By Mark Michael
His name was Deacon Frank, and I met him in Charleston, South Carolina, when my friend Peet Dickinson was ordained to the priesthood. He was proclaiming the gospel. Now, I don’t think you would say that Deacon Frank looked like your typical Episcopal clergyman. His grizzled long hair was pulled back into a ponytail and his big beard spilled over the front of his alb. He had tattoos up and down his arms, and he rode to the service in a black leather jacket on his big red Harley.
He was chaplain at the County Jail, and Peet told me he is one of the most effective ministers he has ever met, that God has drawn so many people to himself through Deacon Frank’s ministry. That’s probably because he can relate to those prisoners. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a rough family, did a little time himself behind bars. He struggled with addictions and anger and fear, until he met Jesus and it all changed for him. He gave up the drink, he learned to master the anger, he started living honestly.
And when he talks to his charges in jail, he takes that whole experience with him, his life on the streets and his life with the Lord, and out of that mix, he speaks powerfully to the men he serves. Deacon Frank doesn’t beat around the bush. He tells the prisoners to face up to their problems, and to turn to God for help. He talks their language, he knows what they’ve been through. But he also knows that there is another way, that God is stronger than drugs and anger and fear. His most powerful witness was the change in his own life that came when he encountered God’s grace.
Saint Simon the Apostle had a similar story to Deacon Frank’s. We remember him together today with Saint Jude, because tradition tells us that they brought the gospel together to Persia, and their remains are preserved in the same church in Rome.
We know powerfully little about Saint Jude, but Saint Luke tells us that Saint Simon was a zealot. The Zealots were a revolutionary faction among the Jews of Jesus’s time, dedicated to using violence to bring in God’s kingdom by overthrowing the Romans. Most of them lived in hiding, out in the desert, united by a fanatical devotion to a God and a willingness to take any risk for the sake of the mission he had given them.
They saw themselves as the spiritual heirs of the Maccabees, who had won the Jews independence from the evil Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. The Romans and many of their fellow Jews viewed them as the equivalent of al-Qaida, a collection of terrorists who, because they were small, launched haphazard plots that often harmed more Jewish civilians than Roman soldiers.
We don’t know how that fanatical terrorist met Jesus, but he heard the message and accepted it, and Jesus called him to become one of his closest followers. For Simon, accepting Jesus as the Messiah meant a total reorientation of the hopes he had risked his life to defend. Jesus was not a political figure, like the Messiah the zealots expected. He was a man of peace, who refused to take up the sword to enforce his agenda.
After the Day of Pentecost, when the apostles were sent to proclaim the message around the world, the shock to Simon’s system must have been even more severe. This man who had pledged his life to eliminating the Gentiles and their power found himself preaching the good news to them, a news that included that shocking truth highlighted by Saint Paul in our Epistle lesson.
Through Christ, God’s people had been changed. The dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, the law that the zealot’s violence was so devoted to maintaining, had now come tumbling down. Christ was bringing people together, becoming the agent of reconciliation through the message preached by his apostles. Simon didn’t stay in Judea with the people he already knew and loved — he went deep into the East, to bring the message to those outside, strangers to the old promises.
Of course, it was Simon’s old experience that helped him be so effective in that challenging mission field — just like Deacon Frank’s rough past makes him so powerful as a prison chaplain. Simon’s deep dedication to God, his willingness to take risks, the “ardent love” that our collect describes; all these things made him just the kind of apostle who could assume this demanding charge. When Saint Simon met Jesus, his life was changed — he gave up his violence and hatred, but of those things that were best in him, nothing was lost. God used them for a higher purpose, elevated and strengthened them.
Don’t be afraid to turn your life over to God. Don’t be afraid of taking greater risks, of wading deeper into the waters of faith. You have nothing to lose but that which needs to be changed. God will not take away anything that is good and beautiful in your life, but he will use those for the higher purpose he has made you to fulfill. Look to Saint Simon, the terrorist who became an apostle. Imagine what God can do with your life.
The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Word.