Artwork: Daniel Bonnell, The Rejected
Readings: 1 Peter 3.8-15; Luke 5.1-11
If you’ve followed the news this week, you will know that numerous churches in Canada have been burned to the ground in apparent anger over the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children, who were students at the residential schools operated by the Church.
The residential school system was a decades-long joint venture between the Church and the federal government to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the wider Canadian society. It was, in the infamously shockingly words of one civil servant, ‘the final solution to the Indian problem.’ I don't think it is an overstatement to say that the residential schools system was the result of historical momentum from a centuries-long genocide against the Indigenous peoples, even if some of those involved knew not what they were doing.
So the burning anger directed at the Church is certainly understandable, arguably even deserved. I received an email from the Diocese on Friday which contained instructions for how to protect our own church against arson.
As you may have heard, the Catholic Archbishop of Winnipeg inadvertently fanned the flames of this anger in a homily in which he stated that the Church is suffering ‘persecution.’ Whatever one may think of that statement, it has to be said that this is quite a bit different from the persecution faced by Christians places like the Middle East, Nigeria or North Korea.
Our epistle reading today from First Peter is addressed to Christians who are facing real persecution for their Christian faith – their very lives are threatened, not their buildings. And Peter reassures them saying, If you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.
By contrast, in the Canadian context, the Church is suffering for having done what was wrong - even if, as some Indigenous leaders have said, arson is not the answer.
But in any case, our reading from First Peter, I think, shows us the way forward as a Church that has been harrowed and humbled by this reckoning over the residential schools.
This passage is always instructive for Christian behaviour, both for the Church as a whole and for each of us as individual Christians, but Peter’s words are perhaps especially relevant at such a time as this.
Quoting Psalm 34, Peter says: Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit: let us not deceive ourselves about the evils committed by the Church in the residential schools. Let us uncover and accept the truth, painful though it may be, for this is necessary to reconciliation. And so Peter continues, Let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.
What we learn in this epistle is an attitude and mode of behaviour that is rooted in none other than Jesus Christ, who was Himself a victim of colonial violence; who, in His very person and work, is Truth and Reconciliation incarnate. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). He is the One through whom all peoples and things are reconciled to God and one another. He breaks down dividing walls of hostility between peoples, making peace through the blood of His cross (Colossians 1.20; Ephesians 2.16).
And of course, truth and reconciliation is something each of us need on an individual level as well, do we not? We all need to come to terms with the truth of who we are. Like Peter in today’s Gospel we are frequently discouraged, despondent, empty, and without purpose and meaning in life: Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! And in such moments we may echo his contrition: Depart from me, for I am sinful, O Lord. Likewise as the Church we may say, ‘Depart from us, for we are a sinful institution, O Lord.’ Both for the Church for and every one of us, that acknowledgment of our sin and unworthiness is a necessary step towards reconciliation with God and one another.
Peter sums all of this up by saying, In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Let the truth and reconciliation He brings be the gift you cherish above all, the example you follow in word and deed, the central, driving force of your life. With that, we shall be agents of truth and reconciliation in our own lives and relationships, in the Church and in the world.