Reflections on the Closing of the Liturgical Year…
and the Opening of a New One
Martha Stortz—November 29, 2006
- Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14
- Revelation 1: 4b-8
- John 18: 33-38
“What did we do to deserve this?” This is the question she has been asking over and over again—and not just this morning. Like all the other times, I have no particular answers. She can’t ask these questions in front of her children, because she’s supposed to be “faithful,” whatever that means. And she won’t ask them of her pastor, because she doesn’t see him—or any of the other people in her congregation. Church is what she used to do on Sunday mornings. Now it’s the Farmers’ Market and the New York Times. She’s sick of people telling her that God will bring something good out of all of this. I know what she means.
“Where is God in all of this?” We both lost our husbands to the same rare and always fatal brain cancer. For a year we shared doctors and treatments, news of clinical trials and alternative therapies. We even shared dinner at the local neighborhood restaurant, booking always the same booth so that whoever had the more recent surgery could hide his scars from the rest of the diners. Now we share coffee, questions, and this gallows humor. Her husband, diagnosed earlier, lasted longer. He declined gradually like a leaf falling in a gentle breeze. She’s only six months into this, while I’ve logged sixteen. That should count for something, I keep telling myself. I’m not sure what.
“I mean, if God is all-powerful, why would He let cancer happen?” Mentally I add to the list: Or Darfur? Iraq? The murder rate in our fair city of Oakland? We are sitting on her deck in a crisp Saturday morning, wrapped in our fleeces, warmed by the winter sun even as the coffee makes steam. Above us all the clouds look like brain scans, though I think twice about pointing this out to her. That kind of sky used to scare me, until I imagined that maybe we were all living deep in the brain of God. Maybe, just maybe, I muse, God wanted so much to share our lot, that God even tried out brain cancer, just to see what it was like. Maybe, just maybe this is how God is all-powerful, powerful enough to be stricken.
“I mean, where is God in all of this?” Ah! We have come full circle, back to the original question. I admit my mind wanders during these tirades, partly because I know the script so well, partly because I still don’t have any answers—me, the neighborhood theologian. Mostly I know it’s not answers that she wants. She wants something no one can give her: the Old Life back again and the man who filled her days with love, humor, and the solemn reminder never to be the first person into the crosswalk when the light changed.
What I can give her is company, someone who can take it all in, somehow absorb her anger and her edges and her pain. If she could receive them, I would give her the texts for today. They hold a truth that speaks louder than words, more eloquently than any theologian. They address her questions with the joy and wild reversal that scripture bursts with. I’m not sure she’s ready for all of that, I’m not sure any of us are, but then Jesus never asked about pastoral readiness or any of the other things candidacy committees ask about. He simply said: “Follow me.”
So what do we find when we follow?
I. The first thing we find when we follow Jesus: w find that Jesus is really telling the truth when he says: “My kingdom is not of this world.” We laugh at the disciples for expecting him to be a revolutionary leader, Rambo from the desert, liberating the Jews from Roman occupation, and we roll our eyes when Peter scrambles to build booths for everyone present at the Transfiguration—one for Moses, one for Elijah, one for Jesus himself. We groan when Thomas refuses to believe unless he too can sees Jesus. And we exchange knowing glances when James and John try to elbow in on seats of honor at the eschatological banquet. They all want to do an extreme make-over on the kingdom of God, fashioning it in their own image.
But after listening to my neighbor’s questions go round and round like a doomed rat on a wheel, I wonder if she and I don’t share the disciples’ delusion. We want a kingdom after our own crafting. A kingdom where cancer would never happen, where the troops would come home, where Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni could live in peace, not to mention Democrats and Republicans across the aisle in Washington. A kingdom where rapes in the southeastern Sudan would be a distant memory, where children would no longer die of stray gunfire. If I were King—or rather, Queen—this is what my kingdom—or rather, Queendom—would look like. And it seems noble and altruistic and something everyone could sign onto for a day. But there’s another monarch out there with a very different idea of global harmony, and by tomorrow we’d be at loggerheads.
Throughout history Christians have spent lives and spilled blood trying to wrest the kingdom away from God’s hands and take possession of it on our own. We want a kingdom where things add up according to an arithmetic we can understand, so that outcomes can be calculated, so that objectives can be measured, so that goals can be fought for. Then of course we would have some semblance of control.
But we have no control, we have no more control than cancer cells on a roll, or gangaweed on a killing spree. The only thing that stops this kind of deadly juggernaut is love, love that refuses to kill in kind, but simply and decisively overwhelms evil with goodness. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of just such lovely and loving excess. And we reap not simply our just deserts—Thanks be to God!—but we feast on dessert. For people, all the time.
Now if you’re a Pharisee, and have spent a lifetime dieting and denying yourself to stay in fighting trim, that kind of judgment rankles. But if you’re a publican, I suspect all of us are, our prayers have been answered. So let the Inner Publican rejoice: Jesus is really telling the truth when he says: “My kingdom is not of this world.” That’s the best news we could have.
II. Because after all, Jesus is the truth. And this is the second thing we find when we follow Jesus: Truth comes to us as a person. Pilate is looking right at the Truth, when he asks his final question: “What is truth?” Truth is standing right in front of him.
Now the bible never tells us how anybody said anything, and here just once I’d love an adverb. As in “Pilate asked cynically: ‘What is truth?” Or “Pilate asked post-modernly… ” Or “Pilate asked wretchedly… ” I would really like to see the word “wretchedly” thrown in there. But now I know that Pilate is asking the questions the same way my friend is. I hear in his words the same tone behind the questions: “Where is God in all of this?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “If God is all-powerful… ” I think Pilate shares her despair. After all, he’s already calculated the rage of the angry mob outside and measured it against the number of troops he has at his disposal. The numbers are not in his favor. According to all the account books in the kingdom of this world, Pilate is deeply in the red. It’s either Jesus’ neck—or his own. He knows it—and so does Jesus.
“What is truth?” If truth is tied up in a body of doctrine or a system of theology or a book of confessions, you really ought to have an answer to that question. That answer ought to be cogent and convincing, buttressed by arguments that shine like the sun.
But God didn’t become a text; God became human. The Word wasn’t bound up as a book, but swaddled as a baby. As Dr. Robert Smith said: “You don’t look inside the manger and find —a book or the bible. You find an infant.” And you could spend the rest of your seminary career puzzling over that truth, just as you should spend the rest of your lifetime living it out. But if truth is tied up in a person, all you have is love, the kind of love that unseats all powers in the kingdoms of this world. The kind of love that conquers everything. The apostle Paul offers us a glimpse of this love in his letter to the Romans. You can tell he’s struggling for words: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-38).
When I figured that out, it calmed me enormously. My neighbor needs what each of us needs: someone who will simply sit with us in the face of mystery—whether it comes as joy or deep pain—and love into the silence. You don’t have to have answers, because frankly there aren’t any. You don’t, as I discover with some embarrassment, even have to be paying complete attention. All you have to do love, marshaling not your own poor powers of affection, but the love of “him who loved us.”
I want adverbs for Pilate’s question: how did he pose it to Jesus? But what we get is love. It’s not in the text, but you can bet it was in Jesus’ face, the same look he had as he looked at the back of the rich young man, rapidly retreating from the invitation to “Follow me”: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him… ” (Mark 10:21)
III. Because finally, the truth that comes to us as a person is the truth of a wounded Lord. And this is the third and final discovery that comes when we follow Jesus. Of course Pilate cannot see the truth that Jesus is: he cannot stand to. The truth that stands before Pilate bears the marks of his deepest fears. Yet, precisely because of that, the truth that stands before him is the source of his wildest and only hope. If he could just bear to open his eyes…
There’s something simultaneously terrifying and wonderful about the truth that Jesus is. It terrifies us because the wounds on Jesus bodies are ours: cancer of any part of the body, poisoning by polonium 210 or any other substance of any toxicity, shrapnel from suicide bombings, gang rape by the gangaweed. In coming to us as one of us, Jesus opened himself to every evil humans wreak upon each other and every natural disaster imaginable. It’s all there, in his body. And it must have been unnerving to have all of that in front of him. No wonder Pilate couldn’t see truth. But he’s only human: it’s hard for any of us to look in the face of our deepest fears.
This is the truth that saves us. As Jesus takes all of our wounds into his body, he gives us his holiness. Luther wrote joyously of this as the “happy exchange” (Froehliche Wechsel), and he described it erotically: Christ takes our sins into his body; we take his righteousness into ours. I think there are even bodily fluids involved, because we eat and drink his body and blood in the course of that intercourse. But it’s good to know there’s a bedroom context to the whole notion of justification, not just a courtroom context. Not only are we declared righteous forensically, but we are loved into the wholeness of the kingdom that is not of this world. Thanks be to God!
Dr. Robert Smith spent his last year, his last months, his last weeks working on this truth of a wounded Lord. We close his office today, but every closing is an opening. As we let the loss of our friend and colleague bless us, let us open ourselves to the truth of the wounded Lord. The risen Christ bore the wounds of his crucifixion, and the wounded Lord stands in solidarity with us in our pain and with a wounded world. The wounded Lord is our promise of wholeness in the face of everything that would destroy all bodily integrity and all justice and harmony in our world. Only a wounded Lord can save us. Let us cling fiercely to the promise of his wholeness in a kingdom “that is not of this world.”
In the pages that follow I try to take my stand with Thomas. His story provokes me to reread the Gospel looking in every chapter for clues that John always has the wounds in view and that he understands the wounds as central and essential in any estimate of Jesus, in any talk about God, and in any teaching about discipleship.
—Robert H. Smith, Wounded Lord: Reading John Through the Eyes of Thomas, A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel from a Fresh Angle (Unpublished ms., 2006):