What will become of us now?
By Scott Schomburg
Palm Sunday: April 13, 2014
We cry out to you, O Lord, have mercy on us.Call us to you and restore our sight. May we be transformed in order that we ever walk in faithfulness, following you in your way. Amen[i]
Here we are: our last Sunday gathering at the Friends’ Meeting House.
For over a decade, this has been CHMF’s provisional home. These walls have held our history. They’ve been witnesses to the way praise has taken shape in people’s lives.[ii] Here we’ve risked being a confessing body,[iii] coming to know ourselves as God’s creatures: vulnerable, dependent, beloved.
Here we have discovered that “we need help finding words to trust,”[iv] and have found friends willing to take the great risk of being trusted. We’ve gathered here, again and again, to worship, to share our lives, to listen and to speak, to be a witness to God’s life: a chronicle of companionship.[v]
If you are like me, you are doing some remembering as you look around this place, where our hopes have been stretched like Mary’s womb, making room to give and receive the gospel in our midst.[vi]
Here we have learned to receive our lives, our valleys of dry bones, as gifts sustained by the breath of God. We have been asked to search the depths of our being, to see the ways we injure, distort, and fail to acknowledge each other, the way we fail to acknowledge ourselves. We’ve searched for the capacity to open ourselves to the one encounter we cannot escape, the one all-important, gospel confrontation into which we must feel ourselves being drawn if we are to see the truth of our lives.
Alex Sider put it this way in an early CHMF sermon: Here, gathered to worship, “we’ve entered a field of vision, in which we can again (or perhaps for the very first time) begin to see ourselves coming to light under Christ’s eyes.”[vii]
I encountered these words again, while I searched the collective wisdom of CHMF sermons. I was particularly struck by one of Tom’s sermons, preached to a very young CHMF, almost a decade ago. At the end of his sermon on church membership, facing questions about this congregation’s future, hoping CHMF would continue to trust God’s Spirit, Tom asked this:
“What will become of us?”[viii]
I’m struck by how fitting this question remains for us today. Here we are, gathered as an answer to Tom’s question, poised, on this occasion, to take it up anew.
How good it is for us to be here.
It is good, yes, and today, it is also fitting that we find ourselves in the gospel text at Golgotha (Mt. 27:33), invited to accompany Jesus in that most desolate of places in Matthew’s world. If it is good for us to be here, it is a goodness that also makes us tremble.
We are apprehended by terror in Matthew’s world (Mt. 27:54): a world possessed by demons (Mt. 4:1-11; 8:28-34; 12:22-32), with Jesus, silent, bent over with grief, among people who shout, mock, and injure: who contort Jesus’ body (Mt. 27:15-37). Where the Word of Life does not come down from the cross, but remains suspended, crying out; where our dreams, our waiting, our hopes get scattered, flogged: crucified.
Risking to open our lives to this story again, to remember its terrible strangeness, to be hurled into the darkest depths of our storied lives, we’ve come to the most unfathomable end: Jesus, Mary’s child, Joseph’s son, the Messiah, the Son of God, God’s very life breathing life into us: breathes his last.
Jesus dies. What will become of us now?
Inside this uncertain, frightening question, we are unable to escape triumphantly toward resurrection. For even resurrection is the presence of the crucified Jesus, his body still bearing the marks of his execution. If we turn away from this scene of death too quickly, we risk turning away from our deepest fears. We risk returning to that self-protective mode of life we call violence. If we don’t see the finality here, we will refuse Jesus’ outstretched arms,[ix] shutting our eyes to that all-important confrontation.
What is it that we turn away from, that we refuse, when we refuse Jesus? Why is it that when God becomes flesh, it is so offensive that God must be killed? Why is it, to quote one of Dave Swanson’s sermons, that this Messiah “scares the hell out of us?”[x]
These are difficult questions, because they say difficult things about our lives. So I’ll pose a provisional answer, one that we can take up, if we’d like, in our conversation:
Jesus frightens us – terrifies us – because in Christ’s on the cross, we see God be what we cannot bear to be: we see God being human.[xi] And we see what people do who refuse to see their existence as gift: who “deny that they exist only through the grace of God.”[xii] We see what a world caught up in the illusion of power does. We see God being human, and the exposure of our fantasies.
God’s humanness does not throw a question mark on God’s divinity; it throws a question mark on us, on our fantasies of who we think we are and what we think we have to offer. Instead of asking how God can be human, the gospel flips the question around, teaching us to ask:
If Christ is human, are we human?[xiii]
For at this point, if you know how the story goes, the disciples have scattered. After Jesus eats with his friends, after he stoops to wash their feet, Jesus asks his companions to stay awake with him in his grief. But the disciples are found sleeping: eyes shut, then, gone.[xiv] No, we don’t want to be human. We would rather scatter, watch from a safe distance. We would rather not share in that isolation, that loneliness.
We would rather go looking for company among the demons, because in Matthew’s gospel, demons don’t ask Jesus be human. Demons offer the illusion of life without death, of life without vulnerability, the illusion that we can hold the world, and its kingdoms, in our hands. Demons offer us the illusion of life without the risk of companionship, without the risk of having to acknowledge others, without dependency, without having to acknowledge ourselves. Demons, in Matthew’s gospel, know what we really want: anything but humanness.[xv]
Yet even with our fearful attempts to escape God’s life, God refuses to be God in isolation: God refuses to be God without the world, without us. We may call upon the demons as a response to our fear, but God comes unbidden.[xvi] God chooses solidarity. Even the terror of being human has been taken up into the life of God (Mt. 26:36-46).
That’s what we hear in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus says the same thing we’ve said, again and again: “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt. 26:39).
In other words: anything but humanness.
Matthew’s Jesus feels the vulnerability of our lives, of our bodies. God feels the pain of waiting, of loneliness, and does not romanticize our suffering. There is no room here to romanticize the risk of being human, or to be ashamed of our fears, for God’s life has displaced our romance, and God, too, is terrified.
And this refusal to be God in isolation, God on God’s own, takes Jesus to Golgotha. Here, the crowds hold Jesus in contempt. You can hear it: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40). Come down from there. Stop being God like that. “Come down from the cross, and then we will believe” (v. 42). Come down, Jesus, you’re scaring the hell out of us. “Save yourself” (v. 40), that’s what we want: a world where we don’t need to receive salvation from someone else, someone who is not us.
And there is the contempt, when we recognize we’ve spent our lives trying to avoid the world Jesus is bringing into view. Jesus refuses to come down from the cross, and we must watch our fantasies wither. We thought we were passing a verdict on Jesus, when something else was happening all along: Jesus was passing a verdict on us.[xvii] We haven’t only crucified Jesus; we have crucified ourselves.[xviii]
That’s the moment that we cannot miss. When the world takes shape before our eyes, when our lives are pulled into focus, and looking up, we see, reflected back to us, what Jesus was showing us all along: ourselves, laid bare. There, crucified, is the self we rejected, the self we did not want to be: the dependent self in need of salvation from someone else: the self in need of companions.
There, on the cross, is the death of our inhumanity.
The crucified Jesus is the God who catches us in our attempt to flee from our lives, and turns us back toward ourselves.[xix] God on the cross sees the self we’ve rejected and refuses to go on if it means going on without us, especially where we are at our worst. God wants the self we’ve tried to escape, the self that makes us tremble.
And here is the point: In the crucified Jesus, God makes our darkest failure to face the truth of our lives, our most violent rejection of God’s good world, into the bond by which we are forever tied to God’s life.[xx] We no longer tremble in isolation; we tremble inside the life of God. We tremble with each other.
When we weren’t looking, when our eyes were shut, Jesus was stealing from us our fears, our anxieties, our waiting: our suffering. And on the cross, we see all of the horror, and we see Jesus, with his arms outstretched, for us.
In that moment, when we again (or perhaps for the very first time) begin to come to light under Christ’s eyes, we are given a gift more beautiful than our fantasies of who we think we are and what we think we have to offer: We are given back the self we tried to reject: our dependency, inside the life of God. We are given back the possibility of companionship.[xxi]
Which is to say this: we are given back, again and again, the gift of each other.
To quote one of Meghan Florian’s sermons, we’re given the chance “to hold one another’s lives,” to be “alive for one another,”[xxii] to offer our presence as the shape praise takes. Jesus on the cross makes it possible to ask Tom’s question, makes it possible to know, when the world comes into view, and we are pulled into focus, that the question – indeed, our lives – cannot escape the companionship of God.
What will become of us now? It is still a precarious question. Whatever will become of us, Catherine Lee put it this way, in a sermon she preached last year, at Easter: “it might be confusing, unnerving. It might turn our worlds on end. It might interrupt our expectations. It might interrupt our grief. We might not know what to make of what we find.” But Jesus invites us: “come and see.”[xxiii]
[i] Jolley, Steve, “Believe is Seeing: or how a blind guy helps us see better,” in A Word in Season, how good it is!, 151.
[ii] I am indebted here to Alex Sider and his book, To See History Doxologically. In the acknowledgements, after reflecting on his grandparents as the sort of people whose lives compelled his dad to say Christianity is true, Alex writes this: “My parents’ lives are those kind of lives as well – ones that I look at when I want to see how history as praise takes shape in people.” Sider, J. Alexander, To See History Doxologically (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), xiv.
[iv] Dula, Peter, Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology (New York, New York: Oxford University Press: 2011), 83.
[vi] I cannot find a reference in the archive, but while writing, I could have sworn this line – “our hopes have been stretched like Mary’s womb, making room to give and receive the gospel in our midst” – was a direct quote from one of Isaac’s sermons I remember. Either he really did say it, or it strikes me as something Isaac would say. No, he said it. Yeah. Somewhere. Maybe.
[vii] Sider, Alex, “I Know Who You Are,” from A Word in Season, how good it is!, 44.
[viii] Lehman, Thomas, “Count Me In,” from A Word in Season, how good it is!, 49. Tom ends his sermon with this: “A congregation can be transformed, and should be, as it seeks to discern and follow the will of God in a changing world. Who knows what we will be called to do a year form now, or even six months? Many merchants of upscale goods in our dollar-driven economy want potential customers to believe that membership is a privilege. I make a stronger claim: membership in a healthy Christian congregation is a privilege and a challenge. Count me in. May we be transformed together time and again as we seek the will of God. Amen.”
[x] Swanson, Dave, “a dream of light and songs of sorrow” (https://chapelhillmennonite.org/2014/03/a-dream-of-light-and-songs-of-sorrow/) This comes from his reflection on Jesus’ transfiguration: “At the moment of touch and the leaning in close, when the human odors come into our nostrils…that’s the moment. Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Get up. Unfold from your fetal position. Discover that I am not terrible, or at least that my terror is not the same as the one that has left you on the ground, obliterated. And there’s the rub. The only kind of Messiah we feel can keep us safe, is simultaneously the one who scares the hell out of us. Our hope is unleashed in supposed safety, and then, we find ourselves cowering on the ground.”
[xi] In an essay on the atonement, Herbert McCabe writes: “So my thesis is that Jesus died of being human.” This claim means that Jesus “put up no barriers, no defenses against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world.” McCabe, Herbert, God Matters (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1987), 97. After quoting this section of McCabe in Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology, Peter Dula goes on to write, “The rejection of Jesus, then, is…the rejection of humanness,” 221.
[xii] Dula, “The Confessing Body,” from A Word in Season, how good it is!, 106.
[xiii] Dula, Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology, 221. Dula writes: “Only Christ fully reveals the human condition for us. This is the importance, and the mystery, of Chalcedon’s claim that Christ was fully human. It is an all-too common mistake to think that ‘fully divine’ is obscure and mysterious, while ‘fully human’ is not. We fall into the trap of thinking we know what that means because we know what we are…But the point of the dogma is that the claim that Christ is fully human throws our humanity radically into question. It makes us wonder, or should, if we are human.”
[xiv] I have in mind one of Isaac’s Palm Sunday sermons, “Crucified Hope,” where reflects on the same moment. Isaac writes: “Hope is found in the invitation Jesus offers to his friends, when he says, “Will you stay with me, will you share in my rejection, in my shame, in my humiliation? That’s the question that leads to hope, the struggle that is the possibility of hope in our world. We will be drawn into relationships of solidarity, with people who are in their darkest hour, with people who are alone, desolate?” (https://chapelhillmennonite.org/2012/04/crucified-hope/)
[xvi] What I have paraphrased here is quoted in Dula, Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology, 214, and is originally from Cavell, Stanley, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 89.
[xvii] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” 232. “It is by an action that we are removed from the judge’s seat, by the fact that Jesus Christ did for us what we wanted to do for ourselves. However radically we are transgressors of that command…we are not what we wanted to be because He is for us, He—the man who knows and judges and decides for us. In His hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy. That is how things are between Him and us.”
[xviii] I have close to mind here Sebastian Moore’s, The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger. Dula states the book’s argument like this: “Jesus must be understood, first, as victim, as our victim. At the same time, the cross shows not just Jesus as our victim, but ourselves as our victims. In the contemplation of the crucified Jesus, we see ourselves as crucifiers and ourselves as crucified. Our lives are characterized by ‘an unconscious refusal,’ ‘a stopping short.’ We are powered by ‘a nameless and pervasive fear.’ What we refuse in fear is nothing less than the fullness of life, ‘some unbearable personhood…something that at root we are, a self that is persistently ignored. According to Moore, the crucified Jesus is that refused self… This is understood not just in our mystical contemplation of Jesus, but in every encounter with our victims.’” Dula, 215.
[xix] Augustine put it this way in Confessions: Book VIII: “But you, Lord…turned me back towards myself, taking me from behind my own back where I had put myself all the time that I preferred not to see myself. And you set me there before my own face that I might see how vile I was…I saw myself and was horrified; but there was no way to flee from myself.”
[xx] I’m thinking here alongside a passage in T.F. Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ, where he writes, “the cross of Christ tells us that God has not held himself aloof from us in our wicked, abominable, inhumanity, or from its violence and sin and guilt, but has come into the midst of its unappeasable hurt and agony and shame, and taken it all upon himself in order to forgive, and redeem and heal mankind at the very point where we human beings are at our worst, thus making our sins the bond by which in atoning sacrifice we are forever tied to God.” Torrance, Thomas F., The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 45.
[xxi] By companionship, I mean something similar to what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls “beautiful enemies,” in his essay, “Friendship,” where he writes: “Let him not cease an instant to be himself…Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo…Let it be the alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared…Let him be to thee for ever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside.” I also found James Baldwin and W.G. Sebald helpful re: the difficulties and possibilities of companionship. See Baldwin’s essay, “The Black Boy Looks at a White Boy,” in Baldwin, James, Nobody Knows My Name (New York, New York: Vintage, Reissue edition, 1992), 216; and Sebald, W.G., The Rings of Saturn (New York: New Directions, 1999).
[xxii] Florian, Meghan, “Alive for one another” (https://chapelhillmennonite.org/2012/04/alive-for-one-another/) She ends her sermon with this: “It is one of the most important ways of living hope in a world of death, to not only claim that another way is possible in Christ, but to liv as if it is true, because it is true. If Jesus live, we are to be that broken body – raised, alive – for one another.”
[xxiii] Lee, Catherine, “Come and see” (https://chapelhillmennonite.org/2013/03/come-and-see/) After taking us through Mary’s movements in the resurrection stories, Catherine writes: “Is that the point? The repeated coming and seeing? Is that our invitation too at Easter, to come and see, to be like Mary, turning again and again with our vestige bits of hope? It might be confusing, unnerving. It might turn our worlds on end. It might interrupt our expectations. It might interrupt our grief. We might not know what to make of what we find—spent grave-clothes, an empty tomb. We might not even recognize Jesus when he shows up in flesh and blood, right in front of us. But if we grasp, even in a whisper, even in a moment, what it means—spent grave-clothes, an empty tomb?—Jesus is risen!—Then we are changed. There is hope.”