Christus Paradox – April 22, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018

Acts 4:5-121 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18Psalm 23

Let us pray.

Take our lives and let them be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
take our moments and our days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.

A few days ago, a young boy named Emanuele asked a question of Pope Francis while the Pope was conducting a routine parish visit in Rome. Emanuele approached the same microphone that several other children had used to address Francis, who was sitting nearby on a platform, but once Emanuele arrived at the microphone he quickly became flustered. “I can’t do it,” he said. Clearly feeling for Emanuele, Francis graciously invited him onto the platform and encouraged Emanuele to whisper the question into his ear. Tears were in the boy’s eyes, and Francis embraced Emanuele as Emanuele asked his question and the Pope responded. Once Francis had finished talking with Emanuele, with Emanuele’s permission, he shared Emanuele’s question and his answer to the audience gathered around. “A little while ago,” Emanuele had said, “my father passed away. He was a nonbeliever, but he had all four of his children baptized. He was a good man. Is dad in heaven?”

“How beautiful,” the Pope answered, “to hear a son say of his father, ‘He was good.’ And what a beautiful witness of a son who inherited the strength of his father, who had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If that man was able to make his children like that, then it’s true, he was a good man. He was a good man. That man did not have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart. God is the one who says who goes to heaven.” Then the Pope turned to the other children and asked, “What do you think? A father’s heart. God has a dad’s heart. And with a dad who was not a believer, but who baptized his children and gave them that bravura, do you think God would be able to leave him far from himself? Does God abandon his children? Does God abandon his children when they are good?” “No,” the children replied. “There, Emanuele,” the Pope declared, “that is the answer.”

In tackling Emanuele’s question, Pope Francis faced a difficult challenge. What respected religious leader wants to look a young, weeping boy in the eyes and say, “the father you have lost, the father whom you love dearly, cannot go to heaven”? And yet so much of the historic Christian tradition seems clear about the subject. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me….unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.” Peter declares of Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

I suspect that in his carefully calibrated response to Emanuele’s question, Pope Francis was drawing on a different strand within the Christian tradition, a more open and inclusive strand that emphasizes the many dwelling-places that exist within the Father’s house, the strand that points to the other sheep that do not belong to this specific fold of Christians and that Jesus promises to bring along also, so that together there will be one flock, one shepherd. Yet I do not think that Pope Francis was rejecting the instances in which Scripture attests to the uniquely saving power of Jesus. Rather, Francis was walking a fine line, trying to comfort a grieving boy by acknowledging his father’s goodness while not denying the traditional connection the Church has affirmed between belief in Jesus and eternal life.

For the record, I don’t believe the Pope was misleading Emanuele, and I don’t believe the Pope was wrong in what he said. I fully expect to see people of all backgrounds and beliefs in heaven—wherever it is and whenever I get to experience it. I am not sure, however, that respecting the beliefs or nonbelief of others requires me to downplay the importance of Jesus. It could be true that “everyone can get to heaven” and “Jesus is the Way”—all at the same time. God, the first letter of John says, “is greater than our hearts.” Perhaps Jesus is far greater than our understanding of him; perhaps Jesus is able to work in many more diverse ways than we are even capable of imagining by taking on different names or different forms in different contexts.

The concept of paradox is at the heart of the Christian faith. Christianity would not be possible if two seemingly contradictory things could not be true simultaneously. Jesus, Christianity claims, was both human and divine; he existed at the beginning of everything and was born at a specific moment in time; he died and is still very much alive; he was rejected by all and yet the cornerstone of everything. “That God has existed in human form, has been born, grown up, and so forth,” Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes, “is surely the paradox sensu strictissimo, the absolute paradox.”

The metaphor of the Good Shepherd that Jesus claims for himself in today’s Gospel reading is itself a paradox. After all, shepherds typically care for sheep so that the shepherds and their fellow human beings can later benefit from the sheep’s wool or milk or meat, whether by selling these things or consuming them. Often a sheep has to die so that the human beings can profit from it. But the Good Shepherd is willing to sacrifice himself—to lay down his life—so that all of his sheep can thrive and keep on living. The Good Shepherd is both a shepherd and not a shepherd at all—a leader who cares for his sheep completely and a lamb who submits to slaughter for the sake of others. In the Good Shepherd, everything is flipped; the entire dynamic is inverted. It doesn’t make much sense.

“We know love by this,” the first letter of John tells us, “that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The writer of the letter does not seem to think that laying down our lives requires undergoing literal, physical death. But the phrase itself suggests that, in order to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, we must be willing to surrender something of our own existence, to loosen, if only a bit, our grip on what we hold to be true and dear.

I recently had an encounter with a woman, an encounter that helped me think about how tightly I hold on to my own life, how unwilling I am to lay down my assumptions and preconceptions—the way I see the world. Before I met this woman, I had learned that she had been raised evangelical and was enthusiastically attending a notably evangelical church—things that I thought told me everything I needed to know about her. I was prepared to have a pleasant-enough, surface-level conversation with her, avoiding topics of any depth, and then go on my merry way, convinced that I was far more sensitive, intelligent, and tolerant than she was. I certainly didn’t think it was possible that this woman could fully respect me as a gay man.

But, much to my surprise, the conversation went deeper than surface level on its own, and veered at a certain point towards sexuality. I learned that the woman—and her congregation—had evolved on issues of sexuality over the past few years and that they were far more supportive of queer people and of marriage equality than I ever would have anticipated. Immediately, my opinion of the woman and her church improved; I started thinking very highly of this woman and liking everything she stood for. Up until that point, I had taken everything she said with a grain of salt; now, I thought she was brilliant and full of amazing ideas. But then I realized that neither the woman nor her congregation had transformed from evil into good overnight when they changed their minds about sexuality. They probably had been compassionate, thoughtful, faithful Christians all along, compassionate, thoughtful, faithful Christians who had simply disagreed with me and others like me about matters of human sexuality.

I don’t mean to dismiss this disagreement too quickly. It was a disagreement that was huge and problematic and may have been hurtful and resulted in disastrous consequences for many people, especially queer people in this particular congregation. It was a disagreement that I would have found highly concerning at the time. Still, I don’t think it was a disagreement that made this woman and her church family worthy of being condemned as evil and terrible, whole cloth. There was much more to this woman and her church than their opinions about human sexuality. This woman and her church were homophobic and they were ultimately good people. Both things had to have been true at the same time. As I left my conversation with this woman, I wondered, “where else have I missed the full complexity of people—the wide range of their paradoxes—because I have been so committed to my litmus tests, to the way I see things, to myself?”

The Canadian hymnwriter Sylvia Dunstan died in 1993 at the incredibly early age of 38, but not before making several distinguished contributions to modern English-language hymnody. One winter evening in 1984, she decided to write a hymn as she rode the bus home from a “particularly bad day” at the jail where she served as a chaplain. The hymn, which, she explained later, owed “much to [her] longstanding relationship with Soren Kierkegaard,” focused on the paradoxical aspects of Jesus’ identity, but it was also, perhaps, inspired by the paradoxes she witnessed constantly in prison, the ways in which joy and trouble could mix together, the ways in which promise and pain could mingle inside those walls. Dunstan called the hymn “Christus Paradox.” This is what she wrote:

You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd.

You, Lord, are both prince and slave.

You, peacemaker and sword-bringer
of the way you took and gave.

You, the everlasting instant;

you, whom we both scorn and crave.

Clothed in light upon the mountain,

stripped of might upon the cross,

shining in eternal glory,

beggared by a soldier’s toss,

You, the everlasting instant;

you, who are both gift and cost.

You, who walk each day beside us,

sit in power at God’s side.

You, who preach a way that’s narrow,

have a love that reaches wide.

You, the everlasting instant;

you, who are our pilgrim guide.

Worthy is our earthly Jesus!

Worthy is our cosmic Christ!

Worthy your defeat and victory.

Worthy still your peace and strife.

You, the everlasting instant;

you, who are our death and life.

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