Richard R. Crocker, College Chaplain
We have before us two scripture passages – one, the lectionary passage, from the gospel of John, describing the appearance of the resurrected Christ to his disciples, and his enigmatic conversation with Peter. The other is a passage that I have chosen for this occasion from Ephesians, which is a passage of instruction to the early church attributed to the Apostle Paul.
The common denominator of these passages is that they both have to do with the church – what it is and what it should be.
A great deal of attention has been given during the last few weeks to the selection and inauguration of a new Pope, Pope Francis the first. We Protestants watch this process with interest and sometimes amusement, because, although we hold the Pope in esteem as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, we have a very different model of church and do not accord him the authority that he claims in his own church. In the Roman Catholic tradition, authority comes down from the top. God gave authority to Jesus, who gave it to Peter, who gave it to his successors, who are the bishops of Rome or the Popes. It is very much a top-down conception of the church.
Protestants see it differently. The authority for most Protestant churches – especially those of the congregational and reformed polity, comes from the bottom up. Churches are gatherings of believers who voluntarily associate with one another. Ministers in those churches have authority given to them by the members of the church and symbolized by ordination. These are two different ideas or models of the church.
Protestants and Catholics have long argued about which model is the earliest or the purest or the truest. We could have no earlier picture of the church than the one we have today in the gospel of John, where the disciples , disillusioned, puzzled, bewildered, have gone back to Galilee from Jerusalem after the crucifixion and the rumored resurrection. They had to earn a living, so they returned to fishing, and they were frustrated because they were catching no fish. It was then that a mysterious figure appeared on the shore, telling them where to let down their net. Someone recognized, or theorized, that it was Jesus himself, so the impetuous Peter, who, we are told, was naked while he was in the boat fishing, put on his clothes and jumped into the water. Now there was silly act, wasn’t it? But Peter seems to have had a thing about getting wet: we remember his impetuous attempt to walk on the water, which resulted in his becoming very wet. The disciples remained puzzled, but they came to see clearly that it was Jesus who prepared breakfast for them, eating, perhaps, some of the 153 fish (who counted?). It was then that Jesus had the conversation with Peter about love —asking Peter three times whether he loved him, hearing three times Peter’s increasingly insistent declarations of love, and responding each time with the statement: feed my sheep (or lambs). Although the precise nature of this conversation is enigmatic, it is easy to see the parallel between Peter’s three declarations of love, after the resurrection, and the three denials of even knowing Jesus, before the crucifixion. So if, as Roman Catholics believe, Peter was indeed commissioned by Christ himself to be the leader of the church, it is clear that the church is built on the faith of very fallible people.
Protestants see no hierarchy in the early church – only the influence of teachers, like Paul, who was not one of the original disciples and who, indeed, had been a persecutor of believers, but who encountered the risen Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus and who became the chief missionary teacher of the early church. Through his missionary journeys, and through the letters he wrote to the young churches in various cities of the Roman empire, we learn from a man who had come to faith in Christ, and who was trying to help bands of believers throughout the empire learn to live as Christians in a pagan world. The letter to the Ephesians is one such Pauline letter, which, if not written by Paul himself, seems certainly to have reflected some of Paul’s views on how the early church, and the early Christian believers, should conduct themselves. This model of the early church, with no apparent hierarchy but with concern for one another, is the model that lies behind much protestant though – a model that was recovered during the Protestant reformation.
I turned to this passage from the letter to the Ephesians today because it is contains one of the earliest scripture passages I remember. When I was a very young child at Sunday school, long before I went to school or learned to read, we were taught memory verses, verses of scripture that we memorized each week. The first that I remember is “God is love.” (I John4:8) Ephesians 2:32 was also one of the very first. From the King James Bible (the only one I knew), we learned: “Be ye kind, one to another.” It was repeated with such frequency that I cannot ever forget it. Later, when we were a little older, we learned the second part of the verse: “Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I am reminded of Robert Fulghum’s book, “Everything I Really needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten.” I would say that everything I really needed to know about Christianity I learned in the beginner class of Sunday school.
This passage from Ephesians was written to Christians who disagreed with one another and who had become hurtful to each other through their disagreement. The scripture counsels them bluntly: “Put away from you all the bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” It is inevitable, given our human condition, that we have disagreements. Sometimes these come from misunderstanding. Sometimes they result from intentional hurt. Since these kinds of disagreements occurred in the earliest Christian communities, we should not be surprised that they still occur. The question is how we handle them
Let us return for a minute to Pope Francis. Whatever one’s view of the authority of the papacy, I think we would all agree that Pope Francis is off to a good start. Why? Because he is displaying extraordinary kindness. From his initial words to the throng in St Peter’s square when he recognized and blessed those in the assembled crowd who were not Catholic and not Christian, to his parade around St Peter’s square where he stopped frequently to greet children, to his extraordinary actions on Maundy Thursday when he went far beyond the customary ceremonial washing of feet to the unprecedented washing the feet of two women --- not only women, but Muslim women – we see that this is a man who is not pretentious, who wants to express simple human kindness. Kindness is, in my estimation, the central and essential virtue. The word kindness comes from the same word as kin – that is, being related to. When we recognize that we are all kin, that we are not special, separated from others, but related to one another – or, as Ephesians says, we “are members of one another”. Then we must treat each other as brothers and sisters. The new pope is off to a good start because he seems to know this. If he can in fact be an example of Christian kindness, then he will do a service, not only to the Catholic Church, or the Christian church, but to the whole world.
Meanwhile, we can do the same thing. If we can remember that we are members of one another, and if we can treat each other that way, we can be examples as well. But there is a catch. The passage is Ephesians begins by telling us to speak the truth: “So, then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Sometimes, in an effort to be pleasant or to avoid conflict, we fail to speak the truth. And of course, sometimes kindness does prevent us from speaking truth unnecessarily. For example, we learn as children that we should not tell Aunt Myrtle that she is wearing an ugly dress. But we probably should tell Aunt Myrtle that she has egg on her face, because that is an act of kindness. And when we have egg on our face, as we all will, sometime, somehow, the person who brings it to our attention is being kind. Jesus tells us, in another place, that the truth will make us free. (John 8:32) Paul tells us, also in Ephesians (4:15) that we should speak the truth in love. Sometimes the truth is painful to speak and painful to hear. But truth, spoken in love, is always an act of kindness. Forgiveness can only be given, and received, when we accept the truth. And when we know the truth about ourselves, we know that we are in need of forgiveness, just as others are.
“God is love.”
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
“Speak the truth in love.”
“Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Elementary. Essential. Profoundly true. Memory verses worth pondering, aren’t they?