4th Sunday of Easter • Acts 9:36-43, Rev 7:9-17, Jn 10:22-30 • May 12, 2019
About 35 years ago, I was a recent convert, spoiled by years of superb preaching at a Jesuit campus ministry. After college, living in a small town with a very traditional church, I heard a sermon on today’s middle reading that stayed with me for all the wrong reasons. The priest kept repeating, “washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb,” but gave no help with how to understand or apply this paradoxical and violent image. I was disturbed and mystified.
What I’ve heard on this passage since then encourages us to make ourselves clean by sharing, like the martyrs, in the suffering of Jesus, who washed our sins away by giving his innocent life in payment for them. I know some people find comfort in this narrative; it brings them gratitude and relief. All it inspires in me is guilt and horror. How can I cozy up to a God who requires payment in blood for our sins and who is happy to accept the torture and death of an innocent substitute? And does the substitute being God’s own offspring make it better or worse? Some theologians, like Rita Nakashima Brock, have called it cosmic child abuse.
So I feel compelled today to re-examine the image of those paradoxically washed robes. If you were hoping for a nice, light Mother’s Day reflection full of bunnies and butterflies, I’m sorry. But then, mothers do know about washing, and blood. Maybe the Spirit knew what She was doing when she brought together these readings, this holiday, and this homilist’s history.
About a year ago, preparing to preach on the Body and Blood of Christ and the letter to the Hebrews, I read up on the role of blood in ancient Jewish ritual. I learned that in Jewish symbolism, blood represents life. Since life comes ultimately from God, blood also represents the power to create. And since creating includes restoring wholeness where it has been destroyed, rituals of forgiveness and purification to restore wholeness came to include sprinkling with blood. This is one layer of the meaning of washing in blood: God’s creating anew. “Behold, I make all things new.” [Revelation 21:5; cf. Isaiah 43:19, 65:17]
But this is not just any ritual blood. The author of Revelation identifies it as blood of the Lamb and implies that the Lamb is Christ. This gives us two more layers. First of all, the blood of a lamb at the first Passover marked the doorposts of the faithful so the final plague would pass over them. Revelation also tells of a marking: 144,000 people from the twelve tribes of Israel. They are not the only ones saved, since we then hear of today’s uncountable multitude from all nations who have come through an ordeal and washed their robes. Still, the Passover reference seems intentional.
So, layer one—purification by blood represents God’s power to create anew. Layer two—the blood of the Passover lamb acknowledges faithfulness and promises mercy. Now for layer three, the blood of the Lamb as the blood of Christ.
What is the meaning of the blood being Christ’s? Does it have to be that he died in our place to pay for our sins? Is payment in blood really required by the Abba of One who taught 70-times-7 forgiveness, who prevented the stoning of a woman caught in infidelity, who denied that a man’s blindness was divine punishment of him or of his parents? Jesus’ teachings on healing and forgiveness diametrically oppose the idea of a God who demands payment for sins.
Of course when we harm others, we should make amends to them: “Leave your gift on the altar and go to your brother or sister who has something against you, and be reconciled.” Of course some of our mistakes are followed by pain simply by the laws of cause and effect. I’m sure we’re meant to learn and grow from all our mistakes, which can be painful indeed. So, yes, mistakes are often followed by affliction. This doesn’t mean that God exacts retribution, from us or a substitute.
Julian of Norwich asked God over and over about sin. Finally she saw in a vision that God has no wish to make us pay for what God sees as our slips and falls, but only to heal our bruises. She even saw God wanting to honor us for what we’ve been through.
If God does not see a standing debt, if God forgives us without Jesus picking up our tab and suffering in our place, why is cleansing needed, and what is cleansing about Christ’s blood? The Revelation text itself supports a different narrative, because the ones whose robes are washed are said to have endured an ordeal. This puts them less in the position of one ransomed from suffering by another’s suffering, and more in the position of one who cannot escape suffering, but accepts Jesus’ companionship in that suffering as redemptive.
Many of the original readers of the Book of Revelation were being persecuted for their allegiance to Christ. This persecution was their ordeal. They would identify with the ones who were said to come through an ordeal and wash their robes in Christ’s blood. But they had not done anything wrong. Why did their robes need washing?
We are not the first to live in a culture in which suffering or being one-down carries a stigma. Remember the blind beggar, whose neighbors assumed his blindness was a punishment from God. It’s all too common for misfortune to be compounded by shame.
And that’s where the cleansing comes in. Theologian Howard Thurman reports the comfort, strength, and dignity that African-Americans have found in Jesus’ sharing their experience of persecution and abuse. That’s my template for interpreting this image in Revelation.
So what color are our robes before they are washed white? They are red—with our own blood. But Jesus’ robe is red too. So our robes are the same color. That removes the stigma. The stain and perceived shame of our suffering is washed out by immersing it in the com-passion—literally, the co-suffering—of the Divine Presence, who chooses to endure with us the depths of our worst trials.
By going through our travails with us, Jesus makes all our robes the same color. Yet as the creator of all things new and clean and whole, God wears a white robe. If our robes are the same color as God’s, and God’s robe is white, then our robes are white after all. This is how the paradoxical washing takes place.
How do we avail ourselves of this cleansing healing? Today’s Gospel offers an answer that harmonizes with the lamb theme. Even those of us who know very little about sheep know that they are relational creatures, who thrive in community and are willing to be guided. The community part is reflected in our Revelation reading, which locates individual suffering within communal suffering by describing the white-robed ones as a great multitude. The Gospel emphasizes the relationship of sheep to the one who guides them: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
The absence of such a relationship, according to one commentary, is what prevents Jesus’ questioners in today’s Gospel from recognizing his identity. The answer they’re looking for is not a fact that can be stated in language but an experience of relationship. Relationship requires investment of one’s self, and vulnerability.
We too, when we are struggling, need relationship more than a verbal answer—and additional vulnerability may be the last thing we feel we can afford. Maybe that’s why we sometimes hit bottom before we open up. The good news is that when we do open to healing, it’s there for us. In fact, it’s there even when we wait too long. Maybe Tabitha waited too long, good as she was, and that’s why it was not she but her survivors who came to Peter for help. No matter; it was not too late, even then.
This never-too-lateness is reminiscent of the prodigal son’s father, that icon of our divine Abba. Julian of Norwich was the first to suggest that Jesus is like a mother, giving of his body to nourish us in the Eucharist. Today we see another dimension of Jesus’s motherhood. When a mother knows that her children are suffering, she suffers with them, whether they want her to or not! Jesus is motherly in sharing our ordeals with us, motherly in washing away the stain and perceived shame of our bruises with the compassion of his presence.
When we sing the Lamb of God today, I invite you to remember this motherly Jesus who takes away our pain and shame by entering into it, embracing it, with us. In so doing, he honors human experience in all its fullness and grants us peace.