Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Following the Lamb of God

First sermon prepared for the Rev. Dr. Dale P. Andrews, Introduction to Preaching

John 21: 15-19

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Jesus is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. When our sins are taken away, we are reconciled to Jesus. In being reconciled to Jesus, we are reconciled to God. Fr. Henri Nouwen, or St. Henri as we in the Lindisfarne Community call him, says the following about our reconciliation with God:

God desires communion: a unity that is vital and alive, an intimacy that comes from both sides, a bond that is truly mutual. Nothing forced or “willed,” but a communion freely offered and received. God goes all the way to make this communion possible. God becomes a child dependent on human care, a boy in need of guidance, a teacher searching for students, a prophet crying for followers, and, finally, a dead man pierced by a soldier’s lance and laid in a tomb. At the very end of the story, he stands there looking at us, asking with eyes full of tender expectation: ‘Do you love me?’ and again, ‘Do you love me?’ and a third time, ‘Do you love me?’
[Henri J.M. Nouwen. With Burning Hearts. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994). 87-8.]
It is a bit odd, is it not, to think of Jesus as waiting expectantly? It is especially odd in the Gospel According to John in which Jesus is most often depicted as the one who knows everything. It is odd to think of Jesus waiting in rapt anticipation, vulnerable to whatever answer may come to his open question.

It is as if Jesus has taken on the role of the stereotyped insecure woman from whom the stereotyped white male flees on Thursday night sitcoms when, in her insecurity, she says, “Lets talk about our relationship.” Like the stereotyped insecure woman, Jesus wants Peter to affirm their relationship. He begins by asking, “do you love me more than these,” indicating the nearby disciples, the boats and the fish? Do you love me more than other people? Do you love me more than your job? Do you love me more than your wealth? Do you love me more than the NCAA Basketball tournament you have been watching virtually non-stop for the past month?

There is a popular style of parenting, one aspect of which is that the parents consistently offer the child pairs of options. Do you prefer the red sweater or the green sweater? Do you want milk or juice? Do you want to read a story or listen to music? I was at the grocery store recently, browsing the tea shelves, when I observed a mother employing this parenting method with her young son. As they walked down the isle, she asked, “do you want spaghetti or ziti?” The child eagerly grasped the bag of ziti while the mother put the spaghetti back on the shelf. “Do you want plain sauce or spicy sauce?” The child reached for the jar with the bright red pepper on the front, but this time the mother wisely put the jar in the cart before replacing the plain sauce on the shelf. “Do you want ginger snaps or chocolate chip cookies?” The child started for a moment with wide eyes and an open mouth. Then, with a wide grin he reached out and pronounced, “Both!” His mother was visibly shocked; I’m not sure he had ever done that before. She said, “I think we’ll just get the ginger snaps,” as she replaced the chocolate chip cookies on the shelf.

When Jesus asks the question, “do you love me more than these?” he asks, “do you αγαπας me more than these?” When Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” he says, “I φιλω you.” While αγαπη is often known as the particularly Christian form of love, here it seems to be the lesser. Here, αγαπη asks for a preference or estimation while φιλω responds with a deeper kind of passionate love. It is as if Jesus asked Peter to make a determination, them or me, but Peter is unwilling to submit to the binary distinction of preference. This is no longer the Peter who is unwilling to let Jesus wash his feet. This Peter has a deep and passionate love for Jesus, a friendship with Jesus, so much so that he is willing to have his feet washed and then join Jesus in washing the others’ feet. It is as if Peter startles Jesus by answering, “Both!”

But after Peter answers the first question, Jesus is still insecure. He is still not sure that Peter really means what he is saying. Jesus is not convinced that Peter really loves him and may even suspect that Peter is just saying that he loves Jesus so that he can get back to watching the game. It is as if Jesus asked Peter, “does this dress make me look fat?” and Peter answered, “yes, dear; oh! no, dear. No, certainly not.”

And so he asks again, do you love me? Notice that Jesus is no longer asking a comparative question. Peter had better take notice, because Jesus is looking for a deeper answer. Jesus does not want to know whether the dress makes him look fat or thin, he wants to know if he is beautiful. Jesus wants to know if Peter loves him. The distinction here is neither qualitative nor quantitative. Jesus wants to know if Peter loves him absolutely, fundamentally, and ultimately. Peter, are you oriented toward me from the first to the last, and not merely in the epilogue? Is your will stretched out to its utmost in search of me?

Of course, even this is not enough for Jesus. Peter answers again, but Jesus is still not satisfied so he asks for a third time. Jesus’ insecurity is starting to make Peter uncomfortable. “Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” Nevertheless, Peter plays a very good stereotyped white male sitcom star and breaks out the flowery Victorian rhetoric to set Jesus at ease. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” The first knowing in Peter’s unequivocal and final response is the same cognitive and subjective knowing of his previous answers. But the second knowing, “you know that I love you,” changes verbs and now seems to indicate a much deeper and profound knowing. Peter affirms that Jesus not only knows that Peter loves him superficially but that he knows that Peter loves him at the very ground of his being.

Is it possible that even here, even after the resurrection, Jesus the Christ is in need of confirmation? How can it be that God becomes this insecure and in need of such confirmation? How is it that God can be so vulnerable in asking an open question to which our response might be terribly wounding? Who is this God? And what happened to our sure, omniscient, dependable Jesus?

This is the Jesus who wants to be reconciled with us, but it would not be reconciliation if Jesus already knew the outcome. Jesus poses the question and then must stand there, waiting, arms open, terribly vulnerable, for us to walk into them and affirm the bond of love. Peter had betrayed Jesus, terribly, three times. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus must ask repeatedly if Peter really loves him? And each time, Peter rises to the occasion, throwing off his unstable character and affirming that he does indeed love Jesus and is now ready to pursue the consequences of that love. Peter must affirm his love repeatedly following repeated offences. How many times must we affirm our love of Jesus? How many times have we betrayed him? Is it any wonder that Paul advises the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing? Rest assured that God always leaves the question open, is always waiting with open arms outstretched, for us to confirm that our love is yet deeper and yet wider and yet more profound. Be reconciled with Christ.

Of course, entering into a relationship of reconciled love with Christ is no time to rest on our laurels. Out of our continually renewed reconciliation with Christ comes a continually renewed charge to care for Jesus’ flock. Every time that Jesus asks us to confirm our loving relationship and we offer an abundant affirmation, Jesus goes on to command us: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”

This feeding, this tending, this caring for Jesus flock requires a twofold motion on our part. First it requires that we lay down our lives. If we are to pick up this new task, this new mission of caring for Jesus’ flock, we must lay down that which already preoccupies us. We must lay down our lives.

Jesus tells Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” Peter, apparently, was destined to lay down his life quite physically, quite carnally, quite fleshly. Peter was, in fact, to die. Peter’s manner of laying down his life was death.

This is what the Celtic saints called the red martyrdom, death on behalf of the faith, with its rather obvious allusion in the color of blood. Indeed, some today are still called to the red martyrdom. We need only think of some of the genocidal movements in these last decades: of the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, of the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians in Yugoslavia. We need only think of the Latin American priests who were executed, often enough at their own altars, for standing up to tyrannical powers. We need only think of our own alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I will not tell his story because if you do not know it then the Boston University School of Theology is in a sad state indeed.

Most, hopefully all, of us are not called to the red martyrdom. Neither were many of the Celtic saints. And yet we, like they, are called to lay down our lives. The Celts described this laying down as the green and white martyrdoms. The green martyrs were those who rejected societal life and removed themselves to seclusion in order to study and contemplate. This was the Celtic monastic tradition. The white martyrs, on the other hand, accepted a voluntary exile, setting out in small boats with no means of navigation, wicker coracles, to be blown where the Spirit willed. These martyrs were the Celtic missionaries who laid down their lives for the sake of the realm of God.

We, too, are called to lay down our lives. We are sometimes called to reject life as our society and culture would have us live it. We are called to come apart for a time of study and contemplation; we call it seminary. We are called to leave our homes and our families and our friends to go somewhere we may not wish to go, (Boston is not home for everyone), on behalf of those we do not know and may not even like.

The belt has been fastened around out waists. For Peter, the person at the other end, taking him where he does not wish to go, by tradition is Rome. Like Jesus, by tradition Peter was crucified, although perhaps upside down. But I wonder if that is what Jesus meant. I wonder if instead it is not Jesus at the other end, fastening the belt around our waists, all the while saying “be reconciled. Trust me. Love me. Follow me.”

Yes, it is this final command that indicates that the care of Jesus’ flock is not simply about laying down our lives but also about taking up. We take up the command, or maybe it is more an offer, to follow Jesus. “Follow me.” Just as Jesus first called the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee so too we are called. “Follow me.”

This is not the “Follow me” that the church has often made it. It is not a “Follow me” that gives primacy to Peter. It does not give Peter the flock nor does it give Peter charge over the flock but instead it makes Peter the servant of the flock, tending and feeding the sheep and the lambs, and it even tells Peter how to do it, “follow me and I will show you how it is done.” This “Follow me” reserves the flock to Jesus and makes Peter sovereign over none and servant of all. Even as he takes up the invitation, “Follow me,” still yet he must lay down his life.

Neither is this a “Follow me” a once and for all time. On a cold December evening, the 4th of December 2003, I found myself kneeling on the floor of the Lindisfarne Community motherhouse in Ithaca, New York. A cold, silver chain was placed around my neck with the community cross dangling from it that had blessed at Eucharist the previous day. With the community laying hands upon me, +Andy, my abbot, read the following, “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” At the end of the reading, I was a novice in the Lindisfarne Community. It would be easy to think that joining a monastic order would be the end learning what Jesus’ means in saying, “Feed my lambs” and “Follow me.” It would be easy to think that being noviced, or even ordained, is a sign of achievement. They are not. They are merely signs of new life begun. They are present signs upon which to look back in seeking a direction for our constant conversion.

This “Follow me” is not what we expect. It is not the “follow me” the stereotypical white male sitcom star expects from his stereotypical insecure girlfriend after having the “lets talk about our relationship” discussion. Neither is it the “follow” me that the child in the grocery store ignores while staring transfixed at the candy in the checkout aisle. It is certainly not the “follow me” that Peter expects after reconciling with Jesus, having the manner of his death prophesied to his face.

Instead, this “follow me” defies all expectations. This is a “follow me” that will resound across continents and down twenty centuries. This is a “follow me” that is indicative of a faith that can move mountains. This “follow me” asks all that we have and promises more than we could ever imagine. This “follow me” is an invitation not only into the realm of God but to have a hand in growing the realm together with God. This “follow me” is offered by an insecure and vulnerable Jesus whose very insecurity and vulnerability are signs of the deep love and compassion that reconcile heaven with earth.

Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is also the shepherd who entrusts the flock to our care. As the lamb, we are the shepherd who accompanies Jesus through insecurity and vulnerability to reconciliation. As the shepherd, Jesus accompanies us in our insecurity and vulnerability to reconciliation, and calls us to “feed my sheep,” laying down our lives, and “follow me,” learning to be shepherds and servants, one of another.