This is the one day of the year I wish I was a vegetarian. It’s a problem for me sitting at Sunday lunch eating my roast meat because it puts me in mind of just what it is to be a sheep. Being a sheep is all about the slaughter. I don’t like to think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd because, of course, then I’m a sheep and however well shepherded I might be I know it’s all to keep me fit and fat for the table. In the paintings the Good Shepherd is always carrying the lamb tenderly close to his heart but Sunday lunch reminds me that all the same it is a lamb led to the slaughter.
The symbol of the Passover lamb only makes it worse. The slaughter becomes sacrifice. Give the sheep a brain for a moment and wonder whether it would come quietly, whether it would be a willing sacrifice, and what it would think of the butcher who cuts its throat in worship.
There’s something deeply disturbing about Jesus the Good Shepherd. I can only hear him speak of himself that way with a deep irony. But Jesus claims the title of Good Shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep. It is by putting himself in the sheep’s stead that he shepherds them. The only Good Shepherd is the one who becomes a sheep, the lamb of God.
Which gives the Passover lamb a strange new sense. Instead of a sheep going unknowingly to its sacrificial death we have the shepherd laying down his life freely. No one takes it from him!
And instead of the cruel allegation that killing sheep keeps God happy – we have God, in person, dismantling the sacrificial system from inside by entering it, not as one who demands sacrifice, but as one who would rather be sacrificed than collude with it. If there is going to be sacrifice – even religious sacrifice – Jesus shows us God has no taste for it and in the Resurrection God rejects it.
Whenever we do violence in God’s name, however well-intentioned, however hidden or holy, we give God a voice Jesus would never recognise. No wonder the world complains God is silent or violent or bad.
Jesus goes to his death so we might recognise God, know God’s true voice, and in the process find our own.
May 7th, 2006
There are two things going on here – the promise of life and the shock of its asking price.
A promise of life – but it’s more than about just being alive – it’s about having life in you. Do you ever feel that, inside? That you are alive, against the odds, breathing, beating, fragile, amazing. ‘Eternal life’ never captures that for me, it suggests life after death, suggests something preserved, suggests living on in some way forever, non-stop, endlessly. It makes me hope it’s not eternally a wet Bank Holiday weekend in Morecambe.
But it’s on offer, eternal life, and the offer makes me question what there is about my life I’d want to see extended and lived out for eternity. It begins to make me wonder about the quality of my life, about what in my life is worth the living, worth the loving.
And that’s what the phrase is really all about – eternal life is translator’s shorthand for the life of the age to come: the life of the age to come, the life of the kingdom, the life of the age of the messiah, the time when all those prophecies we hear in advent are at last here and in place – when justice and mercy met, when the banquet of fine wines is laid, when the lion lies down with the lamb, when there’s no more dying and no more crying. That’s what’s on offer here – not some endless, everlasting life we can have if we are very good and wait patiently – but the life of the kingdom now, here, today. A quality of life. A glorious life to have within you. Now. Alive.
Fancy that? Want it? Where do I sign? Show me the dotted line! Jesus answer is distressingly direct: ‘gnaw on my flesh, chew it, munch it. Here drink my blood, thick, warm, metallic! Draw life from me. Live in me. Let me live in you.’
Yuck! It’s no wonder they all sidle off in disgust. It’s a great offer but the price is altogether too … weird. I’d prefer something harder – give me rules, give me tasks, give me secrets – make me work. Eating you is too easy. And too hard. Creepy, disgusting, sick.
How about this, Jesus, let’s pretend your flesh—your meat—is just bread, just a wafer. Maybe that way we can stomach it. Will that do? What if we closed our eyes to your blood and imagined wine instead, something sweet? Could we get away with it? Would we still have life within us? That real life, throbbing, fizzing, joyful, budding, blooming life. How’s that for a bargain?
May 5th, 2006