Today the lectionary, our cycle of Sunday readings, brings us stories of both Peter and Paul – the two most famous leaders in the early years of Christianity. On the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial, Peter had famously denied, three times, that he knew Jesus; now he redeems that night of fear by affirming his love for Jesus three times. And Jesus calls him to his leadership role in the early church, as feeder and tender of Christ’s sheep, the newborn Christian community.
In the book of the Acts of the Apostles – Luke’s sequel to his Gospel – we receive the story of the conversion of Saul, known to us as Paul. Saul was a Jew and a zealous one; he wanted all God’s people to turn back to their ancient ways of holiness and righteousness. The Jesus movement was a threat – so he set out to destroy it, until one day on the road to Damascus he was blinded by the light of Christ.
It’s really a lot to get the commissioning stories of both of these guys on one Sunday! But they do have a lot in common. Redemption and re-orientation. Purpose. Joy. And … death. Or at least: The clear expectation of death.
In our Acts lesson, Saul – who will be Paul – is fresh from his role holding the coats of the men who stoned the apostle Stephen to death for preaching the Gospel. (People took off their coats to avoid bloodstains.) And immediately after this passage, the Jewish leaders of Damascus begin plotting to have Paul killed – for the same reasons he used to be so eager to kill Christians. He has to escape the city by being lowered over the walls in a basket by night. Paul has every reason to expect his new calling – to bring the name of Jesus before Gentiles and kings – will kill him. As it does, eventually – Paul was executed for his faith in Rome, perhaps thirty years later, during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero.
As for Peter – Jesus tells him now to expect death. “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” Tradition tells us that Peter, too, was executed in Rome – crucified, hands outstretched – around the same time as Paul. There’s a second-century story about it: Peter is fleeing Rome to escape his doom, when he meets Jesus, who is walking towards the city. Peter asks him, Quo vadis, Domine? Where are you going, Lord? Jesus answers, I am going to Rome to be crucified again. Peter turns around and returns to the city to face his destiny.
Peter and Paul spent their lives preaching Christ crucified and risen, preaching a new life in God for all who believe, calling communities of believers gathered around that hope of new and abundant life – all while fully expecting to die for their faith. Not a contradiction but a paradox; not lies and delusion, but deeper truth.
The Resurrection does not make everything OK. Jesus came back from death – still wounded. And even though his friends got to see him again, were able to find some sense of resolution and peace and purpose in his death, it wasn’t the way it was before. Things weren’t back to normal. That normal was gone.
Becoming a Christian is not opting out of the hard stuff. Maybe it seems obvious, but there is a temptation, a slippery slope, a hope that our piety can buy us God’s favor. That the quantity or quality of our prayers might pull a beloved child or elder back from the brink of death. Prayer works; but that’s not how it works.
That our generosity might buy us out of the common human lot of pain, misfortune, and loss. Generosity works; but that’s not how it works.
That our righteous actions will form a hedge of protection around us, shielding us from harm. We’re more likely to say it about someone else than about ourselves, perhaps – how can something like that happen to somebody like her? – but we do slip into it, sometimes. I’ve caught myself thinking it several times this past week. Righteousness works, dear ones – but that’s not how it works.
That’s why we need to be Christians together. Why Jesus commissioned Peter to leadership as care, not command; why Paul gave every day of his life to founding and nurturing communities of believers. Households of faith to bear and carry the hard stuff together. Christian writer Rachel Held Evans says, “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.” I ran across this quotation in a post about Rachel’s illness – she’s very sick, and Christians across the spectrum are holding her in prayer. I invite your prayers, too. Because prayer DOES work – we just don’t really know how.
Today we begin our long-planned, long-awaited renovation. And maybe the inevitability of death and suffering is not the most obvious sermon for the occasion. But Peter and Paul looked death and suffering in the face, and went out to start churches.
Why invest money and energy and time in making a place for believers to gather? And then invest more in making it safer, more comfortable, more hospitable and beautiful and useful? Not because the building matters; but because the gathering matters. And anyone who’s ever attending a meeting in a musty church basement with ancient folding chairs and bathrooms two flights of stairs away, knows that the container for the gathering matters.
As the bricks-and-mortar – or perhaps drywall-and-concrete – phase of the Open Door Project begins, it may be easy for us to over-focus on the building. Both the inconvenience and mess of the renovation itself, and our big shiny hopes for the results. It might be easy to feel like disrupting the building is the same thing as disrupting the church; and that renewing the building is the same thing as renewing the church. Those are both probably a little bit true – but not a lot true.
To remind myself that the building serves the community, and not the other way round, I went way back to the focus groups we did in 2015. Two years before the series of Wondering Conversations that helped us develop the Open Door Project – yet those earlier conversations were part of the work too, naming what we think we’re about and why it matters. One of the questions was, “Does belonging to church help with areas of pain or struggle?” Your answers overwhelmed me then; they overwhelm me now.
Listen to what some people said: “I’ve had a rough couple of years. I know there are people here who are concerned about me and who love me, regardless of where I am.” “We share the prayer list every Sunday and very few of us know what all those names are for, but we together lift them up, and for me that’s a tremendous comfort.” “It’s easy for me to get to feeling like I’m out there on the end of the branch, swinging all by myself, but that’s not the case at all. People who care for me are here, [and] when I don’t have sense enough to pray, somebody else is.” “Coming here, being with other Christians who share a perspective about how the world could be, gives me hope that there’s a community of people who are committed to making the world a better place.”
“It breaks the tunnel-focus on bad stuff in your little world.” “It’s a re-set button.” “It’s a reminder that good exists, and that’s enough.” “It’s the well that I come to for the water of life, in so many ways.”
Listen, I don’t want to make it sound like we’ve got this figured out. I am positive there are people in the room right now thinking, I haven’t yet found this here; I don’t feel connected in a way that is helping sustain me. I hope we’ll continue weaving that fabric of mutual care to be warm and strong and capacious, for each of us and all of us. And of course caring for one another in hard times is only one of the things a healthy church does. We also worship and sing and play and eat and wonder and make stuff and give and serve together. All of that and more.
The point is this: What we’re doing by repairing and improving the building, the container, is investing in our future gatherings; and we invest in our future gatherings because we believe that gathering matters. That our common life as people of faith, gathered and sent, matters. That what we do when we come together makes us better able to carry love and peace and beauty and justice, and, well, Jesus, out into the world with us when we go.
And we can undertake this audacious, impractical work – not renovating a building, but being a church – because it’s ultimately God’s work, not ours.
This Gospel lesson was read at my ordination to the priesthood, back in February of 2009. My friend and mentor Lisa Fischbeck preached about it. And she called my attention to the pronouns in this back and forth between Jesus and Peter: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Not your sheep – Peter’s sheep. Jesus’ sheep. God’s sheep. Still. Always. Lisa told me, “Always remember that [even though you are called to be a] tender of the sheep, the Good Shepherd over all is Jesus.”
Psalm 127 says, Unless God builds the house, the workers labor in vain. We’ve worked hard, friends, but it is God who is building this house, God who is tending this flock. Our past, present, and future belong to God. And in this moment of both fulfillment and beginning, we commend ourselves and all our undertakings to the God who raises up what has been cast down, who makes new what has grown old, and who is carrying out in tranquillity the work of salvation.