Detail of El Greco's St. Peter and St. Paul, painted c. 1590-1600, via Wikipedi
Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles
June 29, 2017
Why is it that these two giants of the Christian faith are bundled on one feast day? Yes, they are remembered on other days in the Church’s calendar; Paul for his conversion and Peter for his confession. But, why this day?
Apparently it is to remind us that they both died as martyrs in Rome. According to tradition, their deaths occurred in the same year, 64, during the persecution under Nero. They were united in death, united in faith, united in their common love of Jesus the Christ, united in their sense of mission to feed God’s sheep.
We also know, however, that in life they had occasion for great differences of theological opinion. In the letter of Paul to the Galatians in 2:11 we have these words, “But when Cephas (Aramaic for Peter) came to Antioch I (Paul) opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” This controversy was about the mission to the Gentiles and matters of the circumcised and uncircumcised. Adherence to the Law and differences in the interpretation of Scripture and its application played a huge part. This was no small matter and Paul was resolute. Unless we miss the significance, this matter threatened to tear apart the fledgling Church.
What won the day was Peter’s and Paul’s common faith in Christ. Their unity in the person of Jesus and his teaching transcending ideology and pointing to the great room of inclusion enabled them to eventually move to a new place. As a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, I was aware of a very tense time in my home parish when two lay leaders of the congregation were at enmity with one another. The sharing of the “peace of Christ” in the liturgy was brand new and for many a bit controversial. One Sunday one of these persons, at the peace, left his pew and walked around the rather large worship space. It became apparent he was going straight to the person with whom he had been having the great argument. Everyone was holding a collective breath.
The most astonishing thing then occurred. One held out his hand to the other in what seemed like slow motion, eyes met, the hand was gently pushed aside and an embrace was offered and received. In an instant a relationship was restored, healing happened and worship continued. In a follow-up parish newsletter article it was expressed by these two men that if they were going to claim Christ as Lord they needed to act like it. So they did, right before our eyes.
This was a formative moment for me as a young Christian as well as a transforming moment for that parish. Memory tells me that the sharing of the peace of Christ was never the same again. The subsequent reconciliation of Peter and Paul, on a much larger stage, was formative for the first century Church. My hope is that it continues to inform and transform who we are as the people of God today.
Nativity of St. John the Baptist by Pontormo, c. 1526, via Wikimedia Commons
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
So how many shopping days are there until Christmas? Whatever the specific number of days, John’s birth preceded that of Jesus’ by six months. According to Luke, Elizabeth became pregnant six months before the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. It is all so poetically portrayed. This birth figures so prominently in the New Testament witness that the Benedictus, a canticle of praise uttered by John’s father Zechariah after his son’s birth, appears in our worship through the Daily Office. It helps root us in our common history as Jews and Christians.
Scripture clearly indicates that John’s birth was for a purpose. Even his naming caused a minor controversy in the family, indicating that something new was occurring when the name chosen for him dispensed with convention. Elizabeth won that argument as Zechariah came around and with newly found freedom proclaimed the great day of God that was dawning in the blessing of all humanity. John the Baptist was a forerunner so that our feet would be guided into the way of peace.
Have you ever met someone who appeared to be living a life for which they were born? I am thinking of a seminary professor, The Very Reverend Richard Reid, who taught New Testament at Virginia Seminary. I took a class in the Gospel of John from him that was not merely an academic study, which it was, but also a spiritual adventure. It was a significant part of my ongoing and daily conversion to the deeper truths of God in Christ. I recall thinking to myself at one point that this man was born to teach this class. Not to be overly dramatic, but the universe seemed to be aligned and all would be well as I sat right where I was supposed to be at that moment. There was a quality of presence that went much beyond the immediate configuration of teacher and students in a seminary classroom. Something significant of the Spirit was occurring and it was a privilege and gift to be a part of it.
This is something of the quality of John’s ministry as precursor and preparer of the way. God acts in history as we see the drama unfold in Luke’s Gospel. God acts in the history of a classroom. God acts in our history too as our call is really no different than that of John’s. I do not mean to say that everything we do is pre-planned or pre-ordained. What I do mean to say is that each moment of life is filled with the fullness of God’s Spirit working in us, through us and among us – the sacrament of the moment if you will. The focus is on being and becoming a people of wholeness and harmony. This can be costly work since we know John ended up in prison and was eventually executed for proclaiming God’s truth so clearly that he challenged and threatened the reins of power held by Herod Antipas. So have many others, throughout history, found their ministry costly.
Our hope is not in a program, good intentions, trying harder, or even being more spiritual. Our hope is in the One to whom John the Baptist points.
Epiphany Church, Summerville
Trinity Sunday, 2017
Imagine we are playing the game “Jeopardy.” The column is “Church Trivia” for $500. The answer is: “Trinity Sunday.” The question is: “What is the only day of the church year named for a doctrine rather than for a person or an event?” Today we focus on the Trinity, the grand mystery of a way in which we talk about God’s nature as three persons yet still one in substance.
We began our worship with the words, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” reminding us of the manner in which we were baptized. Everyone here today receiving the laying on of hands and probably most, if not all of us, whether Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal or Episcopalian, were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, marking our call to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, secure in the promise that God is with us to the end of the age.
There is a playful story about St. Augustine who wrestled for years with trying to understand God as three yet one. Walking on a beach on the Mediterranean one day, he noticed a boy digging a hole. Coming up to the boy Augustine asked what he was doing. The boy said he was trying to get the sea into the hole. Augustine said in response that was impossible to which the boy replied, “Well, you’ll never explain the Trinity either.”
So you will be relieved to know that I am not going to attempt to explain the Trinity today, but I do want us to have an experience of the Trinity, so allow me to tell you of an account of the creation written by Rabbi Marc Gellman from his book, Does God Have a Big Toe. The story as he tells it goes this way:
“Before there was anything there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling gob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, ‘Why don’t you clean up this mess?’” Gellman then colorfully retells every stage of the creation process. After each step an impatient angel asks, “Is the world finished now?” and God eloquently replies, “Nope.” Finally God creates a man and a woman and asks them to “finish up the world for me…really, it is almost done.” They object, pleading, “We are too little and only you O God know the plans.” But God reassures them, “If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”
Then God describes the partnership this way: “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.”
This time, when the angels asked if the world was finished, God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.” That’s what all of us were baptized into and what all of us, received or reaffirming, are reminded of again today. We have been drawn into a partnership to finish the world with God and to live on this earth in a manner that reflects that relationship.
When we speak of God as three, we recognize that the very nature of God is partnership, a community. And note that Augustine did say, most helpfully I think, that any time you see love you see the Trinity. This community we call the Trinity is in a perpetual conversation of love so that when we pray, what we are doing is joining a conversation of love that has been and is going on within God throughout all eternity. In this way the creation itself can be understood as a manifestation of the love found within the Trinity as the world is spoken into existence by the Creator. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son, joins history as one who continues the conversation on earth and invites us to join in. The Spirit is the conversation planted deep within every human being longing to gain expression in holiness and always leading us back to the eternal conversation of union with God and one another.
In this way the Trinity not only is the locus of a conversation occurring beyond us, the Trinity becomes a story, even our stories, in the context of our own life. Here’s what I mean. I once received a phone call from an intensive care unit nurse on behalf of an out-of-town family who was looking for an Episcopal priest. The family had been on vacation when the 53-year-old father had a heart attack. He was on life support and I walked onto the unit to find a family in deep anguish as I gazed upon the tears and pain of their eyes. I had been thrust into a time of chaos that at the same time I knew was holy and intimate.
After a time of being drawn into the story of how they got to this place and mostly just listening, the woman asked that I give her husband last rites. Looking at her distraught face and the faces of her three sons, I opened the Book of Common Prayer and prayed, “Depart, O Christian soul out of this world; in the name of God the Father Almighty who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.”
Before arriving at the hospital that family and I had no knowledge of each other. A simple request to a nurse and her kind phone call led to being bound at the deepest level in the Trinitarian God as we stood before the great mystery of death – created, restored and made holy. The Trinity is community. The Trinity is story. The Trinity is a great partnership of love. At the Trinity’s table is a seat reserved for us all. And it is from that table we are sent to all the nations. Partners.
St. Barnabas Healing the Sick by Paolo Veronese, c. 1566, via Wikimedia Commons
We are told in the Acts of the Apostles, so aptly named, that Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” I am not sure there is any greater thing that could be said of someone. If such a description were to be found on my tombstone I would be pleased.
The same chapter reveals that it was Barnabas who went to Tarsus to look for Saul and upon finding him, brought him to Antioch to meet with the nascent church and to teach. This occurred after what must have been an uneasy introduction by Barnabas of Saul to the apostles in Jerusalem who were reluctant to meet with the former persecutor of Jesus’ followers. But Barnabas prevailed as he told of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and how he became one, known now as Paul, to proclaim the good news.
We learn of him in another part of the Acts of the Apostles that he “sold a field he owned, brought the money, and turned it over to the apostles.” Barnabas evidently also had a significant role in sending relief to people suffering from famine in the days of Claudius. The descriptions of Barnabas’ stewardship of human relationships and finances seem to indicate that he was a bold risk-taker for the sake of the Gospel.
My life has been graced by many beautiful and deeply faithful people over the years who exhibited profound acts of stewardship in Christ’s name, not unlike that of Barnabas. One day a member of one of my former parishes asked to see me. He said that he was selling his home in the neighborhood down the street from the parish and moving to another several streets over. He had bought the second home while the first was yet to be sold. He then said that while saying Morning Prayer the week before, he was reading about the behavior of people in the book of Acts and particularly the story of Barnabas selling the field. Praying through that piece of scripture, he came to realize that if he could afford another home without selling the first, he must not need that income. He believed the Spirit was calling him to give to the church whatever he realized from the sale of the first home. I was stunned. But there is more.
This parish had three members who had fallen on hard times and were finding it very difficult to make ends meet month to month. He wanted to help there too. We worked out a plan where the rent would be paid for each of those families for the next year as they got back on their feet. He would remain anonymous, but I got to be the messenger. You can believe I was looking forward to those visits.
Like Barnabas, this gentle steward of God’s grace as I got to know him better over the years, was acting out of a deeply rooted faith that was grounded in Jesus’ death and resurrection. He believed that the only appropriate way to respond to the gift of God’s embrace of him and the creation was with thanksgiving. He too was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.
The Day of Pentecost: St. George’s, Summerville
June 4, 2017
They were gathered, much as we are gathered. After Jesus’ resurrection the faithful had come together to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, or in the Greek, Pentecost, for it was celebrated fifty days after Passover as an agricultural festival to give God thanks for the first fruits of the winter grain. They also were commemorating the giving of the Torah, the Jewish law, to the nation.
“And suddenly, from heaven there came a sound like a mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting.” A rush of wind. Can you feel it? The breath, the wind, the Spirit, all the same word in Hebrew. The effect for them 2000 years ago was apparently overwhelming and they would never again be the same.
There has been much in the news about wind, particularly tornadoes and as we embark soon on a new hurricane season. There is a professor of atmospheric science named Richard Peterson who visits and teaches about his specialty – wind. Most of us I would guess are not wind sophisticates. I mean really, how many intelligent things can one say about wind? We can watch the Weather Channel and follow local meteorologists. We step outside and feel warm breezes or cold fronts approaching. And yes, we know wind can be powerful and we better be aware when going out on the local rivers. We trust too that airplane pilots are paying attention. But what else is there? The wind scientist knows something of the intricacies of wind and indeed it is wonderfully complex, but perhaps all we need for now is the definition offered by a sixth grader: “The wind is like air, only pushier!”
Consider that the pushiness of wind is one of the central points of the Feast of Pentecost. We do not need to know the subtleties of wind to appreciate this stirring moment in the life of God’s people. We need only recognize the power of such a force. The strength of the wind explains something of the way the Holy Spirit works. If God is going to deal in any substantive way with the wreckage of the world that human beings have created, that is, rescuing God’s people from all the ways in which we continue to destroy one another and the planet with which we have been gifted, all the ways in which we live contrary to God’s vision of love and justice, God is going to have to offer the extraordinary power of the Spirit. God breathes new life into us now just as Jesus promised to give us another Advocate or Helper, the Holy Spirit, to be with us forever. The description in Acts is like a violent or mighty wind because nothing less will work!
The great miracle of Pentecost is found when the closed up and secluded followers of Jesus move out into the public square. The surge of the Spirit pushes the fledgling Church then and we the Church now out of the upper room in Jerusalem, or this building here of St. George’s, into the board room, the courtroom, the surgical waiting room, the grocery store line, the high school cafeteria, wherever it is our day may take us. As one of our post-communion prayers says – “Send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” Every Eucharist is a sending rite. This same Holy Spirit is recognized in our Baptism and stirred up for release in Confirmation. It is the Holy Spirit, the relationship of love between God the Father and Jesus – who is given to us! It is the same Spirit we are asking today to strengthen, empower and sustain those coming forward for the laying on of hands.
When the wind blows, things happen. Branches sway, sometimes trees are uprooted, windows rattle. We don’t always like that part especially if it is things uprooted in our life and the windows of our complacency get rattled. Yet even in that first Pentecost, as the wind blew, a new world was coming into being. The people of God began to discover that the old ways of relating to one another and thinking about God had been blown out the window! Why do you think Jesus was always being accused of eating with the wrong crowd? It was a breath of hope and life the likes of which had not been known – that things really could be different.
Our call today is to join a conspiracy, a conspiracy of the Holy Spirit. Think about it. The word “conspiracy” literally means, “breathing together.” Pentecost was and is a conspiracy of breathing together for the good. The rush of the wind broke down barriers to reconfigure lives and embrace whole new relationships across all dividing walls. The Spirit was poured out, the account in Acts tells us, on “all flesh,” referring to God’s dream from the book of Joel for the unity of all people.
Perhaps there is no better definition of the Church than the people of God, called out to breathe together, to break down the walls that divide us, offer radical forgiveness and acceptance to anyone and everyone and have our own lives forever changed in the process. Pentecost says we live in the hope that Cretans, Arabians, Parthians and Galileans, examples of people in any time who are radically different in origin, history, language and even ideology, can come together as unified in the Spirit of God. It was true then and it can be true in our day.
We are, one more time, being invited to dream God’s dream for all flesh, the entire Creation. It is the only reason St. George’s exists, so that this may be a place where the dream of God is lived and can take root in us. Holy Spirit, push us out, reveling in the wonder of God among us, to be God’s new presence for the sake of the world.
Pentecost mosaic in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (Missouri), via Wikimedia Commons
Wind. The book of Acts tells us it filled the house where the followers of Jesus were sitting. Acts also says the wind came suddenly with a sound like one that comes with the rush of violence. The effect was apparently overwhelming and those gathered would never again be the same.
I have never experienced the oncoming of a tornado. The description I hear often, however, is about how it sounds like an approaching freight train. Atmospheric scientists have a lot to say about the study of wind. I remember a conversation with a meteorologist in a parish hall during my Sunday visitation concerning wind shear that told me more about wind than I would ever have imagined. It is wonderfully complex and intricate. Yet I do like the description of a sixth grader who reduced her observation of wind to, “It is like air, only pushier.”
In Acts the people of God had gathered to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after Passover. They were giving God thanks for the first fruits of the winter grain. They also, as faithful Jewish people, were commemorating the giving of the Torah, the Jewish law, to the nation of Israel. This was the occasion of the gathering that brought Jesus, the Apostles and Jesus’ mother, other family members and friends into one place. The description of the wind coming upon this particular group tells us it would take an extraordinary movement of God to bring unity to a world that too often seems bent on separation and estrangement. Sometimes we seem better at building walls than tearing them down. The chaos of the world calls for a new ordering, a new commonality. Nothing less than a pushy, gale force can bring God’s justice to a world too often given to destruction rather than the breath of peace.
The miracle of Pentecost is at least two-fold. Each was speaking the language of the other and they understood one another. In a desert father story, Arsenius asked an elderly Egyptian monk some questions and another overhearing them commented, “Abba Arsenius, you have a strong education in Latin and Greek. Why do you discuss anything with this peasant?” He replied, “True. I have knowledge of Latin and Greek, but I do not yet know this man’s alphabet.” What if we brought that attitude to every conversation, every political discourse, honoring the dignity of every tribe, language, people and nation?
The other miracle is how those gathered are transformed from the closed forum to go out into the public square. The surge of the Spirit, that pushy air of breath and creativity, moves the fledgling church out of the upper room into Jerusalem. That same Spirit pushes us out of our own church enclosures into the board room, the school room, the surgery waiting room, the grocery store, the high school, the assembly line, the halls of Congress – anywhere and everywhere in order to breathe the hope of God’s Spirit on all. The Book of Acts tells us, quoting Joel, that this Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh. This is God’s dream of the unity of all people. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “He lives most life whoever breathes the most air.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.