly, they were inspired to take on that mission.

Some of you may remember the movie, Chariots of Fire that came out in 1981. If you remember nothing else you will remember the music. The movie is the true story of two British track athletes who competed in the 1924 Summer Olympics. Eric Liddell was a devout Scottish missionary who ran for God; Harold Abrahams was a Jewish student at Cambridge who ran for fame and to escape prejudice. Their victory began even before the competition – for Liddell because he held fast to his beliefs and for Abrahams because he gave all he had to give.

Eric reflects on what it means to him to win the race. He says, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." He had a powerful sense of God's purpose for his life. He knew that it was his responsibility to be everything God called him to be. He knew also where God fit into the picture. Following the race he reflects, "Then where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?" He gives his own answer: "From within."

It is the Holy Spirit working in us and through us that allows us, Paul says, to confess that "Jesus is Lord." That confession of faith is at the heart of the Christian message. The only way we can truly say it is if the Spirit moves us, influences us. So what are the signs that God's Spirit is working in and through us?

The psalmist says, "When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth." What gifts of the Spirit could transform our world? We recognize the gifts of great spiritual leaders like Jean Vanier. We recognize momentous events like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. We get enthused by the vision of those who want to bring about great global changes. Yet we often forget that the Spirit works in and through ordinary people. If we all shared our gifts, what a transformed world this would be.

There would be those who would visit the sick and bring love to a lonely life. There would be those who respond to others needs, sharing faith, listening, caring. Others would teach children and young people with integrity and love. The prophets of our day would warn us of impending disaster and challenge us to clean up our world in order to avert economic and ecological disasters. Some would share wisdom helping us to think more clearly. Some would help us enunciate our faith more clearly. Others would provide the healing touch. There would be those who speak words of encouragement to the downhearted. Some would overcome great difficulties in their own lives and go on to help others. Some would pray. Others would inspire.

Are these not all manifestations of the Spirit of God working in the lives of people? Are they not images of Spirit-filled people, on fire with the passion of God's justice? Pentecost has happened to us. The Holy Spirit has been given and continues to abide within the lives of those who follow Christ. Where does the power come from? God is about us and within us at this very moment. Let us celebrate the presence of God's Spirit in the world and in the church. I wish you all, on behalf of the Church of God, a very happy, Spirit-filled birthday.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...