The 12 is a rock musical currently playing in Denver that takes up the Christ Story where Jesus Christ Superstar leaves off. In the wake Judas’s betrayal and the crucifixion of their leader, the eleven remaining disciples plus Mary Magdalene have fled to the Upper Room where only days before they had gathered for the Last Supper. Throughout the musical the eleven struggle to find meaning in Jesus’ death, struggle to believe what Mary Magdalene has told them – namely the tomb is open, empty, and the body gone. For Mary and finally for Peter this can only mean one thing – that their teacher has defeated death. Toward the end of the musical, Thaddeus, one of the twelve, reveals the content of an earlier nightmare he has had: a true and terrible vision of the eventual fate of the twelve – that if they leave the Upper Room to go out and preach the Word, all of them, except Mary Magdalene, will die horribly. But then Peter, in the light of that terrible nightmare, finally assumes the leadership to which he has been called and sings his calm acceptance of his own crucifixion in a gentle, achingly-beautiful song “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” a song that brought tears to many eyes and mine too a week-and-a-half ago when I saw the show. This, Peter’s strong witness, serves to bring the group together as they decide that no matter the consequences they will continue on into a future that includes their own sure and certain suffering and death. The walls of the Upper Room are then pushed away by the eleven plus Mary Magdalene, who is now a full partner with the other disciples; the twelve push away the Upper Room’s walls of fear as they sing “Rise Up to tell the story, Rise up and sing to Glory, Rise up – sing and dance,” and they walk toward the bright, almost blinding lights that shine from the back of the stage, drawing them into their terrifying future. Ultimately The 12 is a musical of hope, hope in spite of the sure suffering and death that the disciples know is their future lot. But how can this be? How can this be?
On was on 12 February of 2015 that the so-called Islamic State (IS) released a report bia their online magazine that showed photos of 21 Egyptian, Coptic-Christian migrant workers who had been kidnapped and whom IS was threatening to kill. Then on 15 February, a five-minute video was sent out into the world that showed the beheading of these “people of the cross” as IS called them. This grisly execution has subsequently lead many in the Middle East, as well as in the West, to refer to the 21 as martyrs, examples of Christian grace in the face of hostility and persecution. In the aftermath of their martyrdom, Pope Francis telephoned Coptic Pope Tawadros II to offer condolences; Francis later said the only thing the 21 said as they were being executed was “Jesus help me . . .” The Pope continued, saying, “The blood of our Christian brothers is testimony that cries out. Be they Catholic Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn’t matter. They’re Christian [martyrs].” Most remarkable, however, has been the reaction of the families of the murdered men, the families, who in the midst of their unimaginable horror and grief have turned their backs on hate and instead prayed for the murderers and forgave them on live television saying that the executioners have “helped us strengthen our faith.” But how can this be? How can this be??
This, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, by tradition, is Good Shepherd Sunday. I approach it this year with The 12 and the 21 fresh in my mind. In my mind too are those domesticated, benign pictures of a blond, blue-eyed shepherd with a lamb in his arms, and always set in a calm, bucolic setting. What has this Good Shepherd have to do with the lived lives of Christians under persecution? What does that blond, benign Good Shepherd have to do with Christians throughout the middle-east whose properties have been branded by IS with the Arabic letter “nun,” the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian, Nassarah – this in an attempt to drive out an ancient Christian community with threats that they must convert or die – this somewhat analogous to Jews being marked with the Star of David during the holocaust? What has a benign, blue-eyed, blond Good Shepherd got to do with any of this? The answer, of course is . . . nothing. A benign Good Shepherd has nothing to do with the realities of faith – be they the realities of those persecuted in far off lands, the realities of the early Christians or even of us who will each, one day or another, surely face our own less-lurid, less dramatic forms of death. The benign Good Shepherd perhaps only can belong to those who are still for a little while shielded from the realities of life on a planet where death and darkness seem to hold sway.
The true Good Shepherd looks like this – the God who suffers what human beings suffer – God, the Good Shepherd who leads the way through death to the putting-on of the glorified body of the resurrected ones who now dwell forever in the full presence of God.
But what then does the Good Shepherd of those facing sure and certain suffering and death look like? The true Good Shepherd looks like this – the God who suffers what human beings suffer – God, the Good Shepherd who leads the way through death to the putting-on of the glorified body of the resurrected ones who now dwell forever in the full presence of God. The Psalmist sings this morning, “Truly, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The Psalmist does not sing – “If I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .” No! “Though I most certainly shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” But how can this be? How can this be?
I will tell you: the Psalmist’s song is not possible to sing with certainty but only with faith. (And the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.) No, we walk by faith, not by sight. But how does one come up with the faith to not fear while walking through death’s valley? How does one come up with the faith of those Egyptians who in the midst of deepest grief pray for and forgive the murders of their family members. And though it was just a musical, how could the 12 sing and dance knowing of the grisly death that awaited them. How can this faith thing be? As Martin Luther teaches in the Small Catechism, faith certainly does not happen by our own reason or strength – nor does it happen to us as isolated individuals. Faith is given in and through the community of believers who gather around the Word and Holy Sacraments. Faith is given in and through the stories we tell of Christ the Good Shepherd who himself suffered great pain, abandonment, and a grisly death all the while forgiving those who denied, deserted, rejected, reviled and murdered him. Faith is given in and through the stories we tell of the Shepherd who goes before us into death, through death, and unto resurrection. These stories, however, are of a different order than the certainty of 2 + 2 = 4. These are stories of a hope not seen, rather an unseen hope we hold to be more real than any mathematical equation. It is as James Baldwin wrote in ‘Sonny’s Blues’ – “For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
And so we continue to both to hear and receive the Christ story – in Holy Baptism, from the pulpit, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, and we continue to tell the story of the crucified and risen shepherd who leads us through suffering on to the final triumph over death, the shepherd who lays down his own life that we may follow him into death and follow him into resurrection. It is this Christ story that leads us to sing and dance with The 12 on the path to our own sure and certain death. It is this Christ story that leads the families of the 21 Martyrs of Egypt to pray for and forgive the enemy. This is our story too and for us there isn’t any other story to tell. It’s the only light we’ve got in all this damned darkness.