The Rev. Prof. Peter Gomes died on Mon., Feb. 28. He was 68 years old. You may remember that he lectured and preached here at Country Club Christian Church on Jan. 20 and 21, 2007. One week after his death I am still grieving this terrible loss.
Just two weeks ago, as part of my prep work for my upcoming Lenten sermon series, Bible Workbench 3.0, I reread his marvelous book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. He begins this book with a reflective review of the Bible but he makes it clear that if we listen carefully to the sacred texts we will be challenged at least as often as we are comforted. He writes,
Depending…upon how one reads and interprets, either the Bible is a textbook for the status quo, a book of quiescent pieties and promises, or it is a recipe for social change and transformation. There are churches dedicated to each point of view, each claiming its share of the good news; but what is good news for some is often bad news for somebody else.1
As you might imagine Gomes believed that the Bible in general, and the gospel in particular, contains a strong call to social change. And make no mistake, he loved the biblical word.
I first met Professor Gomes at the 2003 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Charlotte, NC. He was the keynote speaker for one of the morning sessions. Claudia Highbaugh, an ordained Disciple pastor, a member of the faculty at Harvard, colleague of Gomes, and a long time friend of Rev. Carla Aday, our Senior Associate Minister, invited me to join the three of them for breakfast on the morning before his sermon at the assembly. After brief introductions he politely asked Carla to tell him about her background. She worked in a “Hook ‘em Horns” comment about her undergrad work at the University of Texas and then she talked about attending Yale Divinity School with Claudia. The three of them got into some
Ivy league banter centered around Harvard Crimson and Yale Blue. I quietly sipped coffee and hoped he would not ask me any questions!
He was a gentleman though and after a few rounds of good natured ribbing among the Ivy Leaguers he turned to me and asked, “Rev. Miles, tell us about your academic background.” I replied, sheepishly, “I went to a little Bible college out in Oregon.” In a booming voice, one that could be heard all the way outside, he said, “THANK GOD WE HAVE SOMEONE IN HERE WHO KNOWS THE BIBLE!”
I immediately decided that I liked him. His sermon later that morning was one of the finest sermons I have ever heard. He preached for about 50 minutes but it felt like five. He could have gone on for another hour as far as I was concerned. He had that great ability to make you laugh one moment, while setting you up for a challenge in the next.
For much of his early life in ministry he was a Republican celebrity. The New York Times noted that he “presided at weddings and funerals of the rich and famous. He gave the benediction at President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration and delivered the National Cathedral sermon at the inauguration of Reagan’s successor, George Bush.”
In 1991, in the face of much hatred and homophobia swirling around the Harvard campus, Professor Gomes made a courageous announcement, telling a surprised audience that he is “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.” In 1992 this op ed piece in the New York Times, he brilliantly demonstrated the terrible ways the Bible has been misused. (You can read it here.)
In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Gomes demonstrated how “scandalous” the message of Jesus really is:
…if we look at what (Jesus) said, we will find that what he said by and large disturbed and challenged the status quo wherever he was.
He was a man for the future. He was not prepared to either celebrate some romantic past or some quiescent moment. He was talking about things that had to change and he spoke to ordinary people and He disturbed them, which is why they ended up crucifying him. So we find it easier to talk about Jesus than to take seriously what He said.
We’ve domesticated Him, turned Him into a theological poodle, and that is the scandal, it seems to me. That’s the terrible thing that we have done. Look at what He says, what He asks, what He requires, and then you’ll see that He came as a disturber of the people and we should be so thrilled to be so disturbed.
Amen Brother Gomes. May you rest now and forevermore in the blessed care of God’s eternal love.
Listen to Gomes’ sermon from Jan. 21, 2007:
images/stories/sermons/1-21-07 PJ Gomes .mp3
1 p. 12, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus