That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Jesus Christ

What are you looking for?

lamb

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector of Christ Church, Cooperstown, New York

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

What are you looking for?

That’s the question Jesus puts to those disciples of John the Baptist who follow him in this morning’s Gospel.

What are you looking for?

It’s a reasonable question to put to a churchful of people on a chilly January morning. No one comes to church by accident. Did you know that? You may think you’re here because your mother made you come, or because you simply show up out of habit week after week. But no one comes by accident. Whether we recognize it or not, we have all been brought here–assembled here–for a purpose. We are all here to seek, to search, and to find.

What are you looking for?

It’s a question that can, ultimately, be put to all humankind. For the truth is, we are creatures made to seek and search; to yearn and hope; to quest and to find. We are men and women made to look for something–for Someone.

What are you looking for?

The cosmos itself poses the question. This world of beauty and complexity and pleasure and delight urges us on: “Keep looking!” All the good things of this life have been given to us as gifts–as love letters from the Giver. The glories of our earth–glories given to us to explore and enjoy–are meant to spur us in our quest; to whet our appetite for their Source. We are meant to be looking. We are meant to find.

But something has gone wrong. The long story of the human race is the story of our turning away from our ultimate Destination and settling for the signposts pointing the way to him. It is the story of our turning away from the Creator to find satisfaction with his creatures.

That is, perhaps, the simplest definition of Sin. Not sins, plural: the many individual “things we ought not to have done” that you and I do each day–or the many good things we fail to do. Those are sins, plural. But Sin, singular, is the sour source of them all. It is the rejection of God for the things God has made. It is the attempt to end our seeking too soon. It is the vain effort to sate our hunger for the eternal with the temporal and the corruptible.

And corruptible they are. The good things of earth cease to be good when we make them ends unto themselves. The delights of this life become dust and ashes in our embrace when we hold onto them alone. The pleasures of existence become pain and suffering and shame when we seek them with all our heart.

What are you looking for in those corners of your life of which you are ashamed and afraid? What are you looking for in your endless seeking after wealth and worthiness? What are you looking for in your quest for status and significance? What are you looking for in your web searches and your eating habits? What are you looking for in your self-medicating and self-loathing? What are you looking for?

John knew. John the Baptist knew what he was looking for. He knew because he had been readied. He knew because he had been given the sign. He knew because he was a prophet fulfilling the work of a prophet. He knew because the Lord had told him, “The One on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

John was looking for the Lamb of God: the Creator become flesh for the sake of his lost creation. John was looking for one who would take away the Sin, singular, of the world: who would submerge the people of God in the Spirit of God so that their hearts would never again settle for anything but God. John was looking for the Anointed one who would save his people, and all people.

And when John saw Jesus he declared to his disciples: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

What are you looking for? It is here in his embrace. What are you looking for? It is found in his gift of himself. What are you looking for? He holds it out to you in his Word and his Sacraments, as he stokes and sates the hunger of his people, calling us to go beyond the gifts to continue seeking after the Giver.

“What are you looking for?” Christ Jesus asks it of you, today, as he asked it of those disciples of John long ago. And as he invited them, he invites you too. Stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross, the Source and Summit of all our longing bids us, “Come and see.” AMEN.

 

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The Devil is in the Details

leonart_bramer_circumcision_christ

(“The Circumcision of Christ”, by Leonaert Bramer, 1631.)

A Sermon Preached on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 1, 2017

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector of Christ Church, Cooperstown, New York

Texts: Exodus 34:1-8 ; Philippians 2:9-13 ; Luke 2:15-21

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There’s nothing worse than the day after Christmas. Even if you’re not a kid anymore–and many of you haven’t been kids for a long time–December 26th is a day of deflation and disappointment. After all the build-up, all the excitement, all the anticipation that finally culminates in the glory of Christmas Day, you wake up the next morning and find that everything is dull and ordinary again. The candlelight services are over, the glorious concerts have been sung, the gifts have all been given and unwrapped, and now we’re back to normal life. The holy and extraordinary yields to the mundane and the everyday.

Indeed, it might even be worse for grown-ups. We’ve been through it all often enough before to know that the change back to dreary normalcy is inevitable. It’s this way every year. And that sure and certain knowledge even starts to invade our sense of the holy and the extraordinary. We find it harder and harder to enter into the mystery, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the little niggling things intrude on us again–and even make us doubt whether anything special ever happened in the first place. Sure, the church looks lovely when we all kneel by candlelight and sing “Silent Night,” but Christmas dinner still has to be prepared. The details still have to be attended to and, as we say, “The Devil is in the details.”

Thus deflated and disappointed and facing again the demands of the ordinary do we gather on this New Year’s Day. Our carols and Christmas decorations tell us it’s still Christmastide, as indeed it is for a full Twelve Days. But if we’re honest, we know it doesn’t really feel like it. We have already passed from the holy and extraordinary to the mundane and the everyday.

And that’s precisely what this day is for. Today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. It sounds rather grand when we put it like that. But it isn’t. This is an extraordinarily ordinary feast.

Didn’t you hear the drudgery in our Gospel passage this morning? The shepherds who have heard something wonderful–these shepherds to whom the Angel of the Lord appeared, around whom the glory of the Lord shone, who stood “sore afraid” while “peace on earth and goodwill towards men” were proclaimed to them–go and see the glorious sight. They worship at the manger with the Child’s mother and father. They proclaim the Good News about the boy to everyone they meet.

And then…they went back to their sheep! “The shepherds returned, praising and glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” They returned. After everything they’d experienced that night, they went back to the smelly old sheep on the hillside. And there in the dreariness of the everyday they continued to praise and glorify the God who had called them out of their work-a-day dullness–and who brought them back in safety to it.

Or what about the end of our Gospel passage–the scene that gives this day its title? “When the eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus.” For us, the scene is fraught with wonder and beauty and grace. The name of Jesus is holy and sacred beyond measure. Were you impressed by all that? Don’t be.

While a circumcision may have been a remarkable event in the life of an individual family, it is actually a routine and ordinary thing. (Though I suppose one oughtn’t to say that to the one actually being circumcised.) It’s a great event focused on the plain and ordinary details of life. Circumcision brought Jesus–and every baby boy born into a Jewish household–into the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses. And what were those commandments for? Yes, they guided a faithful Jewish man through the great questions and challenges of his existence. But much more, they shaped and sustained the faithful Jew in the normal living of his daily life. The commandments weren’t simply for the extraordinary and the holy. They found their fullest expression in the everyday and the mundane–the profane, even, when we consider how many of the commandments in the Law of Moses dealt with daily activities and functions not usually discussed in polite society.

And even the name of Jesus is downright ordinary! While it has existed in many forms and variations, it is simply a version of the name “Joshua.” It was borne by several figures in the Bible. It was a normal Jewish name of that time and place. I can assure you that there were at least three other Jesuses in the little Hebrew school in Nazareth in 10 A.D. It was a common, everyday name for a common, everyday boy.

All of this is what makes this day extraordinarily ordinary. And it’s why this feast is such an important part of our Christmas celebration. Already in these glorious Twelve Days, we’ve contemplated the wonder of the Incarnation: the astonishing love made clear when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And today we see just how thoroughly he dwelt among us. We see just how far he was willing to go to be with us. He accepted a lowly name in a lowly family. He submitted himself to the Law in his waking and in his sleeping and in his normal life. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us–in all of our boring insignificance, our unremarkable normality, our everyday grind.

The Devil is in the details. And because of Christ Jesus’ conception, and birth, and circumcision, and naming, God is in the details now, too.

That’s not normal! The God we human beings expect is the God Moses met on Mount Sinai. He’s the God who threatens anyone or anything who comes near the mountain. He’s the God whose face cannot be seen, lest the one who sees it perish. He’s the God whose Name is too holy to be spoken. He’s the God who gives his Law in power and majesty and awe. He’s not supposed to become subject to that Law, in a frail human body like mine! He’s not supposed to bear a common name that can be called to come for supper, just like yours! He’s not supposed to be present in ugly, ordinary details of lives like ours.

And yet this day tells us that, in Jesus, our God is present in the ugly, ordinary details of lives like ours. In Jesus, our God does bear a name that can be called on in the most desperate, most pointless prayers. In Jesus, our God has taken on a body that hungers and thirsts and suffers and even dies–just like mine and yours.

How changed is our everyday life, now charged with the glory of God! How transformed and transfigured are our goings and comings, our waking and sleeping, our family life and our work life, our time on the roadways and our time in the grocery store, our loving and fighting and eating and drinking–our living and our dying. For there can be no mistake: God in Christ Jesus is there with us, in all of the ordinary things of life, calling us to new hope, new holiness, new birth.

St Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” and if he stopped there, it would seem that he left them with little to go on in their everyday lives but drudgery and duty. But Paul did not stop there. He continues: “Work out your own salvation…because it is God who is at work in you.” The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, and by his death and resurrection he is now not simply among us but within us. “God is at work in you.”

Beloved, we stand on the brink of a New Year filled with a few cosmic challenges and a thousand tiny frustrations–a year filled with wondrous hopes and daily disappointments. Go forth, into the thick of it, knowing that our God has claimed it all as his own. He is Lord of the heights of Sinai, and he reigns in your daily existence. He is the God who made the heavens and the earth, and he is the Christ who has descended to the deepest depths of pain and suffering. He sustains the universe by his mighty, outstretched arm–and he is at work in you, revealing even greater measures of his power and his love. AMEN.

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Since taking up my duties as Rector of Christ Church in Cooperstown, New York, I am sorry that I have not found much time to update my blog. I hope very much that that will change in the New Year. But even so, on this Fifth Day of Christmas, I wanted to share my sermon from Christmas Eve.

God bless you in this holy season and in the year to come!

cole-angel-shepherds

(“The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”, by Thomas Cole, 1833-34. The sudden in-breaking of the Angel Gabriel into a dark, dead scene perfectly expresses the unexpected arrival of life into our world and our hearts.)

A Sermon Preached on Christmas Eve, 2016

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector, Christ Church, Cooperstown, NY

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” That’s how Charles Dickens opens his well-loved story A Christmas Carol. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Most folks probably know the story these days through a movie or television adaptation. I must confess a certain fondness for “A Muppet Christmas Carol”, though that is probably not considered the most faithful interpretation.

But whatever version you may know and love, they all begin with that same odd, unsettling, downright creepy opening line. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Who starts a Christmas story by talking about death?! It’s crazy!

But Dickens does it for one very important reason. He tells the reader, “Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” If we were not quite certain that Marley was dead to begin with, his appearance in the tale would not astound or surprise us.

And by beginning in the way he does, Dickens accomplishes more than merely weirding out his readers—though he does do that. By beginning with death, Dickens makes sure that the eventual arrival of life astonishes and delights us all the more. By beginning with death, Scrooge’s transformation from a miserly old grump—or, as Dickens calls him, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner”—into a warm-hearted, generous, loving friend, can be seen for what it really is: a journey out of death into life.

So why am I telling you all about the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at this late hour on Christmas Eve when you could just as easily be home right now, sitting next to the fire with some high-octane eggnog, watching your favorite movie version—or, even better, reading the original book? Well, it’s because the story we tell tonight in Church bears a striking and significant resemblance to Dickens’s classic tale. There are no bah humbugs, no ghosts of past, present, or future, and no huge turkeys. But just like A Christmas Carol, the Christmas story we hear tonight begins with Death.

Maybe you didn’t notice it. I’ll admit, it’s not very obvious. If all you know about this story is what you just heard read from Luke’s Gospel, you might even think I’m extremely confused to claim that there’s anything about death in it at all. I mean, aren’t we here to celebrate a birth?

But did you hear in our First Reading what the Prophet Isaiah said many centuries before the birth of Christ? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Now we tend to focus on the light, and that’s good. But what was that darkness? Who were those people dwelling in a land of shadows?

Or were you listening when Isaiah talked about “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders”? Before we can understand the freedom he’s celebrating, we have to ask: What was that burden? Who put that bar there?

Or did you wonder why, in the midst of all that beautiful stuff about light and freedom and the child who is called “wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” there was that one odd and ugly line about “the boots of all the tramping warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood,” being “burned as fuel for the fire”?

Or did you hear the hint of a warning in St Paul’s Letter to Titus, when he writes about God who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people”? Did you consider what the iniquity from which we are being redeemed is? Did you ask why we need to be purified in the first place?

Or even in St Luke’s great story about the birth of Jesus, did you listen when the Angel told the Shepherds just who this child was? “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior…” Why did the Shepherds need a Savior in the first place? Why do any of us need a Savior? What are we being saved from?

“Marley was dead: to begin with,” said Charles Dickens. “The world was dead: to begin with,” says the Bible.

The Good News of Christmas begins in the same strange, unsettling, even creepy way that Dickens’s classic story begins. It begins with death. Not just the death of some old money-lender named Marley. But the Death that looms over all people— the Death that looms over all creation. The Christmas Gospel, the Christmas message, begins with this announcement: “We were dead, to begin with.”

Perhaps that seems to you a preposterous and unbelievable claim. But consider what we’ve seen of the power of death this year, and this holiday season. Terrorist attacks in Christmas markets, a never-ending crisis in Syria, violence and crime in our own cities, and in our towns, and even in our villages. Consider what we know of the problems of addiction throughout this nation and even in this community. Consider the death of civility that we all witnessed in the election cycle just concluded.

When we are not able to quiet our fears of the future or satisfy our own longing for security, we feel the power of Death. When we cannot buy enough or own enough or give enough away to protect ourselves from the changes and chances of life, we feel the power of Death. When we finally face the awful fact that our lives are not our own, and we see that we have been walking in darkness and dwelling in a land of deep darkness, we see that we have been living under the reign and power of Death.

That hard truth must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the wonderful Good News we have heard this night.

For tonight, the Angel of the Lord speaks again to each of us, just as he spoke to the shepherds twenty centuries ago. He speaks to ears like ours, that have grown deaf with straining for a word of hope. He appears to eyes like ours, that have grown dim with watching for our redemption. He calls to hearts like ours, that are heavy with all the hatred and bitterness and tragedy and violence we find in our world. He brightens minds like ours, that cannot figure a way out of all our troubles: the troubles we have caused for ourselves and the troubles thrust upon us unfairly and unexpectedly and without a way out.

To us the Angel Gabriel speaks, and says,

“Fear not. For though you were dead in your sins and trespasses; dead in the things that took you far from God and that broke your bonds with other people; dead in your words and in your deeds; dead in your waking and in your sleeping; dead in your hardness of heart and your brokenness of will—Though you were dead, fear not. God has acted. For unto you is born this day a Savior. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The trappings of violence will all be rolled up and destroyed. The threat of judgment has been averted. The promise of the prophets has come true. Not just to save you from the final threat of ultimate death, whenever it may come, but to raise you from the gloom of living death to true life right now—to set you free from the burdens of your oppressors, and to break the bar of tyranny laid across your shoulders by your own drives and desires and appetites and anxieties. Fear not. For unto you is born this day a savior which is Christ the Lord.”

We were dead to begin with, but through the Birth of this Holy Child, life has broken into our world.

We were dead to begin with, but God in Christ Jesus has come to make us alive again.

We were dead to begin with, but the life and death, and resurrection of the child born in Bethlehem has shattered the power of death and risen us to life.

O come, all ye faithful! Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Hark, the herald angels sing: “Glory to the newborn king!” For we who once were dead have now been made alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.

Through their word…

A Sermon Preached on Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after the Ascension, May 8, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus: crucified, risen, and ascended on high. Amen.

Why are you here today?

I’m sure there are as many answers to that question as there are people in this cathedral. Some of you are here because you are always here—you keep this place running, and it’s woven into the fabric of your life. Some of you are here because you know you want to be or feel you ought to be, even if you can’t really say why. Some of you are here because you’re hungry and you hope to be fed. Some of you are here because you’re hurting and need to be soothed. Some of you are here because your mother makes you come to church, and on this day above all days, that is a perfectly good reason.

(Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the mother who went to wake her son for church on Sunday morning. “I don’t want to go to church,” her son shouted back through the door. “Why not?” his mother asked. “I’ll give you two good reasons,” said the son, “They don’t like me, and I don’t like them.” The mother thought about it for a moment, then said, “Ok, but I’ll give you two good reasons why you WILL go to church: you’re forty-seven years old and you’re the preacher!”)

But none of these answers get to the heart of the question I’m asking, because I’m asking it not in terms of our own personal reasons, but in the context of this morning’s Scripture.

Why are you here today?

This morning’s readings make very clear something that we do not always see: we are here, all of us–you and me and everyone who has ever walked through these doors–because of the living Word of God. We are here because two-thousand years ago the first Apostles were obedient to the command of Jesus. We are here because they faithfully, fervently, tirelessly, obeyed the prayer of Jesus that we heard this morning, and they received his promise. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking about us. And that is why we are here today.

All of us. Whether you are committed, certain, firm in your belief, or whether your faith today hangs by the thinnest thread, in our passage this morning Jesus is praying for you. Whether you have dwelt long in the close embrace of God and rejoice in the intimate community of the Holy Trinity, or whether you are new to and uncertain about all this talk of “love before the foundation of the world”, Jesus is praying for you. Whoever you are, however you got to this place, we are all of us here for one reason: the fruitful prayer of Jesus, working through the proclamation—the announcement—that those first followers of Jesus made.

That is not as inevitable as it may seem. You will recall way back on Easter Sunday how the disciples went away from the empty tomb and hid themselves in fear and trembling. One would not have guessed that those men would go forth with a powerful proclamation. But they did not stay hidden for long.

Next week we will celebrate Pentecost. We will remember the day when the Church broke forth out of hiding, impelled out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what did the Apostles do when they had received power from on high? They proclaimed, in languages that they had not studied, in tongues that they did not know, the everlasting Word of salvation: the mighty announcement that Jesus Christ was crucified and is now Risen.

We see the power of that Word today in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Silas are being pestered by a little slave girl who is possessed by a demon. She follows along, loudly announcing their identity and intention. She is a slave not only to the human masters who exploit her for their gain, but to the seeing spirit that possesses her.

And so Paul, annoyed by the prattling demon, turns upon the little girl and commands: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And the girl was made free of her demonic possession.

There is the power of the Apostolic Word, the proclamation rooted and founded in Jesus Christ! Of course, that Word come not only with power but with a price. It gets Paul and Silas into a great deal of trouble. They are denounced, and beaten, and locked-up.

Yet even when shackled in a prison cell, they cannot abandon the Word they have been given. At midnight, they sing songs and hymns, and shout the praises of God as they lie in the darkest depths, bound in chains and iron. And even there in the depths of the prison, God demonstrates in them his power to save through their Word. When the trembling jailer falls before them and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” they speak the Word of the Lord to him and his household, and they believe.

From those humble beginnings, from those earliest announcements, the mighty Word spread. The heirs of the Apostles made their way across seas and mountains to proclaim the Word in new lands, to new peoples. The power of the Spirit of God could not be contained. In times of persecution, the Word was whispered and spoken in secret. It still is in many parts of the world today. In times of faith and confidence, the Word was proclaimed from great pulpits to thronging congregations, eager to hear the news again .

And through servants known and unknown, by means obvious and paths untraceable, the Word has come to us, just as Jesus prayed that it would.

Yet here we must pause. The way I have told this story, we might be led to look on Trinity Cathedral in 2016 as the fullest flowering of the Apostolic Word. Being time-bound creatures, we have a tendency to favor the present moment. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.” For us, right now is the only true reality: the past is a fading photograph of things that have been; the future is an unknown, uncertain prospect, full of doom or hope, depending on your point of view.

But we must remember that God’s perspective is not like ours. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, nor your ways, my ways.” “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Jesus does not privilege the present when he prays for his followers in our Gospel today–either the present moment of his original context or our present moment today. When he speaks of “those who will believe in me through their word,” he surely speaks of us. But he also speaks to us—and speaks through us—to the generations who will come to believe because of the Word that we proclaim.

Jesus’ words in Scripture today are to us a benediction and a call to battle. They are both our blessing and our marching orders.

For today, Christians, the prayer of Jesus allows us to look backwards and realize that we stand at the head of a great, triumphant procession. With the eyes of faith, we see the Church as God sees it: rank upon rank of saints standing in an unbroken line down through the ages. We hear the Word—sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted—always calling, constituting, and commissioning the Church from that first Apostolic band right down even to our day.

And not to us, only. For Jesus’ prayer also bids us turn, Christians, from gazing upon the happy victors of the Church Triumphant—those blessed ones who rest from their labors, those giants on whose mighty shoulders we stand–and to look upon the Church Militant, still struggling and striving here on earth. And with the eyes of your soul perfected by the timeless sight of your Savior, behold the Church as she shall yet be! Behold the conquering ranks of the generations to come who will be called, constituted, and commissioned through your faithful proclamation of the triumphant Word, preached in your every word and deed!

Today, Jesus speaks of us and Jesus speaks to us. Today Jesus shows that the power of his Word is what draws us ever deeper into the everlasting love between the eternal Father and the Incarnate Son, within the bond of the Holy Spirit. And today, Jesus give us the glorious task of proclaiming that Apostolic Word anew and inviting others into his unending life of love. Today, Jesus calls us—all of us—to take up the Apostles’ mission, to hand on the Apostles’ message, to proclaim the everlasting Gospel of salvation, so that a people yet unborn may know the mighty deeds of the Lord.

So rise up, O Church, and faint not before the brutality and the beatings and the cruel indifference of this world to the Gospel of salvation! Rise up, O Church, and go forth to proclaim the Word, in the power and presence of God! Rise up, O Church, and be what your Lord shall make of you!

For that is why we are here today.

AMEN.

“Follow me!”

 

Peter and Paul

(The St Peter and St Paul windows of Trinity Cathedral face each other from the ends of the north and south transepts. The low-quality photos are my own.)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. Amen.

Do you have what it takes to be a disciple? Do you know what it means to be a follower of the Risen Jesus?

Our passages from the Acts of the Apostles and from John’s Gospel today introduce us to two of the greatest disciples of all time: Simon, Son of John, and Saul of Tarsus. We know them better as St Peter and St Paul–the two men God chose especially for the work of establishing, tending, and spreading his Church. We know them from their profound letters, which make up the bulk of the New Testament. We know them from the stories of their powerful words and deeds. We know them from their stained glass portraits here in the Cathedral. And we know them from the long shadow they still cast over Christian life.

Surely Peter and Paul show us the measure of discipleship. Surely their witness and example show us what it takes to follow Jesus. And surely, this should leave us shaking in our pews!

Does a disciple have to have the courage and conviction of Peter: boldly preaching the Good News, performing deeds of power and healing in Jesus’ name, and faithfully tending the flock of Christ until he is crucified—upside down?!

Does a disciple have to have the eloquence and the tenacity of Paul: tirelessly spreading the Gospel everywhere he went, facing hostile crowds and skeptical hearers around the Mediterranean world, braving all the disasters and indignities of first-century travel, and finally going up to Rome itself to proclaim the lordship of Jesus in the courts of the Emperor?

If all this is what it takes to be a disciple—if the trials and triumphs of Peter and Paul provide the template for the Christian life—well then I wouldn’t blame you if you headed for the doors right now. (Please don’t do that.)

But before we let the legacy of Peter and Paul scare us off, I want to call us back to the specific stories we have heard today. I want to look at these two men, not in light of what we know they will become or of what we remember about them from Church history. But I want to look at them just as we find them today, at the beginning of their lives as disciples of the Risen Jesus, and to consider what their stories can teach us about the life of discipleship.

It is not a promising beginning. On the one hand we have Simon Peter, the most eager,  the most outspoken, and the most assertive of Jesus’ inner circle of followers throughout the course of his earthly ministry. Simon is always rushing ahead, making promises we know he can’t keep, offering explanations we know he doesn’t fully understand. Simon is a loudmouth, full of bluster and bravado and false confidence. And Simon is the one who, as Jesus approaches his passion and death, denies ever knowing his Lord just in order to save his own skin.

Our Gospel today tells us that Simon Peter remained the leader of Jesus’ followers event after the Resurrection. In the midst of their joyful confusion and happy bewilderment at meeting their Risen Lord, Simon led them back up to Galilee to return to the life they knew before they ever met Jesus. So it is that this morning we find the disciples right back where they started: fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee in their little, leaky boats, with nothing to show for their work but their empty nets.

On the other hand, we have Saul of Tarsus: the most zealous, the most feared, and the most hate-filled of the persecutors of the early Church. We meet Saul for the very first time as he looks on approvingly at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles we’re told of Saul’s single-minded mission to destroy the Church of God. This morning, we hear that “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” received official sanction for his effort to search out early followers of the Way—women and men who walked in the way of the Risen Christ—and to bring them bound to Jerusalem.

So there we have them: Simon, the rudderless, thoughtless, faithless fisherman; and Saul, the ruthless, pitiless, vicious religious fanatic.

What on earth can these stories teach us about being a follower of the Risen Christ? How in the world do these miserable men become the great disciples we’ve heard about?

When we look at Simon and Saul at the beginning of their ministries, we find that what binds together their lives and stories is one thing–and one thing only: The Call of God. What makes these two men disciples–in spite of their faults and failures, in spite of their hatreds and their hurts–is the Call of the Risen Jesus.

It’s easiest to see in Saul’s case because his transformation is so sudden and stark. Traveling along the Damascus road, doggedly pursuing his goal of total destruction for the Church, the zealous young Pharisee meets the Risen Jesus in a blinding flash of light.

Imagine his bafflement and confusion; imagine his wonder and his fear. Everything Saul knows about himself and his world, everything in which Saul takes pride and to which he has devoted his life, is overthrown in an instant. Darkness descends upon him. Three days Saul spends in blindness and in prayer, fasting from food or drink. And when, on the third day, Ananias comes to him at the Lord’s command and lays his hands upon him, and the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, we see the fruit of his encounter–we see the power of God’s Call. Saul the Pharisee is baptized, and begins to preach the name of Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus. A disciple is born.

But notice that the change in Saul has not been accomplished by Saul’s own decision or choice. The change in Saul has not been accomplished by his days spent in fasting and prayer. The change in Saul has not even been accomplished by the ministry of faithful Ananias.

Saul has been changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. Saul has been transformed because the Lord has chosen him for an instrument “to bring [his] name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel.” The unexpected, unasked for Call of God is the root and source of Saul’s discipleship.

And that Call is the root and source of Simon Peter’s discipleship as well. Imagine Simon’s shame and dejection as he remembers denying that he ever knew his Lord. Imagine his confusion and even his fear as he hears word of the Resurrection and remembers the teaching of Jesus: that “He who denies me before others, him I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Imagine his anxiety and his excitement as he realizes that the man walking along the shore of Galilee is Jesus, and he throws himself into the water, swimming with all his might to meet him. Imagine his anticipation and trepidation as he watches Jesus eat his breakfast by the lakeshore, marveling that this is not a vision, or an apparition, or even a resuscitation, but that the same Jesus who was crucified is now risen to new life.

And imagine, all through this difficult, wonderful morning, how Simon Peter’s dread and joy must’ve grown in equal measure. For after breakfast, Jesus asks him the question that he feared and hoped for: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”

Three times that question comes. Three time it pains Simon Peter to hear it and to answer it. And yet that question works backwards into his soul, undoing the damage of his three-time denial of Christ. And once the memory of his own shame, his own failed expectations, his own self-centered following of Jesus has been conquered by the presence of the Risen Lord, the Call comes also to Simon Peter: “Follow me.” A new disciple of Jesus—a disciple of the Resurrected Jesus—is born.

But note again that this call doesn’t come to Simon through his own decision or choice. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his three years of discipleship during Christ’s earthly ministry. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his eager swimming to Jesus. The change in Simon is not even accomplished by his faithful answer “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” to the painful questions posed by Jesus.

Simon Peter is changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. The Call of God transforms the baffled, bumbling fisherman into the bold, courageous shepherd of God’s flock.

By that Call, Simon the fisherman now truly becomes Peter, the rock on whom Christ’s Church is built. By that Call, Saul the Pharisee becomes Paul the Apostle–the bearer of the message; the one who is sent to proclaim the name of Jesus to the whole world.

Brothers and sisters, I asked at the outset of this sermon, “Do you have what it takes to be a disciple?” See now that a disciple is not measured by his own deeds or disasters! A disciple is not measured by her own faithfulness or failures! The life of discipleship comes from the Call of the Master. To be a disciple is to hear the Call of the One who can and does accomplish what he promises: the One who raises the dead to life, and who calls into existence the things that are not.

And the startling message of our Scripture readings today is that that Call to discipleship can come to anyone, anywhere. The Call came to a fanatic overcome with hatred, consumed by his bitter intention to bind and judge the servants of God, and he became Paul. The Call came to a faithless fisherman, a man of lowly estate who slunk back to his boats in confusion and shame, and he became Peter. The Call came to every kind of unworthy, unlikely, unwelcome and unwanted person in the ancient world, transforming them by its power and giving them grace to become the disciples of Jesus, the mothers and fathers of the Church.

And the Call comes still. The Call has come  even to the poor sinners who stand and minister to this congregation in this place. The Call comes to us, your priests, right in the midst of all our faults and foibles, our intemperance and our incompetence, our silly pride and our stubborn pretension.

And, by our ministry and through the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit of God, the Call comes to you. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be followers of the Risen Jesus. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be empowered to proclaim the Good News of Christ in your every word and deed. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may speak the Name of the Lord before the nations, before rulers and authorities, and before the whole chosen people of God.

The Call of discipleship comes to you: God himself calls to you, dear people, and speaks again those simple, wonderful, costly words: “Follow me.” And it is that Call, and nothing else, that makes you a disciple.

Won’t your rise up out of your blindness and heed that Call? Won’t you swim to shore from those fishing boats—those same old worn and weary fishing boats of routine and habit and inertia and comfort—and fall at the feet of the Risen Lord?

Beloved people of God, hear today the Call of Jesus. Become true disciples of Christ, not through your work and witness, not because of your choice or decision, but by the power of his eternal Call.

Follow him, and learn the power of that Call to claim you, to change you, to use you to his purpose, and to carry you, perhaps, even to places where you do not wish to go.

AMEN.