Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A task to perform

I want to pay my respects here to The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes of Harvard University who died last night and whom I admired hugely.

Here's an excerpt from a sermon he delivered in 2008 as a guest preacher at Washington's National Cathedral:
Often I have said to my congregation, “If you have had problems with Easter, I can’t wait to tell you about the problems of the Ascension. People will sit around speculating as to the mechanics of it, the physics of it, and how it could be, when the real burden of the Ascension is how we now do Jesus’s work.” At Pentecost we will celebrate the empowering of the church to do that very work by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I will not anticipate what the preachers of that day will say. I will say that we have a task to perform, we have an opportunity to perform it, and we are required to perform those tasks in the name of Jesus Christ, whose commission to us as he leaves us is to do the work his father has given him to do: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, wage peace and not war, love our enemy, take care of those who are on the margins and fringes, be salt in the world, be light in the darkness. Because we have heard it all before doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, and because we have heard it preached from this and thousands of other pulpits does not mean that it is not still good news. It means that these are our responsibilities, and that now that Jesus has left this world, all that remains of Jesus in this world is us. What an awesome responsibility, that we are meant to be the Christ-bearers in this world! We are not meant only to own his name, to pray to him, to be objects of devotion. We are meant to be Jesus in the world, not simply performing tricks or doing good works. People who have never seen Jesus Christ are to see him in us. What a responsibility! What a frightening task! What a glorious opportunity! I would say that we are meant to be Jehovah’s witnesses.

That might scare some of you, for you have encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses, I know, and you’ve had nothing to say to them. Never argue with a Jehovah’s Witness, for you can’t win. The only way to deal with them is to say, “I too am one of Jehovah’s witnesses, I too bear Christ in the world, and let me tell you about my Saviour…” What an extraordinary thing it would be if, when a Jehovah’s Witness knocked at the door of an Episcopalian the Episcopalian witnessed to the Jehovah’s Witness—the Witnesses would never come back to that house, I can assure you! Everybody would be saved by such an enterprise.
I can just imagine the howls of laughter that this suggestion surely prompted! I wish I had been there.

May he rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon him.
(Note: I was intrigued to find the 15th century miniature of the Ascension posted above. Notice that Christ is not depicted. Rather the angel is asking that marvelous question, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?)


  1. Oh, I really love this! My grandson and his wife are Jehovah Witnesses' and we are episcopalians. But you couldn't find more loving people than our grandchildren. They are expecting their first child, our first great-grand-child in July and I know they will be wonderful parents and we will be doing our best to be really GREAT grand-parents. We don't worry about our differences because we all share the love.

  2. Wonderful Post Ellie. Pete Gomes spoke at retreat for clergy a number of years ago and I was privileged to meet to have a short exchange with him. Later I was in a book store and found several copies of his book, "The Good Book," on sale and bought them all so I could give copies to people who I meet and who struggle with issues such as biblical literalism and tolerance for gay, transgendered and lesbian people. But I love this sermon that you excerpted. It speaks to that other "Great Commission" found in Matthew 25:31-40 which, when practiced, is indeed the greatest witness. Thanks for finding it and providing an excerpt for us.

  3. Just before I left this site I noticed that you had an embedded link to the site with his full sermon. I went and read the whole sermon and realized you really did excerpt al that was important for me. But, for possible future reference, I saved the whole sermon and made the excerpt you selected bold. Wonderful choice of an illustrative painting, even better than a ladder or Jesus ankles disappearing into a cloud. ; )

  4. Good to hear from you, Laura, and thanks for sharing that about your family!

    Wow. I'm envious, Tom. I would love to have met Peter Gomes and/or to have heard him preach in person. Yes, I bought a copy of The Good Book when if first came out in '96, I believe, and I think it's wonderful. I think it was Archbishop Runcie who called it a "crash course in biblical literacy".

  5. I have The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. Which is fabulous.

    Lovely sermon extract. Slightly scary.


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