Memoir Theology

Acts 9:1–20; John 21:1–19, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on May 03, 2022

In her book, Freeing Jesus, Diana Butler Bass begins with the story of a time she was praying in the National Cathedral. As she knelt before an icon of Jesus, she heard a voice. The voice said, not once, but three times, “Get me out of here!” No one else was around. She could only conclude that Jesus himself was speaking to her, that he was pleading to be liberated from the imperial colonizing version of Christianity our ornate church buildings can symbolize. Throughout the book, Bass integrates her perspectives as a scholar of religion. And yet her approach is also very personal: she aims to tell her own story of who Jesus is and what he means to her. She reclaims the Friend and Teacher Jesus of her childhood. She takes what is useful and releases what is harmful from her late teen and young adult years in conservative evangelical circles in which Jesus was proclaimed Savior and Lord. She describes how, later in life, Jesus has also become known to her as Way and Presence. Bass writes: 

My story can never be your story (that is called colonization—something I hope we are leaving behind). But my story might inform yours, or be like yours, or maybe even add depth or another dimension to yours. If nothing else, sharing our stories might lead to greater understanding, tolerance, appreciation, and perhaps even celebration of our differences. (p. xxi)

She urges the rest of us to tell our own stories of faith, and to understand such storytelling as theology. She calls this practice “memoir theology.” She defines “memoir theology” as “understanding the nature of God—through the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus.” (p. 264)

Today, the lectionary gives us a glimpse into the stories of two people who were key leaders in the early church: Peter and Paul. These are both resurrection stories—that’s why we hear them during the Easter season. I want to be clear what I mean by “resurrection stories.” It’s not the physical presence of the risen Jesus that defines resurrection. It doesn’t matter whether or not Jesus literally stood on the beach and gave fishing advice and ate breakfast with his disciples. What matters is the rich symbolism, and the ongoing impact, of this story. The story proclaims: the community Jesus formed is alive again; his ministry goes on. The forces of greed, violence, and oppression cannot kill the Way he taught his followers. So a resurrection story is one in which people are renewed, transformed, and liberated. And a resurrection story enables us to imagine fresh possibilities and to move toward them with hope. 

In Paul and Peter’s stories, I notice that resurrection requires vulnerability. To paraphrase Brené Brown, the experience of being vulnerable, of letting ourselves be seen, of loving with our whole heart, is what allows us to be fully alive. It is frustrating that the memoir theology of the Bible focuses so disproportionately on the experiences of men. And yet, it is also intriguing how these stories challenge traditional notions of masculinity and leadership. Jesus chose Peter to continue his own work. But first Peter had to be brave enough to let himself be seen, to acknowledge his pain and fear, his weakness and limitation. Three times, as Jesus suffered on the cross, and Peter warmed his hands at a charcoal fire, Peter denied he even knew Jesus. Three times, Peter abandoned his friend. Three times, Peter turned his back on everything he believed in. And now Peter sat with Jesus beside another charcoal fire, looking Jesus in the eyes and feeling the hurt of what he had done, allowing Jesus to hold him accountable and to heal his betrayal. That’s what was going on when Jesus asked Peter, three times, if Peter loved him. That’s why Jesus urged Peter, three times, to show his love in action, by feeding the people Jesus loved. 

In her groundbreaking TED talk, Brené Brown describes what she learned through six years of listening to thousands of people’s stories. She encountered two basic human experiences. Sometimes we struggle for love and belonging. We feel shame, rooted in the fear that we are not good enough. Shame keeps us from letting ourselves be seen. Shame prevents us from experiencing connection with others. On the other hand, if we believe that we are worthy of love and belonging, then we will experience that love and belonging, and connection will be possible. Brown describes the commonalities she saw in the people she interviewed who had a sense of love, belonging and worthiness. She says: 

[They] had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others. . . . They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were. . . . The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating. . . . They just talked about it being necessary.

Vulnerability is necessary. It is life-giving. It is a source of resurrection, to use the language of our tradition. And yet, embracing vulnerability is incredibly difficult for most of us. Brené Brown describes how she personally resisted vulnerability:

I hate vulnerability. . . . The definition of research is . . . to study phenomena, for the explicit reason to control and predict. And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting. This led to a little breakdown. . . . And I had to put my data away and go find a therapist.

She describes her experience with therapy this way:

You know how there are people that, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. For me, it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.[1]

The prevailing interpretation of Saul’s story has been that it depicts his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. This way of reading the text is problematic because it fuels violent antisemitism. First of all, there was no such thing as Christianity in Saul’s time. Early followers of Jesus who were Jewish did not think they were creating or joining a new religion. Secondly, and more importantly, Saul’s “threats and murder” against the followers of the Way of Jesus does not represent any legitimate form of the Jewish faith. His violence was a corruption of his faith. His collaboration with certain religious leaders in this evil indicates that they, too, had strayed from their faith. Being struck blind by the light-filled presence of Jesus was a profound experience of vulnerability for Saul And this vulnerability was an invitation: to face the destructive way he had been living, to be humble and brave enough to accept help from the very people he had hated, and to return to his roots, to the core of his Jewish faith: love for God and neighbor. 

The gift of relationship with the risen Jesus is that we can be vulnerable without shame. We can be our imperfect, beautiful selves. And in so doing, we will find love, belonging and connection. Diana Butler Bass muses about how Saul, who became Paul, draws us into that kind of relationship with Jesus. She writes: 

Through the letters [of Paul] we do not meet a single Jesus. Rather, Paul introduces us to many Jesuses: gift-giving Savior, egalitarian radical, Wisdom of God, Merciful One, Light of the World, Joy of all Hearts, mystical insight, deliverer from sin and guilt, cosmic vision. From his very first encounter on the Damascus road, along the paths of his missionary journeys, to his own imprisonment and execution, Paul met Jesus over and over again, and Jesus was always new. Paul’s first question [to Jesus] intrigues me. He asked, “Who are you?” not “What are you doing?” or “Why are you talking to me?” “Who” is a relational question, a question that opens us toward companionship, friendship and perhaps even love. . . . To know “who” is an invitation into a relationship that can—if we let it—change us, often sending our lives onto a completely unexpected path. (pp. xxiv–xxv)

Friends, what theology does your life give you? Who is Jesus for you? How does the community he forms among us offer you renewal, transformation, and liberation? What fresh possibilities are you being moved to envision? What hopeful actions are you being nudged to take? In what ways can new life come to you through vulnerability, through the willingness to let yourself be seen, and the choice to love with your whole heart? Amen.