Sermon for the Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul (transferred) The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost June 28, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Last week would have felt good even if nothing at all happened, merely for not being the week before. But rather than have the news turn from shock and despair to boredom, last week seemed to bring blessings and hope from all quarters. The biggest story was the Supreme Court’s rulings making marriage equality the law of the land, upholding a crucial part of the Affordable Care Act, and, to less fanfare, upholding a strong protection against housing discrimination and striking down a key portion of “three strikes” sentencing laws. It made my day when activist Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole on the South Carolina state house grounds and personally removed the Confederate flag there, even though she was arrested as soon as she got down. For Episcopalians, the big story was the election of Bishop Michael Curry, a renowned, beloved, and inspiring preacher, leader, pastor, and evangelist, to be our next Presiding Bishop, and our first black Presiding Bishop. Like everyone I know, I greeted the news with great pride, joy, and hope, but do pray for Bishop Curry, for the position to which he was elected is notoriously exhausting, frustrating, and thankless. And then, closer to home, of course, we celebrate Fiesta, or rather, most of us do, and the rest of us just avoid the waterfront — but for those who celebrate, Fiesta brings hope for summer, for renewal, for the future of the city and every family connected to it.
But as we were reminded at the opening ceremony of Fiesta, the event and all the good things that grow out of it only exist because of the work of dedicated volunteers who began planning in the depths of January and many others who stepped up along the way with gifts of time and money. None of these good things fell of the sky; most of them had been building, quietly, for years. Blessings may seem to come out of nowhere, but they always have stories behind them, often long stories, sometimes dramatic stories, but all of them driven by people who chose to answer a call and stand up for what is important to them.
The Church itself is a blessing to the world, founded upon Jesus, according to God’s will, and inaugurated by the Holy Spirit, but since then the Church has relied upon human beings to continue in the work of blessing the world. We celebrate two of the first and most exemplary of these people today, the ancient apostles, evangelists, thinkers, leaders, rivals, and, ultimately, martyrs and saints, Peter and Paul. Their dedication has inspired every generation of Christian, and their ministry profoundly changed the world.
They couldn’t have changed the world purely through the force of their personalities; they were opposites. Peter was an earnest everyman and Paul a sophisticated firebrand. Peter’s earthy bluntness contrasted sharply with Paul’s steely bombast, adaptability, and occasional biting sarcasm. Peter could rely on his personal experience as a disciple and his prominence within the church, but Paul lacked both of those advantages. Yet there was something about them both that led a great many people to commit themselves to Christ at great personal cost. Both of them were deeply humble men. Peter had denied Christ three times and Paul had persecuted the Church, and it seems neither ever completely got over the shame and guilt of these transgressions. God only ever calls flawed people, for God uses our faults as well as our strengths; God sanctified Peter and Paul’s shortcomings by using them as instruments of humility, protecting them from the temptations and corruptions of eminence and authority. And Peter and Paul were blessed with the strengths of commitment, persistence, and zeal, insisting upon following Christ at any cost, up to and including their lives. But before they were martyred, their example moved many by showing the power Christ has to reshape the lives of those who follow him, transforming us into better people with nobler purposes.
In the end, Rome fell, though it was the superpower of its day, while the Church endures. Rome, for all its glory, was created by and for human beings. The Church is made of sturdier stuff: the Spirit of the living God. Our origins are both more humble and more noble, and our mission, more worthy. We are the successors not of Romulus and Remus, but of Peter and Paul, spiritual heirs to their strength, their dedication, their groundedness, and the life of the Holy Spirit that moved them. That inheritance should give us great hope and encouragement, but also a little trepidation. All for the same reason: God calls us to make great commitments in order to accomplish great things. But no one answers a call alone; the same Holy Spirit who supported, guided, and sustained Peter and Paul is doing exactly the same things for us, and thanks to their earlier work, our world holds far less of the hostility toward the Church that made martyrs of so many early Christians. So complete is God’s victory that Judeo-Christian values like accepting difference, helping the needy, protecting the vulnerable, welcoming the stranger, and championing the marginalized are widely seen as normal, simply the mark of any good person. But this was not always so. Those values were alien to the Roman world, novel to a culture built on might-makes-right and winner-take-all.
Much as we may revere the saints of old, we are capable of accomplishing more than they did. Their obstacles were so much greater than ours. We have resources, options, and opportunities they could only have dreamed of. They have finished their race and received their reward, but whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, our best days lie ahead.
So enjoy Fiesta, celebrate good news of every kind, enjoy all the richness that this life has to offer. Enjoy the blessings of this life as you bear in mind that they are all, ultimately, gifts from God, which reach us because others have, knowingly or not, answered God’s call. God is feeding us so that we might feed God’s beloved sheep. God offers this abundance of blessings for our delight and for our renewal, the renewal that will allow us to move closer to the victory God intends, the fulfillment of God’s plans for us: the expansion of the knowledge and love of God in the world, acts of grace and mercy, and strengthening the church in the place and time God has entrusted to us. If we dedicate ourselves completely to God, living with complete faith as Peter and Paul did, we will accomplish the same greatness and receive the same crown. God will sanctify our efforts, and while the world may resist us for a time, the world cannot ultimately resist the love of God. This is the foundation of the Church, and the secret that kept Peter and Paul going in their most difficult days. Love wins; God wins, for God is love. The same truth will give us the same blessing, and we will be the blessings the world still needs.