The Ship of Faith
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
They say, the ship of Theseus was preserved for centuries. Theseus, the legendary founder of ancient Athens, was so revered that the Athenians preserved his ship. They accomplished this by removing all of the old planks as they decayed and replacing them with new ones over and over again for hundreds and hundreds of years. Which creates this paradoxical thought experiment…if all the timbers have been replaced, is it still the same ship?
This same paradox gets told as “my grandfather’s ax.” This is the ax my grandfather gave me, the handle broke and had to be replaced several times, and the head wore out and had to be replaced several times, but I would never buy a new ax, because this is the one that belonged to my grandfather.
All Saints Parish was founded 124 years ago this November. I dare say, no here this morning was there at the time. Yes, the building is still here…lovingly tended to (we replace things periodically)…but the true timbers of this ship of faith…the wood…the warp and weft of this body of the faithful…have all been replaced…many times…over several generations…Is it still the same church? Are we still the same church?
Are we still part of the same Diocese that was founded in 1784, when Samuel Seabury was consecrated as Bishop of New England and New York, the first bishop in the Episcopal Church?
Are we still part of the same church that was reformed by Elizabeth I (and many other reformers) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
Are we still the same church of Gregory the great in the sixth century, Gregory who sent Christian missionaries into northern Europe, including the British Isles, and established Christian outposts there?
Are we still the same church that Paul writes to today? The church in Corinth…Which is (by the way) as close as we get to any actual witnesses at the tomb that morning. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth around the year 50, only a few decades after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus—his are some of the earliest writings we have…Mark and Luke (who wrote Acts) came much later. Are we still that church?
In many ways, the answer has to be…”of course not.” There are too many cultural and historical changes that happened between the first, sixth, sixteenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.
On the other hand…
“I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received… through which also you are being saved…(This is Paul talking to the Corinthians, but he might as well be talking to us). “For I handed on to you…what I in turn had received…that Christ died, and that he was buried…that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred, most of whom are still alive… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared to me.”
This is what I proclaim, says Paul, and “so you have come to believe.”
Paul had an experience of the resurrected Jesus. And so did many others. Which he then told others about.
And did you notice that all we heard today was someone else’s report about Jesus’s resurrection?
We didn’t actually see Jesus this morning…just heard about the resurrection from others. This young man in the tomb, Peter, Paul, the writers of our hymns…me…
Thousands of people down through the centuries. I bet there are some here who have had an experience of the resurrected Jesus…
This mysterious figure sitting in the tomb, robbed in white, tells us that Jesus isn’t here, and then says, “but go and tell the others…He is going ahead of you, and you will see him, just as he promised.”
Go and tell others, and you will see him. There’s a connection between telling others and seeing Jesus.
They must have done that, because not long after this people start telling stories about meeting strangers on the road. Strangers who open up the scriptures to them, and then when they invite him to eat, he takes bread, and blesses, and breaks it, and Jesus is revealed as real and present in their midst, which is just what we do today in the Eucharist…modified to be sure, but in essence very much the same as it was 100, 500, 1000, 1500, and almost 2000 years ago.
They must have told the story, because soon others see the Risen Christ in locked rooms, and on a beach, and on the road…wherever they are feeling lost, and hopeless, whenever their hearts are breaking, or sometimes they’re just going about their day…laughing with those who laugh, and weeping with those who weep…and in the midst of that daily existence…Jesus is revealed to them. And what we have inherited is their testimony…and these ritual practices…
This ship…this church…is the same, because these traditions…open us up to be able to experience of the Divine in our own lives…they help us see God acting in the world…they help us learn how to be human…(which is not as easy as it sounds)…they teach us how to live in community…how to truly belong…our traditions recognize that we are going to get it wrong…we’re going to mess up all of this up, and make mistakes…and so our traditions help us heal the wounds…and bind up the brokenness…And we’ve been at this…doing it very imperfectly…for a very long time.
Gustav Mahler is often credited with this quote. Apparently, he did say it, but he was quoting it from a German translation of Thomas More. I’ve googled it and can’t find the true origin of the quote, but that doesn’t make it less poignant, or less true…
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
We are not here this morning, to simply commemorate something that happened some two millennia ago…we are not worshipping or preserving the ashes of some long deconstructed ship…we are the tenders of a flame… We are the keepers of a light that shines in the darkness…and the darkness cannot overcome. We are the tellers of tales, and the singer of songs…songs and stories that tell of the power of life over death, of hope over fear, of love that embraces all and never ends…
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is and is not here. Go and tell others…tend the flame…shine the light…he is going ahead of you…you will see him, just as he told you.”