Friday afternoon’s sermon from Christ Church, New Haven.
Wisdom 2:1, 12-24 /Ps 22:1-21/Heb 10:1-25/John 18:1-19:37
March 21, 2008
“If the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
In the name of God Almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.
If last night you permitted a dying man to wash your feet — if you ever have been knit together in communion with countless sisters and brothers as sharers in Christ — if you have ever felt sympathy for innocent suffering, for any suffering whatsoever — the past few minutes have quite possibly felt painfully awkward, embarrassing, even sickening. This afternoon’s liturgy, and our readings, and our hymns together serve to rivet our attention on the crucifixion in all its brutal facticity. Exquisite harmonies and eloquent prayers will not hide our purpose here: Last night a dying man washed our feet and bound our fate to his; this afternoon, we must watch him die before our eyes.
Everything about crucifixion functions to fix itself in the imagination of those of us who look on. The vision of a crucified body is, for Rome, worth a billion words of warning, of admonition, of command; the body wracked on the cross tells a monitory tale of power and danger. The crucified man tells us two opposite stories at the same moment, and makes them both utterly convincing. In the first, the crucified man teaches us not to defy the state, not to resist a power vastly greater than our own strength. Be practical, he advises us, be wise; remember what happened to me, and do not let it happen to you.
People often try to make crucifixion more jazzily contemporary by comparing it to modern executions; it is, they say, as though Christians were to wear miniature electric chairs around their necks. But if we are to be honest, it is much, much worse. Electrocution takes place behind closed doors, with intentionally few witnesses; modern protocols for executions prohibit cruel and unusual treatment. But crucifixion was deliberately cruel, deliberately inhumane, and deliberately public; crucifixion sent the unambiguous message that the rulers of this age exercised control over life and death, over exaltation and abnegation. When St Paul asked the Galatians “Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” he presumably did not mean that the Galatians had themselves seen Jesus’ death — but he captured precisely the function of crucifixion, and the Galatians will have seen other crucifixions, to the same effect.
Yet even while the anonymous crucified body urges us to remember him, to realize that we ourselves could end up there, in the second function of crucifixion the extremity of his pain and shame erase the reality of his being. Crucifixion raises the spectacle of agony to such a degree as to require onlookers to shield ourselves from its scope. The flesh weakened by flogging and beating; the body stripped stark naked, bereft of even the simplest patch of dignity cloth might afford; the minutes of accelerating torment; the loss of control over body’s functions; the stench and shame and mortal fœtor; they impart a message so strong that human hearts receive it only as an uncomprehended horror, an abjection, the annihilation of the body’s humanity. At a crucifixion, we can neither match the power that imposes this agony nor can we endure identifying with the crucified. We are stuck in the middle, and in the middle we are broken.
The crucifixion aims to make us into voyeurs, peepers into another’s misery. We can look, but we can’t afford to be touched; we can hardly afford even a moment of sympathy, lest the power of attraction associate us too powerfully with the void where the crossbeams intersect. That’s how the passion affected the disciples: Peter denies his Lord three times, and as Jesus tells his followers, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” The cross demands our attention by its vivid drama, but it beckons our attention in order to repulse us onlookers. Turning witnesses into passers-by, the crucifixion eviscerates our discipleship. A witness stands before the world to tell the truth; someone who takes a furtive glance and keeps on walking, who declines to get involved, chooses instead to become a voyeur.
Now, voyeurship has become a mainstream industry; there’s plenty of money to be made catering to voyeurs. Mel Gibson’s film version of The Passion made headlines to a great extent because of the tremendous profits it generated. Megachurches frequently court spiritual voyeurs, in the hope that the Peeping Tom’s distant stare may eventually be transformed to a disciple’s insight. But voyeurism is predominantly about the onlooker’s distance, the disidentification, the detachment. Whereas last night Jesus bathed his disciples’ naked feet and bound their destinies to him in a seamless cloth of mutual obligation, this afternoon the voyeurs tear themselves away from his fellowship and gaze at Jesus’ nakedness from a distance that protects them from his fate. Crucifixion might be contagious. It is not, after all, their cross to bear.
That’s hows crucifixion wins — setting us over against one another, isolating us from each other, making some of us into helpless victims and others into self-protective passers-by. The world works that way; practical business gets done that way; power divides the winners from the losers, the big dogs from little dogs, the sharks from the minnows. Our reading from the Book of Wisdom speaks for the big dogs:
Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.
That’s the cross-world puzzle of temporal power, of the big dogs and sharks; get used to it, or get eaten up.
Thus they reasoned, but they reasoned unsoundly. Their very realistic cost-benefit calculus works out right if we belong to a nature red in tooth and claw, inhabitants of a city of force and domination. In the big dogs’ world, it is more expedient for one man to die than for the nation to be destroyed. But Jesus is not one of those sons of dogs. Jesus does not stand alone; he stands with the God who is with him, and he stands with the disciples whom he has integrated into the divine life, for whom he has opened a new and living way into the heavenly city whose architect and builder is God. Having shown us how truly, abundantly to live in holy communion as sharers with one another, this afternoon he shows us how to die.
There is no esoteric secret to this way of holy dying. The way that Jesus shows us, the way he embodies in his Passion, does not call on divine superpowers to thwart the torturers. Jesus does not turn the power of evil against itself in some spiritual jiu-jitsu. In the Passion God gives Jesus no greater comfort than we can expect in our own suffering and death — but Jesus shows us a way that leads through suffering, leads beyond death. Jesus dies interceding for his friends, telling the truth to Pilate, taking up his cross. Jesus walks to his death in uninterrupted solidarity with his friends, with the disciples who fled the scene of his arrest in self-interested fear. When the full temporal force of the empire, and the full spiritual force of Satan, came to bear on his naked flesh, Jesus sustains in his Body the integrity he offers to his own people and to his God.
Jesus need not answer evil on its own terms because evil is always already divided against itself; when it is most strong, at exactly that point it is weak. Instead of opposing evil’s brutality, instead of resisting death, Jesus stands up for truth and trust and integrity. St John leads us to the cross to see that. He brings us to the cross not to pity a victim, nor to glimpse a superhero’s invulnerability to pain, but to see what integrity leads to: to blood and gushing water, to rank death, to the abject consequences of our practical compromises.
We cannot opt out of our complicity with power — gritting our teeth avails us not, well-intentioned renunciation avails us not. The tidal swell of sin overpowers us and outlasts us. Hunger for righteousness as we will, we feed on the starchy swill of convenience; convenience itself partakes of sin, practicality of sin, and we sober, serious, practical creatures of what is possible are sinners several times over. We cannot opt out of complicity, but we can bear witness to an alternative to callow practicality. We can come to the cross to recognize our half-heartedness and to stand up with Jesus in resistance to mere death. We can display to the world Christ, crucified, as the sign that we can not be shamed by our mortal frailty because we have already embraced a hope beyond death. We can receive forgiveness with humility and renew our sharing in a solidarity, a unity, a Body greater than our weakness. Having been washed clean by a dying man, we can approach the cross in faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. We can hold fast to the confession of our hope, for he who has promised is faithful.
Last night, a dying man washed our feet and knit us together with his life, and with his dying. This afternoon the power of Death challenges us to flee, or to answer violence with violence, or to walk on by. This afternoon, under Death’s arrogant gaze, we come before the cross and commit our mortal frailty to an immortal faithfulness. This is the Way. This is the Truth. This, in Death’s despite, is Life.