Friday, February 13, 2015

The Rock in My Pocket
(Stuck with a Church Built on Peter)

"What's in your wallet?" Samuel L. Jackson asks.

Thanks for asking, Samuel L., but I won't tell. Not here.

I will tell you what I keep next to my wallet - that is, in my pocket - in addition to the lifelines that are my iPhone and Case pocket knife.

A rock.

The rock in my pocket used to rest in the water. I picked it out from the shoreline of the only public access point around the Sea of Galilee, in the town of Tabgha, Israel. As it happens, this access point is also home to a church: the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter.

I am sure it is strange for an Anglican/Episcopalian to value a rock from the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, such that he considers the rock - a large pebble, really - as fundamental to his daily rhythm as his iPhone, with its attendant and essential access to Facebook and Instagram. Stranger still: that I so value this rock, even as a non-Catholic, has everything to do with the teachings of a pope! - a pope who, like most of the popes before him (and presumably many of the ones after him) cites the primacy of Peter as the underpinnings of the papal office, the See of St. Peter, which, of course, is a sore spot for Protestants - even theologically complicated Protestants like the ones you find in the Anglican/Episcopal church - like me.

So I will explain.

To begin, we should acknowledge that the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter could easily have been named something else. For example, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was once called the Church of the Resurrection, which I very much prefer. Similarly, the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter might well have been called the Church of Peter's Reinstatement, the Church of Forgiveness, or (even) the Church of an Unexpected Fish Breakfast on the Beach.

Any of these names would have fairly accounted for why there's a church at this particular spot along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The church is the spot, says the tradition, where Jesus finds and engages his first disciples - his friends - while they are fishing, post-resurrection. On that early morning, Jesus eats fish with the disciples around a charcoal fire (Jn 21). Later, Jesus has a one on one with Peter, "reinstating" (say all the bold Bible headlines) the one who was last seen denying his Savior in the hour of Jesus' trial. Of course, Peter had had his better moments - Peter is the same one on whom Jesus had earlier promised to build his church (Mt 16)! Thus the necessity for - and significance of - this moment of reinstatement. Primacy it is.

Cue the Reformation, and this is where things get fun.

Or sad.

Everybody wants to be first - or "most right," or "closest to God," or "God's favorite"- but none of us is very good at remembering for long what, in God's Kingdom, it means to be first, or closest, or God's favorite.

In Called to Communion, written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI writes at length about the primacy of St. Peter in a way I immediately recognized, when I read it, as compelling and true. He says that Peter's being made the head of the church is the risen Christ's way of communicating that the foundation of the church is forgiveness. Not just offered. Received. To be church is always to know one's need of forgiveness; is to live and move and be with others out of an awareness of the forgiveness we've, in Christ, received.

We can only give what we have. What we have is forgiveness and our need of it.

If it had been James or John, it might have been different. One might have wondered, "What special quality of leadership did each or either of them, uniquely, bring to the table?" If had been Matthias, much later, a necessary distance from the first motley crew might have been inferred. Sure, there from the beginning, but not close enough to have failed as spectacularly as the starting lineup.

Instead, it's Peter. The first. And the winner is forgiveness. As Jean Vanier writes - echoing Bonhoeffer, and countless saints before him - each of us comes to the community of faith with our ambitions, agendas, dreams, and goals. And every ambition, agenda, dream, and goal fails us - kills us - until it dies, and we realize that the only real purpose living in community is to forgive the other seventy-times-seven, and to be forgiven at least as much. Moreover, the risen Christ is not simply the possibility of such a community; he is the necessary center. Because Peter is the head of the church.

That the church is built on forgiveness has not made me Catholic; but it has given me Catholic friends. And more-than-me liberal friends. And Big E Evangelical friends. And Lutheran friends. And more-than-I-can-count Methodist friends. Muslim friends. Doubting/doubtful friends. Truthful friendships, all. Because, with forgiveness, and like our first parents, I am learning I do not need to hide.

So I carry this rock in my pocket. Because Peter is the rock, and Peter names forgiveness and my need for it. The rock in my pocket is as an hourly challenge to the ambitions, agenda, dreams, and goals I would impose on my sisters and brothers in Christ before I am reminded how and why this miraculous community of belonging came to be, and also toward what end.

The rock in my pocket challenges but also consoles me. When I come to my neighbor with an agenda to impose, I am challenged; when I come to my neighbor with every awareness of my own inadequacy, not knowing what it is I have to offer, I am reminded. In every moment, I have only what I've carried to that moment, but I do have, and can give, what I've carried: forgiveness.

Christ's own forgiveness. The possibility and ministry of reconciliation. To be asked for. Offered.

And received.

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