April 10, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My phone rang as I was paying for lunch at the Arts Center last Sunday. A friend related the shocking news that Johnny Stayton, the 45-year-old verger of St. Mark’s Church in Jonesboro, whom we both knew, had just died suddenly, after their morning service. I later learned that, during that service, Johnny had presented the Rev. Amber Carswell, our new priest, on her last Sunday there, with a stole and had thanked her for her fruitful ministry with them. No one dreamed that his earthly life would end very shortly thereafter. He leaves behind a grieving parish that had depended on his devotion and hard work, along with a broader circle of family and friends, most notably his partner of 24 years. Suddenly and without warning, the world changed irrevocably for so many.
This points to the hard reality that, as the title of a famous African novel puts it, “things fall apart.” Africans have learned this through many tumultuous centuries. So have Europeans. The words “things fall apart” originally appeared in a poem William Butler Yeats composed during the horrors of the First World War. This poem, entitled “The Second Coming” begins like this: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Historically, many Americans have often taken a sunnier view of life, but hard realities continue to impinge on us as well, both in our personal circles and in the larger world. Things indeed fall apart, and many are tempted to regard this as the sum total of reality.
Christian scripture and tradition certainly affirm that “things fall apart.” Holy Week starkly reminds us of the ultimate example of this in the suffering and death of our Lord. There seemed to be nothing left of the promising new community that Jesus had gathered and cultivated, and of course his disciples were devastated. As two of them said about the crucified Jesus on the road to Emmaus, “we hadhopedthat he was the one to redeem Israel.” But now their hopes seemed to be shattered. Even after reports that, unimaginably, he had been raised from the dead, it seemed that life would go back to normal, whatever that was. For some, it apparently involved making a living by fishing, often with disappointing results.
But then the risen Christ appeared to assure the disciples that there’s a lot more to life in this world than things falling apart, or at least that there can be. His death involved a “falling apart,” but in his Resurrection, God gave a sign of an amazing “coming together,” which began with Jesus’s own newly embodied life, but which continued with the resurrected life of the community we call the Church. Because of the power and grace of God, death was and isnotprimarily an end, but rather a beginning. In fact, in the providence of God, it seems that sometimes things have to fall apart before they can come together in new and wonderful ways.
Take St. Paul, for example, or Saul, as he was originally known. He had it all together, or at least he thought he had. On that famous road to Damascus, he was determined to force others to follow his example of impeccable orthodoxy. Then, of course, God in Christ literally brought him to his knees, overturning his whole world-view. Things fell apart for Saul, but through God’s grace, they came together in a new and powerful way. His eyes were opened, and he followed his calling to build up Christ’s Body, the Church, among all peoples in the known world, ultimately sacrificing his life in the cause of reconciliation.
For Paul, for Peter, and for other disciples through the centuries, it turned out that things falling apart was not the ultimate reality, that the center held after all. While things in this world continued to fall apart, they found that they could depend on a living Lord, who was present through the Holy Spirit, and who preserved and enhanced life, even when everything seemed to work against it. The center held when they gave up their own efforts to control things and chose to follow in the footsteps of their risen Lord, wherever that might lead. As Jesus told Peter in today’s gospel, it would lead to a cross in some form or other. It might mean being taken where we do not wish to go. In some form or other, it involves suffering. Yet, wonder of wonders, following Jesus and serving his people carries with it an amazing calm in the midst of the storm. Paul called it the peace which passes all understanding. This peace is rock-solid, because it is grounded in Christ, who is the center itself, the one through whom God created and sustains the universe. The letter to the Colossians beautifully tells us that “in him all things hold together.” In the Lord, as St. Paul tells us, our labor is not in vain, our lives add up to something—something wonderful—and the world has meaning and purpose.
We Christians celebrate the paradox that God usually works to redeem a fallen-apart creation not in dramatic or necessarily obvious ways but through one who was born as the vulnerable baby of a poor young Galilean mother, who lived a humble life of service, who was executed on a cross and who, even after his Resurrection, gave his disciples fishing advice and cooked breakfast for them on the beach. He still comes to us by means of the Holy Spirit, as he came to the original disciples, loving us, forgiving us, dining with us, and sending us forth to serve each other and the world. Our relationship with this amazing Lord of love brings a strange kind of order out of our chaos and gives us joy and peace, even in the midst of suffering.
The paradox at the heart of our faith is well expressed, I think, in a poem by the Mississippian William Alexander Percy, which is set to music in our Hymnal. Referring to the apostles, it applies to all of us as we seek to trust in and follow our crucified and risen Lord in the midst of a precarious, unpredictable earthly life: “They cast their nets in Galilee just off the hills of brown; such happy, simple fisher-folk, before the Lord came down. Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too. Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died. Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head-down was crucified. The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing—the marvelous peace of God.” Amen.