Tuesday, November 8, 2005
How Jesus approached the imperfect.
Among the many magazines I get at home and at work, the thoughtful lay Catholic magazine Commonweal is near the top of my must-read list. Columnist John Garvey recently responded to a First Things essay by Philip Turner that identified a "theological chasm" in the Episcopal church between "those who hold a theology of divine acceptance" (those dastardly liberals) and "those who hold a theology of divine redemption." Garvey urged readers to go deeper than the easy judgments each side makes about the other — especially around the hot-button sexuality issues that divide Christians today. (His column was a great way to launch into a special issue on the Eucharist.)
Halfway through the essay, Garvey offered this wonderful interpretation of Jesus' acceptance of his faltering disciples:
[T]he Gospels show us how Jesus approached the imperfect, the unready.
In Mark's account (9:14-29) of the healing of the demon-possessed boy, the boy's father begs, "If you can, have compassion on us and help us." Jesus' answer, "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes," calls forth the father's anguished response: "I believe; help my unbelief!"
This is not the faith that moves mountains; it is the divided faith most of us know very well. But it is enough for Jesus, and the boy is healed. Perhaps more to the point is the post-Resurrection exchange of Jesus with Peter in John 21, where Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" and Peter answers, three times, that he does. Most commentary focuses on this passage as a reflection of Peter's threefold denial of Jesus, and this is, of course, a crucial part of the exchange. But a good sermon I heard, preached by a Pentecostal minister, brought up something found in the original Greek that matters deeply to understanding Jesus' relationship with Peter — and with all of us — at its heartbreaking depth.
When Jesus asks Peter "Do you love me?" he uses the words agapas me, that is, do you love me as God loves you, with the love that comes down from heaven. Agape is the word for love that Paul uses in speaking of the most important virtue in 1 Corinthians 13, and the word he uses in Romans when he says that nothing will be able to separate us from "the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8:39). But Peter, answering, "You know I love you," uses the words philos se . . . that is, I love you like a brother. It is a good kind of love, quite commendable, but not the same thing. Simon uses this word in all three responses. But when Jesus asks Peter the third time, he no longer asks do you love me with God's self-emptying love — he no longer asks, "Agapas me?" Instead, he comes down to Peter's level, asking him, "Phileis me?" Do you at least love me like a brother? At this moment, knowing that Peter is capable only of this level of love, it is enough; he knows that it is the best Peter can currently do. But then Jesus goes on to say that Peter will be led where he does not want to go; in his final suffering and martyrdom, Peter will have to learn that deeper love. For now, Jesus meets him where he is, capable of love, though not the love Jesus will ultimately ask of him, and of us.
While insisting that we must take the cross and transformation seriously, the church should also be a place where those who are weak, who are not ready for the whole of what is demanded, can feel welcomed and loved. In one way or another, we all fall into this category. The church is often seen as smug, doubt-free, and self-righteous, and Christians of all confessions are often guilty as charged. When one kind of sinning is seen as more important — more really sinful — than other kinds, we miss the point of the struggle, whether the sins involved are sexual, or have to do with greed or compassion or selfishness. We are called to empty ourselves, as Christ did, called to a radical humility, and morality is only part of this process.
Although I haven't written much here about my experience at the Taize Community in France this summer, I have been brooding ever since on the extraordinary Christian hospitality I encountered there. More than 4,000 people, perhaps 3,500 of them younger than 30, were at Taize the week Mrs Philocrites and I stayed there. They came from all parts of Europe, with smaller contingents from Africa, Latin America, and North America. The diversity of cultures and languages and denominational backgrounds and life experiences was part of the draw for pretty much everyone; it was like going on vacation to Pentecost.
The 100 brothers in the Taize community are on to something important in the way they emphasize friendship — and especially in the way they emphasize worship over doctrine. (They're not hostile to doctrine, and might strike many American liberal Protestants as overly cautious especially around women's equality, but I don't think they fit at all in the left-right template we're getting so maddeningly used to using here in the U.S. ) But Brother Roger's liturgical insight — his emphasis on simplicity and silence, chant, and scripture that doesn't demand sermonic explication — is central. And it creates a space in which an astonishing range of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians can pray together.
Ever since we've returned to the U.S., I've been even more deeply concerned about the polarization of churches and Christians here. I heard again and again at Taize that young people go there because their spiritual yearning and their religious questions are taken seriously at Taize, that they love the prayer and the music and the spirituality of the place, that they love meeting people from so many places. I met one college student who had come several times, even though he doesn't believe in God; another young man, recently graduated from college, grew up in an entirely secular family, had recently discovered Buddhism, and knew that Taize was a place where his newly awakened spiritual curiosity would be respected.
There are congregations all across the theological-political spectrum that provide a genuine welcome for spiritual seekers and connect them to the true depths of their religious traditions. I can't help but wish, though, that one could go somewhere on this continent where Christians with profound cultural, political, and theological differences could meet without suspicion, without endless negotiation, and break bread together. As a Christian in the Unitarian Universalist family of churches, I can't tell you how moving and affirming it was for me to be at Taize, where the brothers have somehow found a way to celebrate the Eucharist in a way that manages to accommodate Protestants and Catholics simultaneously — a tremendous ecumenical gesture.
("Who's In and Who's Out?" John Garvey, Commonweal 10.7.05)
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 8 November 2005 at 9:39 PM