What a combination of readings! Let’s start with the psalm.
Psalm 30 is a typical song of thanksgiving, recounting the crisis, the psalmist’s prayer, and the Lord’s deliverance. Together with many other texts, it celebrates the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness, celebrates the Lord taking pleasure not in our sickness and distress, but in our health and shalom. So, like the psalmist, in synch with the whole Bible, we pray for the sick and those in distress. May their story—may our story—end as the psalmist’s does: “Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; / O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”
But what to do with v.10 (“What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? / will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?”)? For the psalmist that’s a rhetorical question. But after Holy Week, after Jesus’ resurrection, it becomes more complicated—gloriously more complicated.
The thing is, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything. That’s dramatically captured in John’s vision in our second reading. As the vision begins, the issue is a scroll, and who’s worthy to open it. John’s vision is full of open-ended symbols, and that scroll is one of them. We might gloss it—in pencil, not in pen—as “How the whole story ends” or “What the whole story means.” And just when it looks like no one is worthy to open it, to answer that question—and how many loud voices we hear today pretending to answer that question—”See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” That’s what John hears. But when he looks: “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Well, which is it, Lion or Lamb? And John’s answer—throughout the book—is “yes.” That makes Revelation one of the more challenging books to read, because yes, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything.
And then John gives us the text of the song he hears: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” The focus is on the Lion/Lamb. The focus is equally on what the Lion/Lamb has won: “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” Every language—even English. Every people—even the Badgers. So if we pull out the binoculars, we’re in John’s vision.
We can use John’s vision as a door into our other readings.
Saul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” If it’s only the Lion in play we might expect an impressive thunderbolt. Well, there is a bright light—accompanied by a question “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Lion/Lamb is forming that “kingdom and priests serving our God,” and Saul has just been drafted. And his form of service mirrors—largely—the Lamb’s as we learn from the Lord’s words to Ananias later in the text (“I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”).
“How much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Paul does suffer at the hands of the Synagogue and the Empire, but this sort of suffering is contingent, dependent on local circumstances. More fundamentally, Paul suffers because—as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it—“Obedient faith is itself, in its very nature, a form of suffering. This is because faithful obedience always demands letting go of an absolute hold on one’s own desire/place/privilege/interest in order to respond to the needs of others. And such letting go hurts in small matters as well as large” (Interpreting Paul p.285). And Paul practices such obedience.
John’s Gospel started with a poetic prologue (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”) and ends with a sort of epilogue that ties up some of the Gospel’s loose ends, like the respective roles of Peter and the “Beloved Disciple.” We may recognize the fishing story; Luke puts it toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. You “have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,” and here we watch Jesus doing that by serving them, making them breakfast. Jesus is, after all, the model for the faithful obedience Johnson described. But it’s not simply a matter of obedience. Hard as it might be to imagine, Jesus enjoys spending time with these folk—with us.
The miraculous catch: as in Luke, it looks like a foreshadowing of what they’ll be about, serving God by fishing for people.
Then, for Peter, the thrice repeated question and commission. Peter had denied Jesus publicly; Jesus gives him the opportunity to confess him publicly. There’s no way reliving this wasn’t painful for Jesus, but it’s what Peter needs, so on Jesus goes. It’s Peter’s rehabilitation, Peter’s re-inclusion into this “kingdom and priests serving our God.” And the expression of Peter’s love? “Feed my sheep.”
Parenthetically, this scene with Peter makes me wonder about Judas. How much difference was there between Peter and Judas? As the Gospels tell the story, I wonder if the most important difference wasn’t that Judas’ suicide closed off other possible endings. Too easy to forget that we aren’t the ones worthy to open the scroll—even of our own lives. We may strive to make faithful decisions, but there’s no encouragement in Scripture to assume we know how things will or should play out.
Having said that, in Peter’s case there is a preview in the final verses: “’Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)”
As I said earlier, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything. The psalmist assumed no profit in my blood, if I go down to the Pit. After Holy Week, with the Lion/Lamb opening the scroll, even our deaths can serve God, can glorify God. So at Burial the liturgical color is white and we confess “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
But, returning to the Gospel, the last word in this scene isn’t the preview, but the simple command “Follow me.” The Lion of the tribe of Judah, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered: that’s the One Peter follows, the one we follow. The bad news, if you like, is that suffering, “letting go of an absolute hold on one’s own desire/place/privilege/interest in order to respond to the needs of others” is integral to that following. The good news is that with the Lord assuming human flesh, the joy and glory celebrated in the psalm aren’t for later, but for now. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.