Recognizing Jesus in a Fierce Landscape

Martha Stortz—April 29, 2007

Acts 9: 36-43
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30

Now that Lent, a season of fasting and penance is over, I indulged. I went to the movies in the middle of the afternoon. The time for such indulgence wasn’t supposed to be there: an oral examination that was supposed to eat up an entire afternoon got canceled. My colleague and I just grinned at each other: “Found time!” At some point in a busy season, found time is even better than found money. We bought matinee tickets to “Into Great Silence,” a movie about a community of Carthusian monks who live in the Alps near Grenoble, Switzerland. There were almost no words, no plot, just the rhythms of the daily offices and the year’s seasons. The film dropped you into the monastic tides of work and prayer. Ore et labore, as the Rule of St. Benedict put it.

As my colleague and I stumbled out into the lobby after the movie, the world seemed incredibly noisy—and dazzling. We emerged into the bright sun of a late afternoon, and sunlight assaulted our eyes. I then understood the reason for the tunnel-like architecture of movie theaters. The transition from light to darkness—and from darkness to light—is best taken gradually. Our eyes need time to adjust.

Think of this Easter season as a movie theater, with a long tunnel-like structure that stretches from Easter Sunday to Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday beyond. We count forty days from Easter to Pentecost—just like Lent. This allows to make a gradual transition from Jesus on earth to his presence in heaven at the right hand of the Father. Our hearts need time to adjust.

I’m struck with how much the first disciples needed this time. Immediately after Jesus’ death, they regressed. Without him around to follow, they default to the familiar. They go back to doing what they did before, in that time before Jesus, before he ever stepped onto the scene: they go back to fishing. And last Sunday’s gospel reading finds them back in their old familiar haunts—at the Sea of Galilee hauling in nets. It’s a wonderful story, this marvelous and divinely whimsical account of the First Breakfast. Hold it up against the story of the Last Supper—and you know where God intends to keep us.

But I’m struck in that first Easter season with how much the disciples needed this time of transition. They have a terrible time recognizing the post-resurrection Jesus, this guy whom they have been with 24/7 for the whole of his earthly ministry. Their hearts need time to adjust.

Now it’s not like the disciples were any better at recognizing Jesus for who he was while he was alive and with them in his earthly body. People mistake him as “a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34) Then they mistake him for Elijah, John the Baptist, one of the prophets (Mark 8:28, para., cf., the temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, para.). Jesus’ own disciples do an extreme make-over of this suffering servant into the “Messiah” promised to Israel, and in Jewish legend the “Messiah” came as some military hero who would rise up from the desert and use military might to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation. And you can get a glimpse of how restive the Jews were under the Roman thumb by reading restive the Iraqi are with American and British occupation.

But Jesus was not some desert revolutionary; he was not a populist military hero. He was the Son of God, and it chastens us disciples—I suspect deliberately so—how clearly outsiders saw Jesus’ true identity even as his own disciples kept trying to make him the answer to their heart’s deepest longings. It was after all the centurion in the last chapters of Mark’s Gospel who is the first human being to tell us what the evangelist wrote in his very first verse: this is “… the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Jesus praises the faith of another centurion who asks him to heal his slave: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:10). And the Samaritan woman at the well, an outsider in Jewish circles and even in her own, who comes to believe that Jesus is “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Even the demons knows exactly who Jesus is—and they tumble over themselves in retreat. But Jesus’ own disciples didn’t recognize him while he was alive.

The disciples have an even harder time recognizing Jesus after he dies and returns in his resurrected body. Last week in class my students and I made a list of everyone Jesus was mistaken for:

  • a gardener (John 20:15);
  • a ghost, as in “they thought they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24: 37);
  • a wandering rabbi on the road to Emmaus, who opened the scriptures to the disciples—but seemed no one special (Luke 24:13ff.);
  • another fisherman, a sort of harbor version of backseat driver, who stands on the shore and tells the people doing the work how to fish (John 21:1-8);
  • a short-order cook, as he fixes breakfast for a weary group of fisherman (John 21:9ff.).

The disciples have a terrible time recognizing their risen Lord—and I wonder if we do any better, locating Jesus in the midst of our everyday lives. It’s a little like the children’s stories “Where’s Waldo?” where kids are given a huge double page spread of images, people, animals, buildings, cars—this incredible visual “dump” of stimuli—and asked to find Waldo in the midst of the mess. You get so overloaded, you can barely see anything. It’s a little like walking from the darkness of a movie into the orange brilliance of late afternoon sun: Jesus could be standing right by the door in plain view, and you’d be too blinded to notice.

But here’s what I want to notice: here’s the good news. These forty days of this Easter season, these forty days between Easter and the Ascension give our eyes a chance to adjust. These forty days give your hearts a chance to adjust. To adjust to what you’ll ask? To adjust to the presence of Jesus in our midst—in such new and surprising ways. To adjust to life in the Resurrection Zone, of you will.

Today’s reading is a case in point: It features one of the great I AM sayings from John’s gospel: I am the good shepherd. And Jesus has been through this brilliant discourse with his disciples about being the good shepherd, reminding them again and again who he is. And it’s neither a glutton nor a drunkard; it’s not Elijah or John the Baptist or one of the prophets. It’s not some Messiah or other desert revolutionary. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he keeps repeating to anyone who will listen. From a post-Easter perspective, the repetition is poignant. It’s as if Jesus knows how quickly people forget. And now he finds himself surrounded with even less benign audience: leaders of the temple who are anxious to get their hands on them. To them too he says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” To them—even to them—he is the Good Shepherd.

And you have to hear how those words resonated in the ears of women and men in the Mediterranean world. The landscape of the Ancient Near East was a fierce landscape, as spiritual geographer Belden Lane puts it. It is filled, he writes, with “the indifference of God.” Everywhere the land is parched, barren, and jagged, with relentless sun and wind and dust. In this fierce landscape one senses only absence: the absence of water, the absence of shade, the absence of green things growing. This is the landscape in which we must situate the gospel for today—and it’s so much easier to imagine it into Point Reyes or the East Bay hills, where the vistas are bucolic and pastoral. In fact the landscape of Jesus’ world was fierce—and fiercely indifferent to whether one lived or died.

To be a sheep in such a landscape was to number one’s days. Predators were abundant, thieves active and quick. Everything organized itself right like a hangman’s noose around survival. It was, let me be clear, a sinister landscape. Yet throughout this sinister landscape were enclosures, stone squares with an opening along one side. Here sheep were penned during the long hours of the night, the hours of cold and predation. The opening was small, perhaps large enough to allow two or three sheep to pass through together—it is, after all, virtually impossible to get sheep to follow along single file!—no longer than the length of a shepherd lying down across it, forming with his body both entrance and exit. The shepherd, you see, was the gate. And anything or anyone, animal or human, who wanted to get into the pen or get out of the pen had to get past or get through the shepherd. The shepherd’s body closed the square and secure the pen. Without a shepherd, anyone or anything could pass into the enclosure. Without a shepherd, there was no difference between the world outside the enclosure and that within. Without a shepherd, the kingdom of evil would claim everything. The shepherd’s body made all the difference. It—and it alone—carved out a moral space in which a Christian can move. It—and it alone—created the possibility of hope for redemption.

And if the shepherd’s body makes all the difference, it becomes crucially important to know where the shepherd is, as the text points out, know the shepherd’s voice. I mean, imagine sheep without a shepherd in the most benign of landscapes. They wander off; they mill about aimlessly; they dither. But think of sheep without a shepherd in a sinister landscape. They bolt around wide-eyed, looking for an enemy at every hoof. Or maybe, like the elk, they are quite literally frozen in place by a sense of impending doom.

How do we recognize the shepherd? How do we become familiar with the shepherd’s voice? How do we recognize the post-Easter Jesus?

This was, as we have seen, the post-Easter question. And God’s answer is to give our hearts time to adjust. I want to notice two things about this gracious season of Easter:

First, I want to notice how gracious, how concretely, and how persistently Jesus makes himself known. There’s nothing abstract or academic about it: you don’t need a PhD or an MDiv; you don’t need luck, as in being in the Right Place at the Right Time. All you need to do is pay attention. Stand back and let it happen.

And Jesus comes to you, again and again in such gracious ways:
calling you by name, as he did Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb;
bringing peace, as he did to the frightened disciples locked into an upper room;
letting himself be touched, as Thomas did and was moved to belief;
breaking bread before a meal;
explaining something people didn’t understand;
fixing them breakfast.

Jesus comes to his uncomprehending disciples again and again in such concrete ways. He lets them get familiar with his new state of being, allows their hearts time to adjust.

And the second thing I want to notice is the readings in this Easter season, which remind us again and again, in such gracious and utterly concrete ways who Jesus is. For it is in this season that the readings both in the daily readings and Sunday’s gospels roll through the Great “I AM” sayings of the gospel of John. And what I want us to hear in them this time around is how very different they are from the voice that spoke to Moses from a burning bush: “I AM.” Tell Pharaoh that “I AM” sent you. And it’s a voice that inspires terror and awe, even as the listener cowering in the shadows wants to ask: “YOU ARE—what????”

And now that question is answered—in such concrete ways. And as you listen, think of how Jesus’ ways of identifying himself address our deepest needs:

  • “I AM the bread of life… ” (John 6:35), for we all know hunger of body and spirit and soul;
  • “I AM the light of the world… ” (John 8:12), for we all know darkness;
  • “I AM the resurrection and the life… ” (John 11:25), for we all know death;
  • “I AM the vine… ” ( John 15:5), for we all know what it’s like to be stuck out on a limb;
  • “I AM the way, the truth, and the life… ” (John14:6), for we all know what it’s like to be lost; we all know the Lie.

And now, in the reading for this Sunday, “I AM the Good Shepherd… ,” for, as the prophet Isaiah put it so lyrically, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way… ” (Isaiah 53:6).

And each of these sayings is a way of reminding the disciples who Jesus is, so that after he ascends to his Father in heaven, they’ll not be quite so shell-shocked, as my friend and I were, stepping out of a dark movie theater into the bright light of a late afternoon.

Let’s take time in the season of Easter to adjust our hearts to the ways in which Jesus is present in our midst in such gracious and concrete ways. Take time to notice.