I had the honor and pleasure of worshiping with the congregation of St. Mary’s, Prestwich (near Manchester, UK) yesterday. Here is the sermon I shared.
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Zachariah 4 (“the two anointed ones”)
Acts 12:1-11 (An angel leads Peter from prison)
Matthew 16: 13-19 (“But who do you say that I am?”)
Peter and Paul make an interesting pair. Peter, first among the followers of Jesus, prominent in Jerusalem, he was the first Christian insider. Peter was known for his willingness to act. Indeed, we often see him speaking up or diving in, even when he doesn’t know what’s going on. We remember Peter for his enthusiasm. Paul, on the other hand, started as a persecutor of the Church. A strict legalist and defender of the religious establishment, he was struck blind on the road to Damascus and changed everything. Paul became the ultimate outsider, bringing the Gospel to the gentiles, challenging the authority of the Twelve in Jerusalem, he even claimed the status of Apostle, though he had never met Jesus in the flesh. Two millennia later, he seems a great authority figure, but at the founding of the church, this was not so obvious. At the same time, Paul was the consummate intellectual, trained as a theologian and familiar with philosophy. We remember Paul for his sophistication and knowledge. What are we to make of the two of them together? It is, I think, one of God’s little jokes, that they were joined in martyrdom to found the church in Rome. Today is the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, And I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about faith and reason. I am, after all, in town on my way to a retreat with the Society of Ordained Scientists. The Society has roughly 150 members in the UK and the United States, all of us trained both as clergy and as scientists. Faith and reason comes up quite frequently, even more so in the US, where we seem to be struggling with the question as a nation. I don’t think there is any question that faith and reason CAN go together. The question I have for you today is can they ever be opposed to one another? And what would that mean? I want you to think of a time when your beliefs and your education ran into each other. What did you do? Did you, like Peter, dive right in with enthusiasm. Or did you ponder it deeply waiting like Paul, for God to hit you over the head? Recent surveys, in both the US and the UK, suggest that Evangelical Christians, along with the general public, have a high opinion of science and the work it can do. Likewise, scientists, engineers, and other academics commonly report personal faith in God, though they are less likely to attend services or subscribe to an organized religion. Despite the rhetoric, we rarely meet anyone without faith or without knowledge. Nor do I think Peter and Paul’s attempts to understand the radically new Jesus Christ in light of tradition, learning, and common sense, were all that different from modern confusion on the same issues. In Christ we are presented with something quite challenging. We are asked to accept that some things are more important than life and death. We are asked to pray for our enemies, forgive those who harm us, give away our wealth, and rely on God for food and shelter. The Gospel is powerful precisely because it works against what we know. God is attempting to show us something. In our reading from Acts, God asks Peter to leave the ordinary rules of the world, and simply walk out of prison. In the Gospel, it is Peter who recognizes the radical otherness of Jesus. Or perhaps, I should say that Peter recognizes the radical otherness of the world to which we are accustomed. Jesus, after all, is the real world; the common sense of our daily lives is the illusion. We are often called to make a leap of faith. We must make this leap because the world is broken. I cannot say whether this is original sin, or someone’s fault, or just entropy, but I know the world is unsatisfactory. I know the world is, in some way, corrupt. And I also know, that attempting to fix that corruption with more of the same, is doomed to fail. The world is broken because we don’t understand one another, and we don’t understand ourselves. Jesus’ teaching means something, because it is something different. It aims to break us out of our bad habits. I could stop there. I could say faith wins out over reason, but that would be wrong. It would be, if you’ll forgive me, Robbing Paul to pay Peter; giving one his due, but not the other. I am a priest, but I am also an evolutionary biologist and a historian. And I know there is more to the story. Christ asks us to give up ourselves, but not to give up the grace we have already found in the world God created. Peter had to reconcile being a fisher, with being an Apostle. At the end of the Gospels, he is still a fisher. Nor do I think he gave that up to be a teacher, preacher, and leader in the Church. Jesus asked him to become a fisher for people, and I suspect he continued to fish for fish… Why give that up. Paul became a follower of Jesus, but he did not lose his love and learning of scripture. He did not forget his deep knowledge of Genesis and Isaiah. He did not lose his understanding of Platonic philosophy, which appears again and again in his letters, as he reaches out to the educated and uneducated. In his own words, he seeks to be all things to all people, so that some might be saved. I do not think our modern struggles to understand science in light of Christianity – or Christianity in light of science – are all that different from the struggles of Peter who wanted the Messiah not to die and of Paul, who struggles at length to fit spirit, soul, body, and flesh into one, complete picture of the world. Saint Augustine did this, as did Saint Macrina of Capadocia, Saint Aquinas and Saint Catherine, Luther, Calvin, and Mary Baker Eddy. I don’t agree with all of their answers, but I recognize their struggle, to understand the old creation and the new, their lives by birth and their lives by baptism, their tradition and their hope. The question is not which to pick – faith or reason. The question is how do we handle those rare times when they do not line up. What do you do when your love of God, and your respect for the teachings of the church come into conflict? What do you do when your hope for God’s Kingdom runs afoul of your secular education, or popular opinion, or cutting edge science? That is my passion and my Good News to share. We are, in fact, all struggling with this. We must get past the mindset that says everyone must choose one side or the other. The most ardent Fundamentalist Christian and the most unrepentant Evangelical Atheist, are both trying to make sense of the world. Saint Augustine asks us to bend our memory, reason, and will to the love of God. We want desperately for others to be clearly wrong so that we can be clearly right. It’s relaxing to think we have successfully navigated the shoals to come to our opinion. But even if there is exactly one right answer, and even if we have found it, Jesus did not ask us to conquer, but to care, even to suffer for the sake of those who are in the wrong. What then, can we do to help others reason better AND have better faith? What can we do that honors both Peter’s enthusiasm and Paul’s intellect? And their ability, together, to give all of themselves to the Church and to God? You know the answer already. I know you do. But, perhaps, you have not made the connection from prayer and liturgy, to all the fancy questions of philosophy and ethics. I want to suggest the rules are the same. We practice here, who we want to be in the world, in our reason and in our society, in our human interactions and in the things we claim to know. Be silent – listen for God and listen to people. Hear not only what they are saying, but why they say it. Listen with your heart. Read – both the book of nature and book of scripture. God has written interesting, useful things in both. Think deeply, bringing all of yourself to the promises and problems you see and hear. Forgive – yourself and others. It’s hard to imagine failing as dramatically as Peter, who denied Jesus at his trial, or Paul, who held people’s coats while they killed Saint Stephen. It’s hard to imagine redemption as wondrous as their transformation, service as great as the two men we credit with founding the Church. Share peace and food – bring the gifts found here into every interaction, from your family to the annoying neighbor and the trying boss, from bumbling employee to the tired women ahead of you in a queue, and even to those who would actively harm and hinder you. Bless – when you find something worthwhile, give it away. I forget that I have this opportunity to make all of life an extension of this ritual. I forget that the same rules apply. Until Peter and Paul remind me that my faith and reason work together, that only by bringing all of myself to this table, can I bring this table to the world. And so I pray for reasonable enthusiasm and enthusiastic reason. I pray that the raw goodness in me may be refined, properly fitted and accompanied by others, who have what I lack. And I hope that for you, as well. God bless and keep us, and make us whole.