Echoes of the Christ

I was listening to the sermon on Sunday and my mind began to wander. We were looking at John 21, fairly standard stuff, not exactly an obscure passage. Usually we focus Jesus telling Peter to feed his lambs and sometimes (if we’re lucky) we get to think about what that means.

And that’s all well and good. I’ve heard that sermon about… what, twenty times or so? I’m at the point where if I haven’t gotten it yet I’m probably not going to at all, you know? (If this all seems a bit too much “for me to know and you to agree that I probably haven’t gotten it and never will”, don’t worry, the navel-gazing ends here.)

This passage is all about echoes to me. The structure of it is very telling. The structure itself tells the story of what the passage is about. Everything in it refers back to something else that’s already happened.

The miracle itself is a retread. It clearly refers back to the previous miracle of the fishes. It’s an echo of something that’s already happened. The question is — why? Why does Jesus do this? Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is in control of what’s happening and he isn’t just caught up the current of events (a… safe assumption, right?). He isn’t reliving his greatest hits or accidentally reading the same page in his playbook. So he’s doing all this stuff with a purpose. What might that purpose be?

Well if we back up a tiny bit and look at John’s explicit purpose in writing his book, this all becomes clear:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Isn’t this the purpose of Jesus speaking to Thomas as well? Of showing him his wounds?

John writes, more than any other gospel writer, to us. We need evidence. We need proof. We need the authentic Christ.

Whether or not you find this convincing… well, that’s up to you. It’s two thousand years later and the debate has evolved since then. Either way, you have to strip yourself of the chronological snobbery that insists these men who believed must have been hicks who had a fast one pulled on them. Jesus (and John) is interested in establishing himself as The Christ. He links his present glorified self with his previous mundane self by way of a continuity of miraculous activity. Here he has the same power to control nature, to step sideways from heaven into the fabric of spacetime and mess things up a bit.

This is a confrontational position. Common sense and received wisdom tell us the universe is a hermetically sealed box where every aberration can at claim at least some explanation. But this miracle isn’t the work of a cosmic clockmaker content to let the whole thing wind down in the other room: It speaks to a resurrected, present, and active Christ as the authentic Christ.

Of course, we’re not done with the echoes here. Jesus speaks to Peter in a way that echoes Peter’s own disavowal of Jesus. He asks him three times, an affirmation for each denial.

The content of what he tells Peter to do isn’t really the point, at least not for me right now. The structure is the point, the rhetorical point being made. Again, Jesus is concerned with authenticity. Jesus is pointing Peter in the opposite direction of his shame and cowardice, giving him a mission that he has to affirm three times.

It’s an amazing symmetry. It’s a sort of… turning around. The denial has been redeemed. The authentic Peter is not a Peter of denial. It is a Peter of affirmation. This affirmation then becomes a mission. And the mission itself echoes Jesus’ ministry: “Feed my lambs” gives Peter the mission of being a deputy-shepherd or shepherd-in-absentia.

The metaphor of echoes seems significant. I mean, I made it up, but it’s still kind of cool, because the echo of this affirmation keep going on down through the ages. It reached even me. I live inside that echo, as it were.

If John can do it, so can I: Here’s a coda. There’s a lot more to take out of this passage, a lot more that could be said. Echoes of the Eucharist, of the feeding of the 5000, talking about what it means to shepherd, of what it means to lay down your life for the sheep. Lots more. But we’ll have to wait for my mind to wander some more.

The problem with authenticity

A few problems:

  • There’s no such thing as authenticity. Not really. Everything is a remix. Look at how recipes spread, for instance, especially over distance and time.
  • Even if you disagree with that, or you want to find some type of authenticity among all the posers and fakes, you have to figure out what type of authenticity you want. Do you want the real real, the fake real, the real fake, or the fake fake? Consider for instance a mouse, a plastic mouse, a Mickey Mouse, and a Chinese knockoff called Mickee Mose.
  • Let’s say you’re not looking for something that is authentic but instead you’re trying to be authentic. As a person or an organization. As soon as you say you’re “real” or “authentic”, you’ve lost the war. You’ve induced authenticity-seeking and even worse a kind of destructive self-awareness. You can’t go through life second-guessing your own motives. You can’t shoot towards authenticity. You either are or you aren’t. It’s like the idea of being cool. If you’re trying to be cool, you’re probably not cool.
  • You might say the opposite of authenticity, of being genuine, is something like being fake, or being a hypocrite. So we try not to be fake or be hypocrites. Which is of course impossible. If you have to try, it’s fake. Or at least it will feel fake.

I’d rather go through life having experience I enjoy than seeking experiences that are authentic and real. Does that mean I’ll be putting up with some fakery and illusion? Sure. But if that illusion enhances the experience, why not? If your search for authenticity doesn’t in the end make you a happier person, why are you doing it?

Maybe a better idea is to look for quality. To strive for quality is easy and there’s no second-guessing of motivations going on. I want to be a better drummer. I practice and become a better drummer. I want good Indian food, so I try to find a restaurant that makes quality food that tastes good to me. I don’t care if it’s inauthentic. I care if it’s quality.

There’s no underlying black and white substrate to the world that you can drill down to. I think that’s the critical point here. It’s not as if there’s some fundamental reality that society has plastered over with bullshit. Everything is in its own way shit. I just want to care if it’s good shit.

Consumed

I am more than a consumer.

Or am I? I keep acting like a consumer everywhere I go. I consume goods and services, I consume entertainment, I consume and consume.

This becomes a problem when I start treating relationships like goods or services. It happens far too often. I look at other people as if they are providing me with some sort of emotional or physical product, which I take and take and never have to give anything back.

I’m sorry if I’ve done this to you. You deserve better.

You’re not innocent in all this, though. You do it too. I know, because it’s ingrained in all of us. It’s the culture we live in, the worldview we inherit. You don’t notice until you go looking for it.

I’ve been on the other end of this. I have opportunistic friends who take but never give. I don’t much enjoy being around them. The reciprocity of a relationship pretty much defines its boundaries. The more two people give, the more it grows.

All this consuming has some consequences. I’ve come to expect that I will consume, and that others will consume. I need to be a certain way so people will stick around. My friends need to be a certain way or I’ll casually toss them aside and find better ones.

Another consequence is when our institutions start treating us like consumers. It’s bad enough when corporations stop thinking of me as a customer, a person with whom they are in some sort of (ever so tenuous) relationship.

It’s worse when it’s the church.

God’s standard-bearers on earth, just giving in. It’s easy to do. You stop thinking in terms of congregations, in terms of relationships, in terms of bringing people out of darkness and into light. You start thinking instead in terms of market share, in terms of audience, in terms of attracting people from there to here.

You start talking about benefits without talking about sacrifice. You start talking about Jesus as primarily a provider of good things. You start de-emphasising the bits of scripture that talk about difficulty. You don’t want to preach that, because sacrifice doesn’t sell.

Of course, Jesus does bring good things. He promises a lot of really great stuff. But that’s only half the message. It’s a soft prosperity gospel. It’s all pie filling and no crust, if you will (I hope you won’t; pie filling is terrible, awful stuff).

This might seem like splitting hairs, or not a big deal. Does it really matter, as long as you’re preaching about Jesus?

I think it does. I think it’s the difference between a fake plastic Christianity and the authentic Way of the early church. (Who, by the way, understood much better the idea of sacrifice.) One version of Jesus is attractive and incomplete; you can feel that when you’re around him. He doesn’t move like he’s real. He’s in the uncanny valley, somehow. The other Jesus is a complete Jesus. He comes not only to gather his saints under his wings, but also treading the winepress of the wrath of the Father. He is victory over sin and death, for now and forever, not simply spackle to spread over your cracking facades or salve to rub into your wounds.

I’ve experienced both of these Jesus’ (and more) in my wanderings through the landscape of our modern church. This is just me talking here, but I think the difference between a church that gathers to consume and a church that gather to be consumed can be sensed in the language you use.

Language is a big deal (too big to get into here); the way you talk reflects on the way you think. What is in your heart comes out of your mouth, after all. And it works the other way around, too. You eventually come to believe the things that you say.

When you talk about Jesus, what sort of language do you use? Are you talking the way scripture talks about him? When you go to talk about Jesus, are your descriptions of him freakishly close to some passage by default?

Or are you talking about him the way you might talk about your latest gadget, a company you really like, or a service you feel you can’t do without?

Are you coming to Jesus to consume, or to be consumed?