We Complete Each Other, Daniela Yankova - shadowschaser
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); John 21:1-19
Christianity, at its core is a religion of relationship and transformation. We are called to encounter and eventually love the Risen Christ not only spiritually through scripture, music, and worship, but also materially in the Body of Christ- that is, our fellow church members- as well as our friends and neighbors. Because of these encounters, these relationships, we are then called to be transformed and then transform the world.
Today we will focus on the relationship piece of that through our scripture readings with the help of a 20th century Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber. We will consider the nature of our relationships, how our faith calls us to move from sympathy into solidarity, and what this transformation looks like through our two bible readings.
Some of you might recognize the name Martin Buber; I and Thou was frequently on reading lists in mid to late 20th century high schools. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King cited him on at least one occasion, and indeed, he was probably more influential in protestant Christian religious circles than in Jewish ones, especially as a leading figure in serious theological Jewish-Christian Dialogue. United Church of Christ theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, who created the serenity prayer and was Barack Obama’s favorite theologian, were heavily influenced by Buber.
Buber’s main idea is that there relationships form the core of our existence. The Gospel of John opens with “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Buber counters that “In the beginning is the relation.”
He distinguishes two different types of relationships that we have, broadly speaking- the I-It relationship, and the I-Thou or I-You relationship.
I-it relationships are those relationships that see others as objects, as an “it”. Most of our relationships are these, sadly; sometimes they’re necessary for basic functioning, but we must note that the beginning of all hatred is rooted in the identification of other people as closer to objects than fully alive fully human people.
Buber knew this first hand; he fled Nazi Germany in 1938.
We see this in our passage from the book of Acts. This is an archetypal bible story; the preeminent story of conversion, the literal road to Damascus.
Because of that archetypal quality, however, there is nuance to it that we often overlook in considering it.
The broad outlines of the story should be at least vaguely familiar to us. Saul is an agent of the Sanhedrin, the elite Jewish court that convicted Jesus. The book of Acts tells us that he played some role in convicting other early Jesus followers- let us remember that the word Christian wouldn’t be invented for some years at this point.
Saul is virulently against the followers of Jesus; “breathing threats and murder” is the language used, and he goes out of his way- literally to another town- to persecute the followers of Jesus.
He is traveling on the road to Damascus, when his journey is profoundly disrupted by an encounter with Jesus. The story tells us of a blinding light- how fitting given Saul’s blind hatred of Jesus’ followers- that knocks Saul to the ground, with a voice from the heavens announcing God’s presence in Jesus. What is often overlooked in this story is that Jesus only tells Saul to go into the city and that he will be told what to do. He does not give direct divine instruction, but rather a command to listen. He is given a command to listen not to the ultimate authority, but from those that he hurt.
Saul is no longer to treat the followers of Jesus as objects in an ideology, vessels for his hatred, but as people, with their own hopes and dreams, people to be listened to, to talk to, to form a relationship with.
Saul’s story is perhaps the most dramatic move from an I-it relationship to an I-Thou relationship in scripture, but this move from hatred to love is as much of a move as our Gospel story is.
This story contains one of my favorite joyful and intimate scenes in the Bible; sunrise on the beach, Jesus sitting next to a fire, ready to cook a meal of fresh caught fish and bread. It is a beautiful image of friendship to a group who have endured much together.
But as tender as this scene is, Jesus’ discourse after the meal makes it more confusing; Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and Peter responds that he does indeed love him. Each time, Jesus responds that Peter should Tend to or Shepherd his sheep.
Peter is confused by this and we might be too, but there are two things to consider with reading, one that might not be readily apparent as we read it in English.
In the original Greek, the discourse reads a little bit differently; Peter is not simply mirroring Jesus’ language back to him, as he appears to in English. Jesus, when talking to Peter, uses the Greek word Agape, which is the type of love that Paul refers to in the famous 1st Corinthians section on love being patient and kind. It’s a love marked not by romance or even fondness but of reciprocity, of obligations toward one another, not in a forced sense, but one that gives generously of itself because it cannot help but do so.
Peter responds to Jesus’ question not with agape but with fileo, brotherly love- Philidelphia is the city of brotherly love.
Peter believes these to be the same thing, but I think Jesus notices the nuance between them.
Peter sees Jesus as an object- there’s a reason that when he notices Jesus on the boat, he puts his clothes on and jumps into the ocean, embarrassed. Even though Jesus told him to call him friend, he still calls him Lord. This is not a reciprocal relationship, but a master servant, student-teacher relationship. Peter does not see the whole of Jesus.
The type of love that an I-thou relationship represents is one formed on reciprocity. This is a love that when it sees a harm done to another, does not start in sympathy. Sympathy is a feeling of sadness toward another’s situation that still regards them as an object to feel sorry for. It is better than indifference or hatred, but it still regards the object of sympathy as an object. Nor is it even empathy, the understanding of another’s feelings.
Instead I believe that the marker of this sort of love is solidarity; even though we are different, we share a common lot, a common fate, a common destiny, that your fight is my fight and vice versa. It encourages us to move from a mindset of charity, that we give to others as objects to mutual aid, which recognizes that your situation might one day become my situation, that you might one day help me. Perhaps we are not so different after all.
We are the body of Christ, and if Peter wants his relationship to be one of reciprocity, not of objectifying, then Peter must care for the body of Christ as much as Christ cared for him. Peter must shepherd as much as he was shepherded.
His days as a young man, able to do as he wished were over. His life was no longer solely his own. In the same way, neither are ours. We complete each other, not just in marriage, but in our friendships, our familial relationships, our relationships with nature and our communities and our God. They make up who we are. In many ways, we are the sum of our relationships.
I will leave us with this quote by Martin Buber;
Jesus’ feeling for the possessed man is different from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is one. Feelings one “has”; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its “content” or object; it is between I and You. Whoever does not know this, know this with his being, does not know love, even if he should ascribe to it the feelings that he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses. Love is a cosmic force.