Holy Week for Cynics
I have Reinhold Niebuhr on the mind these days.
Here it is, coming up on these three deeply holy days in the Christian rhythm of things, and if friends and family haven’t seen me, it’s because I have been encircled by blocks.
Writers’ blocks, that is.
Let’s be honest: what is new to say?
It’s not like you all need a spoiler alert to warn you (here it comes) that if you just hang tight, (last chance to look away) Jesus’ll rise again in less than a week.
So I’ve been remembering these words of Niebuhr’s, early on in his diary Leaves from the Diary of a Tamed Cynic (to which Dad says, “Why bother taming cynicism?” I love that man.):
Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons, I find I am repeating myself. A different text simply means a different pretext for saying the same thing over again. The few ideas that I had worked into sermons at the seminary have all been used, and now what?
Twelve sermons. Three months in the parish, and already he felt as if his well were drying up.
I’m not judging, mind you.
Take this week, for example, since it’s the one causing me cramping of my brain.
We know the story, right? Jesus celebrates the Meal tonight, washes feet, and commands us to love.
Judas gets called out.
Tomorrow, Judas turns Jesus on over to the Authorities, Jesus gets tried, and gets killed on a cross.
Sunday, we return to Church, only to hear the news (again, for some of us for the umpteenth time) that (wait for it) Jesus is risen!
And now what?
Do you see?
The same thing, as Niebuhr says, will be said again, and again, and again, tonight, and tomorrow, and on Easter, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that, and if we wait long enough, on the same three Holy Days next year.
This same thing, this news that Christians trust that Jesus didn’t stay dead.
That is the Gospel, says Christians. It’s this belief that makes us Christians.
That and, of course, that Jesus was the firstborn of the dead. That suggests that others will follow. Like you. Like me.
And, given that, when you take a step back from it, when you look at the story from the perspective of those who have never heard it, not to mention those who have heard it and see some of the antics of those who claim to believe it, you can see that there are reasons for raised eyebrows.
Given that dead people tend to stay dead, it might be fair to say that we are the pot calling the kettle black when Christians point fingers at those who prepare to hitch a ride on a comet.
And given that there still remains great pain and suffering and bigotry and hate and all other Manner of Yuck, well, it’s not like it seems like that resurrection took, exactly.
Maybe here is the reason to tell it again, and to hear it again.
Like if you think about all that you’ve done, and all that you know that you are capable of doing, and still and even so, someone tells you, “I love you.”
How is that possible?
Every time, when you think about it, it’s a shocker. At some level, it makes no sense.
And yet there it is.
I respect those who can’t let loose of their cynicism about either Christianity or Christians (and let me be clear: there are a fair number of us even within the tradition!). There’s good reason for it, not only by way of the basic substance of the Christian story, but also because of what seems, far too often, to be the basic substance of the Christian Church.
But for a moment, for these moments strung together in these holy days of the Christian faith, perhaps we can suspend cynicism long enough to take a fresh glance at what Christians say that we are fundamentally about.
Father Robert Farrar Capon makes a decent case that the Christian notion of God isn’t exactly one we’d whip up in our own Ninja blender, given the choice:
We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.
Jesus is not an expression of our preferred personal God-in-our-inflated-image.
Remember, he likes the poor. Calls us to give everything to them. He forgives people. Calls us to do the same. He steps right on over barriers, and beckons us from the other side of our imposed lines. He heals, sits, visits, feeds, sacrifices his privacy and his solitude and his life.
I don’t know about you, so maybe this is my thing, but if I could create my own God, I’d come up with one who gave me justification to exactly not do those things.
I like being content instead. Satisfied. Even self-contented and self-satisfied, if I may be honest.
Maybe that’s why Niebuhr says this, later on in his diary:
…if a gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross. It is not, in short, the gospel of love.
Maybe that’s the thing. Maybe that’s why we keep coming back to hear the story….and why it is so hard to tell the story.
We know that there has to be, there just has to be more to it than chocolate bunnies and Easter dinner. We know that there must be more substance to it than a simple subject-verb plot line: Man lived. Man died. Man rose.
We know that it must have something to do with this life–Jesus was a Jew, after all, and therefore deeply concerned about serving God in the here and now.
We know that it must have something to do with justice and mercy.
We know that giving, and giving a lot, for the sake of the Least of These, that’s an awfully big part of the story.
We know that it has far more to do with breaking down barriers than erecting them.
We know that it has to do with identifying our source of trust outside of ourselves, and yet oddly enough that source of trust runs through ourselves too. And through our neighbors. And through those whom we like. And through those we don’t like.
I’m feeling some opposition welling up in me, brother Reinhold, because sometimes, I’d rather die than do such things.
And suddenly, I have something to write.