On a hill just south of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, stands a sculpture in a churchyard. The central figure is a man sitting on a bench in front of a column. His hands are partially raised in a gesture that implies pleading. His face is turned toward the figures of two girls standing just to his left. Looming behind this man’s right shoulder, looking down on him is the figure of a Roman soldier. You can almost hear the words:
“I do not know what you are talking about.”
“I do not know the man.”
“I do not know the man!”
You can almost hear the cock crow.
The sculpture is Peter’s denial of Christ located in the yard of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, where, by tradition, Peter’s denial occurred. What happened to Peter? Is this the same man who immediately dropped his fishing net to heed Jesus’ call: Follow me! Is this the same Peter who was the first to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. Is this the same Peter who said, even though he dies with him, Peter will never deny Jesus. (Mt 26:34-35)
Until he did. Three times.
Peter was among the disciples in today’s Gospel who heard Jesus tell them: “…whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” He knew the consequences. What changed? Did Peter lose his courage?
In our Gospel text today, Jesus asks his disciples to be courageous.
He warns them of the adversity and persecutions they will face. Jesus tells them they will be treated no better than he will be treated. I imagine these words and images were difficult for the disciples to hear; they are stark, prophetic. They are black and white, with no gray areas. The choices and their consequences are clear, direct. Purposely so. This is what it means to be Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus is acknowledging what he asks of the disciples is not easy. He knows it will cause conflict and division. He understands the mission he gives to them because Jesus understands his mission from God the Father. He is experiencing and will experience the same rejection and persecution. What he asks the disciples to share in, he shares with them. More importantly, he will lead the way.
It will take courage to be Jesus’ disciple. Do not fear, Jesus says. Proclaim what you have been taught.
I can imagine the Gospel text may have challenged us today for same reasons the words Jesus speaks were challenging to the original twelve. The idea of God’s judgement can make us uncomfortable, and rightly so sometimes. Not fearing God can have eternal consequences.
Not fearing human judgement is easier said than done, however. Judgement by humans is a powerful motivator, one Jesus understood and experienced. Picture the cross. Picture the image of the Roman soldier looming over Peter. We may not face threats to our health and lives as some have and still face as they carry-out their vocations as disciples. We may experience hostility, rejection, and persecution. We may experience indifference to our proclamation. And we may experience the pressure to soften the message, to cheapen the cost of grace in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The list can go on and on.
We face other, smaller ways that we acknowledge or deny knowing Christ. We show we know or deny Christ in how we live our lives. We show we deny or know Christ in how we treat others. We acknowledge or deny Christ in the choices we make; in the things we do or leave undone. Some of these may require a different form of courage – moral courage -- but courage, nonetheless.
It is understandable how we may succumb to such pressure, to be less than what we are called to be. Because Jesus mentions fear I think he understands it is an all too human reaction to what threatens us and what we value. It sometimes shows what we value more. Jesus shared our human nature and understands all too well our weaknesses and frailties.
We are called to have courage; it goes hand-in-hand with faith, linking our beliefs and actions. A definition of courage states it is not the absence of fear, but the determination to continue despite it. That is what I think Jesus asked of his disciples then and asks of us now.
If you only read the Gospel selection for today, you might get an unforgiving picture of discipleship with no margin for error. But we know the larger picture.
Christ’s mission on earth, one he passed to his disciples and the Church, and one which we carry-on today, is also one of forgiveness and reconciliation. Through repentance and amendment of life, we can be reconciled to each other and to God. Acknowledging Jesus acknowledges the potential for reconciliation. This is also part of the Gospel we proclaim.
Later in Matthew, Jesus predicts his disciples will deny and desert him in his final hours and after his death. He knows they are human. Even though they will deny and desert him, he will not desert the disciples.
Take a moment to picture another scene in your mind, this time from the Gospel According to John: It is morning. The risen Jesus is on the lakeshore, kneeling before a fire. With a stick he stirs the coals, tending the fire. Fish are roasting over fire. A basket of bread lays next to the fire. The disciples join him. After eating, he turns to Peter and asks him:
Do you love me more than these? Feed my lambs.
Do you love me? Tend my sheep.
Do you love me? Feed my sheep.
This is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times. Yes, Lord, you know I love you, he says three times.
Though the disciples’ faltered, Christ did not desert them. He will not desert us, either. Tend my sheep, there are a lot of wolves out there.
Three’s More Than Company
Trinity Sunday 2023
As we do each year, after Pentecost,
after recalling the original manifest outpouring of the Holy Spirit,
and beseeching a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit,
we gather to encounter God in a particular way--
God-Big, God-Mysterious: Trinity Sunday.
It follows Pentecost because the Holy Spirit leads us to the heart of God:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus—Holy, Holy, Holy.
The mystery of God in Three Persons: ridiculously overwhelming.
Which is why preachers often try to toss this one like a hot potato.
Indeed, in his treatise on the Trinity, St. Augustine (d. 430) says,
There is no subject where error is more dangerous,
research more laborious,
and discovery more fruitful than the oneness of the Trinity.
Today’s opening prayer eloquently addresses this God-Big, God-Mysterious:
Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given to us, your servants, grace…
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity,
and, in the power of your divine Majesty, to worship the Unity…
God: Trinity—Unity, Triune—One.
Relationally: oh my—home, home-sweet-home.
The Church has wrestled with the Trinity, come into “faith focus” over time:
Councils of Nicaea (323), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431),
Chalcedon (451) and more—more prayer, more pondering, more ink.
These doctrines, however, are not nice, neat packages, easy definitions.
Which is why, be honest, we wrestle with the Trinity!
Indeed, you will notice in the gospels that
Jesus does not define but rather opens the mystery to us.
To reveal is to open experientially.
The Son becomes human to share the secret of God,
i.e., to reveal, to open the inner life of God to us.
The mystery of God in Three Persons is ridiculously overwhelming,
far beyond all imagining.
And yet, over the centuries, artists have sought to imagine,
to provide small stepping-stones for us.
One of these is the triquetra—found on the cover of your bulletin,
from the Latin adjective triquetrus, for “three-cornered”,
of Celtic origin, recalling Saint Patrick’s three-leafed shamrock.
Another of these: Russian artist Andrei Rublev’s three angels
(Rublev was canonized, btw, in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988).
Painted in 1410, we have a print here.
Inspired by the story of the 3 visitors to Abraham (Genesis 18),
believed to foreshadow and thus reveal the Trinity.
Allow me to read this ever-so-briefly with you, leaning on
an 82-year-old Swiss Orthodox priest-monk, Fr. Gabriel Bunge.
Rublev depicts these 3 figures as angels: with some variation,
same in form and size, same wooden stick, a stave,
same type of throne, same garments.
From left to right: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Father alone sits upright; the other two incline towards Him.
The hidden Source in the Source that is God, we catch only
a glimpse of the blue of His tunic (the blue symbolizes divinity).
We hope to see Him through the beauty and wisdom of His creation represented by His tunic of gold and red, greenish reflection, symbol of life.
Both hands firmly gripping the stave, suggesting authority.
A house rises immediately behind him:
in my Father’s house are many dwelling places (Jn 14:2).
The Son’s tunic is striped with gold: “anointed of God,” king and prophet.
The reddish brown represents the earth and thus His humanity:
fully God and fully man.
The blue of His tunic prevails: He reveals the glory of God.
The tree behind Him: the Tree of Life (from Genesis) and the Cross.
The Holy Spirit: more mysterious.
Everything we know is through relationship to the Father and the Son.
towards Whom He is inclined.
The pale green, here: the liturgical color of Pentecost--
new life in the Spirit, even for the whole earth represented by the rock.
The rock, also, the mountain: privileged encounter with God, in the Spirit.
The cup, a point of convergence between the three: love poured forth. Moreover, although salvation is the work of the Trinity,
notice the middle angel contained in the shape of a cup
whose contours are formed by the other two angels.
Finally, their communion opens and offers space for another.
We are invited into the Trinitarian circle of love:
from observing to participating.
We believe (and thus cannot prove) that God has revealed Himself
to be One luminous, loving Being
in Whom there is an eternal procession of Persons,
all Three perfectly one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God-big, God-mysterious, God-personal.
Personal means invited into the embrace—which is more than a group hug!
Let us accept the invitation, letting ourselves be loved by the Triune God.
St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-cetury Italian mystic, prays:
O eternal Trinity, You are a deep sea
in which, the more I seek, the more I find,
and the more I find, the more I seek to know You.