The Sunday Sermon: We preach Christ Crucified

“Jesus said to the twelve, ‘They will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.'”

Happy Cathedral Day!

The Gospel for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul isn’t exactly filled with sweetness and light. It speaks of persecution, of confrontation, of family conflict and betrayal, of enduring to the end. Not perhaps what we want to hear on a day when we are celebrating our mission as the Cathedral for the City.

But we are stuck with the fact that this Cathedral is named for a man who was, like his Savior and ours, persecuted, flogged, and ultimately executed by the state. His ministry didn’t have a happy ending, although his teachings and witness have endured and constitute the largest body of writing in our Christian Scriptures. In Paul of Tarsus we have a formidable patron saint. There is no more dramatic story in Scripture than the story of Paul’s conversion, which he wrote down more than once and undoubtedly wove into many of his sermons and speeches.

It’s a satisfying story to tell, and to act: when I taught first grade religion, we used to act it out each year, complete with blindfold. If you recall, Saul, as he was then, was stricken blind by the light from heaven and had to be led into Damascus where he fasted for days before a Christian named Ananias was guided by a vision to come and baptize him, whereupon the scales fell from his eyes and his sight was restored.

This and many other stories of Paul, recounted in the book of Acts, are portrayed in our nave windows, starting here with him approving of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and going all the way round. Today’s first reading comes towards the end of the story, just before Paul is sent in chains to Rome to face the emperor’s uncertain justice. Tradition holds that he was executed, not disgracefully on a cross but with the dignity of beheading by sword, as was fitting for a Roman citizen.

The enormous amount of written material attributed to Paul gives us lots to think about, as we consider our dedication to Paul. How much of his story might be our story? What does his story teach us about our mission to the church today? What elements of his ministry should we incorporate into our ministry?

Paul was not a prophet. He didn’t paint glorious visions like Isaiah or protest the social status quo like Amos. He wasn’t the Martin Luther King of his day. He didn’t call for the slaves to be freed or for the wealthy to be taxed. No, Paul was a planter. He was focused on planting churches in cities across the Empire and teaching them how to be church in that place and time. He knew from personal experience that Christians were not well-regarded by either the Jewish or the Roman population. He saw that, in order to spread the Gospel, Christians would need to strive for a higher standard than their neighbors. They would need to be above reproach, giving no cause for scandal. Slaves obey your masters; married people obey your vows; don’t fight among yourselves. But he also taught a deeply subversive way of life: in Christ there is no male or female, no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

We continue today to be challenged by Paul’s words. In this post-Christendom era, when once again Christians are not well-regarded by those outside of our congregations, we would do well to examine our lives, to live to a high standard of integrity, whether that means treating one another with kindness or sharing our resources with those who have less or, as our Bishop reflected in his pastoral letter this week, thinking about the ways we practice or enable addictive patterns, in our individual lives and in the corporate life of the church. And we continue to be challenged by Paul’s call to equality before God, in so many ways, as our continuing conversations about race and gay marriage both attest.

What does it mean to be the Cathedral Church of St. Paul? Maybe, first we should ask, what does it mean to be a Cathedral Church? Those who study and write about the concept of cathedrals agree on a few points.

First, a cathedral is the focal point of a diocese, which is the basic unit of the Episcopal Church. Each parish is the local expression of the diocese, and the Cathedral is the home base, the mother church. It is often, but not always, a very large building. I think of my friend Bishop John Zawa in Ezo, South Sudan, who is building a Cathedral, also dedicated to St. Paul. which will be the largest edifice for miles around, in a rural and leafy setting where most people live in small round huts. The size in that context is important because it speaks of the grandeur of God and the stability of the church’s presence. On the other hand, the Cathedral of the Isles, on a tiny island in the Irish Sea, seats not many more people than our chapel. It is perfectly proportioned to its setting and is the smallest cathedral in Europe, if not the world.

Secondly, a cathedral generally has a focus on beauty. That’s beauty in the broad sense of that which pleases and engages all the senses. Great liturgy and music, glorious stained glass and vestments, architecture which raises one’s eyes to heaven, incense that creates mystery – people come to a cathedral expecting something special, something they wouldn’t get in a store-front church or a big-box megachurch. And our Episcopal way of worship uniquely offers all comers the chance to actively engage in that beauty

Third, a cathedral serves as a gathering place for all sorts and conditions of people. Jane Shaw, former dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, writes, “Cathedrals are often the least ‘churchy’ of churches, reaching out to a wide audience beyond strict believers. A cathedral is a gathering place for the whole community.” She cites the historic record of “their role in the larger community and their engagement with civic issues, education, and the arts.“*

Those three cathedral characteristics might pose questions for our mission. What kind of statement does this large edifice make in the midst of the city of San Diego? How do we offer those who come an experience of sacred beauty in which they may fully participate? And how shall we serve as a gathering place for diverse individuals and groups, reaching out and bringing people together as a single community?

Christianity began as a religion of the cities, because it was in the cities that Paul and the other apostles were able to gather a critical mass of people to hear and believe the good news of Christ. Our position in the city is therefore central to our mission, and we are well-positioned to stand as a symbol of stability, beauty, and community for the thousands of people who live and work within a few miles of this place.

In the spirit of St. Paul we seek to reach out to the Gentiles of our day, the unchurched and the outsiders, those who have been rejected by other branches of the church and those who have never heard the good news. But we reach out, not for our own sake, but for the sake of Christ. The motto over my stall says Praedicamus: We Preach. What do we preach? If we follow the quote back into Scripture we find the phrase more than once in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Paul says (1 Cor 1:23) “We preach Christ Crucified”; and (2 Cor 4) “We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ our Lord; and ourselves your servants through Jesus.”

We preach Christ crucified. We preach the message of the man who died a horrible death for us, who was handed over to councils and flogged; who was dragged before rulers and betrayed to his death by one he regarded as a brother. And we preach as servants through Jesus Christ, not for our own sake but for his and for the sake of those we serve. As Paul preached Christ crucified to the communities around him, so do we: we preach Christ crucified when we march in parades, when we offer Ashes to Go, when we develop relationships with city leaders so that we may facilitate conversation, reconciliation, and conversion to the ways of peace and justice beloved of God.

We preach Christ crucified when we eat breakfast together on Fridays, when we have real conversations with one another about faith, community, and common purpose. I heard a story this week about a young man sitting in a college coffee shop and overhearing two people sharing their experiences of exclusion and welcome, of the positive values they have experienced here at St. Paul’s. As they got up to leave, the young man looked up from his laptop, his face radiant, and said, “I’ve been coming to the point of returning to the church after years away, and hearing your conversation has confirmed my intention. Please pray for me.”

Sometimes we preach Christ crucified without even knowing it. And we do it, not for our own sake, but for others. As a cathedral community we exist in part for the sake of the rest of the diocese, for the faithful communities in small and struggling churches, for those who feel isolated and under-resourced and overlooked. We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ, not St. Paul’s, but the whole body of Christ, the whole great and generous family of the people of God.

Our Vision for Mission committee has been hard at work and has come to consensus around a vision statement and a mission statement for St. Paul’s Cathedral in this time and place. At the annual meeting last week some of you heard the mission statement. It’s short and easy to learn, so let’s rehearse it now: just six words. Love Christ; serve others; welcome all. [Repeat] Do you think we can do that?

A mission statement gives us the words to express what we need to do in order to achieve a vision. So you might want to know what our vision statement is: what is the vision we hope to build. Here it is (and I’m not going to ask you to memorize it instantly): “St. Paul’s Cathedral serves as a center of transformative love, faith, and service: an inclusive, Christ-centered community that welcomes all people on their journey of faith.” [Repeat]

The vision and mission statements both incorporate values that the Vision for Mission committee have agreed are central to our identity as a congregation. They include love, faith, service, inclusion, community, creativity, welcome, journey, and of course and most importantly, Christ-centredness. We believe that these values, vision and mission constitute the core of who we are called to be as the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, the Cathedral for the City. And they will form the basis for the practical, concrete goals and objectives we will be building over the next few months.

Finally, as the Cathedral Church of St. Paul we are called to find our way and pursue our mission in the context of the God whom Paul knew and loved, the God who acts in our world, who doesn’t wait for us to be ready but knocks us over and blinds us with the light of love; who sends people into our lives who will surprise and challenge and disturb us, transforming us and opening our eyes to the breadth and depth of divine love. Paul tells us again and again that it is by God’s grace alone that we are saved; that God is the principal actor in this story of salvation and we are the grateful recipients of all divine gifts. And it is in this spirit of gratitude that all our worship, all our ministry, all our lives are to be based. Love Christ, serve others, welcome all, and all for the glory of God.

The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
January 25 2015
 The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

* Jane Shaw, “The Potential of Cathedrals”, Anglican Theological Review, vol. 95 issue 1, Winter 2013

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