Posted by: John Switzer | May 23, 2016

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

OT TrinityText of a sermon on the Holy Trinity delivered among the Benedictine Community of St. Joseph while on spring retreat, Trinity Sunday of 2016. I am honored to be an oblate member of this fine community.

When asked to preach today, my first thought was “Oh good, it’s Trinity Sunday!” My second thought was, “Oh no, it’s Trinity Sunday!” One must either be very brave or very foolish to preach today. I leave it to you to decide in which category I belong.

There is a story told of an Irishman who grew up in his native land but who later moved to the United States. He had been baptized as an infant but was not active in the church. Later in life, while living in the US, he decided to get serious about what he believed. He approached a local priest and asked to be confirmed. The priest agreed to meet with him and began by asking him a few questions to determine how well he understood the faith. The Irishman had a very heavy brogue and it was difficult for the priest to understand him when he spoke. Several times he asked the man, “What is the Holy Trinity?” Several times the man explained his understanding of the Trinity, but the frustrated priest was unable to comprehend. The cleric banged on his desk and screamed, “I don’t understand you.” To this the gentle Irishman replied, “Ah, you’re not supposed to … ’tis a mystery, isn’t it?”

Indeed, the Trinity is a mystery. It is among the most unique teachings of Christian theology. The vast majority of the world’s Christians profess that God is a Trinity of persons—there being only a small handful of Christians who reject the notion. There is amazing consensus about this in nearly all of Christendom. In the words of the Athanasian Creed, dating to the fifth or sixth century, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each uncreated, incomprehensible, and eternal … “and yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal.”

No doctrine is more central to Christian faith than that of the Trinity. And yet the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. The truth of the Trinity is never really explained within the pages of sacred scripture. The parts for the doctrine can all be found in scripture … but not the doctrine itself. The Father is in scripture. The Son is in scripture. The Holy Spirit is in scripture. But never is their relationship spelled out with any exactitude. There are hints, of course, as when Jesus says in John’s gospel that he and the Father are one. But what does that mean? My wife Patsy and I are one, too, but that expression could mean any number of things.

It’s much like the difference between having a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in your driveway or having all the parts of a Harley-Davidson. One of these will provide you a splendid ride. The other? No so much—at least not until you’ve done a great deal of mechanical work. With this metaphor you can see the conundrum faced by the early Christian leaders who argued over the nature of God and the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. They had to wrestle with it. They had to do the hard work of reflection and interpretation … just as you and I must struggle with our own experience of church. This struggle does not invalidate Trinitarian doctrine, nor does it invalidate the church today. Far from it. This human struggle to make meaning is what validates religion and increases its significance as an authentic part of human life.

Let me propose that to get a glimpse of the meaning of the Trinity one need not go any further than to look at the Rule of St. Benedict. The very essence of the Trinity can be described by the three principal values of our community: stability, obedience, and conversion of life. The Trinity, you see, is the perfect icon of communion: three co-equal, co-eternal persons in everlasting community. What can we learn about the Trinity when seen through the lens of stability, obedience, and conversion of life?

First, stability. It is the commitment to remain in relationship, in communion. The persons of the Trinity are eternally in perfect relationship. Where there is one, there are three. Each is distinct, but never separate. Look at the worship aid for today. You will find on it a diagram known as the Shield of the Trinity. No matter which direction you read it, you will encounter the truth of Trinitarian stability. In their distinctness, each person of the Trinity remains in relationship with the other: the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father. Yet each is God. Separated from one another they would not be be God, at least as far as the Christian understanding of God is concerned. The same is true with us. We have promised to remain a community, each present to the other. To separate ourselves from one another or from our local eucharistic communities would be to separate ourselves from a vital communion with the divine. I don’t mean to suggest that non-churchgoers do not experience God. But they surely can’t experience God’s divine community without being part of the communion where that community is celebrated and embraced.

Second, obedience. This may seem an odd characteristic to predicate of the Trinity, but if we look closely at the meaning of the word it becomes clear. We tend to think of obedience as a form of surrender or mindlessly doing what one is told, but the root of the word in Latin suggests that obedience is about listening. We cannot learn without listening. We cannot determine how to be faithful without listening. St. Benedict enshrines this understanding in the Rule by insisting that even the youngest in the community has a voice that must be heard. All members are called to be attentive to one another, to listen to and respect one another. In other words, each is called to foster what is necessary in human relationships in order to maintain stability, balance … and therefore, harmony. Each of us is called to be open to the other. This is perfect obedience. The inner life of the Trinity can be compared to this as each person of the godhead remains in the most perfect, harmonious relationship, always open to the other.

Finally, there is conversion of life. Admittedly, this idea, at first, strikes oddly against the ear. But go back again to Latin. What we translate as “conversion of life” is actually conversatio morum. It is difficult to translate it in any simple way. We might express it something like “living faithfully in the manner to which we were called.”

What could be more perfect a life of relationship than that of the inner life that marks the Trinity? It is the nature of God to be faithful. When Moses inquired of God who it was who was sending him, the simple reply was “I AM is sending you.” In other words, “I AM God … I AM faithful … simply because I AM. Do you get it, Moses? I AM all these things because I AM.”

In the end, I suggest that what we should value most is that we recognize in the Trinity that God is a community of persons in perfect relationship. It is perfect because it cannot be anything other than what it is. God cannot be anything other than what God is. Three are forever One. One is forever Three.

We are challenged by this fact to seek, insofar as we are able, to imitate this divine communion in our own shared life together. Our Benedictine values, whether we are in solemn vows or under oblate promises, are drawn from the life of the Trinity. We are called to live those values of community—of communion—and to be an example to the wider church, both the Episcopal Church and the Church Universal, the Church Catholic.

Remember: the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit—these distinctions do not divide the Trinity. There is no separate life within the Trinity. Yet distinction is the bedrock without which Trinitarian unity is impossible. Think about this paradox: unity is predicated upon distinction. The same is true with each of us and with the distinctions we bring to our community and to the church. As we look around us in the world and in the church there are often situations that disturb us. It has always been this way. Never in the history of Christianity has everyone agreed on everything. The conflicts by which the doctrine of the Trinity came to be are evidence of this. Do not be deflated in the face of such differences and the conflict that many are drawn into over our differences. Do not allow yourself to be scandalized, to be tripped up.

Take courage from the Day of Judgment. When we stand before the Throne of God, I doubt seriously that God will be angry if we didn’t quite get a perfect grasp on the minute details of Trinitarian theology. What will be more important to God, I believe, is whether or not we were faithful to the maintenance of communion with our fellow Christians despite our differences. That, in the end, is the greatest wisdom we can draw from the example of the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity.

 

Posted by: John Switzer | April 15, 2016

The Net is the Church

ff404c50dabff6e795e82bc5c1f6fee9This is the text of my homily from the Third Sunday of Easter 2016, offered in the midst of the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Before proceeding, I recommend that you read John 21:1-19, the appointed gospel message for the day (Year C in the Common Lectionary).

Did anything in today’s gospel narrative leave you scratching your head? Here we have seven of the disciples engaged in their ordinary daily work of fishing. Nothing odd here … except for the fact that in the chapter immediately preceding this one they have just discovered the empty tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning; the evening of that same day they are startled by an appearance of Jesus who entered a locked room, and not by way of the door; and doubting Thomas (one of the fellows who is now fishing) has probed the death-wounds of our Lord’s own body with his finger. All of this has just occurred in the narrative … yet that very evening they decide to go fishing. They fish all night in the dark, with no success.

How typically human. Presented with unlimited, new possibilities by the grace of God, given the chance to see life in clearer and perhaps more authentic ways, we humans, unsure of how to proceed, often fall back into familiar patterns: “I’m going fishing,” says Peter. “OK, we’ll go with you.”

At dawn they see Jesus on the shore, but they do not recognize him until he addresses them as “Children” and then proceeds to provide them not only enough fish for breakfast, but a completely miraculous catch. The Greek word which is here translated as “children” would better be understood as a nickname that guys use among themselves with friends: something like “fellas” or “buds.” It is only after this term of endearment and the great load of fish that they recognize Jesus.

In our translation Peter is described as fishing in the buff … or, as we say in the South, “he was nekkid.” Oddly enough, he puts clothes on in order to swim to the Lord. Again, the original Greek is probably better translated as saying that he was not naked, but lightly clothed, and that he tucked or secured his garments in such a way that he could better swim to his Savior. A more traditional way of describing this might be to say that he girded his loins in preparation for the task ahead of him. (In this case, that task was to swim to Jesus.)

Then we have the presence of a rather quirky report in which we learn that exactly 153 fish were caught in the net that Peter dragged to shore, even though Jesus already had fish cooking on a charcoal fire when the disciples first reached the land. Oh, and by the way, did you note that the 153 fish are described as “large,” and that their number and size did not split the net?

The question for us, of course, is what do all these interesting details mean? These particulars are like an early Christian code, but not one that is hidden. They are a symbolic code right out in the open. To get the multiple layers of significance we have to let go of our analytical, logical left brain and exercise the symbol-loving right side of our brain with its preference for intuition and imagination. These delightful narrative tidbits do three things for us: they tell us who Jesus is … how he forms us into community … and what he expects from us as a communion of believers.

Jesus is the Messiah because he is able to feed, by miracles if necessary, those who are hungry … hungry in body and hungry in soul. In our story he builds a fire, prepares bread, and cooks fish for the disciples. He isn’t recognized until there’s talk of food and an invitation to dine. It’s a reminder of an earlier chapter in John: chapter 6, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

The net is the church. It is full and remains untorn … in other words, in Greek, it is “without schism.” That word “schism” is the exact same word used to describe community turbulence, communal discord … those times when church people are at odds with one another, when their communities are torn by strife. The number 153, according to rabbinic sources, can symbolize fullness and perfection. Christ, you see, has caught us in his own net and formed us into a community that is called to be without strife, without schism, without the tears that will send our fellow fishes swimming away from us in horror. Once caught, we are not eaten … we are fed, strengthened, and given responsibility for inviting others to allow themselves to be wrapped up in the net of Christ. Metaphorically speaking, we are both the fishes of the Lord AND the fisher people of the Lord, called to share the joy that comes with life in such a grace-filled net.

But don’t be fooled. Don’t romanticize this story. The background is important. You see, the community that left us the Gospel of John was a church in crisis. Surprised? It was a church overwhelmed by dissension, disagreement, and alienation. This “net of the Lord” was torn … and badly so. It needed loving attention and serious repair.

It was a community that argued over several urgent issues: Who is a true Christian? What is the nature of resurrection? How are we to live the Christian life together? What is ministry? Who’s in charge?

The Community of the Fourth Gospel was a community racked with pain. It was hurting. The fish in this net were so divided that they could no longer live together in harmony. If scholars are correct in their close scrutiny of the Gospel of John, this community—more than once!—had been decimated by the departure of some of its leading members. And the departure was not a pretty one.

In the wake of this communal agony emerges the beauty of our gospel narrative for today. It is a pain-filled, yet hopeful call from our forebears: “Do not let the net be torn. Let there be no strife among you. Do not break communion. Avoid schism.”

It is an appropriate message for today. We Episcopalians are a passionate people. We are also a diverse lot. There are many things about which we do not agree, and in this we are like every other human community. What is the advice of our gospel narrative for those in such a situation? Symbolically, we have our answer before us:

Like the disciples who fished all night but caught nothing—in spite of having just seen the risen Lord the day before—our efforts are fruitless if we fail to keep our eyes on Christ. He feeds us, he directs us, he empowers us, but to receive these gifts freely given we must be willing to accept them. CHRIST must be the center of our lives, not our own egos. We must feed on the bread that is CHRIST instead of feeding on the bread of always needing to win an argument. The net that is our community must be tended and preserved with words and gestures of kindness, patience, and charity.

None of us is perfect. None of us has all the answers. No moral position, no political solution, and no ideology is more important than our identity as Christians. None of these is as important as Christ. They are not more important than our shared life together. Moral convictions, political convictions—these are a natural part of the human experience. They must be shared humbly. They must be shared in love, not in anger. We must speak of such things in a way which recognizes that our own vision is limited and needs testing and dialogue.

Now we can see the reason for the final part of today’s gospel: Peter’s conversion, his renewed commitment to Jesus. Remember how Peter, encouraged by the Beloved disciple, insisted on being first to get to the Lord? How typical … Peter always knows what to do or what to say, doesn’t he? Or so he thinks.

Peter’s mistake is that he too often “put the reality of himself”[1] before the new reality offered to him by Christ. “Peter,” Jesus asked, “do you love me more than these other things in your life? If so, then feed my sheep.” Jesus could just as easily have said, “then feed the other fish in the net. And never let it tear.” And what about us? Shall we surrender to the divisions that sometimes arise among us, trusting our own efforts, or shall we prefer Christ and the strength that comes from our shared life as a community? After all, it’s only as a community that we can scoop each other from the deep, dark sea of life and feed one another with the bread that is Christ.[2]

 

[1] Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles (William B. Eerdmans Publishing 2001), 235.

[2] The closing image is taken from a suggestion provided by my insightful former student, Austin Khamiss. He has the makings of a fine homilist!

untitledPlease forgive me if the title of this post seems presumptuous. I don’t mean it that way at all. I have great respect and admiration for you, the delightful and challenging young people who pass in and out of my classroom. So this letter is not written with any intention of preaching to you or “setting you straight” on any particular issues. Really good teachers understand that the craft of teaching well is a two-way street, not a one-way delivery system. From every class that I teach I learn something new: about youth, about pedagogy, about overcoming obstacles, and about life. So you are teaching me as often as I’m teaching you.

Way back in the 6th century this fact was recognized by none other than St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of western monasticism. In writing his Rule (the outline of behavior and life for his monks), Benedict pointed out that it wasn’t only the youth who could learn from the seniors in the community. The older, more established monks could also learn from the young. The youngest members of the order were always to be given their opportunity to speak.

Since you have taught me so much, I’d like to offer a few insights from my experience on this 55th celebration of birth. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not it qualifies as wisdom.

When I was your age and sitting in undergraduate college classes, it was mostly at a small seminary college operated by Benedictine monks. I remember one day in English class that the professor, Fr. Stan Moseley OSB, seemed particularly reflective. Something was troubling him, or perhaps he was just feeling his age. He must have been in his mid-50s, about the same age that I am now.

I don’t remember whether we talked much that day about the course topic, but I do remember him as he pensively drew a circle on the chalk board. He neatly divided it into four equal quadrants. He marked each quarter of the circle in a clockwise manner, using each quadrant to symbolize the stages of a person’s life: childhood, young adulthood, mid-life, and late adulthood. Perhaps he was struggling with the fact that he was moving into that last stage of life and wanted to share it with us.

One comment in particular from that day has stayed with me for the more than thirty years hence. “Gentlemen,” he intoned, “you will never understand the future phases of your life until you get there … until you have to live them.”

Damn, he was right about that. He was a wise monk. It seems to me, even now–especially now–that he was right about a lot of things. Only now, at this age, am I beginning to realize just how right he was.

Growing older is a wonderful experience. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Oh, sure, it comes with its own challenges. You discover aches and pains attached to internal body parts that you never even knew existed, and that ibuprofen should be a sacrament! You reach points of insight and recognize that there are things you can no longer do, like buying dog food in 50-lb bags (the 10-lb bags are much easier to manage).

These are realities with which you have to make your peace, but they are not only challenges–they are blessings in disguise. They teach you ever so insistently that you’re not God. You’re not invincible. You won’t live here on this earth forever, and this insight is a good thing.

St. Benedict, in his Rule, warns us to keep the reality of death ever before our eyes. To our contemporary ears this sounds so harsh and pessimistic. But he doesn’t mean it that way at all. He’s not advocating a life of sadness or depression. He’s challenging us to live for the moment, and to recognize in each moment the presence of God.

Bette Midler sings a beautiful song entitled From a Distance, but in the lyrics she gets one thing wrong … and it’s a really big thing. She says God is watching “from a distance,” but that’s not true at all. God is not “out there.” God is within you, around you, part of you. “God is closer to you than you are to yourself,” as St. Augustine reminded us centuries ago.

Don’t go looking for God. Stop and welcome God where you are. If you’re missing God, it’s because you’re taking God for granted. God is like breathing. Rarely do you think of it so it’s easy to overlook. As someone wiser than me once said, “Looking for the kingdom of God is like riding your donkey while looking for your donkey.”

It’s just like the young couple on a date at a nice restaurant where each is self-absorbed and lost in their own electronic device. They don’t even realize what they’re missing. The reality of the moment, a moment that will soon be gone and done forever, is lost on them. It’s that way with God. Put down your worries. Put away your i-phone. Sit and be still for just five minutes. God is there. Listen. You are good. You are blessed. You are divinely created.

That listening can teach you a great deal. By the time you get to be my age, if you’ve listened well, you will have figured out a few things about life. You won’t know everything and you’ll be happy about that. But by this time you’ll have had a chance to determine what you believe. I hope you’ll realize that while compromise is important in relationships, your core values must be identified. These should normally not be compromised.

So what should you do with those core values? Argue them passionately. Be open to learning and to updating your values when it’s necessary, but don’t surrender those values just because someone else tells you that you should. Passionate debate is not the same as being disrespectful. Don’t allow yourself to be silenced by peer pressure or political name-calling.

Think critically, not negatively. To be critical means to look deeply and discerningly at life’s experiences. And let me warn you of something. In our society today we give lip service to the notion of being open-minded, critical thinkers. And we claim to appreciate diversity. It’s not true for most of us. We’re too busy hanging out only with the people who agree with us, reading only the things that affirm our limited views, condemning those who challenge our perceptions.

Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: “Many people would rather die than think. Most do.”

Don’t be like that. Learn a lesson from the episode of the Pied Piper. As the children scurry behind him to their deaths, stop and ponder. Rarely is a stampede a good thing. It often results in giving injury to the most vulnerable among us and can even lead to jumping off a cliff.

Be grateful. You didn’t ask to be here, but your presence here is a gift. Whether you think it’s God or an evolving cosmos that put you here (or both), live with an attitude of thanks. Be thankful for everything: getting up in the morning, enjoying a meal or snack, study, exercise, wine, sleep. Be grateful even for the pain that life sends your way. Search it for meaning. Remember the insight of Joseph Campbell: “Where you stumble and fall, there you will find gold.”

Be courteous. Even at my age, I still hold the door open for others, even when they are younger than me. Do that often. Say hello to people. Smile at strangers. Buy a sandwich for a homeless person. Write a real letter to somebody and mail it. Learn to compose genuine thank-you notes and send them often. Don’t be a texting zombie. Remember that your parents won’t live forever. Offer a brief word of thanks to a teacher, a friend, or someone else you take for granted. Sit with the kid that no one else seems to notice.

Go to church. Be church to the people around you. Don’t just show up. Show up early. Talk to people. Be an usher. Volunteer in the parish kitchen. Say hi to the old folks and laugh with the children. Tell the pastor that you appreciate the sermon, even if it’s not the best one you ever heard. Decide how much you can drop into the collection plate and then add $5 more.

The blood of Christ isn’t just in the chalice, by the way. It’s running in your veins. It swims through every moment of your life and it gushes in every ounce of creation. It’s green in the grass, brown in the soil, and frail in humanity. We breathe it, we drink it, we eat it and we crap it out. And every bit of it is holy.

Recognize and be satisfied to know that faith is not just religious faith. If you can’t believe in Christ or even in God, or if you’re still unsure, then just be still with that knowledge. Be comfortable with the questions of life. Ignoring the questions never brings insight, but neither does rushing to judgment. Decide less and discern more. You were called to something. What is it? Until you find that thing, that one important thing you’re supposed to do on this earth, you won’t find happiness. Don’t tell others how to live. Show them.

Be wise. Be prudent. Don’t be milquetoast. If you don’t know what those words mean, look them up. You’ll be glad you did.

Seek justice, but don’t be a crusader. If you must champion a cause, don’t let it be about you. Living justly in every moment of your life will produce much more happiness for you and for others than a thousand years of protest and whining. As the Talmud says, “Save one person and you have saved the whole world.”

If you’re an extrovert, learn to speak less and listen more. If you’re an introvert, push yourself to be more engaged in the public sphere. When you’re thinking like a liberal, seek conservative counsel. When you’re acting like a conservative, ask the liberals what they recommend. Be a person of dialogue.

There is more to life than just what appears in the headlines. Newspaper reporters are human, too. What you see online or on the news is someone else’s opinion about what’s important. Go out and discover the rest of the story and then decide for yourself what’s truly important.

Don’t abandon your ancestors. They were sinners, too, but they still have something to teach you. Nobody’s perfect. There is a wave of negativity sweeping our country today that proposes that the failures of our forebears make them unworthy of appreciation. Learn from their victories as well as their failures. Recognize the moments of conversion that haunt the past and ask their meaning for today.

Nobody has all the answers but God, and God has not revealed all of them to any of us. Run away quickly from anyone and any community that claims to have all the answers. Embrace your own limits and frailty, but learn to work through them. For every door that is shut in your life a hundred others are opened. If you’re crying in front of the closed door, you’ll miss the openings all around you.

As you are, I once was. As I now am you will be. Prepare yourself well. The cosmos is consuming you, so relish the experience. Live in a way that will make it obvious to others what words should be on your tombstone. And no matter what may come your way, find a reason to rejoice. Drink in the blood of Christ as it stirs within you and circles all around you. Live like you belong here, because you do.

“O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
And now that I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me,
till I make known your strength to this generation
and your power to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:17-18).

Posted by: John Switzer | July 6, 2015

Thinking With the Church

Cloud-of-WitnessesThe 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church has completed its work in Salt Lake City. Among its decisions is an example of what might genuinely be understood as doctrinal bipolar disorder. Over at The Living Church (whose staff I have come to trust and admire), Jordan Hylden has characterized it as a form of “mixed economy.” However you may describe it, the fact is that the bishops and deputies have approved the use of “trial-run liturgies” to be known as same-sex marriages. Yet no changes have been made to the Book of Common Prayer, where Christian marriage is still described as “a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman” (BCP, 422).

Let’s dispense with the preliminaries so that we don’t have to argue over side issues. As stated in my previous blog post, I have supported and will continue to support the solemn blessing of relationships between committed same-sex couples. I have also long been a supporter of equal civil rights for such couples. My hope was that the General Convention would standardize the blessing of same-sex relationships rather than redefine marriage, which the provisional rites have done.

And let’s also be honest about the eventual outcome. The trial rites that have been approved for gay “marriage” would more accurately be described as “transitional rites.” The intention is that these forms of “marriage” will be used for a few years and will then be formally introduced into the Book of Common Prayer at a later gathering of the General Convention.

When I was received into the Episcopal Church two years ago, I knelt before Bishop Duncan Gray III and heard him say these words in response to the renewal of my original baptismal vows: “We recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion” (BCP, 310). In light of the redefinition of marriage that has just taken place, I now have to ask how seriously the Episcopal Church takes its participation in the church catholic.

While most of us think of the word “catholic” as meaning “universal” (which it does), it means so much more than that. You can revisit the etymological background of the word in my original post to this blog. Catholicity functions as the complete opposite of egocentrism, even when that egocentrism is a corporate one (in other words, even when it’s shared by a particular group within the larger church).

It was out of respect for the church’s catholicity that the Archbishop of Canterbury immediately expressed concern over the decision of General Convention to redefine marriage.

An appreciation of catholicity charges us not to think by ourselves, but to think with the church, to consider the wider church and all those who profess faith in the church. The General Convention has not chosen to think with the wider church at all, but to think for the church. Evidently they believe themselves to have some insight into the divine will that the larger church has yet to discern. This will have negative consequences for the unity of the church, and for the Anglican Communion.

A group of bishops (along with other clergy and laity) have joined together to express their concern. They have gathered themselves into an organization within the church known as Communion Partners. Their dissent with regard to the redefinition of marriage is being referred to as The Salt Lake City Statement. While rejecting the “significant change in the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage,” these faithful Episcopalians have expressed a desire to remain in communion with the Episcopal Church. Realistically, they have noted that the church has “entered a season in which the tensions over these difficult matters may grow.”

I can assure you that their realism about future tensions is an accurate prediction. If the delegates and bishops at General Convention acted to redefine marriage because of a genuine concern for the pain of our gay brothers and sisters, a very small minority of the general population, one can only imagine how they might react to know the pain and soul-searching that is currently going on among many of their fellow Episcopalians over the new definition of marriage. They say that Justice is blind–and I supposed this is true even when she is misdirected.

Here, for me, is the oddest piece of irony in all of this. It is the overwhelming majority of bishops and deputies at General Convention that have broken with many thousands of years of human wisdom and who have also broken with the “reasonable understanding” of marriage upheld by Christian scripture and tradition. It is these who have departed from the requirement of thinking with the wider church and who have thus damaged the principle of enduring communion. And it is the minority who are clinging faithfully to the hope of communion.

How sad it is, and how odd, that the minority must now form a new communion partnership to express what should already be implicit in how the church’s members are interconnected, and how their fellowship is connected to the wider church catholic. I applaud these Communion Partners and I am proud to have requested to be counted among them. They have resisted the temptation to strike out on their own and they have remained faithful to the goal of thinking with the wider church as it discerns a difficult question.

Posted by: John Switzer | June 26, 2015

Redefining Marriage

program

A Roman monument to marriage

As I write, the deputies and bishops of the Episcopal Church are meeting in Salt Lake City for the triennial General Convention. One of the items before them is a proposal to change the way that marriage is defined in the church. It’s a misguided proposal, and as at least one bishop has said, the theology on which the the proposal rests is “not compelling.” In addition, the task force that framed the proposal is said to have lacked diversity–suggesting that its members came from one side of the contentious debate concerning the proposal.

When I read the materials on this matter produced by the Task Force on Marriage, I get the sense that I’m reading a political document aimed at convincing the rest of the church to accept something that is a foregone conclusion. A scholarly search for the full truth is not evident to me, but an agenda speaks loudly. That feeling has been confirmed by discussions at General Convention, where the Book of Common Prayer has already been compared unfairly to the Confederate Flag because it does not recognize gay marriage.

Another proposal before the Convention has to do with new visions for the Episcopal Church. Delegates are struggling with the question of how to change the church so that it speaks of Christ more effectively. I applaud those who raise this question. One good place to start would be to become a church where the voices of all concerned are truly valued, not just heard. Dissent should be recognized for what it is: a possible call from the Spirit to move more slowly, with better theology, and with more shared reflection.

As a teaching theologian who can often be found grading papers, I must confess that debates in the church often have all the sophistication of a college freshman’s research paper–one who is not a particularly strong student. Conservatives point to scripture and demand literal adherence while progressives point to unlimited evidence for injustice in nearly every activity in which the church is involved. It’s all quite tiring, really, and the debate can often look like the arguments one hears from a married couple on the verge of final separation.

Before I get specific with regard to the notion of redefining marriage, let me explain that I am in favor of the blessing of same-sex relationships between loving partners who have decided to live a life committed to one another exclusively. The Episcopal Church currently has in place an experimental liturgy for this ritual. Dioceses and parishes that are prepared to receive it and which have discerned its appropriateness are using it. It was already in place when I was received into the church. I continue to support it.

The reasons for my support are based upon my understanding of the human person, our God-given need for intimacy and relationships, and my recognition that being gay should not cause a person’s life to be devoid of these experiences. Sexuality, like the body itself, is a gift, an energy within us which propels us to relate to one another. While there are a small number of biblical passages that condemn homosexuality, they must be read in the context that makes them understandable. When we examine what was being condemned at the time, it becomes clear that it was a very different type of homosexual relationship than the types we are discussing today. For those who wish to explore this, there are multiple resources. (I am especially happy to recommend Daniel Helminiak’s short volume on the topic entitled What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.)

As an aside, please let me make it clear that I am not talking about civil rights in this column. I have already come out long ago in favor of gay couples having all the same rights as married partners when it comes to civil law.

I applaud the church for reaching out to its gay parishioners. I hope this will continue. But we don’t have to redefine marriage to do it. Our approach should be guided not only by solid theology, but human history and experience as well. After all, ours is not the first society to deal with the question of healthy same-sex relationships. Many cultures throughout history and up to our own time have found ways to account for these relationships, and to recognize the legitimacy of relations between adult partners of the same sex. But they were not classified as marriage.

As with other issues, the mistake being made by the church is that we are actually devaluing difference, and seeking to reduce it to sameness. That’s a stretch. It’s a bridge too far. Why can’t we accept that the life-giving goodness of marriage is one reality while the legitimacy of life-giving same-sex relationships is another? They have some things in common, but they are not the same. Many of my gay friends have insisted on this point.

My argument, of course, rests heavily upon the recognition that marriage between a man and a woman possesses a biological potential that exists nowhere else in human life. The importance of this is not lessened when a couple is unable to conceive. The sacramental value remains as a sign of God’s work through the differences inherent in male-female sexuality. The Task Force on Marriage seems to be eager to disassociate marriage from this fact. I find that to be most unfortunate. Unique, powerful human experiences such as reproduction and birth should be recognized and celebrated for what they are. I would argue much the same regarding the experience of committed same-sex partners. Let each human reality be celebrated for the goodness it represents. But let’s not reduce them to the same experience.

For a long time in the Christian church, marriage was not considered a sacrament. In the Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is described in the terms given to us by St. Augustine: “an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace.” Whether I’m gay or straight, my existence owes itself to the inward grace of man-woman sexuality. For thousands of years we have referred to this mystery as marriage. One would hope and pray that the eternal God and Creator of all things has been present in this insight for all of human history. I read this divine presence as evidence of genuine catholicity. Are we so bold that we believe we have discerned something better in just a few years, and simply because we appointed a task force?

Recognizing legitimacy in diversity is not about reducing every relationship to sameness. Grace can be present in different ways. The Episcopal Church, through its deputies and bishops, should reject the call to redefine marriage.

Posted by: John Switzer | June 25, 2015

The Most Important Thing

10009830_10206373929203035_7507572490564070816_nThis blog post is in memory of the nine people who died in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week. While we fume and fuss about flags and statues, and while we debate about statues and plaques, the families of these innocent people are in the throes of mourning.

Allow me to honor the dead by listing their names. They were our fellow citizens, fellow human beings, Christians gathered in their own house of worship to study scripture. They were praying. They were the kind of people we need more of in this country, and their killer snuffed out their lights in an instant. They were the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, Ethel Lance, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.

I wish we could grieve for them without all the debate and argumentation. I wish there were some self-imposed moratorium on the political wrangling so that the extinguishing of their lives could fully be recognized as the evil that it is. These, our fellow citizens, were worth more than any flag on any poll, and the immediate turn from their deaths to debate about the past and the symbols of the past seems disrespectful to me. It’s disrespectful to them and to their memories. As they lie among the dead, I feel unclean and lousy using this time to engage in political debate.

Yet this is where we find ourselves. I regret it because I believe it detracts from the honor we should give to the dead. This debate over symbols will divide us just when we should be united in grief and in a commitment to teach our children why racism and violence are wrong. What political pressures are being exerted? What social agendas are at work? What parts of history are being overlooked? Who is being demonized and painted as an outcast? Who will die next?

Go back to the list. Look at their names. Read them aloud and remember that each was a person with plans, dreams, and hopes. Read those names again. Honor the dead. Debate the politics of the day if you must, but remember what is most important.

“What does the Lord require? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Posted by: John Switzer | June 1, 2015

The Body of Christ

thumbRNS-FACES-JESUS-139-426x640By my theological reckoning, there are three ways in which Christians speak of “the body of Christ.” Each is related to the others, but each is also distinct. The topic of Christ’s body has caused untold division throughout the church’s history, and that division is still to be seen when one surveys the multitude of communities and communions that make up contemporary Christianity. An appreciation of the distinctiveness of each way of speaking of Christ’s body would go a long way toward ending the divisions that divide Christians from one another.

1. The first way of speaking of Christ’s body actually serves as the foundation for the other two and is known as the Incarnation. In Christian understanding, God became human through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As traditionally understood in the western Christianity, he is both fully divine and fully human. Using the language of the early christological councils, he is homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father in his divinity and homoousios with us in his humanity. To break down this confusing philosophical language just a bit, the point is that in the one person we encounter someone who is fully and completely divine while simultaneously being fully and completely human. He is not just God “in the flesh,” but God become flesh (incarnatus in Latin), a statement intended to mean that he is become fully human, like us in all things but sin. (Interestingly, you can see in the Latin word the root for the Spanish, Portugese, Italian and Romanian words for “meat,” carne.)

What we are speaking of in this case is, of course, the physical or natural body of Christ. To be human requires a physical body because humans are embedded in time and space. At any given moment we are locked in one particular place, at least physically. This is an expression of our finite nature. For instance, as I sit at the computer I often find my mind wandering back to my years of study in Rome, Italy. I’d like to return to Italy and plan to do so one day. But I cannot be there while also being here. My natural way of being human is limited by the reality of physics. I believe that this human fact of being finite and thus also being mortal (a limitation on the amount of time I can spend in the “here” and “now”) is the cause not only for much human anxiety but also the source for religion. And it is the nature of religion that it gives us the hope, perhaps even the expectation, that we can transcend the profound limits placed upon us as mortals.

2. A second way of addressing the topic is to be found in the Lord’s supper, also known as “holy communion” or eucharist (that latter term being derived from the Greek word for “thanksgiving” or “gratitude,” eukharistia). This is the sacred meal of Christianity, intended as a source of unity and fraternity. Here is was intended from the earliest times that Christians would commune not only with Christ, but with one another. Yet this sacrament has become the greatest of scandals due to the divisions among us related to our differing explanations of what is that we do when we gather for this event.

Here’s the eucharistic problem in a nutshell:  while all Christians agree that Christ is present at his supper with us, we disagree over the details of how that presence in accomplished, or how it should be explained. For some, these details have become an excuse to avoid the hard work of ecumenical dialogue. In addition, we often exaggerate the differences between us or misrepresent those differences (a common phenomenon from the eucharistic debates of the Reformation).

Whatever the eucharist is, and however we prefer to speak of it, the fact is that it’s a sacrament of transcendence. Christ whom we encounter there is the resurrected Christ. He is the same Christ who walked the Galilee, but he is not of the same condition as when he walked there. He has transcended all the finite limitations of his earthly, historical life. He now lives beyond mortality and beyond history. His presence in our eucharistic celebrations is as unlimited and as immortal as the fullness of his resurrected life. There is not even a way for humans to fully understand this reality, or to speak of it. Until we grasp this fact there is little hope of ecumenical advancement with regard to holy communion. We should be faithful to our own models of Christ’s eucharistic presence, but we must also realize that it’s a tragic error to lock his transcendence in the small boxes of our doctrinal understanding. No human conception of the divine can completely describe the divine.

3. In my opinion, the third manner of discussing Christ’s body is the most important because the first two were established in support of the third. And here is to be found the point of this blog post: the church is the body of Christ. It is the resurrected Christ who incorporates us as members of his body. It is Christ who continually strengthens and deepens that corporate identity with us through the eucharist. Speaking of the mystery that is eucharist, our focus should be upon what the eucharist accomplishes in us. Only during the second millennium did the focus change to emphasize how the church makes eucharist (rather than how eucharist makes the church).

This insight drives the requirement of ecumenical cooperation. None of us can be so parochial or insular that we fail to recognize the other parts of the body of Christ. St. Paul explicitly condemns this failure in 1 Corinthians 11:29. If we gather for eucharist but fail to recognize the body of Christ, he wrote, we gather for damnation. What was Paul saying to this community?

To understand his words to the Christians in Corinth, we must understand the situation of the community. Like many of our own churches today, the Corinthian church was composed of people of differing economic status. Eucharistic gatherings included the sharing of common food in a meal that was intended to bring them closer together in a bond of sacrificial charity (agape). Sadly, economic and social differences got in the way. The wealthier members of the community gathered earlier than the rest, empowered by their better economic situation to enjoy more leisure time, and to purchase food and wine of a higher quality.

Unable to complete their work until later in the day, the poorer Christians arrived to a celebration that was already in full swing. The inner rooms of the host’s home were already full, the best food and wine was being enjoyed by the rich, and the poor were left to their own devices in the outer rooms. If not explicitly rejected, they and their plight were certainly ignored by the wealthier Christians already filling their bellies and sipping wine. Paul insists that in this situation it was not the Lord’s supper being celebrated, but a private party where the poor were mostly overlooked and hungry while the wealthy were drunk (1 Corinthians 11:20-21).

Paul’s admonition to the wealthy was this: take note of the entire body … see the rest of the community! Eucharist enlivens, strengthens, and celebrates the fact that we are one body in Christ but we eat and drink a lie if our actions do not confirm this. If some Christians are ignored by others, how is the body recognized? How can it be built up? Paul’s particular point had to do with economic and social disparities, but his message rings true concerning other differences as well.

“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (1 Corinthians 11:33, NIV). This is the simple order given by Paul to the Corinthians. Wait until everyone is present, then share the food and wine together. In this way you will symbolize to the world what you already are in Christ.

Remember the old adage? “You are what you eat.” The early church could have coined that phrase. And although I have listed in this post three ways of speaking of Christ’s body, the fact is that they all represent parts of a unified whole. Christians are baptized into Christ’s body, made an intimate part of him, christened with holy oil and washed with holy water. We are “little christs” to the world, called to do as he did and to live as he lived. Christ acts upon the world through us. We are his hands. We are his feet. We are his heart, beating for the good of all. Christ is no longer in the world physically. His body is us. In eucharist he feeds, purifies, strengthens, perfects his body on the earth.

Perhaps it was said best by St. Augustine of Hippo. Pointing to the bread and wine upon the altar, he proclaimed: “Behold what you are. Become what you behold.” Amen.

The photograph on this post is by artist William Zdinak and is entitled “In His Image.” All rights are reserved to the artist. I believe Mr. Zdinak has beautifully captured in his portrait the mystery of the body of Christ.

Posted by: John Switzer | December 29, 2014

Priesthood

Christ08-Jesus Christ Our Great High PriestIn recent weeks I’ve been reflecting on the nature of Christian priesthood. For some, these reflections won’t be traditional enough. For others they’ll probably be too traditional. I’m sure to land in some hot water, but I’ll forge ahead and adopt as my own the terrific insight of G. K. Chesterton: “I believe in getting into hot water. It helps keep you clean.”

Let’s begin with an historical perspective and confess the obvious. The first Christians had no priests, unless of course there were Jewish priests who had joined the Jesus movement. Gathering around the tables in their homes, the earliest followers of Jesus would not have recognized any notion that they were making a sacrificial offering of bread and wine to God. They gathered for fellowship and to remember the Lord Jesus (Luke 24:30-35). The only priests who appear in the canonical gospels are Jewish priests. Although pious tradition points to the Last Supper as the time when the Christian priesthood was instituted, that claim cannot be substantiated historically. It’s an interpretive tool overlaid onto the Last Supper in the light of later theological developments.

Despite this fact, an honest assessment must recognize that what Christ Jesus is portrayed to have done in the gospel accounts is very priestly. He made a sacrifice of himself in view of his understanding of the divine purpose. If you have ever sacrificed your own desires for a spouse, a child, or a beloved friend, you may have some small inkling of what it meant for Jesus to make this offering of self. Given the Jewish context of the life and ministry of Jesus and the temple worship prevalent in Jerusalem at the time, it’s no stretch to recognize that sacrificial imagery would readily present itself to early Christians reflecting on their faith.

Thus we must take note of the Epistle to the Hebrews (really an early Christian sermon) and the First Epistle of Peter (which was written considerably later than the life of Peter). These delightful canonical texts give us evidence of what surely must be some of the earliest strands of insight regarding the Christian understanding of priesthood. The Epistle to the Hebrews applies the Jewish idea of the high priest to Christ and to his salvific work. Christ is “exalted above the heavens” because he made the perfect sacrifice of his life in obedience (see Hebrews 7:26-28). 1 Peter concentrates on a spiritual priesthood and situates it in the entire Christian community. All believers share a priestly dignity. Christians are “living stones” who are “built into a spiritual house” intended as “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Furthermore, they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” and “God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).

These early strands simply cannot be dismissed. This fact was recognized by the bishops of the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Writing in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), the bishops reminded Catholics of their status as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (LG 9). In an amazing admission that is often overlooked by those who are not Catholic, the bishops insisted that there are two forms of priesthood in the church, the baptismal priesthood shared by all believers and the hierarchical priesthood exercised by the ordained. The two forms of priesthood are distinct and differ in essence, they wrote, but they remain interrelated (LG 10).

It is my belief that this renewed appreciation of the baptismal priesthood goes a long way to break down the walls of division left to us by the Reformation. It recognizes that the Protestant reformers had a valid point when they argued for the priestly nature of the baptized community as a whole.

Perhaps when speaking of the Christian understanding of priesthood we can validly speak of a certain tension that exists–a creative tension. This would appear to be true for communities that speak of ordained priests. The earliest term for this office was presbyter (presbyteros in Greek, meaning “elder”). Jewish synagogues in Greek-speaking cities had elders, presbyteroi, reminding us of the roots of Christianity. Another reminder of this early term can be found in the “presbyteral councils” of the Roman and Anglican communions.

Later developments imposed a hierarchical notion of priesthood upon the presbyteral office, one that emphasized the ordained priest as a necessary mediator between God and the faithful with a special power to consecrate the eucharist. Excessive emphasis on the priestly office of the ordained eventually resulted in a sad state of affairs where the laity rarely received from the eucharistic table and performed their own private devotions at mass, nearly oblivious of what was taking place in the sanctuary. This gave rise to some unusual developments, such as the ringing of bells (to alert the faithful that Jesus had suddenly become present on the altar) and attempts to visit as many churches and chapels as possible to see Jesus lifted up for adoration (a form of eucharistic piety that lost all resemblance to the early fellowship meal of the first Christians). It was just such abuses as these that were rejected by the Protestant reformers and even by reformers within the Catholic Church at times.

Where does this leave us with regard to today’s understanding of the priesthood? Does the priesthood of the ordained make sense any more? I sincerely believe that it does, but we must speak carefully. We must honor the apostolic tradition as found in scripture while appreciating the legitimate development of tradition. For my own understanding of ordained priesthood I am indebted to L. William Countryman for his insightful book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. What follows is a blend of his insights, along with my own.

Let’s start by defining what a priest does. I enjoy asking about this in my college theology classes. “What is a priest? What makes a priest a priest?” My students readily offer up all sorts of replies, to which I usually must answer that they are correct, but still on the periphery. What it is that makes a priest a priest, not just a Christian priest, but any priest? What one thing is central to the priesthood of anyone who considers himself or herself to be one? The answer, of course, is sacrifice.

A priest offers sacrifice.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives a definition for sacrifice that is particularly good. It’s described as “an act of offering to a deity something precious.” If all baptized Christians are priests, what precious thing are they called to offer? They offer their lives, their work, their struggles, their love for God and for others. Their sacrificial tables–their altars–are all around them. An accountant’s desk can be her altar. A teacher’s white board or chalk board can be his altar. A mother who lovingly changes a baby’s diaper stands at an altar of service for her child. The altars on which we offer up our lives are all around us. Our days on earth are numbered; our lives are the precious things that we offer. In our baptismal covenant with God in Christ Jesus we are members of the body of Christ, joining our existence and our work with his. In light of this everything takes on new significance. What is already precious becomes all the more obvious to us, and so its preciousness is increased.

The job of the ordained priest is not to give meaning to this. The meaning already exists and is rooted in Christ. The ordained priest doesn’t deliver holiness or stand between the believer and God. The job of the ordained is to help fellow believers see and appreciate what is already present in their lives. The ordained person is not some “super believer” who is better, holier, or more perfect than the rest (though obviously we hope that an ordained person avoids being a cause of scandal). The ordained serve as our gatherers, helping us to channel our strengths and vocations into a common effort for the Kingdom of God. Like conductors of great orchestras, they direct our efforts toward a melodious harmony that works only because the note produced by each instrument is different.

The most splendid sign of this is when the faithful–God’s chosen people and royal priesthood–gather for worship around the table of Christ, celebrating eucharist, making eucharist, being eucharist together. At the end of each festive gathering we are sent out to see Christ in the world, and to be Christ in the world.

As explained elsewhere in this blog, I have long felt a call to the ministry of ordained priesthood. It’s not because I feel holier than anybody else. To the contrary, I feel uneasy with my weaknesses and oddly enough as an extrovert, I rarely enjoy being the center of attention. My aspirations for ordination to the priesthood arise from a desire to liberate people, to empower them in every way that such empowerment can strengthen and embolden them for living lives of meaning, authenticity, justice, and service to others. My own weakness and sinfulness provide a stimulus for this vocational desire.

As Countryman has suggested in his book, sacramental service doesn’t make much sense unless the ordained priesthood is understood in the wider context of the baptismal priesthood. “Priestly life,” he correctly writes, “is nothing more nor less than the fulfilling of our deepest longings, rooted in our capacity for being human” (175). If the ordained priesthood can’t advance the human fulfillment of everyone (believers and non-believers alike), then what’s the use of an ordained priesthood at all?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

L. William Countryman, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Morehouse Publishing, 1999.

Gary Wills, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. Viking Penguin, 2013.

Posted by: John Switzer | November 15, 2014

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

jesus_knocking_on_door_business_card_templates-rd3a5573453f844f99ed68f54d48c71ab_i579t_8byvr_512In my Theology 101 class for college freshmen, I deal with lots of basics. After all, it’s an introductory course. Two words I introduce to the students are “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy.” The late Greek word orthodoxia means “right opinion,” while heterodoxos signifies “another opinion,” or “different opinion.” Gratefully, we theologians don’t spend much time accusing people of heresy anymore. It’s much more humane–and honest!–to speak of differences of belief rather than accusing people of being heretics. That doesn’t mean that no one uses the term, of course. There are diehard enthusiasts who insist on it.

The problem with the accusation of heresy is that this word is rooted in the Greek term for choosing or seizing. It seems to imply, at least to my mind, that the so-called heretic has chosen intentionally by taking a religious pathway that is obviously wrong. But the fact is that people never choose to be wrong. They choose a different path because they believe that path is the right path. And this insight brings us right back to the discussion of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. You see, one person’s orthodoxy is another person’s heterodoxy.

Before you read on, let me clarify something. I am not suggesting that all beliefs are the same or that all doctrines are equally valid. That is a simpleton’s creed. I am addressing something much more subjective, something more directly related to the personal experience of meaning-making. For all the experiences that humans have in common (eating, drinking, resting, and even as Martin Luther would remind us, evacuating our bowels), the fact is that we do not all interpret the meaning of these experiences in the same way. So how do we find what is true … and what is right? It appears that we do this in common, by joining religious communities that pursue the project together.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) addressed this fact in its Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) when it stated that “religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of humans and of religion itself” (DH 4a). The document goes on to insist that all people are bound to seek the truth, and once they find the truth, or find what they think is true, they are bound by conscience to adhere to it (DH 3b). This is an amazing admission for the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to make.

Regarding the search for true doctrine, there is an ancient adage to help along the way. To the question of how one can know the proper catholic (universal) doctrine of the church, a Latin precept proposes that we should believe quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“that which has everywhere, always, and by everyone been believed”). This dictum is known as the Vincentian Canon because it comes from the monk Vincent of Lerins who died around 445. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, the problem with this motto is that at no time in the history of Christianity have all Christians everywhere believed the same thing. And if Christians haven’t believed the same thing, then how do we expect all people of differing religions to believe the same thing? The only point I can imagine that Christians of all epochs and in every locale might have in common is the fact that Jesus is at the center of their faith. Past that, it’s hard to find something that every Christian actually has in common. Even when it comes to the role and significance of Christ we have not all agreed! (Think of the Donatists, Docetists, Ebionites, Marcionites, Arians, Nestorians, etc.)

Of course, facts have never prevented some people from believing in fanciful doctrinal formulations that have little foundation in history. This is probably why I receive such enjoyment studying the leadership style of Pope Francis and seeing the reaction of so many Roman Catholic clerics to his roving commentaries. It’s refreshing to hear the bishop of Rome speak honestly, and from his heart, cutting past the need to bolster old ways of thinking.

Vatican II opened Catholic doors and windows that had been closed for some time. A fortress mentality had developed since the time of the Protestant Reformation. At Vatican II new breezes began to flow into the church and people became excited about the connections they could make with others, even those outside the church. But nearly as soon as those breezes began to flow and the faithful began to enjoy the fresh air, certain influences began suggesting that the doors and windows had been flung open too far. During the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, there was a decided effort to close a number of those portals. Many of them were even bolted tight. The motto Semper Idem (“Always the Same”) returned as a description for the church and its beliefs. For those who were scandalized or at least frightened by the openness of Vatican II, these were the glory days of revanchism, the recovery of lost territory.

Don’t get me wrong: John Paul II was a nice guy and a committed Christian. I met him on more than one occasion and served mass with him. But he was decidedly in the camp of those who wanted to reign in some forms of openness that lingered from the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Benedict XVI, continued this process of “reforming the reform.” And now, entered from stage left, is Pope Francis the Jesuit. He has a papal hammer in his hand and he’s prying open some of those doors and windows that his recent two predecessors had nailed shut.

If you know anything of the personalities behind Vatican II, you may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but let me explain. If we can speak of two tendencies at the council, we might point to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (an Italian) as a representative of the conservative voice of the bishops. He was head of what we now call the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then known as the Holy Office. His official motto, by the way, was the aforementioned Semper Idem. On the other side of the spectrum was Cardinal Augustin Bea (a German Jesuit and biblical scholar), who pushed for more openness to the world and to other religious believers. It is widely believed that Bea’s approach was supported, even encouraged, by the pope of the time, the warm-hearted John XXIII who condemned the “prophets of gloom” who were against the council from its inception.

Clearly, everything did not change at Vatican II. But some things did change. In other words, there were times when the bishops tended toward one direction and at other times they tended to move in the opposite direction. This is as it should be. The church needs both conservatives and liberals. In many ways, Francis appears to be a new expression of the openness of John XXIII. He prefers encouragement and example to condemnation and authority. He seems to agree with his predecessor John that the only acceptable form of force for a Christian is “the force of love.” And as before, two cardinals seem to have emerged as symbols of the two opposite tendencies seeking expression under the leadership of Francis.  On the conservative side we see Cardinal Raymond Burke (an American who has described the church under Pope Francis as a “rudderless ship”) and on the more liberal side we see Cardinal Walter Kasper (a German whose openness to others remarkably mirrors that of the earlier German, Cardinal Bea). One cardinal’s heterodoxy is another cardinal’s orthodoxy.

To those who languished under the tight leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is a great breath of fresh air. It will take time, but like his predecessors, Francis will change the culture of the church. It’s good to feel the renewed breeze from open portals as it blows once again. The Spirit moves where she wills.

Posted by: John Switzer | July 29, 2014

Consumed by the Cosmos

a5a4abeb0ed72edb629cff32db1641ddInsights about life’s meaning can arrive at any time if we allow them to come in for a landing. I spent much of this morning mowing grass. At one point I looked up to note a mockingbird who had landed nearby. I’m sure she was feasting upon the grasshoppers that had been churned up by the passing mower–now much more obvious to her eyes with the grass cut short. There was also a flurry of dragon flies overhead. I wondered if they were munching on the tinier winged insects who had been upset by the mower and the grass flying out from the spinning blades beneath me.

It was a classic circle-of-life moment: creatures eating and being eaten, green clippings falling in order to die and become the soil in which new grass will grow. A certain wondrous beauty seemed to linger nearby, along with a sense of comfort. But then a question emerged for me. What if I were the grasshopper being swallowed by that mockingbird? What if I were one of the tiny insects being hunted by the dragon flies?

Well, if truth be known, I am. So are you. From the moment of our existence we’re part of something much bigger, much greater than ourselves. We are startled into a world that we did not ask to visit; we are gifted into existence. That existence brings with it the process of aging, the experience of suffering and sickness, loss, and eventual death. The cosmos that brought us into life gradually consumes us. This happens naturally because we are part of the universe. We belong to the cosmos. We have a place within it.

Some great thinkers like to remind us that our existence is a continual movement toward death. I think it’s more accurate to speak of it as cosmic advancement. We’re moving inevitably toward the ultimate fulfillment of our place in the created order. We become so engrossed and overwhelmed with our desire to be that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) saw this desire for what it is: an overwhelming impulse that prevents us at times from finding joy in life. We Christians can learn from this insight.

We regularly pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” We’re trying to convince ourselves rather than God. Each of us is but a speck in a very large created order. For a reminder of just how small you are, watch this video from the American Museum of Natural History.

I have a friend who is struggling with incurable cancer. He has faced his predicament with courage and faith, but I wonder at times if he feels like the grasshoppers and other small insects in my yard who have become prey to other hungry creatures. It is perhaps much easier to think of death when we have no sense of its imminent arrival, but birth and death are simply two sides to the same coin. They are brief moments in a larger process whereby the cosmos grants us being and then consumes us. This consumption is not an act of destruction on the part of the cosmos but serves as its way of bringing us to an eternity of intimacy.

This eternal intimacy is the realm from which the resurrected Christ presides as Pantocrator, the ultimate ruler of all. Over and over in life we celebrate our birthday. At times those annual celebrations seem to be like talismans meant to ward off the supposed evil of eventual death. It seems unfortunate that we think this way. Death is not a departure but a fulfillment of the process of being consumed. It is a doorway to the larger life at the heart of all that exists. We don’t even realize that we yearn for this; we desire fulfillment and intimacy with the source of our creation. Perhaps St. Paul said it best: “From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free” (Romans 8:22-23, The Jerusalem Bible).

You and I belong to the cosmos because we belong to God. And God is the One who simply is. God is no entity. God is no being in any sense like we use the word “being.” God is far beyond all of that. God is the great IS … the essence of is-ness, pure perfection of being. It would appear that in the divine plan the cosmos was granted the freedom to self-evolve, to develop not separately from God but within the plan of God. The Incarnation is God’s way of being present to us who are forever being consumed as the cosmos continually remakes itself. This is one more way that the universe demonstrates its catholicity.

So, as I mowed grass this morning in the midst of this mystery, I found cause to rejoice. I’m not just the mockingbird. I’m also the grasshopper.

This blog post is dedicated to my friend, James Henry LeBatard, who died of cancer on August 13, 2014.

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