The other night, just before Tuesday's Compline and catching up with myself over a plate of nachos at the Sett, Union South, I was approached by two nervous and very determined young men. I had noticed them staring vaguely at me from a distance for some time. Finally, they made their approach:
“Hey. Is that a collar?”
“Huh. Is it real?”
“Huh. Cool. What church?”
“I work for the Episcopal church on campus.”
“Right, St. Francis something.”
“Yeah, that’s right. St. Francis House.” (We talked about St. Francis House for a couple minutes.)
“Cool. We’re Catholics. Wanted to check it out. You new on campus?”
“Yeah. Moved here last August. Why do you ask? Did you know the chaplains before me then?”
“Whatcha reading?” pointing to the Kindle on the table.
“O Lord,” I thought. “Don’t y’all have somewhere else to be?” (I didn’t say that.)
No, I sighed though, because I had just that moment unarchived The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. I had been caught, red-handed, in Nerd City.
The Politics of Jesus is a brilliant book, but not without its controversy. In it, Yoder, a Mennonite, argues that Christian discipleship entails Christological non-violence, i.e., a certain kind of pacifism. It’s not a popular position in my own tradition; I don’t talk about it much around my family. I wasn’t especially eager to broach the topic with these two stubbornly intrusive strangers.
“Whatcha reading?” they had asked. And the two men waited for an answer. In It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Linus says to Charlie Brown: “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” Well, one out of three ain't bad, I thought. I took a deep breath and looked longingly at my nachos. And I told them the name of the book.
“Sounds interesting,” one said. “Why are you reading it?” Their eager sincerity began to disarm me and even to overcome their annoying-ness.
“Well,” I said, “this coming Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday. I think y’all are reading similar lessons, too, actually.” They nodded. “The readings are from John’s gospel - “the sheep know my voice”, Jesus as the Good Shepherd - and Psalm 23 - “the Lord is my shepherd,” but the reading from Revelation is not first of all about a shepherd; it’s about a lamb - a triumphant, slaughtered lamb. And I can’t stop thinking about Boston and the bombs. And I can’t stop wondering what it means that Jesus, our Shepherd, the one that we follow, is also the Lamb.
“So I remembered that this book’s last line was about the victory of the Lamb, and that the last chapter of the book was about the war of the Lamb, but I wanted to make sure I was remembering these connections rightly. You know, not mis-remembering or making it up.”
I looked down at my nachos, checked my watch, felt like I’d said too much, sure that this was far more than they had bargained for. But, hey, I thought, they asked. Lest they’d forgotten, they were interrupting me. I shoveled in a bite of guacamole.
“That’s awesome,” they said. “So, in a sentence, what’s the book about?”
“Well, in a sentence, that the shape of Jesus’ life - who he was and how he lived - is as instructive for Christians who would follow Jesus - reveals as much about God’s nature - as his death and resurrection; that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are of one piece and, together, show us who God is.”
They looked at me blankly, as if sensing that I was holding out on them.
I sighed again. “And,” I confessed, “Yoder is going to make the case that the shape of discipleship informed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is necessarily non-violent. So it’s political. It’s about our response to things like terror. It’s a book about politics and Christian pacifism and living lives true to the shape of the Kingdom of the Lamb who was slain.”
They perked up. “That’s awesome. That’s really cool. That’s some good stuff.” they said. “We should talk more. Hey, what’s your phone number? We’ll call you sometime.” And we made some small talk, but that was that, more or less.
I don’t know why this struggle embarrassed me at the time. Or better, why I was embarrassed to share my struggle. Embarrassed to admit that, as my Facebook news stream becomes a partisan war zone for patriots of every side, I struggle - for example - in the conversation over gun-control legislation, to know when/if Christians can finally ask one another out loud whether killing another person, even in self-defense, is faithful to the God of the cross.
Our Shepherd is a lamb. The one who is with us in the valley of the shadow of death is the crucified Lamb who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This struggle is worth naming.
Sometimes I think our being embarrassed by the struggle is why we Christians feel the need for cheap answers we can control, as in, “X event happened because we failed to do Y.” Or, “If we can do A, B, and C - and we can! - this kind of thing will never happen again.” Because it is easier to feel outraged than impotent. Easier to blame ourselves than need God. Easier to hope in ourselves than in God. So the Church looks in the mirror after a tragedy and vows to be more useful, to be more ready, more prepared, the next time around.
But in his Easter sermon this past March, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams challenged this instinct. He said, “Even if every commentator in the country expressed generous appreciation of the Church (and we probably needn't hold our breath...), we'd still be bound to say, 'Thank you – but what matters isn't our usefulness or niceness or whatever: it's God, purposive and active, even – especially – when we are at the end of our resources. It's the moment when the wall becomes a window.'”
When we are at the end of our resources - that’s how I felt this past week - after Boston, the political games surrounding gun control, the horrific explosion in West, Texas, the earthquake in China - at the end of my resources. Helpless, if not hopeless. In our emptiness and need of God, this is when the wall becomes a window.
Our Shepherd is a Lamb - slaughtered and triumphant - and this Lamb is our Shepherd, the one whom we follow. In Revelation, we read that on this ground is our hope: that "the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.”
In The Politics of Jesus, Yoder writes, “The choice that [Jesus] made in rejecting the crown and accepting the cross was the commitment to such a degree of faithfulness that he was willing for its sake to sacrifice effectiveness.” So when John writes in Revelation, “The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!”, John’s words are less a paradox, writes Yoder, and more a meaningful affirmation that “the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience (13:10)...[because the] relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.”
The one who for our sakes walked the way of the cross, died on the cross, rose victorious, and shattered death, bids us follow. Our Lamb is our Shepherd. Our Lamb is our Way. Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him.