The Apostle Paul was always a man of strong, moral convictions. Defender of the faith Saul would have gladly found the two by fours to hang Jesus from the cross. But in the middle of his distinguished career as a Defender of the Faith, Jesus knocks Saul off his horse and gives him new eyes and a new name. This seasoned persecutor of heretics heads back to Jerusalem looking for Peter and James. Instead of arresting them, he says the resurrected Jesus himself made him an Apostle and James and Peter will just have to take his word for it.
Peter and James look at each other with eyebrows raised past their hair lines. If Paul ever apologizes for stoning their friend Stephen to death there’s no record. Paul tells these Church Fathers that they’re all wrong about discipleship. Following the Messiah is not about strict, religious observances, it’s all about faith, the kind that Paul insists Peter and James must now have in him. Finally, Paul concludes by asking Peter and James, who spent three years on the road with Jesus and were there at the Sermon on the Mount, what date they’d like to set to install him as an Associate Rector. Instead of suggesting that Paul go jump off a bridge they tell him to go be an Apostle to the Gentiles; far, far, far away.
Never uncertain of his own rightness either when he was arresting disciples or making them, Paul loses no sleep over his irreconcilable disagreements with Peter and James, but his love for Jesus means he cannot not write them or anyone else off ever again. When famine comes to Jerusalem, Paul takes up a collection from the unwashed masses he’s converted, who Peter and James would just as happily stay away from as they would Paul, and brings relief for the church in Jerusalem without delay. (Acts 11:27-30)
The 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church concluded yesterday. Five hundred and twelve resolutions were voted on that addressed everything from using a wider range of pronouns than “He” during worship to going steady with the Lutheran Church of Bavaria. I’m extremely grateful that some of my colleagues relish this work. It’s as important as it is tedious. The church needs to speak out with one voice to protect the environment, in defense of refugees and to make right, as best we can, historical injustices we have perpetrated.
Even so, as Scripture records sometimes we can’t speak with one voice. Sometimes we are at odds with one another at a connective tissue level and to agree would turn our consciences inside-out and everything be value up-side-down . That’s when the church must reach for the life preserver stored under the seat which is this: love as hard as you can.
Every ten years or so the global Anglican (aka Episcopal) church gathers for what amounts to a family meeting that is called the Lambeth Conference. At the last one Mark Beckwith was newly minted as our Bishop. He flew off to England knowing full well that he was a lightning rod heading into a category 4 hurricane because he represented a Diocese that had been ordaining gay and lesbian people early and often. To a significant percentage of the Anglican Communion, the American Church’s embrace of Gene Robinson, an openly gay Bishop, was the icing on the cake of our Diocese’s particular brand of blasphemy. To much of the global church, the Diocese of Newark had run so far a fowl from church teachings and Scripture that it made us unrecognizable a “Christian” anymore.
Imagine what it was like for Mark to hear his colleagues say this and more about his flock here in Newark, who had just lifted him up, trusted him to with their spiritual health and loved him into being our shepherd. He might have even felt like one of the heretics Saul was chasing on the road to Damascus.
After a particularly fractious, soul bruising meeting, one of the many Bishops who found the American church’s actions untenable made a bee line for Mark by the coffee urn. Mark is pretty unflappable, but I can only imagine after being accused of flunking out from being a bishop before he even got started he must have looked like a guy who’d been punched in the face. This Bishop, whose name twelve years later Mark can no longer recall, put his hand on Mark’s shoulder and gently asked, “Are you ok?”
This meant the world to Mark and even hearing the story second hand it meant the world to me. It’s promised me that I do not have to defend myself or Jesus. Experience has even proven that I’m my worst self when I do. Being Christian is about something else.
I can be on the right side of history, fight the most important battles and even win. But if I lose my brother because I hate him I lose the one Jesus loved. For the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to find the one, losing that one sheep is the same as losing everything.
What does this mean for us? I only see the outlines of what it means for me on any given day. Today, at a bare minimum, it means not giving in to the overwhelmin
g desire to sort people whose political beliefs I abhor into categories that sum all of their lives up into convenient packages labeled “hypocrite”, “liar” and “buffoon”. At most it means sitting with my lonely neighbor who blames “illegals” for his failing construction business and asking him about his Grandson.
Christians, love till it drains you of time, hurts your pride and like Paul, even puts a dent in your checkbook. There has never in my life been a more important time to remember this.
Your sister in Christ,