Listen to sermon here: The Arc of the Spiritual Universe Bends Towards Inclusion
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on April 24, 2016.
This morning I want to preach about a man who’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind, even though it might come across as crass, offensive, arrogant and racist. A man who claims to be a bona-fide follower of Christ and yet remains stubbornly complicit in the same religiously violent system that had Christ crucified. In fact, at times, this man is actively violent, even when Christ explicitly says, “Put your sword away for all who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52). The man’s name is synonymous with victory, strength, and power and many Christians consider him to be a great leader, even though he is consistently putting his foot in his mouth. Imagining this man as a powerful leader can also seem horrifying to many other Christians. Many of us might be haunted by the question: Is it possible that Christ sees this man as a true leader who can guide and provide for his people? Sounds shocking and hard to believe, doesn’t it? And although it seems like a serious mistake, (believe it or not) Christ does see in this man, a true and godly leader. The man I am talking about is St. Peter, the Rock upon whom Christ chose to build his church. Now Christ did not choose Peter as a leader because of his stubborn arrogance and racism. Christ chose Peter because he saw in him a willingness to be transformed by the Holy Spirit through prayer and relationship.
The Gospel passage this morning is sandwiched between Jesus’s prediction of Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial. At this point, Jesus knows his disciples are spiritual infants, which is why he calls them “little children.” Judas will soon hand Jesus over to the religious and political authorities who are hell-bent on his destruction. And Peter, who boasts of his machismo, bravery and readiness to lay down his life, will in the next few hours, cower in fear and deny any association with Jesus numerous times. They are “little children” indeed. In between these predictions, Jesus offers his little children an invitation to spiritual growth. He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Matt 13:34). One sure-fire way to mature beyond spiritual infancy is to love and to allow ourselves to be loved in spite of our many flaws. Likewise, one way to remain spiritually immature is to refuse this love. The only difference between Judas and Peter, who both betrayed Jesus in his darkest hour, is that Peter allowed himself to be loved and forgiven by Jesus after his betrayal while Judas gave into despair. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus would have forgiven Judas. Peter, who vulnerably received Jesus’s love and forgiveness, experienced profound transformation as a result.
And the work of transformation that Jesus began in Peter continued beyond Jesus’s earthly ministry. Peter’s heart was still hard as a rock when it came to his prejudice and racism towards Gentiles. But because Peter remained willing to be transformed by prayer and loving relationships, the Holy Spirit molded his heart of stone into a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). In the reading from Acts, we see how the gentle and patient work of the Spirit slowly transforms the stubborn racism of Peter, who in a prayer-induced vision, resists the Spirit’s prodding three times. Apparently, Peter’s rejection of God comes in threes. However, because Peter remains in prayer and then enters into a relationship with those whom he initially considered unclean, the Spirit transforms him from a racist bigot to a gentle, humble and spiritually robust leader of the Church. God transforms Peter into a new person. As God says in Revelation, “See, I am making all things new.”
It is this transformation in Peter that the Episcopal Church points to in explaining our own communal transformation from prejudice to embrace, especially in regards to our position on the full inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. The Episcopal Church did not move from exclusion to inclusion in order to be more socially relevant and politically correct. The Episcopal Church moved from prejudice to embrace because we remained willing to be transformed by the Spirit through prayer and loving relationship and the Spirit consistently prodded us to embrace and include those whom we previously condemned. As the Spirit said to Peter, so the Spirit said to the Episcopal Church, “You must not call my beloved children profane.” You must not call profane what I have called clean.
Now what about those millions of Christians (and Anglicans) who remain willing to be transformed by prayer and relationships and seem to arrive at entirely different conclusions, Christians who hear the Spirit saying something quite different? If we remain committed to being transformed through prayer and relationships, then we are called to remain in relationship with those with whom we disagree. I know many Christians and Anglicans who disagree with the Episcopal Church on the issue of inclusion but who genuinely respect and admire the way we have arrived at our position. We prayed, we entered into relationship with those whom we initially condemned and we wrestled long and hard with Scripture, which on the surface seems to be fairly clear on the issue. And the Spirit responded by directing our attention to Peter, whose transformation regarding the inclusion of Gentiles changed the course of the Church forever. And since then, the long arc of the moral and spiritual universal has been bending towards love and inclusion of all.
Although people like Peter disturb and frighten me, especially when they are in positions of political and religious authority, the testimony of St. Peter brings me comfort and hope. If someone as stubborn and dense and racist as Peter can become the trailblazer of inclusion, then there is hope for all of us. There is also hope for the stubborn and rock-hard parts of me that need the Spirit’s gentle prodding and re-molding, as long as I remain willing to be transformed through prayer and relationship.
As we gather together each week to pray and be in relationship with each other as we share from the same cup, we make ourselves vulnerable to the Spirit’s transformation. Who is the Spirit prodding us to include and to embrace? What invitations of the Spirit are we refusing and resisting? Are we being called to change our views about certain people? Are we being called to enter into deep friendship with Muslims or atheists or Jews (who are now celebrating Passover, a holiday that can certainly inform and illuminate our understanding of the Holy Eucharist, in which we say, “Christ Our Passover is sacrificed for us”)?
As we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, I invite us to bring to mind one person or perhaps one group of people towards whom we might have some prejudice or resentment. Maybe there’s someone whom we consider profane or unclean or living in sin. Or maybe there’s a stubborn Peter in our life who has been troubling us. Maybe it’s an annoying family member or neighbor or fellow parishioner. (Maybe it’s an annoying preacher). Whoever it is, I invite us to pray for them and be willing to be transformed by the Spirit in the process. And as we will soon pray together that “all may know the wholeness of God in Christ,” let us lean into and along with the arc of the moral and spiritual universe, which although long (and sometimes painfully long), continues to bend towards love and inclusion of all as it transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. And by doing this, we can experience for ourselves the God who indeed makes all things new.