Memorial Service for Robert H. Smith
Phyllis Anderson—April 8, 2006
The life of Robert Harry Smith was of one piece, cut of whole cloth.
In these last months and weeks, when he knew that his own death was near, Robert never changed. He chose to live just as he always had. He chose to be present, awake, in touch, available to those he loved. He determined to simply go on loving his wife, staying close to his children and grandchildren, sharing meals with friends, telling Bible stories to children, offering kindness and support to the new president, sharing his wisdom with students, walking humbly with his God. And Donna’s loving care made it possible for him to do.
Here on campus, we saw the continuity of his life most vividly in his decision to teach his Gospels course again this spring as he had year in and year out for most of his adult life. His long-time colleague, Gary Pence, graciously offered to teach the course with him week by week, to be his back-up from the beginning, and to be his stand-in when the end came. This community has been profoundly affected by the image of Robert and Gary together making this course happen, seamlessly, collaboratively, faithfully, quietly—simply doing what needed to be done to pass on the Word to the next generation of leaders in the church… just as he had always done.
With the same quiet continuity, Robert worked steadily in his office through the summer and fall completing the final draft of his commentary on the Gospel of John: Wounded Lord; Reading John through the Eyes of Thomas.
We witnessed Robert’s keen participation in the search for a new Professor of New Testament, who will now succeed him on the faculty. He was there to meet and hear the presentations by each of the candidates, a process which extended into the last days of his life.
You may say that to stay the same is not really a decision. I beg to differ. It is an act of uncommon courage to continue to be your own true self as your very life slips away. Robert had other options. He was at a point in his life when he was entitled to not work, not write, not teach. No one could have blamed him if he chose to withdraw as he grew weaker. I’ve known more than one man who found the vulnerability of serious illness shameful, who couldn’t bear to let others see their wounds. He could have spent these last times pursuing the elusive promise of exotic cures. He could have chosen the oblivion of drugs.
Denial, despair, diversion are all understandable human choices, but they were not Robert’s choice. He chose to stay with us—with the increased intensity that comes with the shortness of time, with the right numbering of one’s days.
I want to say that these last months, the months when some of us knew him best, were a microcosm of his whole life. It was a life lived with integrity, congruence, cut of whole cloth. He was who he was, and never more so than in his dying.
Those who knew Robert at Concordia Seminary can attest to this quality of integrity and constancy in him. When challenged by church authorities, he remained true to himself. He taught the Gospel as he knew it and took the consequences. He marched into exile with his colleagues with all the associated risk and loss, and gave outstanding leadership as the dean of Seminex. And when the time came, he continued his life-long ministry of teaching the Scripture here at PLTS.
Those who have known him as a pastor, a father, and friend can attest to his steadiness and authenticity. Those who knew him through two extraordinary marriages know him to be one man. He was constant through the changes and chances of his life.
Robert saw integrity as the major them in the Gospel lesson he chose for his memorial service, the story of Thomas. Robert’s last book, completed this spring, looks at the whole Gospel of John through the eyes of Thomas. Robert challenges the traditional characterization of Thomas as the man of little faith, the doubter who demanded extraordinary tactile proof before we would believe his Jesus was alive. Instead, Robert sees Thomas as the disciple who finally understood who Jesus was. Of all the disciples, Thomas was the one who grasped that the identity of Jesus was most profoundly revealed on the cross, in his death, in his wounds.
The Jesus Thomas knew would have to have wounds. Thomas demanded to see the marks of the nails in the hands of this resurrected one and put his finger in his wounded side. He had to know that the wounds were still there. They were the sign of that Jesus’ core identity had not changed. Jesus remained the same through his life and his death and his glorious resurrection. Only when he saw the wounds could he say: My Lord and my God. In Robert’s eloquent words:
Through this narrative of Thomas, the evangelist is sharing his own faith that he will not confess as Lord and God any figure, no matter how marvelous and might, who lacks wounds.
Thomas’ eyes are focused on the wounds of Christ. Through his eyes we see the whole Gospel clearly. Jesus’ willing vulnerability and self-giving love are the perfect incarnation of God. God’s way is revealed in Jesus’ care for the poor, his blessing of children, his kindness to outcasts and strangers. The enduring wounds are the proof that God’s way is the way of the cross, not the way of power and domination. Again in Robert’s words:
Thomas’ famous request to see and touch rest on the acute perception, that instead of throwing the divine weight around and bludgeoning the opposition with superior force, God actually conquers by means of the cross and self-giving love.
Those wounds show us the pattern of the Christian life. They also show us the depth of God’s love for us. They are the measure of the extent to which God is willing to go to save. As Robert says:
The Easter Jesus still bears in his hands and side the marks of his cruel wounding. Indeed the wounds will never go away. The Thomas story announces that the universe is upheld in wounded hands of unimaginably deep love and compassion.
The wounds do not go away. Jesus carries them with him when he returns to glory with the Father for all eternity. The wounds are part of the core identity of God forever. They show us who God is.
Jesus, who bore the marks of death on his glorified body, empowered Robert to live his whole life with humble radiance and to face his death in that same spirit. This Jesus calls us, as he called Robert, to live in steady solidarity with all the wounded ones. Because the one we worship as Lord and our God has holes in his hands, we do not need to hide our wounds. We can be fully present to one another in all our vulnerability—as Robert was. We can embrace the mystery of death as Robert did—sure that we are accepted with all our wounds. We can enter life with God for all eternity sure that we are held forever in those wounded hands—as Robert is now, has always been, and will be forevermore.