April 10th, 2016
Today I want you to think of yourselves as John, the Gospel writer—very old, near the end of your life. Many who grow old face a choice—continue to live, or watch your friends and your era die, one by one, bit by bit. As the veterans know, time completes what wars began—it takes all your companions and all your friends. If you can think of John, maybe you can think of being in the last of the disciples, and holding the memories of them even as you know, surely, that you yourself are going to die. Peter, at the time of the writing of this Gospel, had been killed by Rome. The people who heard this story knew of his death; they knew how he had died. John mentions that Peter didn’t want to die—that men would take him where he did not want to go. And so, I imagine, John also felt. He probably also did not wish to die. I wonder if we can put ourselves in John’s place—death is all around, and our memories are full of death, the death of ones we love.
The traces of death lurk all over these readings. And it’s not just the natural death that we can expect and prepare ourselves to welcome, but also the deaths that we hope we never encounter—murder, betrayal. The Acts passage begins like this: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples…” In a parallel to the Gospel, Saul also seeks to bind the disciples, and bring them where they did not wish to go. At the martyrdom of the first Christian, Saul took the cloaks of the crowd, so they could free their arms and bodies to better throw the stones that would kill Stephen. And there is the fear of Ananias, who was probably one of the people Saul was hoping to kill, who sees a vision of Jesus, and goes to Saul and calls him brother, and baptizes him. And baptism, as Saul, who becomes the great apostle Paul, later writes, is also a death.
Even Revelation makes room for this—Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slaughtered, we hear. You may recognize this passage from our liturgy, the song we sing after the Kyrie during the high festivals of the church year. We sang a paraphrase of it today. And there’s a strange and fierce joy in this passage from revelation, something that seems incongruous at first blush—the Lamb that was slaughtered receives power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing, and all the songs of and praises of all the angels, and indeed of every single creature of earth and sea. The whole creation praises this lamb. You could say that people have lost their minds, that they’re out of their heads. You might be right. The sight of the risen Jesus seems to do that.
There is wild joy—absolutely wild joy, at the encounter of the risen Christ. It’s the kind of joy that reminds me of a story a woman told me once about meeting Paul Newman—she was buying a sno-cone in Connecticut and he was in line behind her, and she got so worked up because he was more handsome in real life than he was on screen that when she turned around to say hi, she put her sno-cone in her purse and started licking her change. Similarly, Peter had stripped, because he was fishing, and that required the unencumbered use of his whole body. When the disciples saw the Lord, Peter was overcome with joy, and put all of his clothes on, and jumped into the sea. It’s a ludicrous thing to do, I think, but there you have it. And Saul—he goes blind, and when Ananias heals him, he immediately changes his life. He doesn’t just do a 180 with his life; he gets a whole new life. And that, I suppose, brings us back, full circle, to where we began, to this old man John, thinking of all the ones he had lost, and all the death he had seen. I think, even in these thoughts, he is consumed by joy—a fierce and deep joy, an emotion that moves through him like a deep earth tremor, because all these men he has known and loved and outlasted encountered something worth dying for, something that gave shape to their lives beyond the grave; they got to know Jesus, and they were able to serve him, and they were baptized into his life and fed from his hand. They had been there to hear him say, “Follow me.” And they followed.
I know that modern scholarship does not believe that John, the disciple of that name, wrote the Gospel of John. And I accept that, grudgingly. I kind of like the theory of what they call a Johannine community, that is, a community of churches, maybe in a region of Turkey or somewhere, that were formed by John’s own peculiar way of delivering the message of the good news of Jesus. I imagine that these communities were treasured of many of John’s memories, stories they confirmed with other communities and maybe embellished here and there, but still shaped by that anchor memory of John’s of the encounter with the risen Lord. And then, with each succeeding death, the memory of their own encounters with the Lord were added and shared, too. We do this in the church—if we are people who proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection, we tell the story of how Christ has touched our lives and fed us with his word. We tell one another the story of how we heard him say to us, “Follow me.”
I think it is also significant that Saul and Peter had failed Jesus. Peter, you may remember, denied Jesus three times and abandoned him at his death. This is the man who swore he would never leave Jesus’ side, who first called him the Messiah. And he couldn’t even say that he knew him. And Saul’s whole life was aimed at eliminating the early followers of the Way, through violence and intimidation, and even by execution. He approved of the stoning of Stephen and was so intimidating, Ananias, upon having a vision of the risen Lord, tried to wriggle out of the Lord’s command. Peter and Saul, in other words, were sinners, traitors and murderers. And part of the community’s remembrance of them is precisely this sinfulness: that the rock of the Church, Peter, denied his Lord; that the great evangelist and preacher and proclaimer of Christ first tried to kill his followers. This fits in the great memory of the church, which we still proclaim today, that while all of us were yet sinners, still God loved us, and has chosen to make us new through the risen of life of Jesus Christ. This is our story, our memory, our treasure—that God loves sinners and makes us new.
At the Eucharist, we remember the command our Lord Jesus gave to us; to share the bread and cup in his remembrance. We hold on to the scriptural promise that the bread and cup are not bread and wine only, but also the body and blood of Jesus, that in our remembrance and our celebration, Jesus is really present with us. And when Jesus comes, he does not come alone. Revelation speaks of the angels and all the creatures of earth shouting his name—but when he comes to us in the Lord’s Supper, he brings with him all who have died—because to God, all places, peoples, and times are present at once. The beloved we remember are here at this table. All who sing at the throne of grace, all who have been born, all who live in Christ, and all who have yet to be born are here in the Eucharist. John, Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene and all those whose memories we treasure.
Today we make new memories—we welcome two more people into this fellowship we share, two more persons whose stories of their encounters with Jesus will be passed on to future of this church. And some of those memories will be memories of us, in our sinfulness and our redemption. They will be stories of God’s presence in this world, stories of the Risen Christ who calls to each of us to say, “Follow me.” And, I hope, they will be stories of joy. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack