|Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Martyrs|
Feeding Christ's Lambs, Teaching Theology, and Carrying the Cross (John 21:15-19)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Our lesson from John’s gospel is significant—significant in more ways than one. But its significance isn’t necessarily in the exegetical details. Some interpreters find significance in the different Greek verbs for loving in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter, and in the varied language for feeding and tending and lambs and sheep, but that’s not what seems most significant here. I’m convinced by the commentators who contend that these words function synonymously, and their message is this: the one who loves Jesus will take good care of the people who belong to Jesus.
It’s significant in light of the nature of our gathering that Peter in particular is the one who’s told this, that Peter in particular must express his love for Jesus by taking good care of the people who belong to Jesus. We are Catholic theologians and Baptist theologians, and it goes without saying that we have differing perspectives on the question of Petrine primacy (and some of those differences may be with each other within our respective communions!). But it’s not a uniquely Catholic position that here and elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is commissioning Peter to a distinctive role of leadership in the church. Many Protestants, Baptists among them, have been glad to take up Pope John Paul II’s invitation to engage in a “patient and fraternal dialogue” about how the Petrine office might serve the whole church. But the patristic interpreters of this text didn’t relate Jesus’ charge to Peter to feed and tend sheep and lambs to the question of primacy. For them, this text was about the bishop’s responsibility to serve the church through pastoral care, which included not only the ministerial practices of presence and comfort and counsel, but also catechesis—teaching. Not all of us are clergy, but as Catholic and Baptist theologians we do have a certain function as doctores ecclesiae, teachers of the church, in our varied institutional contexts.
In that connection, in relation to our shared work as teachers of theology, doing our own work of feeding Christ’s sheep, there’s something significant about where Jesus says the task of feeding his sheep will take Peter. And that brings us to the literally significant language in our text. Jesus says to Peter, “‘When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.” In this Gospel full of signs, surely this is the oldest reference in Christian literature to that which symbolizes the cross—in this case, hands outstretched in cruciform posture signifying a death like Christ’s death. There’s no sign more symbolic of the essence of the Christian life than the sign of the cross. I began this meditation with the ancient practice of the sign of the cross, first attested by Tertullian but no doubt practiced long before. Many of the earliest symbols in Christian art signified the cross—Christ as the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, carrying a sheep across the shoulders as if the beam of a cross; the anchor; the chi-rho symbol. Perhaps the earliest was the orant. The orant was originally a figure of a pagan priest with arms outstretched in prayer, but Christians repurposed it as a figure whose very posture in prayer is cruciform, imagining the life of prayer as one of the ways we take up our cross and follow Jesus.
The New Testament offers us two overarching paradigms of the Christian life—the cross and the resurrection. We’re almost through our seventh week of celebrating resurrection. But at the end of the final week of Eastertide it’s appropriate that we be reminded that the dominant paradigm for the Christian life, this side of our own resurrection, is the cross. Today the sanctoral reminds us of that. June 2 is a feast day commemorating two early fourth-century martyrs, Saint Marcellinus, a priest, and Saint Peter the Exorcist. We know little about them, besides their beheading in Rome during the persecution under Diocletian and the traditional location of their tomb in the Roman catacombs that bear their name. But they’re familiar to many because they’re named among the martyrs invoked in Eucharistic Prayer I in the Missal, just before Felicity and Perpetua.
What might it mean for our vocations as theologians to be cruciform? How might the martyrdoms of St. Peter the Apostle and Saints Marcellinus and Peter the Exorcist serve as examples for the way we take good care of the people who belong to Jesus? How might we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus in our teaching, in our research and writing, in our various forms of service to both academy and church? Are we willing for our theological vocation to lead us where we do not want to go, stretching out our arms in following our crucified Lord for the sake of the other, in a world that seems more and more averse to welcoming the other?
With very specific application: what might it mean for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, to be led where we may not want to go, in taking on the brokenness that Jesus continues to suffer over the brokenness of his body—the brokenness that we have inflicted on Jesus through the divisions that we’ve inflicted on one another, the body of Christ? Tomorrow we’ll experience that brokenness at the Eucharistic table that we will not share. And so will Jesus. As my Baptist theologian friend Curtis Freeman who’s here with us said to me earlier this week, if anything’s going to change about that, it will have to be the church’s theologians who insist on raising the question and challenging our failures in working toward one Eucharistic fellowship. Might that be one way we can take up our cross and follow Jesus in our teaching vocations, so that Jesus’ lambs might be fed?
If we are reconciled to God in one body through the cross, as the writer of Ephesians suggests, taking up the cross ourselves is how we participate in the reconciling, one-body-making work of God. The cruciformity of the Christian life is an ecumenically shared conviction, and it’s an ecumenically shared set of practices. If we love Jesus, we will take good care of the people who belong to Jesus by teaching these things and practicing these things, that together we might join God in God’s reconciling, one-body-making work in the world. May it be so, O God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.