Memorial Day

Reflections on Luke 7:1-10

Luke gives us a story in chapter 7 that is so quintessentially his, even though it is Matthew, a writer with a very different theology of Jesus, who first records the story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy. This incident is quintessentially Luke because it is easy to see how it fits Luke’s wider project of presenting the Christian faith to the Gentile world.

Luke’s theology of Jesus is that of Paul’s. Paul is the boundary-crossing apostle, who takes the revelation of God in Jesus Christ beyond  the community of Jesus’ Jewish followers, into an active engagement with the wider, Gentile world. Luke’s contribution is to present the life of Jesus and the early Church seen through Paul’s theology within a coherent format that traverses the crevasses separating Christian, Jewish, and Gentile worlds.

The story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy is such a story. It has all the ingredients that normally would make it impossible for any meaningful engagement between the Jewish Jesus, the world of the Roman occupier, and Pan-Hellenic cultural norms.

The first element to note is how Luke uses both the Greek doulos -slave and  paid -boy to describe the Centurions servant. Paid is a term that in this context implies the possibility of the type of sexual relationship common between an older mentor and a younger protege and it is clear that this boy is no mere servant. Pederasty, while common in the Roman-Greek world was strongly condemned by the Jews with their patriarchal anxiety about homosexuality. There is no hint that Jesus seems concerned about this possibility.

Secondly, in communicating with Jesus, the Centurion uses the synagogue elders as his emissaries. This denotes an unusually friendly relationship between this Roman commander and a local Jewish community. These elders, who might usually have been hostile to Jesus seem keen to enlist his help in the service of a man they hold in high honor, to whom they clearly feel an obligation, having built their synagogue for them.

Thirdly, Jesus does not hesitate to set out in response to the request. Now something strange seems to happen. Does the Centurion change his mind? He now sends his friends to intercept Jesus and ask him not to come to the house. Is he conscious of the peril he is posing for Jesus in asking him to risk ritual contamination by entering the house of a Gentile: Lord do not trouble yourself for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof? In any case, again, there is no hint in Luke of Jesus being concerned about this.

Fourthly, Jesus expresses astonishment in the Centurion’s recognition of his authority – For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and another,’Come’, and he comes …. Jesus exclaims that not even in Israel, i.e. among those which at this stage if his ministry Jesus understands himself to be called, has he seen faith like this.

For obvious reasons, most commentators gloss over the overtones of pederasty in this story. Most note the perplexing elements of the Jewish elders willingness to mediate and Jesus’ seeming willingness to risk ritual contamination. For many, the emphasis falls on this being a story about faith, the faith of the Centurion, who even though he is a pagan, and especially because he is a pagan, can be counted a righteous man in contrast to Jesus’s own people’s rejection of him. The piety of faith always provides a safe ground for interpretation.  

Crossing boundaries

Yet, the question for me concerns Luke’s possible purpose for presenting this story as he does? I believe Luke understands this story to reveal Jesus’ willingness to reach out and cross the boundaries that separate peoples and cultures. Inclusion is one of the key elements in Luke’s theology of Jesus. Luke is also a proponent of an early reconciliation between Christianity and Roman globalization. Under the umbrella of globalization and its agents, the Romans maintained relative stability between otherwise suspicious and hostile cultures, tribes, and nations. Rome was the last great agent of globalization in the ancient world.

Globalization only works when it is able to buy allegiance through ensuring prosperity and safety for its different constituent cultures. Initial periods of conquest and rule through fear don’t last unless the conquered come to see their self-interests reflected in the benefits of empire. The Pax-Romana ensured peace, stability, and economic prosperity among the polyglot cultures of the Mediterranean world.

A tension in early Christianity lies between its Jewish exclusivist and Gentile universalist movements. Luke is on the side of the latter. Hence, his story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy offers a powerful metaphor for his worldview, one in which Christianity is the ally of Rome, not its enemy.

Luke’s worldview predominates. The Jewish faction of Christianity dwindles and with the exclusion of Christians from newly emerging Rabbinic Judaism, the Gentile Mission becomes the only game in town. The Gentile Mission is so successful, the reconciliation between Christianity and Pax-Romana so complete, that Christendom eventually emerges to replace Roman power as the central globalizing influence.

Hearing the story in our context

On Memorial Day Weekend, amidst the events of an unfolding presidential election, how do we hear this story?

imagesThe origins of Memorial Day are complex and a number of places in both the Old South and North claim to be have been the location for the first Memorial Day. Memorial Day is the day when America has traditionally honored her war dead, beginning with the 600,000 plus dead of the Civil War. Memorial Day Weekend also marks the beginning of summer. This unfortunate coincidence results in most people celebrating the weekend, not as a commemoration of the war dead, but as the start of BBS (barbecue and beach season). At least at St Martin’s in Providence, we will be breaking out the black vestments (literally) for a solemn commemoration of the war dead on Sunday.

Is there a theme linking Luke’s gospel story and its worldview with Memorial Day and the unpredictable future we are now facing? I think there is. I detect the theme of the tension between globalization and tribalism.

The Civil War was a manifestation of a long-running resistance to the globalization embodied in the Constitution and its establishment of the Federal Government. There came a point when the forces of national globalization lost the allegiance, albeit reluctant from the beginning, of a section of the States that comprised the Union. Globalization became identified with the economic power of the manufacturing North. Fuelled by northern industrialization it became so serious a threat to the Southern slave-based economy that a section of States no longer felt their peace and prosperity protected within the movement for national globalization.

Throughout the 20th-Century, the forces of economic globalization became increasingly identified with US national interests, especially in the post-1945 development of a Pax-Americana. However, the hand-in-glove relationship between economic globalization and American self-interest has been unraveling for decades now. The US economy, now like every other world economy is a client state of international, economic globalization. The result of this is that increasingly large numbers of Americans no longer enjoy the benefits of a close alliance between transnational capital and the U.S. national interests. Whether we are industrial workers whose manufacturing jobs have gone off shore or middle-class people victimized by a financial industry that sees itself as its own business rather than as a support for the growth of business, we, the hurt and disillusioned are increasingly looking for the arrival of a new messiah to free us from our plight.

We now experience international, economic globalization as economic, exploitative, colonization. We should not be surprised when the old animosities of racism and gender oppression, now insidiously dressed up in the tribal clothes of States rights, resurface as expressions of tribal cultural responses to the failure of globalization to meet our needs. These dangerous genies, once released from their bottles are hard to put back, and we will all suffer the consequences.

In conclusion

Christianity when rooted in the values of the Gospel, can never support solutions that promote a regression to tribal mentalities that divide the world into a them-and-us worldview. However hard it might seem to see Luke’s story of Jesus, the Centurion, and his boy as providing us with badly needed answers, it is clear that it shows us the trajectory of Christian living based on Jesus’ own behavior in reaching out beyond the tribal boundaries that separated him from the Centurion. It shows the Centurion recognizing the commonality he shares with Jesus, for both are men in authority. It’s a story that celebrates the common experience and shared perspectives that reach across the boundaries of cultural, religious, and economic differences. It’s a key story in Luke’s promotion of Christianity as a reconciling and bridge building movement capable of changing the world.

There are key moments in history when Christians are judged by later generations as to whether they embraced the Gospel as an agent of resistance in the face of the resurgence of tyranny. I believe we are living in such a time, and will be so judged by our children and their children.

The Trinity – knowing ourselves in the gaze of another.


My old university chaplain used to scoff: Trinity Sunday – ridiculous! How can you celebrate a doctrine as if it’s an event? I remember at the time thinking this was a wise and incisive comment. Now, I just think he missed the point. Did you know that among Anglicans and Episcopalians, in particular, the dedication of Churches to the Holy Trinity far outnumber any other single dedication? This is a hidden indication that for us the concept of the Trinity, at least once upon a time, held a central place in our spiritual culture.

Every Sunday we say together the words of the Nicene Creed, which distill down to four concise statements:

We believe in God, maker of heaven and earth.

We believe in Jesus Christ, eternally begotten of the Father.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Why does Christianity seem to complicate what for Jews and Muslims, our Abrahamic cousins, seems very straight forward – God is one and God is singular. Except on Trinity Sunday, most of the time I suspect that this is how most Christians also picture God. We still struggle with the appropriate pronoun for God; he or she? Yet, in the earliest chapters of Genesis we read of God self-referring as us and we. I will come back to that in a bit.

The doctrine of the Trinity as we have inherited it today is the result of a need in the Early Church, not so much to explain the nature of God as to protect the nature of Christ from being reduced to one of two simple assertions – divine or human. For the key question arises, if God is God, who and what is Christ?

There were two answers to this question. The first was that Jesus is God masquerading in human form. If he’s divine, Jesus is not genuinely human in any meaningful way that you and I are human. The second asserted that Jesus was only a man, although a great man, something today we refer to as an avatar. The prophet Mohammed, and the Buddha are avatars, great human beings who show the way to God in the case of Mohammed, and the cosmic order in the case of the Buddha.

The Christian experience is that Jesus was both divine and human, both natures existing simultaneously, yet independently. Why assert something that to all the world seemed absurd? The assertion may seem absurd, but it goes to the heart of the experience the Early Christians and Christians since continue to encounter. The divine and the human lie at opposite ends of a continuum. To be human is to be most like God. But this requires God to have experienced being really human, first.

Last week we celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. For the followers of Jesus, this is the point at which they locate a fundamental shift in their self-understanding and worldview. And so we say in the lines of the creed we believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

An interesting question

It’s interesting to speculate that without the Pentecost experience, would Christians have settled into a belief that Jesus was simply an avatar, a truly divinely inspired human being possessing a unique spiritual access to God? After all, this is what nearly happened.

Those who believed that Jesus was a highly evolved spiritual, human being were known as the Arians, nothing to do with white racial purity, but followers of a bishop called Arius. The joke about heresy is that it’s always more plausible than orthodoxy. The Arians were defeated at the Ecumenical Councils, but the plausibility of their view persists throughout history and today it’s probably true to say that many Christians are actually Arians. In the popularity of the cult of Jesus the really good man and my best buddy, Arianism is alive and kicking in contemporary America.

Yet, the Holy Spirit anointed the Church to become the continuance of Jesus’s ministry in the world. For the early followers of Jesus, this was not just an inspiring memory of Jesus but an inspirited experience of Jesus still being actively and instrumentally present in their live and their world.

The emergence of a doctrine

The doctrine of the Trinity emerges from the early Christian struggle to account for the fact that they experience three distinct modes of encounter with God. Firstly, as Jews, they believe in God the Creator, the God of their ancestors, of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. Secondly, they experience a life-changing encounter with God in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thirdly, they encounter a source of empowerment that transforms them into being able to continue the work of the Lord, empowered through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They experienced three manifestations of something they knew to be the one true God.

The bishops meeting in the Ecumenical Councils came to articulate their experience of these three distinct kinds of encounter with God. They naturally used the philosophy of the day, that of Aristotle and his concepts of person and substance. Applying Aristotle to their experience of God in three contexts led them to understand God as three persons sharing a single, unified substance. So they came to speak of three persons in one God, not three Gods. The crucial point we need to accept is that their purpose was never to explain the mystery of God, but to protect the mystery of God’s divine nature from being reduced to only that which human logic can conceive of, i.e that which seems to be not absurd.

Perspective from the 21st Century

The demand in each generation is to interpret the Christian Tradition handed on to us from previous generations so that it empowers us to engage with life as it is lived, not as it was lived in an imagined previous golden age. For the Christians of the first four centuries, the currency of intellectual thought was Aristotle’s logic. Now the reality today is that few of us use Aristotelian logic to navigate our way through the complexities of life and faith in action. I know of some who regret this, but it is as it is. In the contemporary mindset, Aristotelian philosophy has been replaced by a psychological understanding of human nature. Whereas once Aristotelian logic offered a vehicle for theological articulation, today, depth and transpersonal psychology offering us new vehicles by which we can express ourselves, theologically.

There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities emerge from our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am – is constructed from our experience of intimate relationship with others. The person I experience myself being emerges from how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other looking back at me.

From doctrine to experience

andrei--rublev-russian-icons--the-trinity_i-S-61-6179-4K11100ZDespite the popularity among Episcopalians to name our churches after the Holy Trinity, the Trinity in the catholic and protestant West has been largely reduced to a theological doctrine. The orthodox East provides an interesting counterpoint. In orthodox Christianity, the Trinity is a devotional focus. This can be most graphically demonstrated by Andrei Rublev’s archetypal depiction of the Trinity, written (icons are written not painted) in 1410. The Trinity is shown as three identical persons lovingly gazing upon one another. Rublev clearly has in his mind’s eye the visit to Abraham of the three angels at the Oak of Mamre. Yet, in the striking aspect of Rublev’s depiction of God the Holy Trinity, we catch the echo of the conversation we hear God having in Genesis, let us make humanity in our own image. God is not a singular entity, but a relational community.

When we put together the ancient echo in the Genesis record of God’s internal conversation with our current psychologically shaped experience of the fluidity of identity, we arrive at the theological realization that for us, in our period of history, God’s nature takes on a poignantly, relational quality.

Gender distractions

Today, any serious exploration of the Trinity requires us to address the debate about gender. The Tradition of the Trinity ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements Father, Son, and even the Holy Spirit is referred to as he. In our own period, it’s important to know that God is not gendered. The importance of the traditional male ascriptions to God lies not in their gendered but in their relational nature.

I have found a way to avoid the gendered terms and still retain the relational elements is to refer to God as Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer. It’s common to hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit referred to as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. However, the problem here is that these terms denote function, not relationship. It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to people living increasingly in a world where relationship, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and a key indicator of quality of life.

In conclusion

I don’t only believe in the Trinity as a doctrine, but I adore the Trinity as a focus for meaningful devotion. When I left Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, I was given a precious gift, a new icon of the Trinity in the style of Rublev, written by Laura Smith, an accomplished icon writer and faithful member of Trinity’s congregation. When I gaze at each identical figure seated around the three sides of a table, I notice the way they are looking at one another. They gaze upon one another with expressions of intimate love.

Sitting before the icon of the Trinity I am reminded that my identity as a person is not constructed by me in isolation. I experience my identity as the result of the way I see others looking back at me. My identity is constructed through the interplay of my relationships. As I gaze upon the three figures of the Trinity, I am invited into a reaffirmation that I am a child of God because I belong to a community that reflects a relational God. I am a relational being and my health lies in my desire to seek my identity within relational connections with others. Only when we are fully in community together can we become an image of the unseen God, whom in the visibility of the Trinity we discover is not a solitary entity, but a relational community of love.

Three folds of the cloth yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes, and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.
                                                                       An Irish Celtic prayer to the Trinity.

Pentecostal Imaginings

God and imagination

Some would tell us that God is the projection of human imagination. I think this is a basic misunderstanding. There is something philosophers recognize called a category mistake. A category mistake arises when something, an element or property of identity belonging to one category is assigned to another, different category. Thus, to equate God as the product of human imagination is to make such a category mistake.

It’s easy to do because while the existence of God is not the product of human imagination, our perception, and experience of of God comes to us only through the exercise of human imagination. If God is not a direct product of human imagination, imagination is required for God to take shape in our lives.

At St Martin’s in Providence, we have embarked on a community reading of the Bible in the form of something called The Story. On Sunday, May 15th, after celebrating the birth of the Christian people of God on the Day of Pentecost, an event recorded by Luke in Acts 2:1-11, we will gather in our adult forum to review and discuss our experience of having read chapters 4-6 in The Story. Chapters 4-6 cover the period from the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt, through the 40 years of wandering in the wastes of Sinai, to their arrival on the borders of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey promised by God.

Early Israelite imaginary

In our discussion of our reactions to reading The Story, we are beginning to be brave enough to speak openly of our dislike of the God presented in much of Genesis and Exodus. This is God, filtered through the imagination of a primitive, nomadic, warlike, tribal people. This is God portrayed in their own image, a ruthlessly jealous God, who when crossed responds with threats and actions of genocidal retribution. Yet, theirs is also a God who desires connection, a God capable of intimate relationship with Moses, a God who is responsive to the demands of relationship. God is amenable to Moses’s constant interceding not to destroy that which God also loves. We see in these pages a perception of God, who like the people God is attempting to preserve, struggles to walk the tightrope between the impulses of love and hatred, between the desire to preserve and the impulse to destroy when the object of love, disappoints.

Human experience of God is mediated through the structure of our imagination. In the pages of Genesis and Exodus, God emerges into an Israelite tribal imaginary. Our understanding of the events on the Day of Pentecost likewise permeate through the imaginations of the writers of the early Christian period. The imaginations of Paul, John and Luke communicate an experience of God at a point when Jewish thought is struggling to break out of a narrow xenophobic imaginary of God into a universalistic realization of the age-old dreams of the prophets.

The lectionary for Pentecost Sunday offers a multiplicity of choices including Genesis, the Palms, Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luke-Acts, and John’s gospel. For the first Christians, the Day of Pentecost recalls an experience of God, which they could only articulate through the images of the rushing sound of a mighty wind, the descent of flames of fire, and instantaneous translation. On the Day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus had an experience of total transformation, which could only be articulated through metaphors of the human imagination.

Early Christian imaginaries

Any reference to Spirit – Holy Spirit has to be set against the first chapter of Genesis, which open upon a huge panorama: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. The Hebrew word used for Spirit is the feminine noun Ruach. The Spirit of God is God self-identifying through the feminine principle for which she is the appropriate pronoun use.

In the 22nd verse in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul continues to mine the feminine principle within God as he depicts all of creation struggling in the travail of giving birth: for we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. Paul cements the feminine imagery intrinsic to God when he tells us that we too, continue in labor’s grip, groaning, panting, and pushing, driven by the hope of imminent new birth. In this state of travail, the Holy Spirit, like a midwife comes to our aid, supplying the strength we need to give birth to a new world.

For the Evangelist John, as Jesus bids farewell to those he has loved he tells them that: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  The Advocate will empower the disciples into an expanded imaginary of the love of God, enabling them to do even greater deeds than Jesus has performed.

The most popular image for the Day of Pentecost, the 50th day of the Resurrection, is given by the Evangelist Luke. Luke constructs a chronology of unfolding events from the resurrection, ascension, to the climactic moment in history when the Holy Spirit penetrates the created order. For Luke, the coming of the Holy Spirit marks the point of transition between the ministry of Jesus and its continuance in the life of the Church, now impregnated with God’s Holy Spirit.

Luke wants to draw our attention to the effects  of the interpenetration of human hearts with the Holy Spirit. The heat of fire, the sound, and rush of wind, a spontaneous understanding of the Spirit speaking to each in his or her own native tongue are metaphors for transformation. He juxtaposes these events with the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, where an older imaginary of God as jealous and somewhat insecure, fearful of human achievement needs to thwart human aspirations. God says: Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.

On the day of Pentecost, all witness the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them, each hearing God speaking in their own language. The curse of Babel is lifted. Difference is no longer a source of division but of enrichment. Luke’s theological message is that for human society – born anew as the Church, it is no longer the business as usual of the old order.

God in a contemporary imaginary

In his poem God’s Grandeur the 19th century English Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims that:

The World is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil – crushed.

Yet, against the background of this optimistic proclamation Hopkins questions why humanity is so reckless of God’s gift of creation: 

Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Extending Hopkins’ inquiry, looking around us at the world in 2016, we see how easily human beings can be excited to fear the differences that lie between us?  Our labor pains are marked by the futility of war and the injustice of oppression in which generations have trod, have trod, have trod. We have become insensible to the feel of the earth, increasingly made barren beneath our shod feetOur social relations are mired: seared with trade, bleared, smeared, with toil sharing man’s smudge. 

We notice that we are not all the same. We notice the obvious differences between us expressed through gender, sexuality, race, culture, and class. Such differences become emblematic of the differentials of power, privilege, and access to the protection that difference affords to some and denies to others.

The birth of the new Spirit-filled order comes as a challenge to the human propensity to distribute power, unequally. Luke’s vision of the Holy Spirit is of the anima – the feminine principle of new birth embracing and celebrating the rich diversity of being human. Difference no longer needs to be the source of division but becomes a celebration of diversity as the Holy Spirit calms our fear.

From the perspective of 2016, on the Day of Pentecost, a contemporary imaginary of God comes to light. This is an inclusive and universal God. God embracing all kinds of diversity is continually coming true in Church communities of bewildering variety. Pentecost presents us with an image of God as Spirit now impregnated deep within the human DNA as that longed for God shaped space, or as Hopkins more poignantly says it:

And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        Rose Window

And though the last lights off the black West went  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur  Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.

Vada Roseberry’s Creation Window, Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix

Sunday after the Ascension

images-1May 8th is a complex day. It’s the Sunday after the Ascension. It’s that in most churches, but at St Martin’s, it’s the day after Linda Mackie Grigg’s ordination as a priest, and the day of her first celebration of the Eucharist. It’s a baptism Sunday, and it’s also Mother’s Day. I intend to address Christ’s Ascension in the Adult Forum at 10.45 a.m. For those of you reading this only, I can refer you here to learn more on the theme. This now allows me to concentrate on the remaining three areas: Linda’s priesting, Mother’s Day, and baptism.

Linda’s ordination as a priest is not only a huge event in her life but also in the life of the community of St Martin, Providence. Over the last 18 months, we have witnessed a process that most parishes never directly experience. Since Linda took up the position as Director of Christian Formation, we have had the opportunity of experiencing what happens to a person as they grow, stage by stage into an ever-fuller expression of God’s call for them. Usually, this process of growing through the initial developmental stages preceding ordination as a priest is not so visible from a community’s viewpoint.

The difference with Linda is that she arrived fresh from seminary to take up her post heading Christian formation as a laywoman. During the time she has been among us we have been able to experience the changes in her as she has moved from laywoman into the transitional diaconate before emerging, like a swan, into the full expression of God’s intention for her as a priest.

I don’t mean to imply this journey is now complete. Linda’s ordination as priest reminds me of that famous utterance of Winston Churchill’s:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

A little historical detour

The English Reformation was characterized by a long process of incremental change. Instead of the decisive break with the past that marked the Reformation elsewhere, in England reformation took place through an evolution of catholic structures under the influences of incresingly Protestant theology. As a result, Anglicanism came to be known as the middle way – via media.

After the death of Jesus, the Apostles represented the continuance of Jesus’ ministry in the world. They needed to focus on evangelism and so the internal care of the community was delegated to a group of ministers known as diaconoi – deacons or servants. As the Apostles died out either through martyrdom or natural causes they passed on their authority to new men who came to be known as overseers or supervisors, in Greek episcopoi, or in English bishops. As the Church continued to expand, instead of making more and more bishops, each bishop began to delegate some aspects of this authority to a new class of minister known as presbyters or elders.

The three-fold order of bishop, presbyter or priest, and deacon is the structure for ministry that we share with other Churches of the Apostolic Tradition, i.e. Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Lutheran Traditions. In an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic State like Rhode Island, our use of the word priest to refer to the order of ministry Linda was yesterday ordained into can be a source of confusion, especially as the Episcopal Church is now home to a growing numbers raised in the Roman Church. The historic three-fold order is the same, the name is the same, but you simply have to spend only a little time in the Episcopal Church to intuit that the understanding of this ministry is somewhat different.

This difference in feel is an example of middle way understanding. In Roman Catholicism, the priest is set apart through the transmission of apostolic authority through the bishop to stand in the space between the baptized and God. As a mediator, he is both gatekeeper and custodian of the divine.

In Anglicanism the priest is likewise, set apart by the transmission of apostolic authority through the bishop, but not to stand between the baptized and God as a gatekeeper or mediator. For Episcopalians, the priest stands as one set-aside in order to represent to all the baptized a fuller realization of their vocation as a royal priesthood of all believers. Anglicanism really only recognizes one main category of ministry, that of the baptized. The threefold order of ministry is simply a grace-filled functionality for the benefit of the life of the Church.

Linda does not stand in a space between us – the baptized, and God. She continues to stand firmly on our side of the line, only now invested by us and graced by God to exercise a ministry of spiritual and sacramental leadership among us. 

Ordination is the end of the beginning of priestly ministry. It is not the completion of that ministry. Ordination confers authority through what we call the grace of orders. Authority and grace are the two elements that define a priest. So how does this all work?

A dynamic view of priesthood

We are already beginning to view Linda differently. We may not be aware of this happening, but it is happening. To get psychological for a moment, we now project a new set of expectations onto her. These expectations reflect that which we as a community, as well as individually, need Linda, as a priest to embody for us.

For Linda, she will begin to catch glimpses of her priestly identity through the way we begin to use her differently. She experiences this difference as we now bring a new set of expectations in our relationship with her, as a priest. We now look to her for qualities and capacities that we have hitherto not expected in our relationship to Linda as a deacon, or Linda as just herself.

As this is Mother’s Day, we can be reminded that we all come to know ourselves through experiencing ourselves reflected back in the eyes of our mother or principal caregiver. We first experience love through our mothers gaze. We glimpse our identity as we come to experience ourselves reflected in the eyes of our mother’s gaze. We first experience love through the shape of our mother’s facial gestures, the quality of her touch, the sound of her voice, the smell of her skin, the taste of her milk.

I use the feminine pronoun here because mothering has been traditionally a woman’s role. Traditionally, priesthood has been a man’s role. Yet, today, both priesthood and mothering are no longer gender specific roles. They are qualities of being that both men and women can possess. In the case of mothering, it’s the infant’s total dependency that triggers the qualities of mothering in his or her principal caregiver, whether this person be male or female. Likewise, priestliness is a quality triggered in the new priest as we – the baptized – come to see her or him as worthy of our trust. In both cases, infant and priest come to know themselves through the way they are known by others.

The grace of priestly ordination operates as a signal to the rest of the baptized that God is from now on working in a particular way through this person for the good of the whole body of the faithful. Through ordination, the new priest becomes recognized. So recognized, we have the opportunity to entrust them with our vulnerability. Through our trust in them, they catch glimpses of themselves as a channel for the loving acceptance of God, the grace of God flowing through them into the life of a community and into the lives of its members.

Anglicanism really only recognizes one main category of ministry, that of the baptized. May 8th is the day when Ione Rose is to be baptized. Through baptism, Ione Rose will become a member of the Body of Christ in this world. Through her baptism, Ione Rose joins the community in which Linda now begins her ministry as a priest. Our prayers today are that both Ione Rose and Linda will through God’s grace and our help grow into the fullness of the persons God is calling them to become.

From the collect for the ordination of a priest in the Book of Common Prayer:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look 
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred 
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry 
out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world 
see and know that things which were cast down are being 
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made 
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection 
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus 
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity 
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Stories on the Threshold

Sermon for Easter 6 from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs


During this Easter season, the theme of Father Mark’s preaching has been that of Story—How the Great Story of creation and salvation relates to our story and our reading of The Story. So, building on that–sort of–; All I really need to know about reading the Bible, I learned from Sherlock Holmes. *

While that may not be quite the way my New Testament professor would put it, it does accurately describe an important way of engaging, and even wrestling, with Scripture. When reading a good mystery—my favorite kind of reading for relaxation—I enjoy watching the story unfold to its (hopefully) surprising conclusion; surprising because the author has invited me to look at things from a different perspective. Viewed through a new lens, the facts reorganize themselves into a different picture and I’m graced with an “aha!” moment: “Of course! NOW I see it!”

Of course, the purpose of reading Scripture isn’t to find the culprit in a crime, but to discover what God is saying to us, through this story, at this particular time. Engaging with a Scripture passage isn’t a one-time event. We are invited to come back to it over and over, and because life changes, our perspective changes, and we are invited to see it in a new way. This is a form of critical engagement that is vital to an effective and fruitful understanding of the great Story of God’s relationship with humanity and all of creation.

Take, for example, the three passages we have heard today. This particular time is the sixth Sunday of Easter. It is also the occasion of a baptism; so how nice that all three lessons are connected to water. In Acts, we encounter a conversion by a river. In John’s Revelation, we see a tree with healing leaves by the river of the water of Life. And in John’s Gospel Jesus heals a man by the Pool of Beth-zatha in Jerusalem.

Yes. All three share water in common. Undeniable. But a patient reading—that means reading a second and third time, offers a shift in perspective, and thus reveals that there’s something else happening here. Listen again: A conversion by a river. The tree of life beside the river of the water of life. A healing next to the pool of Beth-zatha.

It’s not just about the water. It’s where things happen in relation to it. By. Beside. Next to. These lessons all put us in liminal space.

“Liminal space” is a Seminary Phrase, probably because seminarians spend so much time there—in liminal space. It simultaneously connotes two things: both a threshold and being on the edge and/or the verge of things. When you think about it, ‘liminal space’ isn’t just for seminarians—it’s a place many if not all of us are familiar with at some point in our lives.

To be in liminal space is to be between; it is to be off-balance—almost off one foot before setting down the next—teetering between old and new, known and unknown. To be in liminal space is to find yourself with a choice. Forward, or backward. Remaining in the doorway is not a sustainable option.

Did Lydia know she was on the verge of something new? Nothing we know about her indicates that her life was at a tipping point; she was well-to-do enough to deal in purple cloth, which was a valuable commodity. She was evidently a free woman of independent means, possibly a widow since she had her own household. But something about hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ either beckoned from in front or nudged her from behind because there, at the edge of the water, she crossed a threshold into a transformed life in the Body of Christ.

What’s interesting is that you don’t always know you’re in liminal space until you’re faced with the fact of it; you just realize that something is about to change, and regardless of what you choose, life will not be the same again.

In a report on NPR a few weeks ago, I heard about a museum director in Ronneby, Sweden named Dagmar Norberg, who found herself at just such a liminal point.

She was walking beside the tracks at a train station on a cold November day last year when she observed a young man dressed only in a t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. Thinking he was just some whippersnapper without the sense to dress properly, and being, as she says of herself, “now at that age where I can just say things,” she sternly exclaimed, “It’s winter!”

The young man didn’t ignore her; nor did he talk back. He simply replied politely, “I know, ma’am.”

Dagmar says, “That was the first time I heard Wali’s voice.” Perhaps it was his accent—the story doesn’t say– but she was prompted to look closer and realized that this young man was one of many Afghan refugees who had arrived in Sweden with little or nothing but the clothes on his back, certainly unprepared for a Scandinavian winter. She said that he was so stressed he was sweating in spite of the cold.

The young man, Waliullah Hafiz, was trained as an electrician and had been a successful businessman in Kabul before a severe beating at the hands of the Taliban drove him from his country.

Dagmar found herself on a threshold. As she put it, she could either go on with her life or help him. “I just knew I had this choice here and now,” she said, “and whatever I do will have consequences.”

This is where Jesus meets us; where the margins meet the thresholds in our lives; it is in this space where we are challenged; in this space where healing and grace can lurk both expectantly and unexpectedly.

Thanks to Dagmar’s help, Wali is now applying for asylum for himself and his family, he has a place to live and he is learning a new trade. He has found a new beginning because a stranger met him at the edge of the railroad tracks and the end of his rope, and walked with him through a threshold to a place of welcome and sanctuary.

The man at the Pool of Beth-zatha was on the edge in many ways; unable to walk, chronically ill for decades, he yearned to bathe in waters that had reputed healing powers. The pool was probably an artesian well that periodically moved and burbled as pressure equalized, and when this happened people believed that it was stirred by an angel’s wings. This was a marginal place in Jerusalem—a place of disease, infirmity, and desperation. Imagine the rush and the chaos to be first in the pool, the sense of despair as, once again, the man could not get there, lacking friends or family to help him.

This marginal place, filled with marginal people, was the kind of place where Jesus could often be found. And when he saw the man he asked a simple question: “Do you want to be made well?” The threshold; a future on tiptoe in the doorway.

“Stand up, take your mat, and walk. At once the man was made well.” The man wasn’t in the pool. His healing took place on the edge.

Lena Gates is on an edge too. I watched her last Sunday in the Stearns room, on the threshold of crawling—tottering on her belly like Supergirl, scooching and rolling her way toward mobility and a whole new world to explore (to her father’s mixed pride and dismay). And today she is about to be taken down the aisle to the water—the water of baptism, which will splash her head and welcome her as a beloved member of the Household of God. If we were Baptists we would dunk her right in and then back out to symbolize Christ’s death and rising to new life. But regardless of how we do it—dunking or sprinkling—the point is that Lena doesn’t stay in the water. She comes out of it, onto the proverbial shore—she has to because it is on the edge and in the margins where she needs to get to work as a member of the Body of Christ. She will grow up, and with God’s help live into her baptismal covenant to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

Liminal space isn’t just the stuff of individual story. John’s Revelation shows us that liminal space is a characteristic of the Kingdom. The tree of life, with its healing and fruitfulness, are found beside the river. This is the Great Story; the story where liminal space is the nature of things. It’s who we are and what we are called to; a constant process of transformation as God beckons and nudges us, expectantly and sometimes unexpectedly, across the threshold into abundant life.

*With apologies to Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

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