This painting of Peter and Paul by Jusepe de Ribera hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the argument the Apostles are having in it remains unresolved. With his face inches from Peter’s, Paul rails at this knuckleheaded fisherman for acting like the gatekeeper to heaven. Peter yells right back that he actually IS the gatekeeper. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus told Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
Besides, it strains Peter’s moral and religious imagination to believe that the only entrance requirement to God’s banquet table is a willingness to take a seat with all of the all the other hypocrites, murders, thieves and liars who Jesus pardoned, not because they deserved it but because he loves them. Paul retorts that Peter himself is a sinner of (literally) Biblical proportions, which may be why Jesus gave him the keys. Who better unlock the gates of heaven for everyone else than the one in the most compromised of positions from which judge? After all, Peter denied knowing Jesus THREE TIMES and ran away from his best friend on the cross. Jesus knew Peter would all along and forgave him anyway, in advance, for no good reason other than Jesus couldn’t help loving him.
Many years ago, The Reverend Betsy Myers, a retired priest in our Diocese pastored a church at the Navajoland Area Mission under the direction of The Right Reverend Steven Tsosie Plummer, the first Navajo bishop in the Episcopal Church. She must have felt like a rock star when twelve people asked to be baptized during the Easter Vigil. Through prayer, Bible study, and conversations about the baptismal vows they would be making Betsy made sure that her catechumens were ready to receive the sacrament. Meanwhile, word had spread on the street that the Christians were going to have a ceremony on Saturday night and when the sun set Betsey’s church was packed.
In the middle of the Vigil, right after her sermon Betsy walked over to the font and invited everyone who wished to be baptized to step forward. To her astonishment, along with the twelve people she’d prepared for baptism another forty or fifty people she’d never even met got up from their pews and formed a line. In a panic Betsey whispered to one of the lay ministers “What should we do?!” to which the lay minister responded “Baptize them!”
Not long after, Betsy went to confess what she had done to Bishop Plummer who she expected would immediately run her out of town for performing sacraments on people who didn’t understand them. Instead, Bishop Plummer said, “Betsy, I never want you to do anything that goes against what you think should be done, but have you ever read The Acts of the Apostles?” He reminded Betsey of the day of Pentecost. None of the three thousand people the Apostles baptized on that day had received religious instruction and everyone believed without knowing which, in fact, is the only way anyone believes.
Bishop Plummer went on to explain that Navajo ceremonies connect one with the Divine and the strangers who came to church to receive baptism were there because they wanted to be spoken to and touched by God. That’s not something to understand, but neither is a miracle, a Messiah who scandalizes his own Apostles or a love that has the power to wash away sins. You can’t earn it any more than you can earn a sunny day.
This is the way grace works, this is the way sacraments happen and this is the way Jesus calls us to himself. As Betsey says, “You hear the call and respond or not, and usually you only understand the gift you have received later, if you understand it at all.”
Your sister in Christ,