Both/And, Not Either/Or

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 — Week of 3 Advent, Year 1

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 938)

Psalms 45 (morning) // 47, 48 (evening)

Isaiah 9:1-7

2 Peter 1:12-21

Luke 22:54-69

Reading these early chapters of Isaiah as we have been this month reemphasizes how grounded his words are in the particular political content of his day. Isaiah has been arguing with King Ahaz not to join into a military alliance with Assyria. Isaiah urges the king to trust God instead. The king ignores the prophet’s plea, and Isaiah predicts catastrophe. Today’s reading is a hymn celebrating the coming of a new king after Ahaz (probably Hezekiah) who will restore the honor and authority of David’s dynasty. When we read Isaiah we become involved in the dramatic history of the Middle East of the eighth century BCE.

And yet we also hear the choruses of Handel and the Christmas carols of subsequent centuries of Christians who receive these prophecies about children and kings as oracles of another hope. “A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be upon his shoulders. And he will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” I know Isaiah’s words originally announced his hope for his own generation. I also know his words carry an eternal hope that I see fulfilled in Jesus. It is “both/and.”

We see the apostle Peter in the courtyard of the high priest. We know him to be the “Rock” on which the church will be founded. His great deeds inspire us as they are chronicled in The Acts of the Apostles. But tonight, he is afraid. Three times he lies to protect himself, saying, “I do not know him!” The cock crows. “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” We try to imagine how that look felt. Peter left and wept bitterly. He has failed at the time of trial. Yet his weakness and failure is not his undoing. He will accept forgiveness. He will accept empowerment. Three times the Risen Lord will ask him, “Peter do you love me?” and three times he will answer, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” and three times Jesus will say to him “Feed my sheep.” Peter is “both/and,” failure and triumph.

We are also reading an epistle called Second Peter. I know that it reflects a much later generation of the early church, that it is written maybe as late as 150 CE. It is composed in the style of a posthumous farewell address with its tradition four-part pattern: 1. death announcement; 2. prediction of crisis; 3. a call to certain virtues; 4. the bequest of a legacy. So, a later disciple of Peter addresses the conflicts of that moment in the voice of the revered apostle Peter. It is also like a spiritual will, the bequest of wisdom and encouragement from a beloved ancestor. It is “both/and,” Peter’s spirit and a later voice.

In so many ways we live in an “either/or” world. Such an environment will be inevitably conflictive. To be absorbed into scripture is to nurture a “both/and” perspective. We need a “both/and” perspective for the work of reconciliation. Inevitably we experience disagreements and conflicts with our neighbors. If we are to live in a spirit of reconciliation, we’ll have to be able to embrace some forms of “both/and”, otherwise we will create in an increasingly lonely universe where we can only live with those who agree with us. That’s a picture of hell.

Great Christian doctrines are “both/and.” Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. God is both One and Three. Great heresies are created by relieving the “both/and” tension with an “either/or” decision. The direction of salvation is an ever-widening embrace of “both/and” until all is brought within the eternal arms of God. As the controversial Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire says often, “We’re all going to have to live together forever in heaven. We’d better start learning to love one another right now.”

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