THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
What determines whether a person grows up to be a Gandhi or a Hitler? Is it genetic? Are familial forces, social conditions or peer associations responsible? Is it a combination of all these things? Do people ever really change? Does one ever become so thoroughly evil that s/he is beyond redemption? Does one ever reach a point where s/he is beyond corruption? Those were some of the questions that came to mind as I read the recently published novel of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman.
I should start by saying that one of the most formative movies I ever watched was To Kill a Mocking Bird, based on Lee’s first novel by that name. It was one of Gregory Peck’s greatest performances. As most of you no doubt recall, this was the story of Atticus Finch, Esq., a small town lawyer in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama. Defying the racist conventions of Southern culture in the 1930s, Atticus defended a young black man against doubtful allegations that he had raped a white woman. I was so taken with the movie that I checked the book out of the school library (a rare occurrence for me in my middle school years). I read it again about ten years ago and discovered that it still held the same bittersweet mixture of gentle beauty, brutality, passion and wisdom. We see the story unfolding through the eyes of Atticus’ little daughter, Jean Louise Finch a/k/a “Scout.” The picture of Atticus Finch emerging from the narrative is one of a humble, though self-assured attorney. He is sure of his convictions and unafraid to stand on them, yet tolerant and respectful of even his most hostile critics. His gentle courage is nowhere better illustrated than on the night he places himself between his imprisoned client and an angry lynch mob. With Scout at his side, he disarms the gang with an appeal to their common humanity. Though ultimately unsuccessful at trial, Finch’s fearless and uncompromising commitment to justice is itself a kind of victory.
Watchman takes place two decades later. Jean Louise is now an adult residing in New York City. When the narrative begins, she is returning home for a visit with her father. Viewing her home town through the eyes of an adult having experienced the broader cultural landscape, she begins to recognize the insidious poison of racism that has always been present in the community. She learns that her father’s willingness to represent black criminal defendants has more to do with keeping such cases away from the NAACP than seeking justice. The final blow comes when Jean Louise witnesses her father presiding at a meeting of the Citizen’s Council featuring a speaker extoling the virtues of segregation and the dangers of interracial coupling. Along with Jean Louise, we learn that Atticus Finch is not the heroic figure we thought he was.
It is always disturbing when your hero gets knocked off his pedestal. It is all the more disturbing for those of us who identify as progressives. Nothing calls progressivism into question quite like regression. We would all like to think that gains made toward justice and equality are permanent and cannot be erased by history. In reality, however, we forget the hard lessons learned from episodes of genocide. We forget the sacrifices made to achieve justice and peace and revert to the same old behaviors that always lead us into trouble. So it is on a personal level as well. Just as a person can grow and mature, so s/he can also revert to infantile behavior. Atticus Finch would not be the first person I ever met who cynically abandoned values and principles once held dear. To achieve great heights is less than half the battle. Holding them is what poses the greatest challenge.
Did Atticus Finch change? Did he fall from the lofty heights of his convictions? That is one possibility. After all, back in the 1930s white privilege was firmly entrenched. One could stoop down to help a person of color as an act of noble compassion without challenging the systemic inequality upholding that privilege. Two and a half decades later the landscape had changed. African Americans were not asking for favors. They were demanding their rights. They were fighting for an end to systemic racism and white privilege. The objects of Atticus’ pity were now challenging his entitlements. Like many other white folk, I suspect Atticus felt threatened. When people feel threatened they become hostile. Fear causes us to revert to the most primitive types of human conduct.
Then too, we learn that Atticus has come down with rheumatoid arthritis in his old age. Pain and disability can do strange things to us. They make us feel vulnerable, dependent and resentful. Pain robs us of sleep and depletes our energy. It can push us into self-obsession and self-pity. Pain medication can alter our judgments and skew our perceptions. All of these things could well have contributed to Atticus’ seeming change of heart.
Though Watchman reads like a sequel to Mocking Bird, Lee actually wrote it before Mocking Bird and submitted it for publication. Only after Watchman had been rejected did Lee write Mocking Bird. Sadly, Harper Lee passed away early this year and so we will never hear her take on the two natures of Atticus Finch. Is the Atticus Jean Louise comes to see in Watchman a truer version of the father she idolized as a child? Or is the Atticus of Mocking Bird Lee’s more reflective and nuanced version of the stereotypical southern racist we meet in Watchman? I suspect Lee might tell us that he is both and neither. At the end of the day, each individual is a complex mixture of genetic traits, inherited beliefs, learned behaviors, desires, passions and memories. One seldom knows whether s/he is a hero, coward, racist or not until the moment of trial comes. Much may depend upon when and where in life’s journey the challenge arises. It is dangerous to presume too much or to judge too harshly-particularly for those of us who have not yet been put to the test. We can only pray, “Save us from the time of trial.”
Our second lesson from the Book of Acts also tells of a profound transformation of character. We read how Saul, persecutor of the church, became Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul’s story is as important as anything he ever wrote because it affirms that yes, indeed, people are capable of change. Or, more accurately put, God is capable of changing human beings. It doesn’t always happen in a flash and it is probably never complete this side of the grave. There is plenty of evidence in his letters to suggest that Paul’s transformation was a work in progress. Paul frequently lashes out in anger, sometimes wallows in self-pity and often employs what can fairly be called manipulative tactics to get his churches to do what he thinks they should. Yet at the same time, Paul displays a remarkable self-awareness of his “foolishness.” He knows only too well his own weakness and the strength of Christ which alone is sufficient to compensate for it. He knows that he has yet to experience fully the power of Jesus’ resurrection, yet forgetting what is behind and striving for what lies ahead, he pushes forward to make that precious gift his own.
Every life is something of a mystery. The totality of who we are cannot be known until such time as Christ is all in all and we know as we are known. Here is a poem by teacher and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed during his imprisonment touching on that point.
Who am I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equally, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!
Source: Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1953 by SCM Press). Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906. He studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and at Berlin University where he became a professor of systematic theology. At the outbreak of World War II, Bonhoeffer was on a lecturing tour in the United States. Against the advice of his friends and colleagues, he answered the call to return to Germany and lead the Confessing Church in its opposition to National Socialism. Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned at Buchenwald. He was subsequently transferred to Flossenburg prison where he was hanged by the Gestapo just days before the end of the war. To learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his books and poems check out this website.
This story fascinates me. It seems that Saul (later to be called Paul) has just made a U Turn in his fundamental beliefs and self-understanding. From this day forward, he takes his orders from Jesus-a man he presumed dead and whose followers he has been busy exterminating. I am captivated by this story because I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience. My mind changes slowly. It changes direction like an aircraft carrier: in small increments that seem inconsequential at the time but ultimately alter my direction in significant ways. When I read my journal entries of thirty years ago I can see that I have changed my mind about a great many things, though I would be hard put to say exactly when that happened. I am not even sure there ever was a conscious turning point. I expect that conversations with family and friends, reading and study along with my life experiences have worked together in gradually shaping and re-shaping my outlook over the years. I hope that worship, preaching and prayer have also played a significant role. That seems to be the way most of us are formed most of the time.
But not always. There are “Damascus Road” moments that can turn you around. Perhaps one contemporary example is Senator Robert Portman, a conservative legislator representing Ohio who embraced marriage equality upon learning that his son was gay. I suppose there is reason to question the sincerity of the senator’s conversion, which many have dismissed as a classic political “flip-flop.” It is a little suspicious that this politician should have experienced his change of heart just following the release of poll numbers showing a clear majority of Americans favoring marriage equality. Still, I tend to believe that Portman’s turnabout was genuine. Discovering that your own son is among the folks you have been trying to exclude as inherently immoral cannot be too different from Paul’s discovery that the Jesus he was striving to destroy was actually the God he worshipped.
In approaching this text it might be helpful to begin listing some of the strongest convictions you hold. Then ask yourself what it would take to change your mind. What could make you see things differently? If you are convinced that your beliefs and opinions are so solidly based that nothing could change them, I would caution you with my mother’s oft repeated dictum: “There is no mind as weak as that mind which is too strong to change.” We will come up against this question of conversion again in next week’s lesson from Acts where Peter is confronted with what he probably assumed was not possible: faith among pagans.
The title of this psalm is a little confusing. It reads: “A Psalm of David. A Song at the dedication of the Temple.” In the first place, the Temple was built by Solomon after David had died. If David wrote this psalm, it would not likely have been for the dedication of a building constructed well after his death. I should add, though, that Davidic authorship is not altogether impossible. According to the book of I Chronicles, David was heavily involved in planning for the erection of the Temple even though he took no part in actually building it. Thus, he could conceivably have composed psalms in anticipation of its dedication. This seems unlikely, however. A further difficulty is that the psalm itself is a personal prayer of thanksgiving for salvation. It does not even mention the Temple. One commentator suggests that the psalm, though composed much earlier, might have been used at the re-dedication of the Temple following its cleansing by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 B.C.E. (celebrated today as Hanukkah). J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, Psalms 1-50 (Cambridge University Press, c. 1977), p. 133. That would explain the title linking the psalm to the Temple. The attribution of the psalm to David was likely a separate and much older title. It should be noted that the Hebrew preposition le translated as “by” in the Davidic title can also mean “to” or “in the manner of” or perhaps “in the tradition of.” Thus, actual Davidic authorship is not necessarily implied.
This psalm is one that Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann would probably classify as a “psalm of reorientation.” Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of re-orientation. I believe that is a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are times when all seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is filled with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, of praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness is appropriate.
Then tragedy strikes. The company you work for goes out of business. A spouse proves unfaithful. One of the kids gets sick-really sick. Or that routine X-ray exposes something very wrong going on under the skin. That picture perfect life is thrown into disarray. The darkness seems impenetrable. At times like these, psalms of disorientation give expression to our feelings of panic and abandonment. A good example is Psalm 39 which concludes with a prayer that God would “look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more.” Yet even though the psalmist seems to have given up on God, the psalmist is nonetheless still speaking to God!
Psalms of re-orientation, such as Psalm 30, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. The journey has not been easy, nor does it bring them back to where they were before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow. See The Message of the Psalms, Brueggemann, Walter (Augsburg Publishing House, c 1984).
It seems that the psalmist was experiencing threats from his enemies as well as sickness. This psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. The psalmist recognizes in resolution of his or her trials the saving hand of God. Thanksgiving is the only conceivable response.
For the next few weeks the lectionary will be treating us to some excerpts from the Book of Revelation. I have noticed that this book has an unholy appeal to all sorts of people for all kinds of reasons. Whenever I offer a Bible Study course on Revelation, the initial response is usually enthusiastic. But after the first session, when it becomes clear that I am not going to predict the date of the world’s end or reveal the identity of the antichrist (who is not even mentioned in the book), interest soon wanes. That is unfortunate because I believe John of Patmos, the putative author of Revelation, has a lot to say. Also unfortunate is the absence of Revelation 2-3 from the common lectionary. These chapters consist of prophetic/angelic messages to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), the audience to which the book is addressed. Though delivered in graphic symbols, metaphors and occasional numerical code, these “letters to the seven churches” give us a piercing glimpse into the life of these fledgling congregations as they sought to live out their faith under the shadow of the Roman Empire.
Though imprisoned more than once and most likely executed by the Roman government, Paul still saw the empire as the instrument of God’s judgment on wickedness (whether knowingly or not). It was “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4. John of Patmos held no such sanguine view of Rome. He saw the empire as a “beast” that “utters blasphemies against God,” “makes war on the saints,” and causes “all who dwell on the earth” to worship it. Revelation 13:5-9. Roman society, epitomized by its capital, is a modern “Babylon.” The nations have “drunk the wine of her impure passion,” “the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness.” Revelation 18:1-3. Paul’s church lived uneasily in the shadow of a menacing, though mostly indifferent government. John’s church was engaged in a life and death struggle with an empire that was unequivocally hostile.
The world dominating beast of which John of Patmos speaks in Revelation was personified as an emperor of Rome. Scholars are divided over whether John was referring to a specific emperor at the end of the first century. Most seem to take this view, though some hold out for an earlier composition of Revelation maintaining that the “beast” refers rather to a future emperor expected to emerge from the chaos and civil war convulsing the empire following the death of Nero in 68 C.E. If John was referring to an actual emperor, the most likely candidate is Domitian who reigned from 81 C.E. to 96 C.E. Previous Roman emperors were inducted into the Roman pantheon of divinities upon their death. This ceremony amounted to the civil bestowal of an honorary title. It had practically no religious significance. The emperor Claudius was known to have joked, when asked how he was feeling on a particularly bad day, “I feel as though I am about to become a god.” For Domitian, however, godhood was no laughing matter. He bestowed the title “Lord and God” upon himself during his own lifetime. Ceremonial feasts where held in his honor at patriotic observances in which participation, from the perspective of Jews and Christians, amounted to idolatry.
John’s lurid images of cruelty, oppression and destruction of the earth set forth in Revelation accurately depict life under Roman occupation and more particularly, life for the churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. Governmental persecution of the church, though not wide spread or focused at this time, was a common enough occurrence for disciples of Jesus who refused to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” a title they reserved for Christ alone. Exclusion from economic and professional opportunities was often the price of worshiping Christ alone. Christians were not the only ones to experience Rome’s oppression. It is not only for the death of the prophets and saints, but for “all who have been slain on the earth” that Rome (code named “Babylon”) and the beast come to judgment in Revelation Chapter 18. Significantly, all those who profited socially, politically and commercially from Rome’s unjust reign share in its judgment. Revelation 18:11-20.
In seeking to hear Revelation as a word of God to the church of our time, we need to ask ourselves where and how we experience “empire” today. Jorge Rieger’s fine book, Christ and Empire, (AugsburgFortress, c. 2007) is helpful to us here:
“Empire, in sum, has to do with massive concentrations of power that permeate all aspects of life and that cannot be controlled by any one actor alone. This is one of the basic marks of empire throughout history. Empire seeks to extend its control as far as possible; not only geographically, politically, and economically-these factors are commonly recognized-but also intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, culturally and religiously.” pp. 2-3.
Conceived of in this way, it is clear that imperial power is not confined exclusively or even primarily to governmental institutions. Indeed, when I think of the institutions that directly affect my daily life-my credit card company, my bank, my health insurer-I realize that I am governed far more extensively by the so-called “private sector” than by any governmental unit. Furthermore, the constitutional protections preventing the government from invading my privacy, confiscating my property and restricting my freedom of expression are of little use to me in negotiating the workplace, dealing with the intrusive demands of my lender or resolving disputed claims with my insurers. Such rights as I have against these entities are determined by contractual agreements that were not negotiated in any real sense. Credit, banking services and insurance are offered to me on the companies’ terms and on a take it or leave it basis. The power of these entities to deprive me of my livelihood, deny me needed medical help or re-possess my home is far more disturbing to me than some abstract fear of the government getting into my computer to peek at pictures of my grandchildren or critique my taste in poetry.
More disturbing than the raw power exercised by corporate commercial entities is their subtle promotion of materialistic greed. At its best, the American Dream represents a society in which all members have the opportunity to thrive and build lives for themselves of value and significance. There is no guarantee of success, whatever that might mean, but there are opportunities for success and no penalty for failure beyond personal disappointment and loss. As promoted by corporate imperialism, however, the American Dream has become narrowly focused on accumulation. Business has become increasingly focused on short term profit. Wealth has been confused with money. Consumption has been misconstrued as prosperity. Greed is the engine of this demonic economy that fouls our drinking water, pollutes our air, exploits human labor, increases economic inequality, breaks up productive businesses for short term corporate gain, destroys jobs and, after all that, leaves us as restless, anxious and empty as ever. We have bought into a dream that is fast becoming a nightmare.
For those of us doing reasonably well under the imperial reign of corporate America, it might be hard to recognize in it the beast of Revelation. Like the church in Laodicia, we might be thinking to ourselves, “What beast? Things aren’t so bad.” “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” Like that complacent congregation, we might not recognize the “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” state to which our souls have fallen. Revelation 3:17. We need to see empire not through the eyes of the “merchants of the earth [who] have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness,” but through the eyes of “all who have been slain [by her] on earth.” Revelation 18:3; Revelation 18:24. If we do that, we will discover that the beast of empire is alive and well today exercising its murderous power not only through dictators that starve their people to feed their military machines, but also in corporations that exploit labor, corrupt governments and destroy the environment for the sake of profit. The victims of the beast live in squalid refugee camps having fled the carnage of conflicts they wanted no part of. They are children employed at near starvation wages by manufacturers whose CEOs have made the cold (and heartless) determination that such “out sourcing” best serves the bottom line. They are the wounded men, grieving mothers and dead children who had the misfortune to be in the way of a drone attack-the folks we speak of in unfeeling clinical terms as “collateral damage.” Those of you old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo may also recall the lead character’s immortal line: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So also I think we can say that we have met “the beast” and he is us. Today’s nation states, military alliances and commercial entities (all of them) share in some measure the toxic nature of the imperial beast.
In order to appreciate the full impact of this lesson, you need to read from the beginning of Chapter 4. See Revelation 4:1-5:10. John of Patmos is summoned to the throne room of God almighty. The throne of God is surrounded by 24 elders and four angelic creatures all singing praises to God. There is no description of God, but in God’s right hand is a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” No one responds to this question and John is greatly distressed to learn that there is nobody in heaven or on earth able to open the scroll. But then one of the elders says to John, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Now comes the drum roll. What will he look like, this Lion, this Davidic King who dares to break the seals and open the scroll? We expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to strut out onto the stage, bulging with muscle, armed to the teeth. But when we look up we see-a lamb! A lamb that has been slain, no less. Seriously? This is the Lion of Judah? This is the Root of David?
At this point the angelic creatures and the elders break into their song: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” Vss 9-10. In the lurid imagery that follows, John pictures for us the war of the lamb. This matchup between a leopard like beast with seven heads, ten horns, feet like a bear and mouth like a lion on the one hand, and a lamb on the other seems terribly one sided. The lamb doesn’t appear to stand much of a chance. Yet John would have us know that God is on the side of the lamb whose suffering love for humanity braves even death.
This lesson is filled with images similar to many found in the Book of Daniel, another apocalyptic work. Daniel 7:9-10 relates the prophet’s vision of descending thrones upon which sat “one that was ancient of days.” “Ten thousand times ten thousands stood before him.” “The books were opened.” Dominion is given to “one like a son of man.” Some scholars suggest that John may have drawn his vision from that related in Daniel Chapter 7. Though possible, it seems unlikely to me. There is little in the way of actual textual similarity. There is virtually no correspondence between the two visions other than the assurance that the enemies of God’s people ultimately will be defeated by divine agency, a theme common to nearly all apocalyptic literature. John’s vision also bears similarity to divine appearances in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2.
As I pointed out, the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3 are critical to understanding what John of Patmos is trying to accomplish with his work. Just as the lamb seems an unlikely champion against the beast, so the crucified Lamb of God and his beleaguered and persecuted followers’ struggle against the empire looks hopeless. John strives to assure the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to remain faithful are not futile, but are of cosmic significance. The cross is mightier than the sword. Love is stronger than violence and will prevail in the end.
Though much speculation generated by the Book of Revelation focuses on the identity of “the beast,” this wonderful book is not all about “the beast.” It is about the “Lamb who was slain.” It is not about the destruction of the earth, but its salvation and renewal. Most importantly, Revelation is not a war movie or a spaghetti western in which the forces of good out gun the forces of evil. Understand that the final victory of God over evil does not come through an exercise of divine violence. Throughout the Book of Revelation, the powers of the empire are portrayed as fearsome beasts, dragons and warriors. But God’s son and God’s people are always portrayed as peaceful, vulnerable and weak. Israel is portrayed as a woman giving birth under the watch of a fearsome dragon waiting to devour her child. Revelation 12:1-6. The conqueror, the lion of Judah, God’s Messiah turns out to be, of all things, a lamb. Revelation 5:1-5. Not only so, but a lamb that was slain! When Christ returns to claim his kingdom, his title is “the Word of God,” and he slays his enemies with the sword that “comes out of his mouth.” Revelation 19:11-16. Just as the world began with God speaking it into existence, so by that same life giving (not death dealing) Word the world will be brought under God’s gentle reign. God triumphs through winning hearts, not battles. Thus, the churches in Asia Minor are comforted with the knowledge that by their faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands, their love for one another, their forgiveness of their enemies and their peaceful witness they are waging God’s battle against the powers of empire. This battle is fought not with weapons of war, but with the weapons of prayer, forgiveness and love for the neighbor-even the hostile one. The struggling churches are assured that the suffering love of God is mightier and more enduring than the violence of empire. Caesar and his legions might look impressive today, but the smart money is on the Lamb.
Of all the four gospels, I find the ending of John’s gospel to be the most satisfying. Unlike Luke, Jesus does not ascend into heaven and direct the disciples to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Unlike Matthew, Jesus does not send his disciples out with a promise of his presence. We are not left wondering whether or how the disciples will ever hook up again with the resurrected Christ as in Mark. John’s ascension takes place at Golgotha where Jesus is “lifted up.” The outpouring of the Holy Spirit coincides with Jesus’ resurrection. Remarkably, the Gospel of John ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their fishing nets and boats behind to follow Jesus. Jesus’ last words in the gospel are, “follow me.”
John’s gospel challenges us to take seriously the presence of Jesus in the Church. I think this is the underpinning for our Lutheran insistence on the real presence of Christ which is not limited to the sacraments. We confess in the Nicene Creed our belief in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” If that only means that there exists an organization called the church, we would hardly need to include it as an article of faith any more than we would need to confess that the sky is blue. But to say that the church is one just as Jesus is one with the Father; that the church is a holy people; that the church is catholic embracing all nations and true to the apostolic witness that birthed it-that is another thing altogether. It is not always evident that the church as we experience it is any of these things. Yet our confession is that the church, flesh and blood congregations with all of their shortcomings, failures and imperfections constitutes the Body of the Resurrected Christ. That calls for a leap of faith! It also challenges us to think deeply about how we make our unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolic teaching more visible.
I think this appearance must have happened on a Monday. I don’t have an ounce of biblical support for that assertion, but it sure has the feel of going back to work at the beginning of another week. Commentators believe that this third appearance of Jesus to his disciples in John is a later addition to the gospel. They suggest that this story comes from a different version of events similar to the sequence in Matthew. The disciples, scattered after Jesus’ crucifixion, flee to Galilee (or go there to meet him upon instructions from Jesus to the women) and there try to pick up their old lives. In so doing, they encounter the resurrected Christ who calls them back to a life of discipleship. However this might be, there is no question but that the disciples have turned their attention back to the more mundane yet urgent needs for survival. They turn back to what they know, namely, fishing. Yet they toil through the night taking nothing, echoing Jesus’ warning that “apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5. Not until Jesus instructs them to cast their net out on the right side of the boat do they find success, and that beyond expectation. It is at this point that the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus.
Meals occupy a significant place in the ministry of Jesus (and throughout the whole Bible for that matter). Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people; Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners-as well as wealthy religious leaders. Jesus’ last evening with his disciples was a meal and Jesus makes a point of sharing food with them after his resurrection. Jesus frequently uses the image of a banquet to describe the kingdom of God. So it is not surprising that he invites his disciples to breakfast on the shore and that it is within this context that Jesus reconciles himself to Peter.
The interchange between Jesus and Peter is moving and illustrative of Jesus’ way with his disciples. Ours is the Lord of the second chance-and the third and the fourth. But what I find remarkable here is Peter’s commission: “Feed my sheep.” There has been much debate over the centuries about what that means and what significance it has for how we understand apostolic succession. Without entering these treacherous waters, let me just say that what I find most intriguing is the content of the command. If Peter is being given a special task here, it does not seem to have anything to do with leading, oversight or primacy. His job is not to shepherd the sheep, but simply to feed them.
At the recent ELCA Youth Gathering, one of my young people elbowed me just as then Bishop Mark Hanson was being introduced as “shepherd of the sheep.” “What happened to Jesus” she said. “Did he retire?” This clever if less than reverent comment reflects the basis for my discomfort with the term “pastor” which means shepherd. I am only too aware of the fact that I do not know where the green pastures or the still waters are. Like everyone else, I have to rely upon the Good Shepherd’s leading for that. At best, I am just the sheep dog that tries to keep the herd together or the farm hand in charge of seeing to it that the sheep are fed. Like my namesake, I can only lead by following.