Let’s start wide, and say that something happened, let’s say that two people (Sts Peter and Paul) saw something happen both close up and a ways away, and their lives changed in a way that turned them and the world in a revolution that continues today.
Then let’s say a third person (St Mary Magdalene) went farther and saw more and we’re not even sure what happened to her. It’s a mystery! But let’s also say these three people; Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (not to be confused with the twentieth century folk-rock group) are like us, can tell us something we need to know about how faith can come from doubt, hope can cast out fear, and new love can rise out of loss in light of the resurrection of Jesus.
As a first century church teacher, healer, bishop, martyr, St Peter sounds pretty good; but he didn’t always. If you really look at the man as he appears in the early part of the New Testament, he’s… well, to quote a children’s sermon I gave a few years ago.
“Sometimes his mouth opened before his mind really thought of what he was going to say or do. He tried too hard. He talked too much. He would say he was going to do something and then not do it. But Jesus still liked him a lot and kept him around.”
That’s an informal but fair summary of how Simon Peter is seen in the Gospels. And there are three ways what happened to Peter then can inform us now.
First, To be fully human; second, to be ready to struggle with the life of faith and with doubt as well; and third; to be willing to change and grow beyond what you think you know about yourself and what you think you know about God as well.
We’re so tough on ourselves, afraid that we are incomplete when the truth is that we are only unfinished, flesh and blood. We worry that we might be judged for being “incomplete” or for not having our answers right. But if Simon Peter ends a saint then maybe being “unfinished” is the right word for any human saint in process.. Not according to a prearranged plan or filling out an existing exam, less like marching and more like dancing. Two quotes fit here; the hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” and a bumper sticker which said, “Be kind, God isn’t finished with me yet!”
Second, Peter models wrestling with faith and doubt. Abraham Heschel writes: "Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human persons. To have faith is to be in labor." And Peter labors on. He gets it wrong, he keeps going, he tries again, he comes ‘round right.
For we learn how to live a life of faith by struggling with what it means to doubt, and Peter comes to believe something bigger than he knew. And that’s the third point.
Peter’s faith become bigger than his life. He had to lose the doubt that he was not enough, and live into the faith that God believed in him more than he believed in himself! We can think of faith as a sort of massive self-improvement process; but Peter’s faith comes as a gift to take with an open heart and with empty hands. That’s a good lesson for some of us.
Now St Paul’s path is almost the opposite of Peter; his Christ comes with a blinding insight; that Paul is to let go, unlearn all those clear cut laws and commandments he had leaned on in living as a Pharisee, a fundamentalist on the straight and narrow path for so long. He had to come to see law and grace in a new way in the wide and graceful light of Christ, in a growing assurance that fear can find hope; and that hope is wider than fear.
This is not easy for Paul (and I would wager it wasn’t too easy for some of the people around him), for this kind of insight can leave you in the dark for awhile, turning you around from following dead laws to living new life, from outer and inner darkness to renewed and inspired insight, a larger life and larger love with more room than you had thought.
And the second thing Paul sees is through his witness of that this new shared life of Jesus, this new spirit, brings together the body of Christ; people of different viewpoints, histories and hopes. So Paul’s grows to find a new harmony in this common way home: to love his neighbor as he learned to love himself, as beloved of God. As Peter had to take on a new faith, Paul had to leave off his old fear. That may fit for some of us too.
A 14th century book “Cloud of Unknowing” has a three bits of advice on meeting God in prayer that fit here. For Peter-type people it says; push upward beyond what you think you know, beyond who you think you are, into the place where God waits to surprise you! The advice for the Paul-people is; press down, leaving behind what you’ve done and who you were, what you believed and fought for, so God can meet you and renew you.
There is a third way in the Cloud as well. The author says, and I paraphrase mightily here; If all else fails, just say, “Here I am, as I am, right, now. Please help! And that takes us to Mary, who must have been so important in Jesus’ community, and whom we know so little about; Mary with those two angels, messengers, and that mysterious gardener.
For Mary, as well as for Peter and Paul, Jesus had opened a new way into the mystery of life, His life and deeds seem to speak a word, live out a way, to get past all dead ends and into something new -- more holy, and more fully involved with flesh and blood and community and relationship. More life. New life.
But here she in a dirty grey dawn, walking to a lonely garden where a closed tomb marked the death of the liveliest person she had ever known, the liveliest hope she had ever held, and all she could do is ask someone who looks like the gardener where the corpse of that love may now be hidden.
Gardens are as tough and as wonderful as life: unpredictable places where seed falls into mysterious ground: summers with rich harvest, years when fire and drought kill growth and the fields seem barren: autumn when the promise of rain gives us new hope, cold hidden winters, and warm springs when life bursts into sudden glory. They take time, show history, need much work, can cause calluses, break your heart and back, and yet we love them so.
But if you’ve ever planted seeds and waited for the harvest you know what a garden is worth. So does God. In Christ, God’s seed is planted deep in all that is around us: all that is reasonable, holy and living. Even now, God is casting it wide, letting the seed break apart in darkness, letting it be nourished over time, working the field, never ceasing to weed and watch, that nothing may be lost in life, not even death shall be lost in the light of God! And in that garden Jesus defeated every falsehood with the power of the deepest truth of God’s love.
And Jesus comes to meet Mary, and us, there; love lives and speaks to her in a life that lives beyond death. Do not hold on to an old truth, Mary, meet the mystery of love in a new way,. Let love lost be born anew. For life is now forever new!
And because she had followed him so faithfully to this dead end, he sends her as the first apostle to this new beginning, and she goes to the disciples with the Gospel news; I have seen the Lord. And it all begins there!
Three witnesses, three ways three people responded to an almost unbelievable influx of new life, a new way of living, where doubt leads to faith, fear comes to hope, loss finds greater love. There darkness is overcome by a light shining almost two thousand years later, a light that has changed the world and will, make no mistake, continue to do so until Christ is all in all.
For Alleluia, Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia,