Who are you?
Struck blind as his friends are struck silent, he gasps at the stranger he cannot see. Lord, he says, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps half-knowing in the way we all know only in halves what we mean in our own speaking. Like Freudian slips and other inadvertent truths that spill forth from our faces, betraying our proclivities and prejudices, surprising even ourselves.
Who then is this Stranger-Lord, this voice that has managed to reach into his, even Saul’s, head; this light that shines and shines into his, even Saul’s, heart? It is all very unexpected; how odd it is that he—the Pharisee of Pharisees, the ruthless persecutor—is counted among those to whom Jesus appears, among his own apostles and disciples? And yet, whoever Jesus is, he surely is the one who confounds our limitations, the boundaries we put on his mercy.
Who are you?
Mouths full and skin wet with salt and sun, they dare not ask his name. They know, or they think they know. It is the Lord, of course, is it not? And not just any old lord—any old sir, old social superior—but their Lord, the Lord. And yet they do and do not recognize his face, in the way that we all sometimes do and do not recognize the faces of the ones we love most dearly, even our own faces. Like syllables uttered too many times in repetition, the sounds turn funny and unfamiliar, the face of their friend is, to them for a moment, foreign.
Who then is this Stranger-Friend, this face they love with fire like burning charcoal, these hands that feed them fish and bread? This too is unexpected, he who was dead—they saw it, they remember all too well—is alive after all, and, of all things, having a picnic on the beach. It is not, as it was with Paul, a voice from Heaven that came to them, but a human being, with rumbling tummy and sandy toes and warm skin, pink from the sun. It was neither ghost nor reanimated corpse, but something else altogether; some kind of transformation, translation, transfiguration before them, the same Jesus, but different. Whoever he is, he forces us to rethink our categories, to rethink what it is to be human, to be alive.
Who are you?
We think we know, and perhaps not unreasonably so. After so many years, so many sermons, so much prayer. We think we know, after so many centuries of theological reflection, so many scholarly tomes on the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. We, those of us who claim to follow Jesus—with Paul on Damascus Road who knew that Jesus was a dangerous fool and Peter in the high priest’s courtyard who knew that Jesus was done for—with them, we are ever tempted to believe that we know who this Jesus is. And worse, we domesticate him, we co-opt him for our own purposes, personal and political, confining him to a tomb of our own making. And yet, of course, the tomb—flanked on either side with angels—is like the Ark of the Covenant in our old Hebrew stories—it, with cherubim flanking on either side—both tomb and ark are empty precisely because God resists definitive description, transcends comfortable categorization, refuses to be carved in stone or steel or sentences. We think we know, but we do not know, and yet, at the same time, of course we do, because God has revealed himself fully in this Stranger who is both Friend and Lord.
It is the Second Sunday after Easter, and the Risen Christ is, in his rising and speaking and sending and absolving and eating, is, whoever he is, the one who changes everything, overturning old ideas for minds renewed, rendering old categories null and void, empty as his tomb. He appears to his friends and foes, and they know and do not know him, and yet are found by him, and fed, and forgiven, and freed from their pasts to live the lives we remember still these centuries later. Peter, who once betrayed Jesus is, by Jesus, entrusted with the care of this fragile new community. Upon this rock, Jesus will build his Church. Paul, who once tried to kill the infant Church, is tasked with growing it far beyond its traditional social, national, and ethnic borders. And here we are today, against the odds of any betting man, the Church still here, and we in it, kings and gentiles beyond the ends of the earth. Here we are today, remembering that it began with traitors and haters, struck blind and speechless by their strange friend and master.
That is to say, we do not know how stories end. It is interesting to textual scholars, and to very few other people, that St. John’s Gospel ends at least twice. The last two verses of the twentieth chapter is clearly an ending of sorts. And yet, it is not the ending of the story, because we now have the twenty-first chapter, assigned as our Gospel text for today. Thus, this story ends not with knowledge—with the dissipation of St. Thomas’s doubt in Chapter 20—but with love, with the reversal, in Chapter 21, of St. Peter’s previous betrayal. It ends with love, and yet it does not end at all, pointing as it does into the future and, in the closing verses of the book, asserting the necessary incompleteness of all tellings of Jesus’s story. We do not know how stories end, not Jesus’s, not Peter’s, not Paul’s, not yours or mine, or anyone else’s.
We do not know how stories end precisely because, whoever he is, Jesus is the one who ever exceeds our expectations; who is more comprehending of the foibles we count most mammalian, more forgiving of the sins we count most shameful, more merciful to those we count our most bitter enemies. No less than St. Peter’s, our own betrayals are not the final words about us; no less than St. Paul’s, our own prejudices are not our epitaphs. The same that is true of us and those whom we meet in the pages of Scripture, is also true for those whom we meet in the pages of our newspapers and in our television screens and on our city streets and in our own lives. Our sins, and theirs are, for all their differences, exactly the same, not least in that they are inconclusive. We are not ourselves written off, given up on, and we must therefore fight the urge to close the pages on someone else’s story, to write off as hopeless those who have betrayed us and hated us in both petty and profound ways.
It is the Second Sunday after Easter, and the Risen Christ is our strange friend and master, whose new life is ours because he has shared in our deaths, in our darkest hours. He is indeed a heavenly voice in the midst of great light, as St. Paul encountered him. And he is a lamb, on a throne, slaughtered, just as he was revealed to St. John Divine who was told—just before this eruption of angelic praise we have heard today—to expect a conquering Lion of Judah. Once again, Jesus is the great violator of expectations, turning on their heads our ideas of what victory is, what glory is, what conquest looks like. Heavenly voice, enthroned lamb and, all the same, a quiet camper, hands dusty with bread and oily with fish, and smelling of smoke and sand. Glorious and humble, he is human like us, and like him our stories are unpredictable, neither mine nor yours, nor the people about whom it is believed that all hope is lost, the men and women, the relationships and families, written off by the power structures of State and Church, society, by you and me. Our calling, our following Jesus this side of the empty tomb, is therefore not to define each other and ourselves, or to categorize or to conclude, but to tend and feed and love in the convicting hope that the weeping may indeed linger only for a night, to make way for morning’s joy.