Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Loving Death

A couple weeks ago, at the our diocesan Spirituality Retreat, Bishop Gepert asked us to take a few minutes to reflect on what Gospel story we find ourselves most drawn to. He urged us to share the first one that immediately came to mind. Then, after we went around and shared what stories came up, he invited us to spend some time reflecting about how our life story connects with that Gospel story.

For me, the first story that came to my mind was this: the Restoration of Peter.

If you would have asked me years ago what story would come to mind, I don't think I would have picked this one. However, ever since my last pilgrimage to the Holy Land I have been captivated by this story.

One of the places we visited during that pilgrimage was the Church of the Primacy in Tiberius. It is a lovely church along the lake shore that commemorates Peter's restoration. For Roman Catholics, it also commemorates Christ's final and clearest statement about his primacy and his pastoral role among the other apostles and the broader church.

Do you remember the story?

After the resurrection, Peter still hasn't seen the resurrected Christ. He says to his friends, "I'm going fishing." The others say they'll go with him. They head out on the Sea of Tiberius and fish all night, catching nothing...
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.
Jesus has prepared breakfast for them, cooking over a charcoal fire (the same word used to describe the fire at which Peter warmed himself while denying Christ). Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter says he does, only to hear Jesus respond, "Feed my sheep."

While I had always thought of this story as being the Restoration of Peter (as I even described it above), that is the more Protestant understanding. In much of Catholic thought, the story is often seen as a restoration and ordination of sorts. Peter is not only restored—he is commissioned for ministry.

At the Church of the Primacy, there is a statue depicting this scene. When I first saw it, I was stunned and captivated. Peter kneels before Christ, clearly overwhelmed by what is happening in this moment. Christ doesn't look normal, he looks other-worldly, as though the Resurrection has changed him. He extends one hand over Peter in an act of ordination and with his other hand he offers Peter a crozier—the symbol of episcopal ministry.

It's clearly a piece of art, not intended to be an historical depiction of this event. And as a piece of art, I find it powerful and moving.

For a long-time, I thought Christianity was primarily about grace and knowing that I was saved regardless of my own failings and weaknesses. And it is, of course, significantly about that. During this time I loved books like Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-up, and Burnt-out. Books like this taught me the beauty and truth of God's completely free and extravagant love. They were the warm milk upon which every young Christian must feed.

However, I've been slowly moving beyond that.

Well, not really beyond that, that's not the right word.

Because in some ways, extravagant grace has become even more important alongside of a deepening understanding of what the working out of my salvation looks like. The deepening understanding for me is the sense of call, the sense of being sent... and the fear of what that entails.The deepening understanding is about how accepting my calling to be sent deep into the the heart of my parish community... how this is a part of my own salvation.

When I was in discernment of ordination and then in seminary, a common narrative was how so many people wanted to run from the call. I remember one mentor saying that unless someone approached the concept of ordained ministry with great fear and trembling, they probably approached it wrongly. And that always made me feel a little guilty, because I wasn't scared of ordained ministry. I was excited and thrilled to receive this call, to be affirmed in something I had wanted to do almost my entire life.

But now, approaching the five year anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, I think I understand the fear bit better. Because I understand that priestly ministry truly is a daily participation in the sacrifice and death of Christ. I understand that it is a constant giving up, a constant letting go, a constant laying down of yourself on behalf of the community and the church catholic. After having been called to walk through a few small deaths in my practice of ministry, I see how sometimes the clear path forward, the clear path deeper into the community, is one that will inevitably require death.

And perhaps that is why moving "beyond" the simple milk of God's unexpected and extravagant grace to the inevitable sending into ministry that every single baptized Christian has is not actually a moving beyond at all. It's a moving deeper.

Because one of the deepest gifts my spiritual director has given me is the connection between a deep and passionate love affair with God and service to that God in the Christian community.

Peter received his calling in the context of repeated questions from Christ regarding Peter's love for Jesus. Over and over again, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and with each affirmative response Jesus sought to cast Peter's gaze broader, insisting that love of Christ involved feeding Christ's flock.

This connection is what saves any baptized Christian, lay or ordained, from allowing their practice of ministry to destroy them. We are all handed a certain type of death from our Lord, a cross to pick up. But when we accept that cross—symbolized for Peter in the crozier—we accept it with our eyes locked upon a Christ who loves us and who invites our passionate love.

The death to which are called may be scary, but it is the way into divine love.

Loving Christ without the death through which we feed Christ's body—that is, loving Christ without a participation in his Eucharistic self-offering—will only ever keep Christ at an arm's length. It will not allow our very selves to be formed after the mind of Christ.

Feeding Christ's body without a strong connection to the love of Christ will result either in a lack of authenticity or burn-out. We will find ourselves consumed or we will find our care exhausted. We will be left hurting and looking for the redeeming healing grace of God.

In order to love, we must hear the call to die in self-offering service. In order to serve, we must be grounded first in a relationship of passionate love.

I don't have this all worked out. I feel like I'm only now brushing the edges of this mystery. But more and more I can smell the charcoal from the fire. More and more, I hear Christ asking my spirit, "Do you love me?" I hear Christ inviting me to respond, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

And with each year, with each day in the life of ministry, I see more clearly the loving death into which I am invited.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

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