Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses images and metaphors that would have been familiar to his original audience in describing the kingdom of heaven, his mission, or the nature of God. This particular metaphor of Jesus as the good shepherd would have elicited knowing nods of the head, not only from the shepherds in the crowd, but from everyone present, all of whom would have been familiar with the life of the shepherd.
The problem for us is that, 2000 years, an industrial and technological revolution, and hundreds, if not thousands of stained glass windows and icons later, the image of the good shepherd has lost much of its power. Today when we encounter the image, we see Jesus, with perfectly coifed hair; clothed in gleaming, pure white; holding a fluffy, white lamb in his arms. Gone is any sign that the life of a shepherd was difficult, dangerous, and dirty. In the winter, exposed to the elements for days on end, the life of the shepherd was cold, wet, and miserable. In the summer it was hot, dry, and miserable. Summer and winter, the days would have been long, often lonely, frequently dangerous, and always dirty. If it wasn’t the weather to be contended with, it was boredom and loneliness, on the one hand, and the dangers of predators on the other hand, and always there was the dirt, the muck, the flies, and the smell. And then, there were the sleepless nights and days during lambing season.
Eight years ago this month is when my conversion started. Sort of. “Conversion” begins at each person’s beginning, and ends somewhere between here and eternity. But eight years ago, I was 19, and not terribly interested in someone dressed as I am right now sagely dismissing my crisis.
I had reached a breaking point. I was out in the middle of the night, wandering the college campus, anxious and confused. I’d had a basically hostile attitude toward religion for several years, but my own sense of being, of purpose, the great “why?” echoing along the canyon walls of human hearts…my old answers just weren’t working anymore. I could no longer justify my existence through my own happiness, because why should I care about my own happiness? Everything was empty, and death was not far from my thoughts.
Out of desperation, I prayed. To no one, or anyone, I prayed. I tearfully offered my uncertainty, my instability, my weakness, hoping for something to alleviate it. Some assurance from heaven, whoever’s version of it existed. And what I got was…nothing. No warmth, no light, no angelsong. Cold, dark, silent nothing. But this Nothing was greater, more powerful, than anything I’d experienced up until that point. I felt broken. I felt destroyed. I felt like a demolished city, burnt to the ground. And it was horrifying. And it was good. Because the abject admission of weakness and vulnerability I encountered in this experience was the great clearing of the brush, the great pouring out of old and perishing things. I was shattered, and I was made new.
In this Gospel passage and elsewhere, Jesus speaks about our resurrection from the dead as a promise. Jesus speaks like a Pharisee. Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in bodily resurrection in the “age to come.” That’s about hope for the future, what the church calls “the hope of heaven.” I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, there’s something unique about Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Our resurrection is not just a future event; resurrection is for now. Resurrection informs or reforms how we live today. Saint Paul called it “resurrection power,” in the here and now.[i] Resurrection power. Resurrection is about hope for the future and about power for the present.
In the last 50 years or so, three novelists have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and beyond: C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels. All these stories have one theme in common. Power. The exercise of power, the need for power, the source of power. Why the “power” theme has so captured the attention of young and old alike is not because people are powerless. It’s not because these tales give us an imaginary respite from being overwhelmed by the powers that be. It’s much more the opposite of that. Power is of our essence, though many people do not recognize or accept this: their own power. We have been given power.
Holy Cross Day
Jesus was convinced and, ultimately, convincing of others that on the other side of death is life. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[i] Here’s the best way for us to lose our life on Jesus’ terms: surrender. Surrender being god of your own life to Jesus Christ.The only way to live life is to allow Jesus Christ to live within us. This was St. Paul’s discovery. In his writings, St. Paul uses one particular phrase more than 85 times: “…in Christ.” He speaks of living his life “in Christ.” “No longer” living life on others’ terms, or even on his own terms. He’s “no longer” doing that. St. Paul says repeatedly he’s now living his life “in Christ.”[ii]
Live your life inside of Christ, who lives inside of you. Surrender your life, surrender your destiny, and take Jesus at his word: that life for you will come out of death. Your dying is the gateway to real life. You will face death many-a-time in this life. Life some days, some seasons, can be such a killer. And that is the very cross that Jesus is sharing with you. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside you, and you will absolutely, positively, undeniably, miraculously discover how life comes out of death.
There’s two ways to know this to be true about Jesus’ way of the cross: how life can come out of death for you. For one, remember your own life experience. The principal founder of SSJE, Richard Meux Benson, wrote: “A disciple asks Christ, ‘Teach me the law of the Holy Cross, the mystery of our redemption.’ To which Christ replies, ‘My child, you must learn this mystery by experience: Take up your cross and it will teach you all things.’”[iii]And so for you. Your cross is your teacher. Where can you recall how your breaking has been your making, how your dying has led to your rising, where life – real life, amazing life, abundant life – has come out of something that just killed you? This is not about resuscitation; this is about resurrection, the resurrection of your life. Draw on the miracle of your personal experience, how life, absolutely transformed life, has come out of death in your own past. That cycle will repeat: death and life; death and life.
Secondly, if right now you can find no hope but only suffering and desolation in the cross you’ve been handed to carry – what is just killing you now– surrender your life and surrender your death, your many deaths, to Jesus. The weaker you are, the more powerless you feel, the more you will be able to understand this. You have nothing more to lose. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside of you. He will embody you and enable you. This is Jesus’ way, the way of the cross. And it’s within reach. It’s within Jesus’ reach for you. And that he does: reaches out for you, carries you, makes good on his promise that life, amazing life for you, that comes out of death. It does, and it will.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
[ii]Saint Paul speaks of the radical turnabout in the management of his former life, using the term “no longer” more than 25 times.
[iii]Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824-1915).
Remember the great salvation night when God brought our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. As hundreds of thousands with neighbors and livestock, they fled. They were pushed out, having to leave quickly in the moment. “They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.”
They had not prepared food for the journey. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]
1 Kings 1:19-15a
Rising global tensions and almost striking Iran. Mass deportations planned. Tragic accidents. Migrants fleeing. Children held by our government in despicable conditions. Political clashes, lies, illness and personal loss. With a week like this, with a life like this, remember Elijah.
Elijah ran for dear life into the wilderness. Queen Jezebel was trying to kill him. In a cave on the mountain, God compassionately asks: What are you doing here, Elijah? What brings you here? What is on your heart? Elijah is honest: I’ve done my best for you, but the people refuse. The rulers destroyed everything. They killed all my companions, and now they’re trying to kill me.
Have you been there? Been zealous. But now run down. Run after. Alone and afraid. Ready for it all to end? Have you at the same time longed to be seen, to be heard, to be loved? How have you reached out to receive it? Perhaps you have invested time and travel, even a great distance, to be with a safe, trustworthy person, with whom you can be honest.
Something unusual happens to me every time I read this story from Acts chapter 16. In some ways it’s an odd story, featuring a slave woman who is possessed by a spirit that enables her to predict the future. Two thousand years removed from the story and its setting, we wonder what this description could mean. It’s hard to know for sure what troubled her. It poses an interesting question, but that isn’t the part of the story that grabs my attention.
The slave woman follows Paul and Silas around town, calling out to anyone who will listen that “these people are servants of the Most High God” and that “they are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.” She is speaking the truth, though Paul is unwilling to acknowledge it as truth because it is prompted by an evil spirit. She harasses them for several days until Paul has finally had enough. He stops, turns to her, and rebukes the demon that possesses her. She is instantly healed. The miracle demonstrates the power of God at work in these early apostles, the same power that was at work in their Lord. It poses the question of how that same power might be available to us, but even this isn’t the part of the story that grabs me by surprise and causes me to wonder.
The healing annoys the woman’s owners, who have lost a convenient source of income, and they turn against Paul and Silas. They seize them and drag them before the local authorities with the accusation that they are “causing an uproar” in the city. The crowd joins in on the attack against Paul and Silas, which compels the authorities to order that they be stripped of their clothing and beaten. Accused and found guilty without a trial, they are “severely beaten,” thrown into prison, with their legs secured in chains.
And then there is this line: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” And that is what grabs me in this story. Every time. I’m always surprised by that line. I find myself thinking, “How can that be?” Unjustly accused by greedy men, seized upon by a crowd, hauled before the authorities, severely beaten, thrown into a first-century prison, bloodied and in pain, publically humiliated and soundly defeated, their legs locked in irons… and then: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” How is that possible? Who would be singing hymns to God in those circumstances? I try to imagine myself in their place. I wonder if this would have been my response.
What is Paul’s secret? What enables him to praise and thank God in the most difficult of circumstances? From what deep place in his heart is he drawing this strength? What enables him to sing and to worship in such trying conditions?
I’ve thought about this and here’s what I’ve come up with: I think what we’re seeing here reveals Paul’s true identity. Our identity, what we truly believe about ourselves, expresses itself in our words and actions. And it seems clear to me that Paul’s sense of himself has nothing to do with accomplishments or achievements or success; it does not depend on any external factor. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges that there was a time when he was enamored by the marks of success. He writes that at one time he had it all: he was from a reputable family, he had received a top-notch education from one of the leading educators of his time, he was passionate about his faith and lived it with a zeal that impressed both his peers and his elders, he was popular and acclaimed by all. In short, he had it all. (Phil. 3:4-6)
Until he met Jesus. And his life was changed completely. From that moment on, all of the marks of status, all of his achievements, all the respect and admiration he had won, became as nothing to him. “I wrote them all off as a loss for the sake of Christ,” he tells the Philippians. “I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:7-9a) From that moment on, Paul’s identity was hidden in Christ. He recognized that he was no longer his own; that he had been bought with a price.
The great French monastic and martyr, Charles de Foucauld, once said, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I realized that I could do nothing else but live for him alone.”[i] The same was true of Paul.
But can you see the freedom that this new identity gives him? He no longer has to curry favor from the rich and powerful; he no longer has to please or impress; he no longer has to strive to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of others. All this, he says, he counts as “refuse” – as “sewer trash” (as one translation puts it). Now he is a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away; all things have been made new.
Have you known this kind of freedom? Freedom from the tyranny of having to achieve what the world measures as success? The freedom of not having to be better or stronger or more attractive or more talented or wealthier or more popular in order to be counted as worthy? This is the ‘glorious freedom’ of the children of God and it comes from knowing that we are unconditionally loved by God. Always. Paul knows this freedom. He has cast aside the marks of worldly success and embraced the truth that he is a new creation in Christ. All things have been make new.
Paul has one purpose for being in the world and that is to proclaim Christ. He lives for this. He writes to the Philippians from jail, and tells them that he is pleased to be in prison because the word is spreading, people are hearing about Jesus. He has suffered countless hardships, but they have been nothing to him in comparison to the joy he has found in Jesus.
“Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” he asks the Roman Christians, “Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” No, he says, “I am convinced that nothingcan separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord; not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Rom 8:35-39)
As a beloved child of God, Paul knows the perfect freedom of belonging to God: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear,” he reminds the Christians at Rome, “you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children… if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Rom. 8:15-17)
It is this knowledge – that he belongs to Christ and is unconditionally and forever loved by God – that gives him the boldness and courage to take the risks that he does. He is like a tree with deep roots, roots that give him a stability and steadfastness that enable him to withstand all kinds of challenges, setbacks and disappointments without giving up or becoming discouraged. He has an unshakeable faith that he is God’s, and this faith holds firm even in the storms and tempests of his life.
Perhaps this is why he can encourage the Christians at Philippi to “rejoice always,” as we see him and his companion rejoicing here in a first-century prison cell after having been beaten and abused. “Rejoice always” – because you belong to God, because you are deeply and irrevocably loved by God, because there is nothing in all the world that can ever separate you from God, because you are God’s beloved child, a fellow heir with Christ of all that God is and possesses.
When you are facing life’s trials, when life seems to be an uphill battle, when you fear being overwhelmed by fear or worry or grief, recall this image of Paul and Silas, beaten and bloodied, locked in chains, singing and praising God! This joy can be yours as well. This freedom belongs to you as a child of God. Nothing can destroy it or take it away from you. You are, and always will be, the beloved of God.
Send down your roots into this deep soil, so that when trouble comes, you can remain steadfast and unmovable, knowing that God always has the final word. And rejoice. Always and everywhere. No matter what circumstance you find yourself in. Trust God’s power and love. Easter is Love’s Victory over evil and death; all fear is washed away. You! – yes, you! – are a beloved child of God.
“See what love the Father has given us,” exclaims the author of First John, “that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are!” (NRSV) Alleluia!
Note: Except where otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible, ©2010.
[i]Quoted by Jean-Francois Six in his book Witness in the Desert: The Life of Charles de Foucauld, MacMillan Press, 1965, p. 28.
, Monastic Intern
“The hour is coming – the hour is coming and is now here when we will worship in spirit and truth”.
These words from today’s gospel exasperated me, clashing against a long-held belief of mine about time and the end of the world.
John makes beguiling use of time in his writing, each sentence pushing and pulling us into the past and future. His style evokes how mortal time ceases to be meaningful in the person of Jesus, who often discusses the coming kingdom of God in the present tense. In today’s gospel, Jesus bends time around Himself and brings the future into the present – “the hour is coming and is now here”.
This signature malleability of time is also evoked one of John’s other books, the book of Revelation – one of my favorites. In Revelation, the pace is dizzying, with events overlapping or happening multiple times, and people, angels, and Jesus all speaking, praying, and crying out at the same time. In John’s telling, at Jesus’s second coming all our senses and knowing will overflow with God in perfect union of spirit and truth.
Revelation testifies to one aspect of the end of time and consummation with God – at some future point, God will erase the boundaries between us and heaven and all will rejoice in perfect unity with divine love. This is a huge comfort to me. My own future is still murkily unclear, and uncertainty about what lies ahead has kept me awake staring at the ceiling for many sleepless nights. I feel like it’s impossible to know what’s in store for me, and when I can’t see the next ten moves on the board, I panic.
My anxious faith is that Jesus will come again and bring an end to the chaotic uncertainty of our world. I find that fact quite helpful, and most days I really wish He would hurry up and get along with it.
But, today’s gospel is enough to make me reconsider.
Certainly Jesus says the hour is coming, the future hour of the Messiah who will bring God’s kingdom to the world
But – He says the hour is now here. Jesus refers to His own incarnation as the moment of God’s unity with humans. This is another dimension of the end of time, but this angle catches me off guard.
Don’t sit around waiting for God to act – the hour is here because Jesus is here, and with Jesus’s arrival, deeper and closer union with God is immediately upon us – unity with God not just in the future at the trumpet’s blast of the second coming, but a deep relationship with God now, an intimate and loving companion in Jesus, human and divine, perfect oneness of spirit and truth in humanity.
In the incarnation of God in Jesus, eternity and human time become intertwined. Jesus promises us that just as He is one with God in heaven now, we have the exact same potential when we love God now and follow His commandments.
So yes, the time is coming – heaven and earth will fall away, martyrs and saints and angels will bow before the throne of God, and the world as we know it will dissolve into the glory of God’s love.
And – the time is already here. God’s kingdom isn’t waiting in the wings, and my anxious hope that God will eventually arrive to sort things out for me is just another earthly dream.
The eternity of God, manifested in Jesus, has touched that ticking clock in the back of my brain. The hour is now here, redemption and freedom and peace are at hand.
In this moment, I can’t passively wait for further instruction from God – I’ve got it. Our future and our present are simple. Worship and love God, in genuine spirit and in earnest truth, for God is here among us and desires nothing but our hearts, our souls, and our time. The hour is now.
Acts 9:1-9 | John 21:1-14
There’s no going back. There’s no going back. Once you have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, once you have met the Risen Lord and said YES to his invitation to ‘follow me,’ nothing is the same again. For, as Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything has passed away, see everything has become new.”[i]
In our readings today there are two wonderful accounts of how the greatest leaders of the church – Peter and Paul – each had to learn, in a way which was both humbling and painful, that to follow Jesus, first meant a real death to the life which they had lived until then. They had to become a new creation. They had to be born anew before God could use them for the work of the Kingdom.
So when, in our Gospel today, Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ – I’m going back to the old life – that was no longer possible. He was a good fisherman, his strong hands were skilled with the ropes and the nets. But although he toiled all through the night, he caught nothing. Something had changed. What had changed was that Jesus had called him to follow him, and he had said YES. But what he was yet to learn was that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms, in his own strength, in the old way. That had died.
These skilled hands of the fisherman would be used by Jesus, but first Peter had to come to Jesus empty handed. And perhaps there is no more poignant moment in all the gospels than when Peter comes ashore, and sees Jesus sitting beside a charcoal fire. That word ‘charcoal’ is only used twice in the New Testament: here and in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, where Peter stood warming himself, and where he denied knowing Jesus three times.
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Jesus tells a graphic, gripping tale of a father and two sons. Each defies our expectations. It is more stark considering the Middle Eastern cultural context.[i]
The younger son says: “Father, give me my inheritance,” and the father gives him property. Asking for an inheritance is saying: I wish you were dead. It’s total rejection points out scholar Kenneth Bailey. A father would deny such a request and likely expel one for being so offensive. Instead, he lets the son break his heart, his family, and reputation by giving him the property.[ii]
Just a few days later, the son packs up to leave. Bailey notes property usually takes months to sell. To do it so quickly and walk off with cash is significant. The son humiliated his father by asking for the inheritance. The neighboring community quickly does the transaction to kick him out; they expel him.[iii]
The son slowly squanders all his wealth in a distant country, and he eventually runs out. So broke, this Jewish boy ends up feeding pigs and finds himself starving. There at the bottom, he wakes up a little by hunger: “My father’s hired hands have plenty to eat.” He forms a plan to save himself.[iv]“I’ll return and say I’m not worthy to be your son. Treat me as a hired hand.”
The son returns. While still far off, the father saw him approaching. The father had kept hoping, was waiting and looking. What would happen when the son came close, when people saw him, the one who rejected his father, whom they kicked out? The father runs to his son, humiliating himself—for men did not run. Bailey says the father ran in order to save his son from the neighbors who with good reason might gather as mob to taunt or abuse him.[v]