Monthly Archives: April 2013

It’s Necessary to Use Words


“Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” –St. Francis of Assisi

 Along with many colleagues and companions in my progressive Christian denomination, I’ve made frequent use of this saying attributed to Francis of Assisi to make a point about the perils of lip service and the Christian imperative to serve the neighbor. It’s not surprising that we find it appealing. Activism for social justice is a vital part of our denomination’s ethos in ways that verbally commending the gospel to others—evangelism—is not. This much-quoted admonition pithily sums up our liberal credo: Talking about faith is less important than demonstrating it. Besides, Francis said it. It doesn’t matter that we don’t normally venerate saints in my denomination. Francis is hip and counter-cultural; we’re pleased to take his word for things, a word that just happens to lend authority and charm to our bias.

Lately, however, I’ve been reconsidering the usefulness of this saying. For one thing, it’s doubtful Francis ever said it. No early biographer records it among the hundreds of other sayings and stories, historical and apocryphal, attributed to il poverello. Neither is it found in any of his extant writings, which are few in any case.

Of course, the fact that Francis never said it is not in itself sufficient reason to stop using the phrase. Many things that someone never said are still useful. If they reside somewhere in the zip code of the supposed author’s spirit, no harm is done by a dubious attribution. Besides, one can get insufferably pedantic about such things, and more than a bit obsessive. The internet is rife with phony or edited citations from heroes we wish were more like us than they actually were, and to set about correcting them all would be a lifetime’s work of debatable merit.

In this case, however, I believe Francis would’ve been puzzled by this saying and by the use we make of it to defend the notion that preaching with words is of secondary importance to a gospel preached with deeds. In the context of his life and ministry, it seems misleading at best, if not plain wrong. Unlike the famous peace prayer also attributed to him, this saying about preaching appears sufficiently distant from his spirit as to make a correction meaningful, and perhaps even necessary.

He never said it, and he may not have agreed with, but there’s a section of the second Rule Francis wrote for the friars (1221) that suggests a possible origin of its association with him. In Chapter XVII, “On Preachers,” Francis legislates as follows:

No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister. And the minister should take care not to grant [this permission] to anyone indiscriminately. All the brothers, however, should preach by their deeds.

Here Francis mandates that brothers who are engaged in a preaching ministry—the primary ministry of the friars—must be licensed to do so, and that they must take care to conform their preaching to the norms and expectations of the Church. In other words, the friars are not free agents; no one is to go out and preach on his own initiative. Notice, however, that not every brother will be granted permission. Francis charges the minister (he eschewed the term “superior”) to determine the qualified. Brothers denied permission need not feel left out, however, for “all the brothers… must “preach by their deeds.”

For Francis, this is stating the obvious; preaching with deeds is a given. Making it explicit in the Rule is his way of reminding those brothers who are not permitted to preach with words that they participate in the preaching ministry all the same by means of their example and service. For Francis, preaching with deeds is a crucial and holy default position, but he does not elevate it over preaching with words. There’s no “if” in Francis’ conviction that preaching with words is “necessary.”

His stance is unsurprising given the role of preaching in his day when the fear of doctrinal heresy mobilized the repressive machinery of church and state to the point where scholars like R. I Moore can speak of a “persecuting society.” Francis’ contemporaries believed, rightly or mistakenly, that heresy was rampant and infectious, and that one of the primary causes for its appearance was weak preaching by Catholic preachers, made even weaker by their scandalous lives. The way to prevent the spread of this contagion and recover the wayward for the true Church was for Catholic preachers to preach better and more zealously, and to conform their lives to their preaching.

Preaching with words was at the heart of many of the new evangelical movements of the period. The hierarchy kept careful watch over these movements, ruling some out of bounds because of perceived doctrinal deviance, or because of disciplinary failures, especially the failure to secure proper permission to preach from a lawful ecclesiastical authority. Francis was adamant that he and his brothers should stay in bounds; he insisted on solid doctrine and proper process.

Francis was not merely being canny or self-protective. He was a true son of the Church (which did not preclude acts of what one writer has called not civil, but “ecclesiastical disobedience”), and he was fundamentally concerned with the sequela Christi. To follow the Jesus of the gospels as closely as possible meant not only forgoing possessions as an outward sign of an inward renunciation of power; and not only keeping affectionate company with the last and the least, even the officially segregated leper; it also meant preaching the good news, announcing an urgent message, and doing so with words. Preaching was the Franciscan charism every bit as much as the devotion to the poor and pastoral care for the sick for which he and his first followers gained such fame and admiration.

Francis’ own practice is revealing. His first biographer, Thomas de Celano, describes him as a peripatetic preaching machine, in the mode of a George Whitefield or the early Wesley, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, mostly in the open air. In the countryside he perched atop bales of hay in granary doorways; in the cities he shouted from the top step of public buildings. He preached to anyone who would listen, as well as to those who weren’t sure they wanted to—it was reported of him that he would crash rich people’s parties and preach to them. According to legend, he even preached to the birds in the trees, from whom he got a much better reception, and to the Sultan of Egypt, who was not persuaded, but warmed to him and gave him safe passage home.

It turns out that he was a fiery sort of preacher, often dancing around or bouncing up and down as he told his listeners “about vices and virtues, punishment and glory…” (Third Rule, 1223, IX). If we were to hear him today, we might find him a bit too blunt for out taste, more like Jonathan Edwards than the sweet proto-hippie Francis of Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon—or if not like Edwards exactly (for Francis disliked long, elaborate sermons and exhorted the brothers to use words that are “studied and chaste, useful and edifying to the people), then at least like Jesus, who did  not hesitate to name names and call people to conversion in order to receive the good news of mercy with an open heart.

Francis’ words, de Celano wrote, “were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement.” This most joyous of all Christian saints was serious about the power of speech—he respected words; and respect for words is another reason I’ve decided to stop saying that we should use them only “if necessary.” Such a sentiment blithely reinforces, I think, the common sense notion that words are in the end “just words,” ephemeral and useless when measured against the efficacy of deeds.

ImageWhen Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, his detractors mocked him for being eloquent. (Some of his supporters were wary of his speechifying too, to be fair.) The implication was clear—eloquence is a dodge for substance. Words about vision and promises sound good, but they are too easy. In the end, they defraud; realizations matter more. Or so one would think. The late Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez recounted a curious incident to a journalist several years ago. It took place during a gubernatorial election in a northern Mexican state where the entrenched ruling party, the PRI, was again on the verge of total victory. Party operatives had bought the attendance of a big crowd of villagers who, eager to earn their pesos, were patiently listening to the customary litany of PRI accomplishments–clean water, new sewers, schools, community centers, more street lights.

Rampant graft meant that most of it was badly built, of course, and things broke or closed down with depressing regularity. Nonetheless, the crowd applauded on cue as each achievement was touted; but way at the back of the crowd, a small man raised a big placard on which he’d scrawled what I think is clearly a sarcastic, but also a massively subversive message: “¡Basta ya de realizaciones. Queremos promesas!”  Enough already with accomplishments! We want promises!

It seems that some accomplishments can’t hold a candle to words; but even more, it seems that people need hope and vision as much if not more than stuff.  Even if all that PRI stuff had been well-built, I imagine that the villagers might still want words as well as deeds, especially words that are transparent enough to raise the curtain on a new heaven and a new earth, lifting our eyes to a horizon beyond the everyday so that we can see what is not yet and thereby cultivate endurance and refine our hope.

No one disputes the assertion that words can be empty, duplicitous, or just plain vapid, but our experience also teaches that words of truth and substance, words of sincere testimony—even words that “only” promise a future or describe a vision and are not always immediately coupled with deeds—have unimaginable and “necessary” power.

It’s instructive that when it comes to the great liberation movements of our time, no one has trouble recognizing the need for and the power of words.  Speaking up and speaking out is dangerous business in such moments—and it is necessary. “We begin to die when we do not speak out about the things that matter,” said Dr. King. “Silence = Death,” proclaimed gay liberation protest signs. When it come to verbal expressions of religious faith and testimony of religious experience, however—even though we say we believe that we too have an urgent message of life and liberation—we seem far less sure.

The supposed Franciscan saying about preaching with deeds is almost irresistible, but if it encourages a subtle denigration of the power of speech to testify effectively to truth; if it downplays not only preaching in the narrow sense, but also evangelism, we probably ought to think twice about its usefulness. For a tradition of faith that stems from a Word—indeed, from the Word—and whose ministry to the world is “bold speech” about God (Acts 4:13), it seems at best ill advised to encourage a lack of confidence in or respect for the necessity of verbal testimony.

We must indeed, as George Fox always insisted, let our “carriage and life preach,” but because the distinctive meaning of the acts we perform is not always self-evident—because they do not automatically explain themselves nor make immediately apparent the peculiar character of the God who inspires them—we must speak. We’ve been called to a way of life that’s grounded in and defined by the person and work of Jesus Christ whose mission we claim as our own. That mission is in part to offer a clear word to the world, a word that, were we to keep still, would not be heard otherwise. Humbly to commend the message of mercy to others in a spirit of hospitable hope that all might know more fully who we are and what we intend, and that some might come to know the grace we ourselves have known in Christ, is not optional for Christians. As Paul asks, “How will they believe if they have not heard? And how will they hear if there are no preachers?” (Romans 10:14).

ImageIn progressive Christian circles, I know this is easier said than done. In my own denomination, the Great Commission sits uneasily on many people, clergy and laity alike. When we speak of evangelism, at best it usually means inviting people to church, which is hard enough for us, especially when we’re talking about inviting the so-called “un-churched” and not just stealing other churches’ sheep. When challenged to do more—to share the Christian story with people who don’t know it, or to share our own stories in the light of the gospel—we falter.

A colleague tested this assertion at a workshop not long ago. The participants were church people active in their local communities and committed enough to spend a long Saturday at a denominational learning event. They agreed that they were very reluctant evangelists. When asked to say what stood in their way, they noted the cultural baggage attached to the word “evangelism,” fear of offending against pluralism, and worry about being judged or rejected as holy rollers or fundamentalists. They worried that others would find them irksome or boring or judgmental. They did not want to impose their beliefs on others. They worried that they didn’t know enough to be able to “defend” what they might say, and this left them feeling intimidated. They wished they felt stronger in their faith and knowledge of the Bible. They worried that they didn’t have the language to tell the story appropriately, correctly, or compellingly. And several said they felt unsupported in their efforts to share their stories with others.

This is not the place to unpack these responses, to offer correctives to some of the assumptions about evangelism, faith, and the Christian story embedded in them, or to offer suggestions of ways to help willing disciples find their testimonial tongues in a fruitful and respectful way. The only point I want to make here is that although it’s a sure bet that every one of those workshop participants was preaching every day with good deeds, the great silence about God that descends when we don’t know how, are afraid, or believe it is somehow wrong and oppressive to speak about the reasons for our deeds, our experience of grace, and our ongoing lives of discipleship, is a silence that necessarily reproaches the Church.

We’ve been given a gift to share for the sake of the world. There’s a huge difference between believing that in that gift we have the answer to absolutely everything and that we are the only true way, and the humble practice of letting our gift be known by commending it to others, speaking with freedom, affection, and gratitude of our experience of God in Christ. This sort of respectful, invitational practice is a lot harder than old fashioned proselytism ever was. There’s no doubt that our current pluralistic context makes it hugely challenging (although people engaged in serious interfaith conversation attest that our current context also makes it hugely rewarding), but that doesn’t justify reticence. Withholding the gift is to break faith with the Giver.

Some people might chalk this silence up to having nothing to talk about. I’ve heard it said that many ordinary “liberal” Christians in the pews of our churches have never really had a vital experience of the gospel that they can share; they are without knowledge, encounter, or desire, content to show up and do unto others. I often wonder whether this perception is true, or as true generally as we think. Could it be that some people don’t recognize their experience for what it is, believing that religious experience should look and feel a certain way, holy somehow, maybe happening in church and not in the laundry or the factory? Is it because people don’t know how to frame their experience, don’t know whether it’s okay to use ordinary words or think they have to learn the right words before they speak? I wonder too whether the church directly or indirectly silences such speech; whether, for example, the liberal ethos of my denomination, with its loud crowing about being non-creedal and believing whatever you want, effectively quashes significant talk about faith, having inculcated in us all a great fear of offending and skepticism about, even disdain for significant religious experience, affirmation, and conviction?

ImageThere is much reflection abroad today about a new reformation and the unknown shape of the church to come. In that conversation, helping every disciple learn to preach the gospel with words should be a major item on the visionary agenda. I know much is being done already; some pastors are actively engaging their people in the practice of testimony, with transformative results. More of us need to follow that example.

It will not be an overnight project, but a long labor of patient encouragement, conversion, and formation, beginning with those of us who have too happily latched onto the permission this supposed saying of Francis has given us to keep our mouths shut. We should aim for communities of faith whose members are as articulate about the gospel’s vision and promise as they are active in the service of others.

Make no mistake, I do not underestimate the power of deeds. It seems silly to have to say so—they are necessary, and on the last day they will be our judge; but deeds always get first billing in my denomination. I want to put in a good word for words.

How Can We Keep From Singing?


Ps 98; Eph 5: 15-20; Mk 14: 22-26

In January of 1990, Andover Newton Theological School’s president dropped dead at the age of 58.  George Peck had been a mentor to me, giving me my first job. His sudden death was a staggering personal loss, and it seemed a disaster for the seminary. At that time, we were also without a dean. Orlando Costas had died not long before, in his early forties, consumed by stomach cancer. Together, these two men had tried to revitalize the school’s mission, turning us toward the future with energy and vision, albeit not without resistance and controversy. Suddenly, both were gone. It felt like we were adrift; it felt like we were under assault.

A memorial service for George was held at First Baptist, Newton Centre — a cavernous building that usually swallowed up even big congregations. But on the day of George’s service, mourners filled it, every corner. Many solemn words were spoken, and at the end of that sad hour, we all stood to sing George’s favorite hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

It had never been my favorite hymn — not even my second or third favorite. It has too many devils running all over the place seeking to do harm to embattled human beings, and a triumphalism too heavy-handed for my blood. I never liked crowing about the “one little word” of faith that overcomes Satan and I was never comfortable declaring Christ the “right man on our side” who single-handedly wins the pitched battle between good and evil. I could not sing that it’s okay to “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also” on the sure bet that God will always be vindicated. (I wasn’t all that sure it was a good bet!) That hymn was definitely not in my top ten.

That is, until George Peck’s memorial. When hundreds of weeping people stood to sing, when they insisted, at the top of their lungs, that God is a Rock, I knew for the first time in my life that it was true. We were under assault from malicious enemies. We did not possess any native strength with which to beat them back. God had sent us — still sends us — the right man to fight on our side. Christ does win battles for us. One little word is all it takes to send evil packing. We can be threatened with and even suffer the loss of everything — goods, kindred, our own lives — and still live, still win, still be safe in God’s eternal victory and vindication.

When we sang it, I believed it. I knew it. Everybody in that church knew it. You didn’t even have to catch all the words to know that in the midst of our painful grieving, a triumphant joy had seized us. As we sang loud, in four-part harmony, everywhere in the cosmos devils ran for cover; and in the heart of that assembly, Christ presided serenely over us and over George’s precious life.

That hymn consoled us, but it did not merely console us — it came true. It created solace, yes, and conviction — but it did even more: it delivered what it promised. It gave us life. To this day, when I remember the moment we rose to sing, I feel that stone building shake as we climbed up onto the pews. I see hundreds of upraised arms, fists thrust into the air, defiant in the face of demonic onslaught, a signal to all who would harm God’s people to back off, for God’s awesome power was there, turning everything (especially death) into life.

Of course we didn’t actually stand on the pews  or thrust our fists in the air, but we might as well have, we could have, we should have…

“After they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ last hours, I never fail to register this poignant bit of information, off-handedly inserted in the gospels of Mark and Matthew: they sang a hymn.

The gospels portray Jesus as full of foreknowledge: “One of you is about to betray me.” The night reeked of death. Jesus even gave them a sign, sharing with them the Passover bread and cup in a way that spoke bluntly not only of future fellowship, but also of spilled blood and broken bones. He knew what was coming, but not for that did he shorten the ritual meal, not for that did he omit the final hymn. Only a few hours before brutality found him in the garden, Jesus joined in on his ancestors’ psalm of praise for delivery from slavery and death.

But how could he sing of victory when that night all the evidence pointed to a God indifferent to the ugly plot, already underway, to kill him?

He sang because it is what you do when you are really living, when you believe in life, when you believe in God. You raise your voice in the everyday, you raise it in the joys that punctuate the everyday, you raise it in ordinary sorrows, and you raise it when unspeakable evil threatens to engulf the world. This human capacity for song at any moment, and especially in the teeth of death, is the way we declare our hope, our hope against hope. It is a way for our hearts to get around a corner.

All human singing is done against the odds; it is always an act of faith, fundamentally defiant. It has always been this way: people of every time and place sing of hope when there is none, of courage when they are terrified, of gratitude in the midst of grief, of a new tomorrow when they are being led to the slaughter. Communities of faith and resistance have stood for centuries powerless against terror and tyrants, weaponless against bigotry, defenseless against greed, pride and ambition, up to their necks in trouble, hemmed in on every side, without a prayer — except for their songs. Anywhere you look in the human family, when trouble comes, the next thing you hear is singing.

I have a cynical friend who calls this response “The King and I Syndrome.” You will remember that in that musical, Anna teaches her son to tough out his little-boy-fears by holding his head erect and whistling “a happy tune” so no one will know he’s afraid. But my friend is wrong. The songs I’m talking about are not given to us merely to make us “feel better,” to get us through a tight spot, or to help us keep a stiff upper lip. We never pretend for a moment that there are no monsters under our beds, no horrors in our psyches, no savagery in the world. The song we sing every day, and especially on days of reckoning, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us so that, in the face of the real dangers of real life, we may have power to tell the truth, meet and confound evil head-on, change the world, glorify God and emerge victorious.

If you have trouble believing this, ask people who know. Ask, for example, Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and suffragist. When asked how to confront the great evils that oppressed her people, she replied with utmost seriousness, “First, you lay a song on them.” And ask the people of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery about singing. No, ask yourselves, if you are my age or older, what it was like to hear freedom songs above the roaring fire hoses and the snarling dogs. Ask the people of Chile, repressed by a cruel military regime after the fall of Allende. Ask them who the priority victims of the death squads were, once the politicians had been purged, and they will tell you that the soldiers came next to arrest the songs. They will tell you that poets and singers were slaughtered early; and that those who escaped continued defiantly in exile to sing the songs of liberty — songs like Cambia, Todo Cambia… “Things change, everything changes. What changed yesterday can change tomorrow, but singing…, that will never change.” Ask early Christians why martyrs sang in the prisons, the galleys, the arenas, and at the stake. Ask Paul why he instructed the Ephesians to “sing always” if they wished to live the challenging and risky life that Jesus led, a life of selflessness and inclusion, against all odds. Ask them all if they were dupes, pie-in-the-sky Pollyannas whistling away their happy tunes.

Not on your life. The songs the Spirit of God prompts in human hearts against all odds are God’s own songs, God’s vision, God’s will, God’s integrity. Thus, they are songs of infinite worth and unimaginable efficacy. They can be counted on to make things happen: as long as such songs are echoing in the world, truth will get told, boundaries will weaken, chains will break, and new things will become possible — even in the most hardened hearts, even in the cruelest systems.

But it may take a while. That’s why songs have to be taught. Why we have to pass them on to the next generation, and they to the next. We will go to our graves still singing, but if our children have become singers too, and theirs in turn,  there will always be someone singing, and that endless singing will always disturb and bewilder the enemies of love. Sooner or later they’ll feel the terror of self-accusation and they will have to confront the Mystery that erodes the foundations of hate. Sooner or later, a crack of light will appear under the locked door of life; sooner or later, the door will fly open in joy. Sooner or later, the songs of a few will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will materialize. It has happened before. It is happening now. It will happen again.

Jesus sang a psalm that night “when utmost evil strove against the light.” Jesus’ song — taught by God to his ancestor, David, taught to Jesus by his mother, sung in exile and freedom, in trouble and in peace — that song was stronger than death. It was on Jesus’ lips when he rose from the grave. He knew what every community of faith knows: when we sing, and as long as we are singing, we are invincible.

That life-affirming song resounds in the church. The Spirit sings it in us. We receive it like a new thing every day.

Do you sing it? Do you want to sing it? In the church, in our families, our communities, our world, what songs are shaping our future? What songs do we teach our children? Do we know the power springing from the songs of experience, of our heritage, of faith?

Whenever you sing, from this day on, sing for your lives, sing for our world still struggling to vanquish lovelessness and lies. Sing together the song of God’s fierce determination to make us all free and alive, God’s plan for reconciliation and peace. Sing because we believe God’s promise is coming true. Sing to make the walls come down, to break the chains. Sing for generous hearts to embrace the stranger. Sing through the “centuries of wrong” the church’s wisdom, its treasury of tune and rhyme, its repertoire of grace, its conviction about the wholeness meant for all in the steadfastness of God.

Sing until the only sound heard in the whole creation is the melody of delight — God’s delight in us, and ours in God. Sing! With such a hope, with such a promise, how can we keep from singing?


And God Alone

I am reading many uplifting comments in the wake of the carnage at the Boston Marathon, most of which are about God. They are all in some way true and they are all heartfelt, but I find that I am more or less indifferent to them.

This reaction isn’t new. It happens to me a lot. And it has often made me wonder if I am fundamentally an impious person.

Although I do speak of God and offer my earnest prayers at times of senseless violence, tragedy and horror, I don’t experience connection to God in these moments or in their aftermath, unless you count the experience of silence and a kind of motionlessness at the center of the soul. I find it hard to engage in confident God-talk the way my friends and colleagues do so sincerely and well.

My inability to speak of God with felt confidence at such times—and at many others that are not so tragic or compelling—can leave me feeling faithless, and not a little envious. What grace do others have that I don’t? Why is God so real to them, and so unreal to me? Why is it that others find clear spiritual affirmations useful at these times, and I find them useless? When they speak so affirmatively of God, why does it sound like gibberish to me?

Comparisons are odious; eventually I stop complaining, dig deeper, and re-accept the condition that has been mine for as long as I can remember: not impiousness so much as darkness.

I have always known that I am not spiritually wired for devotion in the ordinary sense. I tend towards the apophatic, the way of negation. If I have a spirituality that merits the name, unknowing is its default position.

It’s different if we’re talking about doctrine. I am reasonably sure of my beliefs. I am also relatively unhesitant when it comes to making judgments about liturgy (which can make me a little, well, insufferable at times). I am fairly clear-eyed about the ethical life and my moral bottom lines. I am crazy about the gospels and relish the Jesus I find in them. I welcome with a joyous heart the vision of life and the character of God they portray and proclaim.

But when it comes to theology proper—that is, when we are speaking of the mystery of the true God and not of idols or projections or fantasies—I falter. I cannot say I “believe.” I certainly do not “feel.”

I do, however, surrender. Which is to say only that I live every day on the brink of full-blown atheism. My faith is the dark sort—it would not be at all surprised on the last day to learn that there is Nothing. At best I hold on. At best I demand to be held onto.

And that is all I can do, unless I decide to be dishonest. In the end, it may be all anyone can do, after words fall away, and in the boundless void God is still God and God alone.

An Eastertide Reflection: Judas, Peter, and the Apostate Church

800px-The_Denial_of_Saint_Peter-Caravaggio_(1610)–Peter’s Denial, Caravaggio

I think Christian tradition has been too hard on Judas and too easy on Peter. Judas sold Jesus to the authorities, but he never lied about knowing him. His betrayal was terrible, but it was up close, to Jesus’ face, sealed with a kiss, among friends. Peter kept his distance. He wouldn’t even say Jesus’ name. Among strangers he denied all ties to “that man.” He sought warmth by a fire while his Teacher was tortured. His renunciation was as cold as that night was cold.

Tradition turned Judas into the evil archetype of betrayers. In two places in scripture we are told that he met a gruesome end, and the implication is that it was well-deserved. In Christian imagination, he ranks just a fraction of a notch above Lucifer. His sin was unforgivable. Tradition turned Peter into the impetuous disciple who could never quite get or stay with the program, but whose heart was always in the right place. Peter was clueless, lovable, a little pathetic. And forgivable.

We are told that Peter wept bitterly when the cock crowed and he remembered Jesus’ prediction about his triple betrayal. We are told that Judas wept too. His remorse was profound. When he could not undo it, returning the silver, he despaired of forgiveness. He could not live with what he had done, We don’t know why Judas despaired, or why Peter did not, but because Peter held on, he became the symbolic heart of the nascent church. Because Judas could not hold on, he became an eternal embarrassment and a terrible shame.

I have reflected elsewhere on the regret I feel that the Story has Judas dead and gone before Jesus rises.* Every year at Easter, my imagination feels compelled to re-write the scriptural account to save him. If Peter lived to experience Christ’s mercy pour out for him from the empty tomb, why not Judas too? Do you have any doubt that Jesus forgave him? Do you have any doubt that one of the fish on the fire that morning by the lake was for him?

We let Peter off the hook, but Peter did not. Even after the encounter at breakfast with the risen Jesus on the beach, even after making his triple affirmation of love, Peter never forgot what he did. When the time of trial came for him again, his legend goes, he refused to be crucified in the same manner as the Friend he did not deserve, the Friend he had denied. He demanded instead that his tormentors nail him to the cross head down. I think the church would do better to remember Peter not as we have re-made him, a lovable bumbler, but as Peter knew himself, an unworthy betrayer of the first magnitude, on a par with Judas.

They are not that different, Judas and Peter. They belong close together in the church’s memory, not apart, as if Peter were a success story and Judas a failure. As if the goal of discipleship were to get it right instead of to live in perpetual need of mercy, to know oneself permanently in need of healing, pardon, and peace.

We idealize the apostles of the first church as moral heroes and brave martyrs, and when we do, we miss the most compelling thing about those earliest followers and their mission: it was all about the mystery of weakness; it was all about the mystery of grace. Here’s what I said about this mystery in the reflection I allude to above:

These days, many congregations want to renew themselves. They ask questions about identity and purpose—who are we as a church, what is our mission, how can we be more faithful? Well, here is a model we might all consider to our benefit—the earliest church, which was nothing more than a few sinful, weak, mortified disciples huddled around a fire tended by Jesus, eating with him. A church composed of apostates, guilty of denials and betrayals and fearful flight. A church born not in rising to the occasion, but in running from it. A congregation of weakness and shame. A fellowship of the unforgivable.

Just the kind of church Jesus wanted. The kind of church he’ll always love. The kind of church to which he will always come, in which he will always dwell, to which he will always tend with the sweetest condescension. The kind of church in which any Peter or any Judas would feel at home.

The best thing any church could hope for is to be filled with Judases and Peters. People whose lives are marked by the humiliation and the humility that come from knowing exactly what they deserved but did not get. People whose actions in the church and in the world are characterized therefore by the most reverent tenderness for the weaknesses of others. For their cruelties and betrayals. For their unpardonable sins.

The straightest route to faithfulness any church can take is through human fragility, where the depths of guilt and shame are met by the unrelenting, anticipatory, all-covering, blame-withholding mercy of the Lord.

If what we strive for instead is a church of the strong, the good, the steadfast, the productive, the able, the clever, and the powerful (even the spiritually powerful) who are perfectly capable of cooking breakfast for themselves, we may never have a church at all. And we might never have a mission either, because feeding Jesus’ lambs, inviting the whole world to come and have breakfast, sharing with others the mercy bestowed once upon a time around a charcoal fire—these are not things you can do if you’ve never been around that fire yourself, waiting for the other shoe to drop, if you’ve never felt the joy of realizing it isn’t going to drop—ever; if you’ve never understood how much you actually owe, and how clean the ledger has actually been wiped.

It is precisely the ones who should never have been forgiven, but who were, who are called to tend Jesus’ sheep. It’s not something he entrusts to just anyone. He seeks out the worst for the job. And he makes them the best by love.

By love alone.


Prayer of Praise C3 Easter [John 21:1-19]


–Miniature from Ludolf of Saxony’s Vita Christi attributed to Jacques de Besançon, 15 c.

We go fishing without you,

angling for hope

in the deep lake of dismay,

but we

who know so much about fishing

catch nothing.

Then you come,

indistinct at first light,

and hail our hearts

across the morning lake.

You name our ineffectual striving.

At your command,

we let down useless nets again.

Our hearts know what’s next.

This time they come up tensing

with riches from the sea,

while on the shore you wait,

tending mercy’s fire,

preparing to speak of love.

Praise, honor and glory to you,

O Living Christ,

now and forever!


Preaching Thomas on “Low Sunday” — Some Possible Pathways


John 20:19-31

In the traditional reading of this post-resurrection appearance, Jesus rebukes Thomas for doubting and commends believers who come to faith without requiring the proof of nail marks. This reading still stands up, I think, even if many preachers these days prefer to present Thomas as a model for people who struggle to believe, reassuring their listeners that doubt is a normal, even necessary, part of faith that is honest and maturing. None of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament ignores the vexed nature of Easter faith. It is only fair and helpful, then, to point out that if we have trouble believing, we are not the first, and we are not alone.

What a “doubt is a good thing” reading of this story may miss, however, is its ecclesial dimension. When one looks at the story through that lens, Thomas may not be guilty so much of incredulity as he is of singularity. Asking for evidence (the same evidence Jesus had already granted to the others in v. 20) is not his biggest problem; refusing to trust the witness of sisters and brothers is.

He doubts the resurrection of Jesus, but more significantly he doubts that the church has faith and wisdom to give him to supply his lack. Thomas wants a private experience, a revelation of his own, prefiguring not so much our modern intellectual rejection of particular articles of the creed as our post-modern unwillingness to grant the tradition any wisdom that does not first pass the test of private reason, personal experience, and emotional comfort. Thomas was “not with them” (v. 24) in more than a geographical sense.

Jesus does not commend unseeing believers (v. 29) because they accept the “fact,” much less the “doctrine” of the resurrection, but because they trust the church’s testimony. They open-heartedly receive the tradition of his rising. They are “together” in this handed-on faith that is not the private accomplishment of any one of them.

The communal way in which we come to faith is an important preoccupation of this story, and of many others that were recorded, John says, so that we might come to believe (v. 31); but believing as such is not the final goal. The reason the evangelist is eager for us to believe in the first place is “so that [we] might have life” (v. 31), life with Jesus—a life found most richly and mysteriously through insertion in the fellowship of disciples. It is not for nothing that the other readings this Sunday focus on the fellowship (Acts 4:32-35; Ps 133; 1 Jn 1:1-2:1) and aim, in part at least, to impress upon us “how good and pleasant” (Ps 133) a company it is.

In contrast to the idea that a person comes to faith through an individually-achieved struggle for private conviction in this small moment now, the preacher might present coming to Christian faith as a shared project of trust and mutual traditioning in an ample fellowship of believers of all times and places who, by the grace and power of the Spirit, edify one another in strength, and supply one another in lack.

We might speak of the church in this season of Easter as a company of disciples learning to pool the gift of faith, eagerly inquiring into and trusting each other’s experience of God, and ever building thereby a great storehouse of small faith and great, new and seasoned, questioning and serene, from which we borrow and to which we lend, generation to generation, until he comes again.

Another avenue for preaching the text is to remove the spotlight we always shine on Thomas and put it back on Jesus, the first born from the dead. His bodily appearance is full of mystery, to be sure, and one could get sidetracked attempting to explain the physics of his penetration of that locked door or the funky nature of resurrection bodies. Better to ponder instead the tender condescension of the Living One.

He knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them encompassing shalom.

He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes Spirit into their flagging hearts.

He knows they have lost their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation.

He knows they can hardly believe he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—he shows them his wounds.

He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the following week to make sure the Twin is not left out.

He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination. It is not surprising that in the presence of such immense tenderness, our text says (in what has to be one of the biggest understatements of the Bible) that the disciples “rejoiced.” The preacher could frame Easter in these terms, as the in-breaking of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, and restorative love like this, for all.

The preacher might also wish to inquire into the ethical edges of the text. A starting point might be Jesus’ refusal to blame and exact his due, thus breaking the relentlessly violent cycle of revenge by which the ordinary world turns.

One might also explore further the text’s stunning image of a Risen One who in the life of glory does not leave his wounds behind—the signs of his passion for us persist in his new flesh, such that when we see similar scars in the flesh of the neighbor, or on the body of the world, we will recognize him. And as we place our hands in mending on the wounded ones he loves, we too will exclaim on awed and bended knee before them, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).