Periodically we face pivotal moments that define our lives. They are turning points that shape who we are and how we act in the world. I want to tell you about three of those turning points that have shaped my life and ministry as a priest.
The first turning point occurred when I was a college student at Fordham University in New York. I had gone to Catholic schools most of my life, and I even was considering becoming a Jesuit priest. I was studying philosophy at the time, and for some reason, I began to have doubts about Jesus. The Gospel of John has Jesus claiming, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
But was this true? Could I be so sure of Jesus that I would be willing to stake my life on him? Did I have the courage to follow Jesus, even if that meant sacrificing my own comfort and security? What if Jesus was mistaken? What if the gospels were not true? What if the entire Christian faith was a fraud? In that case, I would be wasting my life following Jesus.
Thankfully, there were several professors at Fordham who helped me through my intellectual difficulties, the greatest of whom was the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. His father was the noted German sculptor Adolph von Hildebrand and his mother was quite learned in the humanities. Although nominal Lutherans neither of his parents were believers.
As Dietrich von Hildebrand told the story, one evening at dinner when he was a young boy of about eight years old, he spoke about Jesus to his parents. He said that his friends had told him that Jesus was God. “Was it true?” he asked.
“Of course not,” his parents assured him. Jesus was a good man, a moral teacher, but certainly not God.
But as he went to bed that evening, young Dietrich was restless, unable to sleep. In his room hung on the wall was a crucifix – a relic of a bygone era and a symbol without any meaning for his parents. For some reason, young Dietrich got out of bed and stared at that crucifix. He kept his gaze on the broken body of Jesus hanging on the wood before him. It seemed like an eternity that he just kept staring at that crucifix, but finally with tears in his eyes he cried out, “Yes, you are God!”
“Yes, you are God!” When I heard those words from von Hildebrand, they completely changed my thinking. I don’t know why or how, but at that moment I had this deep inner assurance that Jesus was indeed God. That what saints and scholars, theologians and ordinary folk have believed throughout the centuries is indeed true. Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, what Bishop John Robinson would later term, “the human face of God.” Jesus is indeed “the Way, the Truth and the Life” – the foundation of the Church’s faith and of my faith, as I hope of yours.
Now, thirty-three years a priest, I can’t imagine life without Jesus. He is the basis for everything I have done as a priest, every Eucharist I have celebrated, every sermon I have preached, every person I have ministered to, baptized, married, buried and counseled. Nothing in the priestly life, or for that matter in the Christian life, makes any sense without Jesus being who the Church says he is: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.” On this faith Christianity stands or falls – there is no middle ground, no compromise. This is the faith of the Church.
I remember a story that the former Bishop of Norwich Maurice Wood shared when he came to Canada many years ago. He told of a fine young Church Army captain with inoperable cancer. As they talked of Christ, and of suffering and death, the captain smiled and said, “Bishop, this is no time for doubting.”
I think those words apply to us in the Church today. This is no time for doubting. It is a time to trust Jesus – to accept him as Savior, to obey him as Lord, and to believe in him as God Incarnate – God become human. Yes, Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I am a committed Christian because I believe in Jesus.
The second turning point in my life happened in law school when I was taking a course in jurisprudence taught by Professor Aaron Schreiber. Professor Schreiber was not only a lawyer and accomplished scholar but also a rabbi. I became Professor Schreiber’s research assistant and through him studied the legal theory of Yale Professors Myres McDougal and Harold Lasswell who postulated law as a ”policy science,” the purpose of which is to promote human dignity – an inclusive term that afforded people the freedom to achieve power, wealth, respect, well-being, affection, skill, rectitude and enlightenment.
That notion of human dignity became a guiding principle for my own life – and when the 1979 American Prayer Book was authorized, to my delight, there in the Baptismal Covenant was the promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” (The Anglican Church of Canada, by the way, has that same baptismal promise in the BAS.)
Of course, as Christians, we take the notion of human dignity one step further and say that every human being is created in the image of God and is therefore deserving of respect and consideration. No human being should be thought of as simply a cog in a machine, or an expendable unit of labor, or a means to an end. All human beings have infinite value and worth, no matter their race, color, age, gender, nationality, ethnic background, disability or sexual orientation.
I can honestly say that on the commitment to uphold human dignity I have never wavered. It is a rock solid belief of who I am and what I think important in the political arena. Treat people unfairly, unjustly, and the law is there to take corrective action, and rightly so. Injustice should never be tolerated in any country, or church, or organization that values human rights and human dignity.
In the midst of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, one of the most respected voices for human dignity was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But even the closest colleagues of Archbishop Tutu were sometimes distressed by his tolerance and moderation. They wished he would be more aggressive with his opponents. One of them said, “At his age, you’d think he would have learned to hate a little more. But there is this problem with Tutu: he believes literally in the Gospel.”
In other words, Tutu remembered the Baptismal Covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being” – and on that he held firm. So should we all.
Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life – and Human Dignity –these two core beliefs have been central to my life. But there’s one more – the belief that all-inclusive love is the hope of the world.
When I became a priest, I soon realized that the Anglican Church of Canada and even more so the Episcopal Church in the United States were divided into two factions. One faction was very concerned to preserve the doctrine and discipline of the Church – to maintain orthodoxy – to insure the faith and morals of the Church were unblemished, untarnished by worldly influence.
And yet, from my perspective, as noble as this view appeared, the issue somehow always came down to sex – whether it be divorced couples remarrying in the Church or couples living together or gay and lesbians in their demand for full equality and acceptance, or even women functioning as priests and bishops.
Another concern of this faction was the refusal to allow unbaptized persons to receive communion, and even to restrict people who may wish to be baptized but were not fully committed members of the Church. The battle over these issues has been almost as intense as the struggle for the rightful place of gays and lesbians in the Church.
On the sex issues as well as open communion and open baptism, I have found myself at odds with the orthodox group who want to maintain the status quo. My vision, and the vision of other Anglicans and Episcopalians, is a Church of all-inclusive love – one that is open and affirming to all seekers without hindrance or obstacle – a Church that is “a kind of Noah’s Ark” that welcomes everyone.
This is a Church that believes the Gospel is not primarily about morality or rule keeping but about God’s unconditional love for each and every one of us, a love which none of us deserves but which God gives anyway. This is a Church that blesses rather than curses, affirms rather than condemns – a church that counts people in rather than kicks people out – a church that is always willing to expand the circle of love just a little bit more so that no one is ever shut out.
I am well aware that this view of the Church shakes up the establishment and makes some in the hierarchy, especially in Canada, nervous, but I also believe from the depths of my being that before the throne of God, we will never be judged and found wanting for loving too much, only for loving too little.
Several years ago I discovered this story about heaven. Every morning St. Peter found in heaven a horde of undesirable aliens, whom he was certain he had never admitted at the regular hours. Some had never been baptized, some were ignorant of the Bible; many were soiled and damaged souls who really had no right to the celestial precincts. He decided to discover just how this leakage occurred. So in the darkness he prowled about the ramparts of heaven. At last he discovered a dark corner where a few stones had been removed from the wall since last inspection an hour before. A crowd was stealthily creeping in. He rushed at them with indignation, but was amazed to find the Savior there, helping some of the cripples over the wall. “I am sorry, Peter,” the Lord said, “I know it is against the rules. These poor souls are not all they should be. Some were never baptized. Some of them are not quite orthodox in their opinions of me. And all of them are miserable sinners. But they are my special friends and I want them here.”
Edwin Markham expressed this love in poetic form:
He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Three turning points: Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life; Human Dignity as the foundation for law and ethics; and All-Inclusive Love as the hope of the world.
With Jesus as the center of our lives, with human dignity as the motive for our mission, and with all-inclusive love as the model for our ministry, the Church can’t go wrong. Whatever the challenges we face, we will be on the right side of history, which is to expand the circle ever wider and embrace every human being with the same love and acceptance that our great God has for us.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
June 5, 2016
Text – Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7: 11-17
Proper 5 (10), C