Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:19-25
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on Sunday May 11, 2014
In a song that Bob Dylan co-wrote with U2, Bono sings one of the most challenging lyrics in the whole U2 catalog and perhaps in the whole Bob Dylan catalog. In their song “Love Rescue Me,” Bono sings, “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow / Yet I will fear no evil / I have cursed thy rod and staff they longer comfort me / Love rescue me.” Both Dylan and Bono express their troubled relationship with the church and with traditional representations of God by alluding to one of the most beloved passages in all of Scripture: Psalm 23. They no longer find the idea of God as a shepherd to be a source of comfort and solace and so they let go of it, even to the point of cursing the rod and staff.
Now the imagery of God as Shepherd is personally one of my favorite representations of God, conveying a pastoral, kind and courageous guide who protects and leads his people to refreshment and abundant life. However, in this lyric, Dylan and Bono challenge me to hold my understanding of God as shepherd lightly, pushing me to acknowledge its limitations. The shepherd image can fall short in expressing God’s character and in bringing comfort to many Christians today, who have considerably less contact with shepherds than the writers of the Psalms.
It is true that Jesus himself adopts the image of Shepherd to convey his character and nature to his disciples. And yet at the same time Jesus also seems to realize its limitation. In the Gospel this morning, Jesus also calls himself the gatekeeper and the gate itself. And throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, the Bread of Life, the Resurrection, the Way, the Truth, the Vine. He is continually reaching out for new images to convey his character to his disciples. And others (including the author of the Gospel) ascribe titles and images to him: the Lamb, the Word (the Logos), the King of the Jews and several others. All of these representations of Christ and God are helpful but can grow stale and even meaningless over time if we do not remain open to new and challenging understandings and representations of the divine.
Roman Catholic theologian of the 20th century Henri de Lubac compares the healthy Christian mind to “a swimmer who can only keep afloat by moving and who cleaves a new wave at each stroke. He is forever brushing aside the representations which are continually reforming, knowing full well that they support him, but if he were to rest for [too long] he would sink and perish.” De Lubac encourages us to continually reach out for new representations of God as a swimmer reaches out over the water in order to stay afloat. Fittingly, the Bible and our Christian tradition offer a panoply of different names and representations of the divine to propel us deeper into God’s inexhaustible character and love.
One source of rich images for God that I want to introduce to you this morning is found in the work of a 14th English mystic named Julian of Norwich, whose feast day was this last Thursday. Considered by many to be one of the greatest (if not the greatest) English theologian, Julian of Norwich lived as an anchoress in England, which meant that she lived enclosed permanently in a room (called an anchor-hold or anchorage) attached to a church with one window facing the altar and another window facing the world outside. If you think you’re at church a lot, an anchoress was at church 24/7 for her entire life.
During Julian’s lifetime, the bubonic plague was wiping out more than a third of England’s population; the Hundred Years’ War was underway, claiming young people’s lives; and the Western Church was particularly confused and schismatic, split between three popes. Climate change, famines, and peasant revolts led many to believe that the world was nearing its apocalyptic end. It was in this context that Julian receives sixteen visions from God, each full of new images and representations of Christ and the Trinity. Throughout the visions, Julian experiences God as a friend, a lover, a spouse, a king, a noble lord, a kind nurse, a courteous knight, a point, as clothing, as a castle, as a cave, as a brother, as a father, and most of all, she experiences God as a mother, as the one true Mother. Although not the first Christian theologian to describes Christ as Mother, Julian is the first to make the Mother Christ image central to her understanding of God. In fact, Julian has such a high view of motherhood that Christ is the only One who truly embodies it, no matter how wonderful our earthly mothers might be. Julian’s own mother was present to her when she was severely ill and some scholars suggest that Julian herself was a mother whose husband and children died from the plague before she took her anchoritic vows. Julian knew motherhood well and knew that even mothers are fallible human beings. She writes, “This fair and lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.” Julian also experiences the Trinity as mother, saying, “The Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are enclosed and held” (Ch. 54).
Julian’s understanding of Christ as mother reminds us of how God reveals Godself to us as a mother in the Scriptures. Jesus himself identifies as a mother when he longs to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37), the same children who he says kills prophets and stones those sent to them. In seeing Jesus as mother, Julian sees Jesus as one who longs to hold us and everything that is within us, not just the nice parts, even the dangerous parts (even the parts that might want to curse the rod and staff.)
Personally, I find a great deal of comfort in imagining Christ as mother because I have been blessed with a patient, loving and nurturing mother. And I appreciate that Julian of Norwich’s feast day always falls near Mother’s Day, and sometimes on Mother’s Day. However, even though Julian brilliantly ‘milks’ the image of Christ as Mother perhaps better than any other theologian before or since, she still understands its limitation in communicating the character of God. For some, the idea of Christ as mother is not helpful at all. And for others, it can even be detrimental to understanding God, especially if one’s experience of motherhood involves deep pain and sadness. Some may find just as little comfort in Christ as mother as Bono and Dylan find in Christ as Shepherd.
Julian understands this. In the final chapter of her Book of Showings, Julian writes, “I desired many times to know in this what was our Lord’s meaning.” Though graced with a plethora of comforting images and representations of God, she wants to know what it all means. She writes, “I was answered in a spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same…So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.” (Ch 86).
Ultimately, all the images and representations of God intend to convey love. According to St. Augustine, the abundant life that Jesus came to bring is a life rooted in and empowered by faith in God’s love and a life of “faith that works by love.” Julian of Norwich would encourage us to embrace the images of God that stir up love within us and perhaps let go of those that fail to do so.
When Bono and Dylan sing about cursing the rod and staff, they are letting go of an image of God that no longer awakens love in them. So appropriately, they pray to the ultimate source to which all of the images and representations point: Love. With their song as a prayer, they pray, “Love rescue me / Come forth and speak to me / Raise me up and don’t let me fall.” They pray to God who is Love to raise them up to the abundant life, the life promised to us by Christ our Good Shepherd, our Mother, our brother, our father, our Lord whose love cannot be contained by any one image.
“Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.” Amen.
 Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God trans. Alexander Dru (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 119.