The Prayer Book allows, but does not necessarily encourage us to keep the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude today. To be honest, I am a little less than enthusiastic about our saints this morning, neither of whom provides a deeply inspiring model for the Christian life, if only because neither is a figure about whom much is known.
St. Simon, is often called “the zealot,” and it remains a question whether this moniker was a description of his personality or of his religious and political leanings. If it is an indication of the latter, and he was aligned with a Jewish religious party that was looking for a militarily empowered messiah who would drive out the Romans from Palestine and usher in a new day of freedom for his people, well, then, Simon must have been deeply disappointed in Jesus.
St. Jude is famously known as the patron saint of lost causes, or causes despaired of, as it’s sometimes put. But, in a nice bit of irony, no one seems to know precisely why.
More than once recently I have found myself wondering whether or not the church is a lost cause. From child-abuse, to declining attendance, to a general malaise in many quarters, to the often horrific preaching that you can hear in churches large and small alike; we are not living in a golden age of the church.
It makes me wonder if I should have learned to write code, and gotten into the games business. My head is still spinning from reading an article in The New Yorker last spring in which I learned about the video game Fortnite. As of that writing, the game had been downloaded more than sixty million times, and on more than one occasion more than three million people have been known to be playing the game at the same time on line. That sounds kind of like religion to me. It’s certainly a way to spend your Sunday morning. In an effort to understand the appeal of such a thing, I found myself, looking up the difference between a first-person-shooter video game, and a third-person-shooter video game. I had assumed I could deduce the distinction from the language, and that it must have to do with who is doing the shooting. But I was wrong. I should have known that my assumption made no sense. For, who would play a game in which someone else is doing the shooting?
Who is doing the shooting, of course, has itself become a thematic question of American life. Last week we were supplied with the answer to the question, “Who is sending the packages?” But before a new week even began to unfold, we found ourselves confronted with another shooter, this one firing into a synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday morning.
We may have banished from our collective consciousness the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan (disasters of our own making that have yet to come to an end). But we cannot altogether muffle the sound of gunfire when it is so widespread across this nation. We should all learn how to sing the mourners Kaddish: we will need it again.
Hungry for a morsel of Good News, we roll into church this morning to hear Jesus saying this, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” This is not the kind of feel-good Gospel I am hoping for on a morning like this. I want Beatitudes. I want love to be kind and patient. I want St. Francis preaching to the birds! But we walk in to Simon and to Jude, and to this: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” Is this Jesus’ way of saying, “haters gotta hate”? Couldn’t we leave that for another time? How about never?
I allow myself to reflect on these shooters who saunter into synagogues or churches armed to the teeth, or who perch from a luxury suite in a hotel with an arsenal at the ready, and I am distracted for a moment by my own perverse reflection on the sheer cowardice of these men, (for they are always men (or boys)). And I have to stop and ask myself, what would I prefer - brave mass shooters? And I hear an echo of an ancient word. What would I prefer - brave zealots?
It is possible, I suppose, that St. Simon, the zealot, had been stockpiling swords and staves and clubs in a shed behind his mother’s house. Perhaps it was Simon who supplied the sword to St. Peter that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter, in a zealous rage to protect his Lord and Master, cut off the right ear of the High Priest’s slave - an injury that Jesus immediately healed. In any case, Simon’s zealotry would, of its own, amount to nothing.
Perhaps Simon is the id to Jude’s ego (albeit a somewhat deflated ego). Beaten back by the real troubles of the world, it’s enough for Jude to follow, and to be remembered, even if it is for what might have looked like a lost cause. I wonder if they remembered, those two, what Jesus had said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”
From where I stand, it seems not far-fetched to say that the world today more or less hates Jesus, at least the world I walk through, and read about every day. There may be places where the world does not hate Jesus, but these places are far from here.
To bolster this view, I note that the news told me the other day that the world made more billionaires last year than ever before. If there is one thing the world absolutely does not need it is billionaires. What good comes of a society that is adept at minting billionaires? And yet, it is the socio-economic accomplishment of our age. A world that is adept at making billionaires can only ever hate Jesus, because you can never make the needles big enough, or the camels small enough for a billionaire. As far as I can tell, Bruce Wayne and Gerry Lenfest were the only two billionaires who could handle their money. And of the two, only Gerry Lenfest gave most of his money away.
I wonder if Saints Simon and Jude both figured out that the world hated them for following Jesus. The world would have hated Simon precisely because his zealotry amounted to nothing. What a waste, in the world’s eyes, of all that good weaponry. And the world would have hated Jude because of his refusal to abandon a cause despaired of - the lost cause of Jesus, whose disciples would mostly abandon him the closer he got to the Cross, where Jesus knew he must go to show his love for the world, and to make his perfect sacrifice of love.
In some sense, I suppose, the church could try to be the best possible combination of Simon and Jude. For we are called to be zealous for the Cross, which, to many, looks precisely like a cause despaired of. What is the point of endlessly celebrating the execution of your messiah?
Here it might be useful to remember a little sacramental theology. For to us, the Cross is nothing to despair of. It represents the triumph of life over death, of good over evil, of light over darkness, and of love over hate. For it was on the Cross that Jesus died. It was on the Cross that Christ gave his Body and his Blood for the salvation of the world. It was on the Cross that Jesus began the work of salvation whose effect would be known in his resurrection - the rising of the crucified Christ from the grave, which is the victory of hope over despair.
Remember that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of some invisible gift of God’s grace. And every day in this church we are called to a one-on-one encounter with the Body and Blood of the risen Christ - God’s assurance to us that the gift of salvation - which seems invisible to us, maybe even unlikely to us in this hate-filled world - that this gift of salvation, this victory of life over death, good over evil, light over darkness, love over hate is for real. That’s why we come here time after time. And that’s why, it ought to send shivers down our spines when we hear Jesus say that the world hates us because it hates him too, hated him first, in fact. Because the world deals in death; the world deals in evil; the world deals in darkness; the world deals in hatred, every single day. Thus the world amasses its fortunes.
But Jesus has already won the victory over death. Jesus has already won the victory of evil. Jesus has already won the victory over darkness. Jesus has already won the victory over hate. And he keeps asking us to live our lives as if we knew this. And he keeps giving himself to us - Body and Blood - to remind us of the Truth that we cannot see, but that is no less true for being invisible.
I fear that the shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue might claim to be a Christian. Not only could such a claim not be remotely true in any sense, it must also be stated that any such person, who could gun down the innocent in the midst of their prayer and their worship, must be assumed to hate Jesus.
Maybe we will not be able to learn to love Jesus until we can be honest about all the ways the world hates Jesus. Maybe we will not be able to learn to love Jesus until we learn to accept the the world will hate us too, when we do. Maybe we will even need to learn to give up on our dreams of some day becoming a billionaire, which has never been documented to lead anyone to love Jesus more. Or am I the only one here who has ever fantasized about that many zeros?
We need a sign, in this world of ours, that life will triumph over death, that good will triumph over evil, that light will triumph over darkness, that love will triumph over hate. Thank God we’ve got one.
Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of him.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia