Because today’s reading from the last supper discourse comes so near the end of Jesus’ life, it holds a privileged place in John’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t have much time left; he can’t waste his breath on trivia. So what he chooses must be absolutely central to his message. We, in turn, should hold these words in our hearts.
The shadow of death hangs over Jesus’ head as it does for all of us.
He addresses one of the hardest things in any relationship—that we will someday say a final goodbye as he is saying now. Even before that, we sometimes fail ea other; we betray those we love most. In the rush of events or too much pressure or not enough time, we miss each other’s shining radiance.
But despite those failures, God still chooses to make God’s dwelling place with us. Other than college dorm or summer camp, we rarely dwell with strangers. Usually, we live with those we love most. GOD’s wanting to dwell with us should allay our anxieties about our failures.
As Jesus speaks, the “beloved disciple” leans against his chest. So John suggests, the only way we can see the world accurately is from that position: leaning on Jesus’ heart. John creates a deliberate parallel: just as Jesus knows God’s secrets, hears God’s heart beat, so we humans can also enjoy that privileged place. Thus, our feeble loving is joined to Jesus’ all-powerful love to make it wonderfully fruitful.
Sometimes I feel like the pathetic child in “Oliver,” holding out his porridge bowl and pleading, “more please?” In this case, more Easter.
If resurrection means beginning again and again anew, then our best experiences of love or beauty should show us who we most deeply are. We seek these out instinctively, suspecting we’re made for the garden, not the tomb. God’s life penetrates ours, boring through every dark corner.
We Catholics can be a somewhat narrow lot, most of us having had little exposure to the other great traditions. To be fair, fully appreciating Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich could be a full-time occupation. But that gap explains why I was so delighted to discover an essay titled “Christ Rising” by Christoph Blumhardt, a German pastor who lived from 1842-1919.
He points out that because of Christ’s rising we are “of an entirely different order.” Worries and anxieties should mean no more to us than a face cloth or shroud cast aside. Blumhardt says not to focus on the evil, imperfection, or unresolved question. “All that has nothing to do with us.” Instead we simply “ask Jesus to give us more and more of his resurrection, until it runs over, until the extraordinary powers from on high that are within our reach can get down to work on all that we do.”
In other words, why hang out in the basement when we could have the ballroom?
When Good Shepherd Sunday rolls around again, we dread being compared to sheep: wooly, stupid and directionally challenged.
So maybe we should focus instead on the shepherd: there are many reasons why he has been beloved for centuries. We who have grown overly cynical about leadership, given the disasters in church, state and corporate worlds, can find refreshment in this portrait. This is not the hierarch who sacrifices children to pedophiles in order to preserve the church’s reputation. This is not the president who sends thousands to die in war for some unclear purpose. This is not the CEO who draws a salary astronomically higher than the least paid workers in the company.
In utter simplicity and without drawing attention to himself, this leader sacrifices his own life for his friends. He is confident and calm, nobly laying down his life. Although the thugs may seem to control him at his trial and crucifixion, he in reality is directing the order of events. Why? That seems a mystery, and is in fact the same question the poet Christina Rossetti asked about the quest for the lost sheep: “Is one worth seeking, when Thou hast of Thine/ Ninety and nine?”
Such dedication is beyond human comprehension, but hints of a supreme love.
Imagine that you’re grieving the death of a beloved friend, who died tragically young. Make matters worse: he died violently, suffering terribly. Probably the last thing you need as you mourn is a clueless stranger who must hear the whole story. “Go away so I can grieve!” seems the most natural response. One sentence in Luke describes this situation for the disciples: “They stood still, looking sad” (24:17). Paralyzed by grief, they can’t move ahead.
Now imagine the same scenario with one difference: what if the intruder were Jesus? Cleopas and his companion are stuck; they can’t see the cross as anything but failure. All their hopes for Jesus and his reign have dissolved. But somehow this stranger gets them talking and walking again.
They are so drawn to him that they ask, “Stay with us…” (24:29)
Perhaps that should be our prayer too, asking Jesus to be with us in whatever dark trench we find ourselves. If we too have lost hope, enthusiasm or even interest, it doesn’t seem to bother him. Somehow, he rekindles the dormant spark so it becomes an inner flame. He gladly joins a long walk and conversation, winding it up, typically, with a meal.
Many commentators have pointed out the irony of Jesus appearing in the guise of a stranger. To expand on this idea, we may find him where we least expect. Our usual sources of inspiration may disappoint. He seems to delight in surprising us, then nurturing us, however unlikely the circumstances.
Despite the fact that it has been celebrated for centuries, the quality of mercy remains an abstraction. Today, on the second Sunday of Easter, Jesus gives mercy a human face and touch.
Before we criticize Thomas too much, we should ask what we might do in a similar situation. Would we also be skeptical if our friends told us that someone had returned from death? Wouldn’t we want to see for ourselves? Thomas may simply voice the questions most disciples harbor secretly.
The first disciples, caught in fear and confusion, are hardly the finest spokespersons for the gospel. But then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had.
Jesus responds to us as he did to Thomas—without harsh judgment. He understands our needs for concrete reassurance. After all, God created us with five senses to help us learn. And if Thomas—stubbornly insistent on tangible proof—can believe, maybe there’s hope for us all.
To us as to him, Jesus extends the same merciful invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection. Doubt isn’t evil: it’s the entryway to hope.
Where we might have expected glory and trumpets the first Sunday after Easter, instead we get typical, honest, human groping towards truth. A splendid reunion between Jesus and his friends? Not quite. But maybe something better: Jesus’ mercy, meeting them where they (and we) are stumbling, extending his hand in genuine understanding and compassion.
God our Creator,
And just when we think
winter won’t end, a sliver
of light, a bird’s flute solo,
a tentative poke of green.
Thank you for sun on skin,
the pink bud opening to lilac,
rains that gild the branches.
Praise God for dandelion yellow,
pale coral, indigo, speckled petal
and new leaf tinged with red.
For warmth and bikes, ice cream
and longer light. As you transform
the earth, touch us too with
Anyone who lives long enough questions. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the young die? Why does potential wither while evil thrives? The genius of today’s gospel is that Jesus doesn’t try to answer the questions. He enters into them.
Some passion accounts begin with the exquisite scene of Jesus’ anointing. The bean-counters hate it: how will they justify the expense or fit it on their spreadsheets? But Jesus answers: hold onto kindness and beauty, which help us through the worst. As the author of ATONEMENT writes, such actions are a “last stand against oblivion and despair.”
As does a meal with friends. Jesus’ concern in his final hours isn’t with imminent, brutal suffering but with a final gesture of friendship. He reaches out to them–and to us–with the nurture of bread, the spirit of wine and the praise of song. During his whole ordeal, there is no word of recrimination, though it would be understandable. He responds to insulting betrayal by pouring out love.
To the logical, it makes no sense. But to the believer, the powerless triumph. Those who seem defeated ultimately win. The questions aren’t answered, but they are blessed by the presence of One who lives through them.