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: Peter

“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.

Advertisements

Why are you here?

A Sermon Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2015

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

Texts: Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

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

Why are you here?

That’s the implied question hiding just behind each of our readings this morning. Both our passage from Acts and our Gospel lesson bring us into the middle of conversations already in progress. They can be difficult to understand without a little context. But the key to grasping our Scripture today—and the key to grasping its meaning for us—is to hear and face that question: “Why are you here?”

“Why are you here?” It’s the question that St Peter asks when, just a few verses earlier in Acts Chapter 10, messengers arrive from a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Peter is busy puzzling over a vision he has just received: the strange spectacle of a sheet filled with unclean animals descending from heaven, accompanied by a voice commanding Peter to “Rise, kill, and eat.” As a faithful Jew who is also a follower of the Risen Jesus, Peter can’t understand what this vision might mean.

But waking from his reverie just as Cornelius’s messengers arrive searching for him, Peter finds himself more perplexed than he was before. At this early point in the Church’s life, the Gospel was a message for Jews only, and not for Gentiles. And so Peter asks these Roman seekers the sensible, appropriate question, “What is the reason for your coming? Why are you here?”

“Why are you here?” is the question that Cornelius himself asks with respect and hopefulness when Peter finally arrives at his home in Caesarea. Though Cornelius had had his own vision, a vision in which the angel of the Lord told him to send for Peter, yet he had not been told why he should beg the Apostle to visit his home. Reverently, expectantly, surrounded by his assembled family and friends, Cornelius may well have asked Peter the fisherman now made a fisher of men, “I was told to send for you, and now have you come. We are eager to hear what you have been commanded by the Lord to say. So tell us…why are you here?”

“Why are you here?” is the rhetorical question behind Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples in Chapters 14, 15, and 16 of John’s Gospel. As the Lord prepares to face his passion, cross, and death, he takes time to tell his closest followers of the immeasurable depths of his love for them, and he urges them to love one another with the same love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus wants them to understand what has brought them together around him. He wants them to comprehend the origin and nature of their connection to him. He wants them to grasp the gift of mutual abiding that will sustain them in the difficult days ahead. And so the master talks to his servants—the lover speaks with his beloved—the friend tells his friends—his own final answer to the persistent question they have of him and of themselves: “Why are you here?”

“Why are you here?” This question standing behind our readings today reverberates down through the centuries to us, too. Why are you here? There are plenty of other ways to spend a Sunday morning. And even if you insist on spending the Lord’s day in worship, that doesn’t answer the question of why you are here, at Trinity—after all, there are plenty of other churches in Columbia, and limitless options for finding spirituality on television and online. So why are you here—here sitting in these pews, here looking up at these windows, here worshipping before this altar? Why are you here?

The power and importance of this question stems from our potential for getting it wrong. That danger was certainly present for Peter. He might have taken one look at the Gentile slaves and the Roman soldier who came seeking him and said, “No. There must be some mistake. Whatever your reason for coming, as a faithful Jew I cannot associate with unclean people such as yourselves,” and then sent them away.

The danger was present for Cornelius who, though he was himself a Gentile, was attracted to the worship of the God of Israel. Cornelius might easily have jumped to conclusions or made assumptions about the reason for Peter’s visit. He might have greeted the Apostle with sure and certain expectation, telling him, “You have come here to make us Jews, because God has considered me worthy of the honor. So speak, Peter, and tell us what we must do to join the chosen people.”

The danger of getting the question wrong is ever present for Jesus’ followers—those feeble, faithless, foolish men who so regularly get things wrong in our Gospels. Remember that everything Jesus says in our Gospel today he says on the very eve of Good Friday. What if the disciples had attempted to address the question “Why are you here?” with reference to their own keen perception and extraordinary promise? They might have reassured themselves, “Well of course Jesus calls us his friends because we have earned the distinction. After all, we have followed him all these years. Surely he sees how clever and enlightened we are. Surely he knows how useful we can be in his coming kingdom on earth. Surely he will reward us for our faithfulness and service. Surely we are here because we have earned the right to be here.”

These, and a thousand other wrong answers, lurk in the hearts and minds of the figures in our readings today, when they face the question “Why are you here?” And what about for us? What answers to that question rise in your heart and mind when you hear it this morning? How would you explain or defend or justify or earn your presence here today?

Make no mistake, clergy struggle to resist bad answers to that question just as mightily as laypeople do. Here I stand in this pulpit, ever tempted to answer the question “Why are you here?” with reference to my credentials and qualifications—with a nod to my degree or my ordination—with something I have achieved for myself or the approval I have been able to wring from others.

Or perhaps you sit out in those pews saying to yourself, “I am here because my family has always been here.” Or “I am here because I am a cradle Episcopalian.” (This, of course, is an answer with social implications. You will remember the story of the prominent clergyman who was asked whether salvation was possible outside of the Episcopal Church. “It is,” he replied, “But no gentleman would avail himself of the opportunity.”) Or you might respond, “I am here because I love The Book of Common Prayer.” Or perhaps even “I am here because I paid to have this pew refinished during the Restoration Campaign.”

But in light of the message of our Scripture today, all of these answers falter and fail. In light of Peter’s response to Cornelius’s messengers, and Cornelius’s patient waiting for Peter’s proclamation, and Jesus’ gentle explanation of the way his followers came to be with him, all of the answers based in what we have done, or what we have accomplished, or what we have given, or what we have earned simply fade away.

For the truth is, my presence here today has nothing to do with the vestments I wear or the title I bear. Your presence here today has nothing to do with your last name or your family legacy—nothing to do with your income or your education—nothing to do with how much money you’ve pledged or how many hours you’ve served. You are here, not because of the classes you have taught or taken, not because of the Bazaars you have run or rummaged through, not because you were cradle-rocked in that building over there, or because you expect to be carried out in a box from this spot right here.

Beloved, faced with the question “Why are you here?” we cannot point to our credentials or to our accomplishments—to our rights or to our privileges—to our power or to our prestige. For here in this place, none of those things matter. Here in this place, none of those answers count. Here in this place, we have no regard for the reckoning of worth and worthiness according to the standards of this world.

But you are here, and I am here, and this congregation has been gathered, and established and sustained through two centuries by nothing less than the power and purpose of Almighty God. We are here, dear people, because the Lord wills it— and in his righteous and holy will nothing shall be impossible. Listen again, Trinity, to the good and gracious words of our good and gracious Lord: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.

Dear people of God, the only real answer to the question “Why are you here?” is the same answer learned by Peter and Cornelius alike in our passage this morning. We are here by the prompting, and according to the promise, of the Holy Spirit. We are here because God has brought us here. We are here not because we have loved God but because he has first loved us. We are here because the Lord Jesus has claimed us, and sanctified us, and laid down his life for us, and called us his friends.

As surely as Peter went uncomprehendingly with those messengers from Cornelius—as surely as that pious centurion waited in hopeful ignorance for the words the Apostle would speak—as surely as the disciples, in those hours before the Cross, could not grasp the depth of Jesus’ promise that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for his friends,”–just as surely we cannot always know the full extent of God’s plans for us. We cannot know what good things he has planned for the future of Trinity Cathedral. We cannot know what our place and legacy will be. We cannot know what God will do though the abundant love he pours out upon us, and through the abundant love he calls us to lavish on one another.

But this we know: whatever may come, it is God who has brought us here. “For none of us liveth unto himself, and no man dieth unto himself…But whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We have come to this time, to this place, by the sovereign will of our gracious God.

With Peter’s obedience, with Cornelius’s hopefulness, through Jesus’ undying love, by the Holy Spirit’s limitless power, may we confidently answer the question, “Why are you here?”: “Because the Lord has brought me here.” And may we be given courage and strength to follow where he leads. AMEN.

Expect the Unexpected

A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 12, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

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

This Christmas, I was given a copy of The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s masterful history of the causes and early battles of World War I. The story is gripping, especially as we enter the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of that conflict. The events that led to the Great War—the War to End All Wars, as it was falsely dubbed—unfold with all the inevitability and all the hubris of a Greek tragedy. Ancient grudges and contemporary tussles; national pride and personal ambition; long-held beliefs and newly developed technologies all coalesced into a perfect storm of violence and destruction.

And yet what I find most striking in Tuchman’s riveting account is the power that expectations and cherished certainties held over the minds and lives of all the kings, presidents, parliaments, generals, and ordinary soldiers who went to war in 1914. Each side expected a quick victory. Each side expected their plans to produce steady progress. Each side was certain that the war was worth fighting; that they would achieve their aims; and that the good of humankind would be advanced by the contest of arms.

Those certainties and expectations died in the trenches of the Western Front, along with a generation of Europe’s youth. But they did not die quickly, and the persistence of those expectations and the unwillingness to abandon those certainties ensured that the war would extract the ultimate cost, claim the largest number of lives, and lay the foundation for another, even greater conflict just two decades later.

That sense of the power of our expectations was with me as I read the Scripture lessons for our worship this morning. The two stories we have heard today are, in fact, stories about what happens when human expectations and cherished certainties collide with the power and purposes of God. The people who went out to be baptized by John in the River Jordan were waiting expectantly for the Messiah. The excitement surrounding John the Baptist’s ministry was one of preparation. The baptism with which he baptized was a baptism of repentance, a baptism that got people ready for something even greater that was about to happen.

The Messiah was coming. Everyone knew what that meant. Everyone knew that the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one for whom the whole nation looked eagerly, would be a mighty warrior-king who would purify and restore God’s chosen people, and then lead them in triumphant battle against the occupying Roman legions. John himself made it quite clear that he was not the Messiah. But he also knew that his task was to prepare the way for God’s anointed. And so John, like the other faithful Jews of his time, watched and waited with expectation for the one who would come to renew Israel—the one who would come to transfigure and transform a broken people.

Matthew, whose account of the scene we have just heard, does not tell us how John knew that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting. He just knows. Immediately, John recognizes Jesus for who and what he is: the Messiah, the Christ, the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and expectation. And that is why, when Jesus wades out into the muddy water to be baptized, John objects. The Messiah is the one who will do the work of cleansing: he doesn’t need to be cleansed! The Messiah is the one who will lead the people in battle: he doesn’t need to follow John to Jordan’s bank! “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John asks in bewilderment.

The long-held expectations and the cherished certainties of the people of Israel have blinded John to the reality of the Messiah’s ministry and mission. John wanted a warrior-king who would lead the people. What he got, instead, was Jesus, the beloved son, coming down to him in the water to be baptized. John wanted a prophet-priest who would rise above the common crowd and purify the flock of God. What he got, instead, was Jesus, the humble servant, stepping into the lowliness and suffering of humankind. (As one hymn for this day puts it, “The sinless One to Jordan came, and in the river shared our stain.”) John expected a fierce and mighty leader worthy of his own fiery proclamation of repentance. What he got, instead, was the Spirit of God descending, like a dove, on a humble carpenter from Nazareth. John received, not the Messiah everyone hoped for, but the anointed One whose coming and whose purpose was beyond all human hoping or imagining.

It is harder to see the expectations surrounding our reading from the Acts of the Apostles because this passage has been rather unhelpfully lifted from its context. (For that, you can blame the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary.) To understand how radical, how earth-shattering Peter’s simple sermon is, we need to know a little about the early Church, and the ministry to which Peter was called.

Though he was a devoted follower of Jesus, Peter was also a loyal son of Israel. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, and Peter would have considered Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed Savior of the Jewish people—and of them only. That was the default position of the early Church. Jesus was Jewish, the disciples were Jewish, and their earliest converts were all Jewish. They saw nothing inconsistent about professing faith in Jesus as the Messiah and continuing as devoted Jews. Indeed, they believed that through their life and fellowship the restoration of their beloved Jewish nation had already begun. The early chapters of Acts make clear that the first Christians continued to worship in the Temple at Jerusalem, to keep the Jewish feasts, and to obey the Law of Moses. And as they did all this, they proclaimed to their Jewish brothers and sisters that the long-awaited Messiah had come in a way that no one expected, and that through him God was doing something new and wonderful for his chosen people.

Imagine, then, Peter’s surprise and astonishment at what happened one day just before lunch. Peter was praying up on the top of the house where he was staying. The midday meal was being prepared, and he was hungry. While he was praying, he fell into a trance. And Peter received an astonishing vision. He saw an enormous sheet lowered out of the sky. Within its four corners were all manner of unclean animals: reptiles, birds of prey, and other creatures. A voice from heaven commanded, “Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter was aghast. As a faithful Jew, he would never dream of eating anything unclean—anything forbidden by the Law of Moses. But the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.” Three times this vision was repeated. Three times Peter was enjoined not to call common or unclean that which God has cleansed.

And just as he puzzled over what this vision could mean, three men arrived from the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. The men invited Peter to join them, to share his Gospel message in the home of their Gentile master. And Peter realized that the vision commanding him to eat unclean animals was in fact a revelation urging him to carry the Gospel to people whom he, as a Jew, considered unclean. The Holy Spirit was answering the Church’s first difficult question, telling the early leaders that Yes, the News about Jesus is News for the Gentiles as well as the Jews: Yes, the word of Christ’s triumph matters for all nations as well as the chosen nation: Yes, the Messiah of the people of Israel is also Lord of all the peoples of the earth.

And so Peter went with the men to Cornelius’s house, and announced those expectation-overturning, certainty-abolishing words we have heard this morning: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Beloved, perhaps by this point some of you are asking yourselves, “So what? What does it matter if God works contrary to our expectations? What difference does it make if God overwhelms our certainties?” It matters because, if we are honest, we will recognize that we today are not so different from the ancient people of Israel or the early followers of Jesus. Like national leaders at the time of World War I, so often we march into the battles of this life or the trials and tribulations of our walk of faith full of misguided expectations and false certainties. So often we fail to grapple with the fact of our fallenness, the dread of our mortality, or the depth of this world’s pain. So often we look for the world to make sense in a way that we can grasp. So often we want God to behave as we would behave, were we omnipotent: to bless the good people, to punish the bad people, and to shield the innocent from harm. So often we project our expectations—and our certainties about who is good and who is bad—onto God…no matter how many times the reality we experience throws those expectations back in our faces.

For the hard truth is that we live in a world where bad things happen to good people. We live in a world riven and ripped by the horrors of war and the banalities of Sin. We live in a world where many, many people lead lives of quiet desperation: praying and not receiving, hoping and not realizing, striving and failing.

And if we let go of our expectations and certainties—our desires and demands for God to act in the way we want, in a way that makes sense to us—what are we left with?

Beloved, consider that the Jewish people in Jesus’ day would have been content only to have their nationhood restored and their sovereignty renewed. But God’s everlasting purpose was that the whole creation should be restored, and his own sovereignty proclaimed and renewed in realms once held captive by Death. Consider that the Church in Peter’s time would have been content only to preach to fellow Israelites in their backwater corner of the Roman Empire. But God’s everlasting purpose was that the whole earth should ring with the preaching of the apostles, and that all the nations of the world should stream to the brightness of Christ’s shining light.

For when we turn away from our own expectations, our own vain efforts to codify and control the purposes of God—when the world tears away from us our certainties and our cherished notions—all that we are left with is God’s self-declaration: the light of God’s self-revelation in the face of Jesus our Lord.

Abandoning our expectations means not trying to read in every challenge we face or in every blessing we receive the marks of God’s opprobrium or approbation. It means, instead, seeking out and following the marks, the footprints, of Jesus of Nazareth who has walked the path of this life before us. Abandoning our expectations means not trying to interpret our fortunes and our futures in the stars, but looking instead to the one bright, shining light that led the Wise Men to kneel at the edge of a cradle. Abandoning our certainties means not raging and railing against what we imagine to be a cruel and capricious God who makes us suffer. It means, instead, lifting up our eyes to behold Jesus hanging on the Cross of Calvary, and seeing there the assurance, the unshakeable promise, that God is with us in our sorrows and in our darkest hours. Turning our gaze away from what this world would teach—from the certainty our minds crave and would invent—means, at last, stepping into the unfathomable brightness of God’s resurrection light, and glimpsing the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us.

Beloved, may we with joy and gladness yield up our expectations and give over our certainties. May we sacrifice our demands for comprehensibility and surrender our desire for security. May we come to expect the unexpected, and to follow not the promptings of our fickle hearts, but to hold always to the promises of our faithful God. And may we, at last, join our voices with John the Baptist, and St Peter, and all faithful people in every age, in the great hymn echoing before the throne of the One whose goodness surpasses what we can grasp, and whose love endures forever: “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.”

AMEN.