Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
When I was in seminary, I went out with a woman who lived in Brooklyn. She was fun to be with, interesting, smart, and a great friend. I took her with me to church – and even brought her to the Easter Vigil on a date! If you listed everything about her on a piece of paper, she was about perfect. We, as I said, were great friends. Something, however, was missing that would have taken that relationship to the next level. It was right in our heads but not in our hearts. We simply weren’t in love. Love would have turned it all around.
This, I think, was the problem with Paul when we meet him in this morning’s reading from Acts. Paul was deeply devoted to the cause, a Pharisee who followed every rule and checked every box and persecuted those who didn’t. He zealously did what he thought his religion was asking him to do – but he missed why. It wasn’t until he was literally knocked off his horse that he realized he had been blind the whole time. It wasn’t until he met Ananias that his eyes and his heart were opened and he discovered that love was what it was all about.
In the Greek language used for the New Testament, there are three words commonly used for love: “Eros” – romantic and physical love; “Phileo” – the love of friendship or of siblings (think Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love); and “Agape” – sacrificial, self-giving love. “Phileo” and “Eros” are wonderful expressions of love… just a bit different from “agape.” If you want to see “Agape,” watch how couples care for one another in old age, in times of sickness, or death, putting their life on hold, sacrificing and giving of themselves to care for their partner, often for years.
At first glance, this morning’s dialogue between Jesus and Peter sounds pretty straightforward: a three-fold statement of love replacing and repairing Peter’s three-fold denial before the crucifixion. However, even in English, you can feel the frustration that is there. In the original Greek, the underlying issue is clear. Here it is noting the different words for love.
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love (philo) you.” Jesus: “Feed my lambs”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love (philo) you.” Jesus: “Tend my sheep”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
Peter: “You know that I love (philo) you.” Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”
Did you catch that? Jesus asking using “agape” and Peter responds with “phileo.” Jesus says “do you love me?” and Peter is saying he wants to be friends. Jesus tried a second time and Peter responded in the same way. The third time, sensing that Peter just isn’t getting it, Jesus stops pushing and meets Peter where he is. The problem is that this just isn’t enough. As someone said to me, “The fact that God loves us and accepts us just as we are but doesn’t mean that God wants us to stay that way.” In our reading from Revelation, John describes a vision of a myriad of angels around the throne of God singing “”Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” Jesus showed love, by giving it, by giving himself, away. As Paul discovered when the scales dropped from his eyes, resurrection isn’t just about new life, it’s about a whole new way of seeing the world: a way of living based on giving, a way of loving, using agape itself. When Peter responded to Jesus’ question and said, “You know I love you” Jesus’ response was simple. Make it real. Feed my sheep. Live it out. This is the love the Presiding Bishop describes in the Way of Love, a way of life that he asks all of us in this Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement to live, to proclaim, and to use to transform the world in which we live. Have you seen the news? The world desperately needs us people willing to stand up for and with love. The time has come for cathedral and cathedral people to lead.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. A few weeks before Easter, a comment was made at a Strategic Planning meeting which was perceived as a racial slur and profoundly hurt one of our members of color who has since left the congregation. At that meeting, I missed both the racial component of the comment and its impact of it on this parishioner, with the result that I didn’t follow-up for several days. Since then, the follow-up has been intense, including a well-attended congregational meeting, meetings of vestry and clergy leadership, as well as several meetings of the Beloved Community Committee, the last of which was just a few days ago. Let me pause and say thank you to all who have put so much time and care in this reparative work. This has been an extremely challenging, heart-wrenching time for the congregation, especially given a context in which our volunteers, staff and members were exhausted and burned out from Covid, frustrated, fearful, and emotionally fragile because of everything going on in the world, and immersed and anxious about preparations for the first in-person Holy Week and Easter services we have had for several years. It was made worse by name calling, gossip, rumors, and inappropriate use of social media, all contrary to the agape love we are talking about today, and all of which simply needs to stop. I recognize that much could have been avoided if I had spoken up right as this began. I am sorry, truly sorry, for my lack of action and the pain this situation has caused of us all.
The structural racism and privilege with which we swim can result in our unwittingly and with no thought of malice saying or doing things that denigrate Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) and also members of the LGBTQIA community, the disabled, mentally ill, and homeless, seniors, non-binary people, women, youth and others, all of whom seem to be continually under attack in the wider culture and all of whom desperately need the church to be a place that they can call home. The reality is that all of us have the potential to make a comment that could cause someone else to feel not safe, not respected, or not welcome. We will continue to make mistakes. When that happens, we all have the obligation of calling out it out, using these experiences as teaching moments and opportunities for growth, offering support to those who were hurt, and modeling the core values of our faith. What we need to learn as a congregation – and what I need to learn as a leader – is how to do these things better, so that all are truly welcome here, so that we become more who God has called us to be, and so that I – and we – can get out of our own way and do the work that desperately needs to be done. The vestry has tasked the Becoming Beloved Community Committee to help with trainings and opportunities for all of us to continue to grow and learn and I look forward to moving ahead together. Please watch the bulletin and e-pistle for news about how you can join in these efforts yourself. If you have concerns or questions, please contact me, one of the other clergy or one of the wardens. We love you – I love you — and want you to be safe. We are truly here for you.
This is the Easter Season, the time when Jesus showed that world that he was alive and that sin and death were vanquished once and for all. The thing is, if people to get this message – if they are to experience the healing, the hope and the new life of Easter today — they will do so through his body, through the church, through you and through me, imperfect vessels as we are. It has to do with agape. It has to do with loving Jesus, living that love out by loving one another at the same time, and transforming ourselves and our world as a result. Christ is risen. May we live and love as if that is true.