Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul - Proper 8 A - June 29, 2014
|Little Golden Books|
They are all too cute, ripe for someone who finally got the idea to do a parody of the Little Golden Book titles and call it the “Little Golden Books That Never Quite Made It.” Some of the “never quite made its” include “Curious George and the High-Voltage Fence", "Some Kittens Can Fly", and "The Boy Who Died From Eating All His Vegetables". But my personal favorite parody title has to be “You are Different and That’s Bad”. Which brings us naturally to today’s holy celebration…
I suspect Peter and Paul could have said “You are Different and That’s Bad” to each other in the early years after Paul’s conversion. The feast is rightly framed as two men with different gifts, called by God for particular ministries in the formation of the Church. And certainly they were both empowered and commissioned by the Lord, both gifted communicators and leaders, both bold in the proclamation of Good News and courageous when they knew that their preaching would likely cost them their lives. We rightly laud and magnify their service to God and the Church. But as true as all of that is, snippets in the Acts of the Apostles and the letter to the Galatians hint that their early relationship was not all hugs and kisses. Each had some valid reason to suspect and mistrust the other. What would their first meeting have been like: the fisherman and the Pharisee, the impulsive, passionate, and simple Peter – the intentional, thoughtful, and well-educated Paul - looking into each other’s eyes? Peter surely wondered how the zealous persecutor of Christians had become one so suddenly and unexpectedly. Paul wondered whether his calling to preach to the Gentiles would be accepted by the Jewish followers of a Jewish Messiah. Whatever respect they seem to have ultimately had for each other was not automatic or easy. To paraphrase the stereotypical Western movie line, “This Church ain’t big enough for the both of them.”
The fact that they were both called and sent, being so different from one another, seems overlooked today as cries of “you are different and that’s bad” come from pews, conventions, and holy meetings far and wide. Jesus chose Peter and Paul, these two very different men who maybe didn’t even like or understand each other very much, to go and fulfill the life that was given to each of them. Jesus never said “Here’s the methodology, here’s the right theological emphasis, here’s the most effective technique. Everybody do it the same way.” He just said “go, feed my sheep, go, run the race, - I am with you”. He dared to free the leaders of his Church to be themselves. Authentic personhood, not technique, would be the style of the Way. This is the same Peter who had denied Jesus, who had stumbled around struggling to grasp who Jesus was, yet who could emerge at Pentecost as the voice proclaiming resurrection and new life. And Paul; Pharisee of Pharisees, the unlikeliest of apostles, yet calling all he was before his conversion rubbish in comparison with knowing Christ Jesus. God knew and loved and wanted the individual men, with their flaws and memories, with their doubts and struggles, and, yes, with their courage and conviction. All of it was summoned into the process of transformation.
In Living With Contradiction, Esther de Waal writes, “It is only as I learn to accept, to love and to forgive myself as I really am – the person without the mask, the person who lets go of appearances – that I can accept, love and forgive others with the same reality.”
Whenever I think or say “you are different and that’s bad”, I am putting the focus in the wrong place. I am refusing to look at myself, to reflect on how I am living out my calling, to give more of myself to God and my neighbor. It is a tempting but ultimately unfulfilling impulse to escape, to blame, to criticize – anything to get the attention off of myself, off of the hard questions I need to ask myself that only God and I can answer.
How much time have I wasted wishing I had this person’s ability to socialize or another’s gift of service and compassion? Or criticizing those who did not conform to my obviously superior standards? How often am I unfaithful by imaging the glamour of some big and exciting mission far away while ignoring the opportunities to serve that are right in front of me? Call, vocation, ministry – or just life itself - is ultimately about the willingness to become my true self, the unique person, gifted and flawed, that God accepts and loves. What Peter and Paul realized that having different styles and audiences was not a problem that required one triumphing over the other, but part of being in the Body, part of the diversity within the unity of the Church.
As Paul is nearing the end of his life, the masks are gone, he is vulnerable and open and grateful: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He has gone where he could go. He has preached where and to whom he could preach. He has worked for peace and harmony, he has welcomed, cared, taught. Some have responded with faith, others have not. Some of the churches he founded were healthy, others were not. Other faithful servants would come and build on his work and spread the Gospel even further. That work was theirs, not his - not his worry or concern. He bowed his head beneath a Roman blade in peace because he was not comparing, not pointing the finger, not wishing for something that was not his.
God loves and uses people I don’t like or understand very much. Thank God it is God who calls and sends, not me. What is given me to do is to accept and love them as God has accepted and loved me and offer my hand of friendship and partnership as we work together for the Gospel. Perhaps we could write a new Little Golden Book, a book that includes the truth about your life and my life and call it “God made me a unique and precious creation and that is very, very good.” That would be a golden book worth more than much gold. Amen.
Peter and Paul give us a sign of the diversity of God’s call and the possibility of living in unity.
Peter and Paul remind us that we can say we have run the race, kept the faith, finished the course only when our identity is rooted in God’s call to us, not in the arbitrary and artificial standards and expectations imposed by someone else. Peter and Paul spent the first half of their lives striving to do what they thought was right and good, straining to conform to a system and a culture that promised acceptance and identity. Then Jesus came along and gave them a new identity. One not based on conforming to an image of ideal discipleship, but based on the freedom to be one’s true self.
Part of the evidence for the presence of the Holy Spirit is the way that Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women were all included in this new community centered on Jesus as Lord. Old cultural and religious barriers and centuries of mistrust were being broken down in the revolutionary act of becoming one body around the body and blood of Christ. We draw lines and say thiYet the fallen human impulse to force answers when there are none and codify a system where there need not be a system is strong and lived in Peter and Paul, the other Apostles, and sometimes even in us. Whenever we hear a different theological perspective or different language about the spiritual life and think to ourselves, “You are Different and That’s Bad”…
Both Peter and Paul grew after their callings. Peter was still worried about clean and unclean animals well into the Acts of the Apostles. Paul took about 15 years to process his conversion experience before he wrote his first epistle. Their sainthood and example to us is not in their super-human perfection and insight, but in what they did with the awareness of their own inadequacy and imperfection. Simon bar Jonah still lived in Peter the Rock, but he was transformed from the impulsive fisherman to a great preacher and leader. Saul of Tarsus, the former Pharisee and persecutor of Christians became the first great missionary and theologian of Christianity… It took a long time, but they did the work, to arrive at the place of being able to say “you are different and that’s good.”
Whenever I lead retreats or talk to guests I almost always point out that I know of no other way such a diverse community as lives in this monastery could have come together.
The image of Peter and Paul, side by side so different, yet living and dying for the same Lord, proclaiming the same good news, gives me hope that as individuals and communities we can accept our identities and vocations and celebrate the identity and vocation of our neighbor. The Church has had enough of “you are different and that’s bad”.
God has called us and we have grown and still need to grow.