“Who Is Christ for Us Today?”

April 26, 2015

 

John 10:1-17

John 21:15-17

 

We heard the good news on Easter, but it takes some time for it to sink into our souls once more. We announce the good news of Easter at the beginning of our worship services in these days: “Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed”—but it takes a while for us to find the meaning of those words. So it’s good to keep hearing the gospel stories of resurrection and new life to get a better understanding of what all of this means for our lives today.

Easter comes to us with all its springtime freshness. We look around and see creation renewed once more. We welcome even the rain which restores the green grass and causes flowers to bloom.

And in the midst of what the poet called “all this juice and joy,” comes the awareness that our words fail us when we try to talk about Easter.

What do we mean when we say that Christ is risen or that Jesus is the Christ? What do we mean when we speak—however hesitantly—of the divinity of Jesus?

From a German prison cell seventy years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “What keeps gnawing at me is the question, What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?”

It is the question that continues to gnaw at us in our own time—and has been the question that has echoed in the minds of people for 2000 years.

A dear and sometimes outrageous woman who was a member of the first congregation I served, once told me in an almost conspiratorial whisper: “I’m not sure I believe in the divinity of Christ.” I assured her that she wasn’t alone in her doubt and she certainly wouldn’t be alone with her doubt in this congregation, which is so known for respecting questions. James Carroll recently wrote: “Even for those of us who still find a home among people who cannot let go of their affection for Jesus, belief is not what it was, and there is an unknowing for us as much as for any agnostic or atheist. Unbelief,” he concludes, “is now built into belief.”

Who, then, is Christ for us today?

Answering that question, of course, takes a lifetime, because we keep changing. And if the stories of the resurrection tell us anything, it is that we encounter Christ in many different ways through all those changes. This is why we have embraced the Congregational tradition that is wary of dogmatic or doctrinal statements. They can be helpful as testimonies of faith, but they carry the danger of becoming rigid tests of faith.

As we listen to resurrection stories and as we hear again the words of Jesus, however, we can find a path of faith that respects our questions even as it empowers our actions.

When we read the story of the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Gospel of John, we learn that it was cold. In the dark of night, while Jesus was facing his accusers, some people outside had made a charcoal fire and were standing around warming themselves. Simon, who was so close to Jesus that Jesus had given him the new name of Peter, was standing there around the fire.

A woman asks him, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you? And Peter says, “I am not.”

A second time others ask him the same question and receive the same denial: “I am not.”

Finally someone asks, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with Jesus when he was arrested?” And for a third time Peter denies any connection with the One who had called him from his fishing nets, whom he had followed for three years.

A few weeks after this, Peter and others go fishing. In the clear light of morning, they encounter the risen Christ on the beach. He himself has prepared another charcoal fire. He offers his disciples some fish.

We heard this morning what happened after breakfast around the coals of that fire.

Jesus addresses Peter by the name he had before Jesus called him to follow, asking, Simon, son of John, do you love me?

And when Simon Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus gives him a new charge: “Then feed my lambs.”

This is the same Jesus who once said, “I am the good shepherd.”

Several times in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us who he is. But he doesn’t do this directly.

“I am…” Jesus says. But he doesn’t say, “I am the second person of the Trinity.” He doesn’t say, “I am the Son of the living God.”

He says, “I am the gate.”

He says, “I am the good shepherd.”

He gives us pictures. He tells a story about shepherds and sheep and a gate. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd and follow the one who calls them by name.

And after Jesus this parable, John says, “They did not understand what he was saying to them.” John could be speaking for us as well.

Who is Christ?

Jesus tries again.

“I am the gate,” he says.

William Miller was a Presbyterian minister working in Iran over fifty years ago. Stranded in a remote village for a day, he set out to explore the village and came to a mound of earth piled up in a large circle—and on the top of the mound all around that circle was a heap of dry thorns.

He asked a villager about the enclosure.

“Oh—that’s for the sheep,” came the reply. “They are brought in here at night for safety.”

And the thorns?

“The dry thorns on top,” he was told, “serve as a protection against wolves. If a wolf tries to break in and attack the sheep it will knock against the thorns and they will make a noise and the shepherd will wake up and drive off the wolf.”

“That’s fine,” Miller said. “But why does the wolf try to climb over the wall? Here is the entrance to the enclosure. It is open. There is no gate to keep out the wolf. It could easily enter here.”

“Oh no,” said the villager. “You don’t understand. That is where the shepherd sleeps. The shepherd is the gate.”[i]

 “I am the Gate.”

“I am the good Shepherd.”

There is nothing literal about this. John’s Gospel even tells us, this a parable, a figure of speech that shows us something about the One who both calls and protects the sheep of his flock.

Shepherding the flock day after day, being their gate by night, a shepherd knows the sheep—knows their marks and features. Indeed, it isn’t uncommon for shepherds to have names for the different members of the flock.

So it isn’t surprising that Jesus says: “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name.”

But how shall we hear that voice today?

Whenever Jesus says, “I am,” it is always connected with the life that Jesus is and that Jesus gives. Jesus calls this “abundant life.” Abundance is a difficult word for many people. It suggests an overflowing—more than enough. My dictionary says that while “plentiful” implies a great or rich supply, “abundant” suggests an even greater or richer supply.

Life to spare.

Life to give.

This seems to be what Jesus is about: Giving us life that overflows so that in these days we can live fully and love our neighbor as ourselves.

So here’s the question:

What in life brings you great joy?
What makes you feel most alive?

Those might be just the places to listen for the voice that says: “For this you were created; to this you are called.” Somewhere I read: “If I have a true self, it is that self which is God’s project.”

Amazing.

Each one of us is God’s own project. The Creator works within the creature—bringing life, filling us with breath, with energy, with love.

In Jesus we discover the God who calls us by name. That is, God calls each of us as individuals with all our quirks and faults. God calls each of us by name and says: “It is in you that I want to work. It is through you that I want to work in the world.”

You are not an anonymous member of the flock. You are known and loved by the One who calls you. You are called as an individual to live and to love.

To Peter, who a few days earlier denied three times that he even knew Jesus, the good shepherd says: “Feed my lambs.”

If you love me, show love towards those whom I love. Seek the well-being of those who are following me. Act in ways that will build up the community of the faithful. And reach out beyond that small community recognizing that I have other sheep who are not of this fold.

In the United Church of Christ, we’re comfortable with that response. Our faith is more about covenant than creed, more about how we act toward each other and our neighbors than what we say about Jesus. We understand that loving God whom we cannot see is about loving those human beings whom we can see.

With Peter, we have heard the call to show love—to feed and tend the sheep.

You’d think that would settle the matter. Certainly the question time should now be over.

Instead we hear Jesus once more: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Like a child who keeps asking “Why?” to each explanation that you give, Jesus asks the same question again.

And when Peter answers for a second time, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus tells him, “Then tend my sheep.”

And then for a third time the question comes: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Hurt and exasperated, Peter says: “You know everything. You know I love you.”

You see what John is getting at here, don’t you? Three times Peter denied that he even knew the Jesus who had been arrested and hauled off to be tried. Three times Peter tells of his love.

Three times all of Peter’s failings are made painfully obvious. Three times all his doubt and denial are accepted and forgiven. Three times—in spite of his past—he is given a new calling.

Jesus is the One who will not let our past—or our present—get in the way of the future that God is making in us and through us. “Following Christ” means that we will move forward after failure, we will not let all that separates us from God and one another keep us from seeking still to love others as we have been loved.

In the short story Life after God a woman in her early thirties says: “I woke up really early this morning and I thought to myself—‘So, girl—this is it? Forty more years of this?’ Something’s got to change. I need something.”

Maybe that’s it. We need a life and the risen Christ continues to be the one who offers life abundant when we know that something’s got to change.

We need a life—and we’re not going to get it by imitating others. We’re not going to get it by trumping everyone else. We’re not going to get it by what we know or what we have.

We need a life and we will find it by following the way of Jesus Christ, the good shepherd who keeps telling us, “Feed my sheep.”

We are not asked to believe statements about Jesus. We are invited to follow. We are called to love. The shepherd puts us to the task of feeding the sheep, tending the lambs, doing those things that bring life to the world and protects the world for life.

As we do these things in our time, we will continue to discover who Christ is for us today.



[i] Eric Bishop, Expository Times, quoted in Easter Sourcebook, pg. 81.