You should all be glad that you haven’t had to live with me for these last couple of weeks because I’ve done nothing but moan about this gospel reading. I do not like it. In fact, I hate this reading! It troubles me, it irritates me. Well, since I’ve had to suffer it, I thought you should too.
So what’s my problem? It’s not just that I’m allergic to wool (which I am) it’s something more. This gospel gives me double-vision: I keep coming back to the scene at the empty tomb where Mary Magdalen met the Risen Jesus and setting it alongside today’s gospel. One is full of touching, down-to-earth humanity and the other seems like high theological speculation. One is an involving story about real people and the other is a barely coherent mix of images and allegory. That’s my first grievance —Bring back the Resurrection!
My other complaint is with the particular image of Jesus that comes with all these sheep—not Jesus the shepherd but Jesus the sheepfold. Underneath the pastoral language there’s a picture of Jesus as a boundary, as a wall, as a marker of who’s in and who’s out. All the language echoes with division and separation and even violence. They’re “our own” and there’s the stranger—the wolf, the thief, the marauder. In John’s vision you are either in with us or you’re out—and not just out, you’re out to steal and kill.
I cannot stomach the vision of Jesus as a barrier, even when it’s a barrier that can be opened to let me in. Someone is being kept out. I can’t take the language of exclusion—it has done so much harm.
Now, from what we can reconstruct of John’s community such language makes a lot of sense. We think they were a Jewish group who had come to believe in Jesus as Messiah and were eventually thrown out of the synagogue as a consequence. They go it alone. They are intensely aware of separation and of Jesus as the one who sets them apart. Their response to being excluded seems to have been to put up their own theological barriers to mark them off very sharply from the synagogue across the street. We all know what a split in a church congregation is like.
But, understandable or not, Jesus is being used. … Jesus is always being used for someone’s purposes. You see it in each of our readings this morning. We have a fact to contend with—Jesus is risen—but what on earth do we make of it? The story of the Resurrection demands to be made sense of and incorporated into the whole of our lives. But, in the making sense, the original story, the original encounter, can so easily get lost. And then Jesus gets used.
He is used in the first reading to inspire guilt—”this Jesus whom you crucified,” says Peter. And Luke, the writer, is using this whole episode to paint a rosy picture of the golden age at the beginning of the church to encourage his own congregation to quit squabbling!
Jesus is being used in the second reading too. All the suffering that Peter’s talking about isn’t voluntary—the community is being persecuted for its religion. So Peter presents Jesus as the one who already suffered for them to make their present suffering holy and worthwhile.
In its own context, each passage makes sense—Jesus is being used to speak to where people are. But out of context that use becomes abuse—abuse of Jesus and abuse of those told to suffer.
How do we get from that delicate encounter at the empty tomb to these Jesus-es? And, more urgently, how do we put our own delicate encounter with Jesus into our own context—Who is our Jesus, if he’s not playing on guilt, if he’s not inviting us to suffer, and if he’s not standing as a boundary between ourselves and those we fear?
Who is your Jesus? What difference has the Resurrection made to you? Or to me?
I made a promise when I preached on Easter morning that in this season the Risen Jesus would come to each of us, friend to friend, as consoler. One who knows our grieving, one who knows what to do to draw each of us to new life. Has that happened to you yet? Are you being consoled? Or are you still nursing a death, still hanging around an empty tomb?
We preach to ourselves, as you well know. But we only see it with hindsight. In my own prayer, in these weeks, I’ve discovered that I prefer Jesus dead to Jesus alive. That I prefer to hold his broken body and weep rather than accept his comfort and his life. He wants me alive but I’m afraid of what that life might mean. When I close my eyes in prayer, the choice between those two Jesus-es is always there—one dead and bleeding; one so gently and passionately alive. … And I have a choice, each day: which one will I spend my time with? Who will I let him be in my days, and in my dreams?
This is where theology gets done. Not in Berkeley, not in Rome, but in the hearts and minds of each of us. Yours and mine. We each have a dead body to account for and an empty tomb and a new life … a new life.
Each day we write, in blood and breath and bone, our own scriptures. Each day we tell ourselves and our world who Jesus is and what his being alive means for us. Oh, let us pray that his voice will sing clearly through ours. Let us pray that his life will be abundant in our own.