“Who Is Christ for Us Today?”
April 26, 2015
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
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
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
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]
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
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
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
Hurt and exasperated, Peter says: “You know everything. You know I love
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
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.
Eric Bishop, Expository Times, quoted
in Easter Sourcebook, pg. 81.