Confession of Peter, Christian Unity
It is so good to be here, together.
I am honored and delighted to be with you here at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Warmest greetings from all of us at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.
We are here from VTS these two weeks, not for the world-famous “Luther Bowl” football game (you trounced us this year… I’m a Cubs fan, so I’m well acquainted with the cheer, “There’s always next year”). Those of us here from VTS last week and this week are part of the Doctor of Ministry program – faculty and students in a community of deep mutual learning, focused on strengthening our ministry and leadership by becoming skilled exegetes and interpreters of the contexts we serve, the “living texts” of individual lives and faith communities and neighborhoods, and by giving our minds and hearts to God-given visions of transformed souls and societies. We come from across the country and the world. We come from different denominations. Over the years of the DMin program, we have had students and instructors from Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Pentecostal, and worldwide Anglican traditions.
So, why are we here at Gettysburg?
I’d like to say we are here because we are living fully into our Episcopal-Lutheran relationship as churches in full communion with one another – living intentionally into the Call to Common Mission which our churches have embraced. And, in some small measure, that is true. Several years ago, Virginia Seminary and Gettysburg Lutheran entered a serious conversation about launching a joint Doctor of Ministry program in preaching, along with the Cathedral College in Washington, DC. That initiative gained steam over a couple years, but then ran into a serious problem when the Cathedral College at the Washington National Cathedral was closed. But we at Virginia are eager to reopen the conversation with Gettysburg about partnership in our DMin programs, and last year began to explore other alternatives to collaboration. Our conversations are continuing, as time permits when each of our institutions faces its own demands and challenges.
But what brought us here to Gettysburg this January was much more mundane. It was problems in our heating and air conditioning system in our guest housing. Our guest housing is on campus currently closed for reconstruction and refurbishment.
What we have found here is the graciousness and warmth of spacious Christian hospitality. You have been so very generous in granting us space for classes and discussions, warm accommodations for rest, food for our bodies and coffee for our minds, curiosity in conversation, and space to worship and even to lead worship for many in this community last week. We are so grateful.
This may be the real testimony of hope for Christian unity. Acts of hospitality. Acts of mutual care. Shared acts of mercy. Shared efforts for justice. While Episcopalians are delighted to have arrived at an agreement of full communion with ELCA Lutherans, the Call to Common Mission is a document that could so easily sit on a shelf and gather dust, as we each continue as denominations to attend to the needs and demands of our own houses. But it is in moments of living connection that the true seeds of common accord are sown – it is in the daily face-to-face connections that cross-fertilization leads to new blossoms and new fruit.
So. A few moments on our scripture texts for this day that marks the beginning of the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is the feast day marking the Confession of Peter.
We join Jesus and his disciples when Jesus asks them about people’s ideas about him. They have been on the road together for some time. The disciples have witnessed signs and miracles as Jesus brings healing and feeds multitudes. They have watched as religious leaders committed to the institution test Jesus and try to ensnare him in his own words. Soon, they will turn toward Jerusalem. And so, in chapter 16 of Matthew, we reach a pivotal moment. And that pivotal moment directly involves Simon Peter.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks directly. How would you answer, sisters and brothers?
Peter does not make some grand intellectualized statement about the height and breadth and complexities of Jesus’ identity. He makes a direct statement that utters his deepest hopes and his gut-level impressions. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” No soft-pedaling. No hemming and hawing. No embarrassment. Simple, direct speech.
How do we speak of Jesus, brothers and sisters? How do we speak of God?
It is, I believe, this directness, to which Jesus responds. He knows when he hears true speech – raw resonance, no holds barred, freedom from anxiety or embarrassment. And so follows Jesus’ blessing of Peter.
This text is a source text for church authority, no? “To YOU will be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Wow! Peter’s really in charge now! The Church of Rome has long treasured and celebrated this text as a sanction of papal authority. Luther saw in this text the power of the “office of the keys,” passed on to those “Herr Pastors” who were to serve as faithful shepherds and leaders. The Episcopal Church has tended to confuse location of this authority, putting high stock in the office of the bishop – at least in principle – while in actuality leaving bishops with less organizational or legal authority than Methodist bishops.
Ah, authority. That is what this text celebrates this day, right? Well. I’m not sure that’s the case. But I’d like to proceed forward in the text a bit. Matthew continues immediately with the following:
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.””
Ah, how quickly the glory fades. The shine is gone. Actually, to Peter, I can imagine this was a bit confusing. “What – first I’m the foundation rock, and now I’m a stumbling block? First I’m everything you’re looking for, and then I’m the Satan?”
I rather wish that these two segments were joined as the regular reading for this day, the Confession of Peter. Because it is the both-and reality of Peter that brings home to us the both-and nature of our own faith communities, our own selves as followers of Christ, our own leadership. How quickly we can be so right – and how quickly we can be so distorted and mistaken. How quickly we can move beyond direct speech that confesses the truths of God we have seen to speech that seeks to control and direct God’s movement. We are both-and.
It was nearly 100 years ago that the Parliament of World Religions first met. They fostered a vision of great unity, born on the wings of an age of hope and romantic notions of enlightenment, sparked by some of the early efforts of Christian ecumenism. It was at these gatherings of the Parliament of World Religions that enlightened religious leaders from around the world proposed an ideal of great universal unity – that all religions found their way in common to a greater Truth that was beyond their individual expressions but might finally be named and known through the process of interfaith dialogue.
This universalizing tendency – like some tendencies in Christian ecumenism – has since been understood as insufficient, and even intellectually violent. It can fly to abstractions that have little weight. It can lead to a process of looking for the lowest common denominator. It can claim universal unity but in the process minimize, marginalize, or obliterate religious perspectives that don’t match the universalizers’ claims.
This has been a danger in Christian ecumenism. This is a frequent misunderstanding of the idea of Christian unity. Does unity mean conformity of mind? Freedom from all conflict? Lock-step similarity of beliefs and values and practices?
It seems to me that unity, like authority, in the Church can be misunderstood and misapplied. Thankfully, the ecumenical conversation has progressed significantly, and focuses as much on preserving distinctiveness as it does on highlighting and amplifying similarities. We can begin to share and extend our table fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Holy Eucharist, knowing that each tradition grasps and amplifies some feeble understanding of how it is that Christ meets us, breaks bread with us, feeds us directly in this meal.
Unity cannot ultimately happen by top-down enforcement or hierarchical authoritative decision or through the cleverness of an intellectual elite. In fact, it is quite possible that following such a strategy will only lead us along a path of high potential for error, of abuse of authority, of misinterpretation or even refusal of Christ’s word of truth.
A few years ago, Louis Weil, an Episcopal liturgical scholar, priest, and contributor to the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer – a companion of the Lutheran scholar Gordon Lathrop – brought together scholars from Roman Catholic, Disciples, and Lutheran traditions to offer a conference on the status of the ecumenical movement. They presented the efforts, the high hopes, and the pitfalls and disappointments of the ecumenical movement through the last century. They offered examples of dead ends and road blocks when attempting an institution-driven solution. And they offered examples of great cross-denominational collaborations and shared efforts in Christian witness. Louis ended the conference reflecting on the hope for Christian unity for the future. He said, “Perhaps the hope for Christian unity is not to be pursued as communitas in sacris. Perhaps it will first be found and embraced as communitas in vita.”
Maybe our path does not lie first through the table – the altar – the sacramental meal of the Lord’s Supper. Although, we are so grateful for the extended table fellowship between Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Moravians, and the other churches that each of our traditions has embraced in full sacramental communion. But perhaps the more essential – and in the end, more incarnational – path lies in the holy community that forms when Christians join together in acts of mercy and justice, when we share meals and hospitality with one another, when we break bread together with the outcasts and strangers, when we together hold up a mirror to society gone awry, when we build houses and create jobs and strengthen families – and when we do these things together in the name of the One whose path was not to glory but to suffering – the One who embraced the path that could have so easily been avoided.
Thank you again for your gracious ministry of hospitality and welcome, for embracing us and giving us a place of co-leadership among you. May this be part of the story of our continuing path toward Christian unity in the midst of celebrating our differences – a path of communitas in vita, of holy community found in the midst of life together. May Christ help free all of our voices to speak directly, clearly, and from the heart. And may God grant us wisdom to see when we are beginning to misuse our authority or step into the place of knowing what God truly has in mind.
Posted: 1/19/2012 11:53:49 AM
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Sermons, devotional thoughts, and poetic and prosaic offerings heard and offered up in the Seminary Chapel life including some offered off campus by seminary voices.
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