Sunday April 20, 2008
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead
Pope Benedict and Jesus
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
A large but privileged gathering of clergy waited for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in the beautiful, mercifully air conditioned Saint Joseph’s Church in Yorkville this past Friday afternoon for two happy hours. We were truly ecumenical, and we had a great chance to connect and talk while we waited and choirs and organists in the loft provided what was in effect sacred background music. On my right were an Orthodox layman who is a theologian from Saint Vladimir’s seminary up the Hudson River, and the head Chaplain for Columbia University, a Baptist African American woman with a gift for friendly conversation. On my left was an Assembly of God professor. The old line Protestants, especially Lutherans and Anglicans, were much in evidence as well (including yours truly and Father Victor Austin as members of the Anglican-Roman Catholic New York Dialogue of which Victor is the chair). It was gratifying to see Bishop Sisk personally presented to the Pope by Cardinal Egan as one of ten honored guests. The entire face of American Christendom, from the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Christians to the new Pentecostals and Evangelicals with all of us in between were there. We had a good time. It was superbly organized, and at the end we were all well fed in St. Joseph’s parish hall. I dined with a fine table of Lutherans.
But the man at the center, the Pope, was the grace note that made it possible. We applauded when he arrived, and right on time. We prayed, we sang two familiar hymns, a portion of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians was read, the Lord’s Prayer was sung in unison. Benedict addressed us for about 15 minutes. He said many fine things, but what struck me was his assertion that our unity as Christians is based on Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and ascended and reigning at the Father’s right hand, sending his Spirit upon us. Our unity is already there, to be discovered. Real community is built around Jesus Christ, he said. Whatever our tradition, we do our best for that tradition and for the whole Body of Christ when we set forth the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, with clarity and without watering it down. Then off he went having blessed us. I thought, as I am sure many others thought, that we has just witnessed the ministry of Saint Peter as established by Christ our Lord himself: to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and God, and to feed the sheep, the flock of Christ, with the food of that Gospel. Whatever else may be an obstacle in the way of visible unity, we were privileged to see what truly unites us; namely, that we are all baptized into one Lord and one faith.
So, briefly, let us follow the lead of this successor of Saint Peter. Today’s Gospel shows that honest, well-intentioned questions about the Gospel are good. The questions are asked by two apostles, Saint Thomas and Saint Philip, the night before Jesus died, in the upper room. They met for the last supper, during which Jesus washed their feet and instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. He foretold his death and predicted that one of the Twelve would betray him. The air was thick with foreboding.
Thomas, our beloved patron saint, who had a blunt directness about him, asked the first question. Jesus had said they were not to be troubled or afraid. He was going away (he meant going away in death) to prepare a place for them. He would come again to them and take them home to himself. They knew the way he was going. “Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” Jesus means he is himself the Way into, the Truth about, and the Life of God his Father. We are pilgrims on that Way. We take a pilgrimage, our life’s journey, our death’s journey, with Christ, into Christ, through Christ, towards Christ in God.
Four hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, in a far corner of the fading Roman Empire, the text known as “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” was written. It is a Celtic rune. In our hymnal a version of it is Hymn 370. Let me give another version. It explains vividly what is contained in Jesus’ statement, “I am the way…” It is a prayer for the pilgrim to face a new day of his pilgrimage: I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity. Through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness, of the Creator of creation… Christ to shield me today from snares of devils, from temptations of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a multitude, against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul, against poison, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come to me abundance of reward. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every one who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every one that hears me. I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity.¹
The second question was put by Philip, who said, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” “Have I been with you all this time,” replied Jesus, “and still you do not know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
When we see Jesus we see the very human face of God. Jesus lived in the Son’s filial communion with his Father, his outward actions expressing that Personal Union. As Jesus moves through the Gospels, we see God moving, teaching, healing, confronting human pretence and man-made righteousness, bestowing forgiveness of sin and new life, raising self-sacrificial love to the pinnacle of all virtues and then perfectly embodying that love in his own Person on the cross. A nineteenth century Yale theologian, Horace Bushnell, explained well this incarnation of God in Christ: “There is a cross in God before the wood is seen on Calvary; hid in God’s own virtue itself, struggling on heavily now even in the throes of the worlds. This, too, exactly is the cross that our Christ crucified reveals and sets before us. Let us come then not to wood alone, not to the nails, not to the vinegar and gall, not to the writhing body of Jesus, but to the very feeling of our God and there take shelter.”²
Thomas and Philip asked good questions. Jesus’ answers have been unfolded in their infinite, universal richness ever since. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. When we see Jesus the Son, we see the Father himself. This truth is our meaning and purpose in life, to arise to in the morning and lie down in peace to at night, this morning and night, and for all the ages of eternity.
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
¹Excerpted from “A Prayer to Face the Day: Lorica” in The Liturgy of the Hours.
²Quoted by Roland H. Bainton, Yale and the Ministry: How a Puritan School Molded Generations of Americans, Harper and Row, 1985, p. 116.