Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Matthew 13:13-16
This spring, we piloted an Alpha course at Washington National Cathedral, an introduction to the Christian faith that comes from an Anglican Church in London, Holy Trinity Brompton. Each session focuses on a question that gets to the heart of the Christian faith. A speaker addresses the question for about 20 minutes, followed by an hour of open-ended, small group conversation.
Giving talks for two of the Cathedral Alpha talks has inspired me to prepare talks for all ten Alpha sessions. And I’ll start with the first: Who is Jesus?
While I’ve read my share of books and know my Bible pretty well, the heart of my answer to this foundational question of the Christian faith isn’t academic. It comes from my life experience. In the final version of my talk, I’ll start with the biblical witness. For today, I give you a piece of my testimony.
A little bit about my religious upbringing, which was spotty. I was born in New Jersey; my parents divorced when I was an infant. My mother, a Swedish immigrant, worked hard to raise my older sister and me alone. At some point she found an Episcopal Church and she started attending there, in large part because two other divorced woman raising children alone went to that church.
Shortly afterwards, however, my sister and I went to live with our father in Colorado. He didn’t attend church and was rather hostile to religion. But a friend invited me to her church on Easter Sunday; it was a church with an altar call, and at the end of his sermon, a kind young minister invited those who wished to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was drawn to step into the aisle and make my way to the front. The minister gently prayed for me, his hands resting lightly on my head. I don’t remember feeling the kind of power that some people describe at the moment they accepted Christ, but I felt something. I’ve never turned back.
My prayer life deepened in those years, which was a good thing, because my family life took a tough turn. I came to associate the feeling of being loved, of sensing that someone was with me even when I was alone, with Jesus. I still do. When I pray each day, both in quiet at the start of my day, and on the run–which is where I do most of my praying–I feel his presence. And if I don’t feel his presence when I pray, I remember what he said about being with us always even to the end of the age. I hang on to that promise.
When my dad and step-mom divorced the middle of my junior year, I went to live with the minister of my new church. To live with a Christian family was an amazing gift. They were warm, loving, generous people–and very human. I noticed a real difference between the minister who preached on Sundays and the man he was at home. He wasn’t awful at home, but he was human. I realized that even he wasn’t living according to what he taught at church. It confused me that we couldn’t talk about the gap between who we are called to be as followers of Jesus and who we are.
Eventually I returned to live my mother in New Jersey. The Episcopal priest of my childhood welcomed me, and intentionally mentored me in faith. He helped me make sense of what had happened to me, both personally and spiritually. He helped me appreciate the gifts I had received from the church in Colorado and the gifts available to me in the Episcopal Church. And my faith and love for Jesus grew.
In college I worshipped as a Catholic, as it was the service on campus where I felt most at home. In those years, I was profoundly inspired by nuns and priests who were serving the poor and dying alongside them in Central America, and lay Catholics I met who were committed to voluntary poverty through the Catholic Worker movement. It was in college that I first learned about the Civil Rights Movement in this country, and how Christian leaders–Martin Luther King, Jr. and others–were at the helm of that great work of justice. I wanted to be that kind of a Christian–brave, compassionate, willing to put everything on the line for Jesus and those whom he called the least among us.
After college I worked for the Methodist Church for two years as a lay missionary–not an evangelist, but one working among the poor. This was in Tucson, and our ministry served both the dislocated poor of the East Coast and Midwest, families that packed everything they had in cars and drove to the Southwest in search of work–1980s version of the great Dust Bowl migration–and those fleeing violence from Central America during height of the terrible wars there. As much as I loved my Methodist colleagues, on Sundays I found my way back to the Episcopal Church. It was in those years that I discerned the call to ordained ministry. By then I was spending most of my time with what might be called “social justice” Christians, those whose faith is guided more by Matthew 25 than by John 3.16.
I always assumed Jesus was calling me to live and serve on the margins of society, among the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps even in another country. My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Central America, in part to test that call. But in ways that both surprised me then and make all the sense in the world in retrospect, after seminary and marriage, I found myself drawn to parish ministry. To my amazement, I loved it.
Rather than living on the margins of society, I have served all of my ordained ministry at the center of our society, 25 years as a parish priest and now as bishop. My sense of call is to the spiritual renewal of the Episcopal Church and our collective service to Christ’s mission of healing, reconciliation and justice. I often feel as if God is asking me to stand in the gap between Christians who feel they have absolutely nothing in common with each other and help create pathways for us to learn from each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s blind spots. I also believe that as Christians we are called to love others as Jesus loved and if we did, this world of ours would be a much better place for all of God’s children.
One thing I have learned in my life’s wanderings and experiences is how many different ways there are to be a Jesus follower. That diversity of expression, worship and understanding is a gift, both wondrous and enriching. It can also be really challenging–for so many core issues are at stake for us. But Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the Council of Jerusalem was recorded in Acts 15, not to mention the blow up Paul had with Peter as he recounts in his letter to the Galatians.
There is always something to learn in the conflict–in some cases because one side is clearly right and just and the other clearly wrong and even evil. But more often than not, the real spiritual maturity comes in the tension itself and what we learn from it about ourselves, about the truths others see that we do not and the truths that we hold, and about God who is right there with us, in the place of tension and discomfort.
I’m convinced that much of the conflict we experience in life is not necessary, that we live in a culture that fuels conflict and exacerbates division in ways that do not serve a God of love. But I’m also struck that Jesus also assures us in the midst of the conflicts we cannot avoid, or that he asks us to face for the sake of his truth, that he is with us in the midst of it. I hold onto that promise. I also strive to remember that in the end, when we know fully, as St. Paul says, as we are now fully known, that what will be revealed is faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.
Beginning in September, I’m going to be focusing the core questions of Alpha course. My hope is that my reflections will prompt you to go deeper in your own exploration of them, so that together we grow in faith and in love. And if between now and then, you’d like to share with me some of your testimony–or the questions that keep you up at night–I’d love to hear from you.