Preached by the Most Rev. Michael G. Peers
The Most Reverend Michael G. Peers, a long-time friend of the SSJE community and member of our Fellowship of Saint John, retired from office as Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada on February 1st after having served as Primate since 1986. A hallmark of his tenure as Primate has been his witness for greater inclusiveness in the life of the church. Archbishop Peers is a linguist – fluent in French, German, and Russian as well as English – and has traveled widely on behalf of the Church. He continues to serve as President of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, providing a personal link between the Cuban Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion. He and his wife, Dorothy, live in Toronto and have three grown children and two grandchildren.
It is, as always, a joy to be able to worship here; it is a privilege to be asked to speak; it is a discipline to have to produce a written text. I appreciate each of those opportunities with varying proportions of joy and dismay.
Twenty-seven years ago the diocese where I was ordained bishop gave me a ring on which is inscribed a text from the Gospel according to John the Evangelist, the tenth chapter and the tenth verse. It says, “ ut vitam habeant ,” “that they may have life.” The text itself was both given to me – it was part of the concluding verse of the gospel read at the synod at which I was elected – and chosen by me – as a motto for my ministry from then on.
Up to that point my ministry had been dominated by a certain vision of what gospel, faith and church were for, and what I might be on about as their servant. It was a vision, which I saw and absorbed in the parish where I had returned to the church as a university student. I had been raised in the church but had made the classic departure a week following my confirmation.
The first component of that vision was mystery. While the church in which I was raised certainly held up regular Sunday attendance as a constituent part of membership, even a criterion, there was not a strong sense that meeting God was a serious part of that attendance. Liturgy was faithful recitation of pages 67 to 86 in the Prayer Book, rather than an approach to the gate of heaven. But the experience of worship in the community to which I returned came with the same spiritual force which had inspired the emissaries of the prince Vladimir, visiting the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople in the ninth century, to exclaim, “We have been in heaven,” and with those words set in motion the conversion of Russia. Though I did not hear those words until many years later, I sensed the reality immediately.
Its second component was meaning. Preaching, as I had met it earlier, was mainly concerned to promote a moral foundation, often entirely appropriate, to individual behaviour. Its content was delivered from scripture (and the mores of wartime Canada); it made its appeal to a combination of one’s conscience and one’s guilt. But the scripture was used without reference to context, the moral issues addressed were entirely personal and never societal, and the challenge was simply to obey rather than to “love the Lord thy God with all thy mind.” The new revelation offered the preaching of the gospel as a gift of grace addressed (not only, but deeply) to the intellect, invited one to step into the fullness of a word addressed to the whole of human life and, above all, challenged one to the discernment of questions like, “Where is God in all this?”
Its third component was mission. Where I grew up, mission, if it was mentioned at all, was a matter of elsewhere. The settled assurance of the place of Christianity in our society was untroubled by the slightest suggestion that we were agents of, or participants in, the mission of God in our world. But my new home saw the entire world as the locus of both God’s activity and God’s desire for our activity. Whether it was community for lonely old age pensioners, shelter for the unemployed, challenge to slum landlords, freedom for black South Africa, support for the church in Papua New Guinea, the vision was of God yearning not only for these things, but that we should be sharing in the work of bringing them into existence.
And all this was delivered in the unshakable faith that the God at the heart of all this was, and always would be, engaged, present and alive – incarnate in Jesus Christ, especially as witnessed to by the Gospel of John.
As a priest I raised these banners at the beginning of ministry in every parish to which I was appointed. And as bishop and primate, these were criteria I used in situations where it was desirable or necessary to discern the quality of life in the terms in which John 10:10 proposed.
Not that these assumptions were unchallenged.
One early challenge relates to the place of the gospel of John the Evangelist as we celebrate it this day.
In my last year in seminary, our visiting New Testament professor introduced his presuppositions for the course on Johannine literature with the striking assertion that no word attributed to Jesus by the author of the Fourth Gospel could be considered, unless substantiated by the witness of another gospel, as a verbum ipsissimum, that is, an authentic word of Jesus. He then proceeded to teach the course, dealing almost with the text of John only as it related to the authentic witness of the other gospels. To many of us, it seemed that while in our college we had escaped the ravages of fundamentalist biblical literalism we had fallen into the clutches of fundamentalist biblical criticism.
Some time later I discovered that a reality dear to a catholic mind and heart like mine provided not only the exit from that particular dilemma (and others like it) which assault Christian life and witness, but also the entrance to my final theme on the occasion of this feast. That reality is what good biblical scholarship and classic theology calls community. The concept of verbum ipsissimum does not belong to scholarship to adjudicate, but to communities to offer. The communities of the synoptic gospels offered their witness, as did the community of John, and the church, in the process of choosing the canon of the scriptures, declared them all genuine witnesses to the revelation of God in Christ.
Of course, I reveal myself in these words as a witness to the church of the past as I have experienced it. My part in the church of the future will be, God be praised, a lesser one. My prayer for the church of the future is that, as new crises and challenges arise, they will be attentive to the Spirit who not only leads us into the crises, as the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness, but also reveals, to those with eyes to see, the way through.
And nothing is more crucial to the church’s capacity to discern the ways through, than alertness to the implications, the possibilities, the profundities, of genuine life in community. And nowhere, I dare to suggest, can that life in community be more deeply understood than in a participation in the life of a community such as the Society of St John the Evangelist. Whether it is the participation of its members, or that of the rest of us fortunate enough to live beside it, the community offers a saving possibility. We bless the Society for its gifts to us; we thank God for its grace in our midst and we pray for its continued strength.
And I end with some verba of Jesus which are as non-ipsissima as one can find. They come in a legend often told by a priest with whom I worked many years ago. It goes like this: After the Ascension Jesus, arriving in the halls of heaven, was besieged by the celestial hosts with welcomes and questions as urgent as those of paparazzi. Finally he was asked, “But what now? What will happen to all you said and taught and did and were, now that you are not there?”. Jesus said, “There are my followers. You have seen them. Everything I said and taught and did and was, they will say and teach and do and be”. They contemplated the prospect of leaving it all to Peter, to the sons of thunder, and the rest, and finally someone nervously said, “But what if that doesn’t work? What then?” Jesus said, “That is the plan; there isn’t any other.”
For that word, for all the words of John the Evangelist, for this community and this place, thanks be to God.
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