Life... But What a Life
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
John 10:10b.I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Life walks out of the empty tomb and into the world.
I mean the life that comes down from the cross with scarred hands and wounded side, life forever marked by the cross. Hold that thought for the remainder of this essay. Because it's not easy to... accept and affirm the life changed by the experience of Calvary. It's all too easy and human to forget. When the humiliations are suffered, the hurt accumulates, and the certainty of the evil of those who did that to us is still raw. Lashing out, not Jesus' forbearance and compassion, is the reflex. Schadenfreude, that fine German word for reveling in seeing the enemy suffer, is sweet indeed. It's easy to turn the triumph of Jesus into a celebration of comeuppance for those hell-bent on killing him. Then to see the death-dealing, bloodletting, innocent-killing powers get theirs is beautiful to behold. No wonder Steven Seagal's movies are popular. And the cross, in the imagination of not a few of its admirers, seems to belong in this category. Think of the holy terror resurrected Aslan is.
But that's not the abiding theme of the life that bears the cross. Children in the schoolyard may taunt the bully who's bested; but that's not the way with the fellow lately lifted from the scaffold, laid in the grave, and, three days hence, walks out of the empty tomb. We are inclined to see the resurrection in heroic terms. And, yes, it has heroic elements; that is, extraordinary, exceptional, and incredible aspects. Those of us ordained to sing Jesus' praises bring with us minds full of heroic illustrations of the lofty ones who have honored the cross by duplicating it in their own way and gone on to undying fame: Boniface in the hands of the mob; Luther and his "Here I Stand"; Martin Luther King Jr.'s mountaintop days before his assassination; Bonhoeffer with the noose around his neck; St. Peter upside down on his cross; St. Stephen bloodied and dying from the stones hurled at him... well, you've heard these stories and many more, you've seen those masterpieces, and you've been ennobled by them, even as in the depths of your soul, as I in mine, know that such courage wouldn't be there for you or me. Heroism for Christ's sake is not common currency.
Still, we believe and have insisted that the cross and the savior who lifted it are universal. That is, the cross is meant for all of us, not just those of us who are ten feet tall (or seem to others to stand that way). Same for life, the life that spills out on the world from Calvary and Joseph's tomb, Jesus' own. Jesus may have said it to the inquirer who elicited from the Galilean the story of the good Samaritan, but you and I are meant to hear the summons too when looking at the cross from afar, "Go and do likewise." How can that be? Or better, what could Jesus mean?
A hint lies in John's narrative of Holy Thursday. No, not the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, the foot-washing. A servant's duty. Or, in the absence of a house with a splendid kitchen, the host's reluctant responsibility. Anyone can do it. A bowl of water and a towel and dusty feet are the only things needed. Of course, the higher one rises in one's own estimation, the harder it gets to kneel and wash. Jesus does it to Peter who complains to the last drop. Jesus persists. No heroic Gethsemane here, just the kindness and self-giving, without fuss, a parable of what life is for and how it is to be lived with others for others. There it is in the middle of the passion narrative the day before the crucifixion, three days before the resurrection, a simple act of self-denial... of which all of us are capable.
The Christian life, the one fashioned from Jesus' cross and resurrection, may be nourished by the blood of martyrs (heroism!) but it is sustained and flourishes only with millions of minor gestures of self-denial by those trying to follow Jesus. Think about those who, consciously in Jesus' footsteps, have convinced you of the presence of the kingdom of God in your midst. Your mind may go as mine does immediately to Mom. My Mom smoothed my way in life with, for one homely example of little consequence to anyone other than Bobby, washing my basketball socks by hand until her knuckles were blistered (a mother's stigmata?). I was her own, of course, and you might expect her to spend herself on an only child. But for her self-giving was a faithful habit, lavished on the world and everyone who came into her orbit, including the woman who cleaned a neighbor's house, Mrs. Childs, African-American, Great Depression needy, in a time when Connecticut was hardly better than Birmingham in race relations. Evelyn Weir Howard taught me again and again what she knew to be the terms of abundant life in the footsteps of Jesus, that we look out for each other, that we regard each other and all others with compassion and understanding. No "here I stand" moments for my Mom. No great crusades to wage. But in my hagiography she stands taller than Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Susannah Wesley.
And the empty tomb and the abundant life issuing from it belong to her; and to anyones infected with the glad contagion of selflessness and kindness, happily spreading it wherever travels take them. Like the Crucified himself. Who protected children, treated women as equals, welcomed strangers into his circle, insisted on the dignity of those whom others found beneath consideration, enjoyed a good party, shared what little he had... and I've said not a word about the benevolence, magnanimity, and compassion doctrinaire Christians like me credit him with theologically. You know what I mean. Or should. The cross itself. The forgiveness for his crucifiers. The grace, the amazing grace, showered on a world full of wretches like me. The bright promise of the world toward which we are tending in his footsteps, open to all who want to be there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the phrase, that in this age the Christian is the one for others. That exactly describes Jesus. He lived and died, was scarred and wounded, a life for others.
At June Henderson's funeral service recently I gave voice to this paean to the small crosses of self-giving. June stayed put in her Queens neighborhood as Caribbean immigrants bought houses there. She was beloved by her neighbors. They would do anything for her and she would do anything for them. I suggested her behavior was an echo of the parable of the last judgment, how it will be when we stand before the throne of grace to account for our time here, that only one question will be asked of us: did we live in kindness and generosity with each other?
Which, of course, is part and parcel of the larger matter, what we understand to be Jesus' God-given mission, confirmed on Easter, when the life he lived rises to roam again in this world, unmistakable with scarred hands and wounded side: to show us how and to make it possible, a world in which we can live together in peace and love. Events in the world constantly try to refute this conclusion. Always there will be false prophets insisting we must look after our own house and to hell with others.
In those moments - this moment - go in mind and heart to the empty tomb and mark again how the life lived abundantly and generously for others, with scars and wounds for the giving, is the life that overwhelms death and walks out of the empty tomb.