When Christ calls us,” Bonhoeffer famously wrote in his book Discipleship, “he bids us come and die.” What an ironic statement of the Gospel: Is not the Gospel a call to life? Is it not a word of joy and hope? Isn’t it the story of the triumph over death? What’s with this “come and die,” anyway?
In that pithy, eminently quotable little clause is the sum of what I am trying to say about “submission.” To believe the Gospel – and that, in other words, is the summons of the Gospel – is to change, to “repent,” to become a new creation. (No, Brother Paul, not by one’s own efforts by the in-dwelling of the holy-ing Spirit – a phrase I have picked up from Prof. Mary Solberg – who is given free, gratis, on good faith from God the Father.) I think this is a not-so-well articulated fundament in all the various expressions of Christian faith. “To be in Christ is to be/come a new creation.”
To see Christ is to see God; that much we can agree on. To hear the summons of the Gospel is to hear the call to be in Christ, to become as Christ, to become one with Christ. And what is the distinctive thing about Christ in the pictures we have of him? It is his willingness to go even to death in order to remain faithful to God. Beneath the radical critic of society and the Judaism of his day, behind the welcomer of lepers and tax collectors and ladies of the night, between the crushes of crowds and the moments of retreat, at the heart of the miracle-worker and signs-giver was the man Jesus who gave all of himself over to the correct worship of his Father – i.e., of God. Infusing all Christology and soteriology must be the clear vision of this 1st-century Jewish man and the life he lived. His being and his doing or living may not and cannot be separated; the “two natures” doctrine is more than a theological nicety.
What we see if we bother to look is The Faithful Servant at work (and play) abroad in the world. The Second Member of the Trinity did not count equality with God a thing to be “grasped” or savored or held over others’ heads, but emptied himself of whatever glory and worship he was dui to appear in the form of a servant. And to quote Luther: What does this mean?
It means that to be faithful to Christ and through him to the Father who graciously sent him is to submit to his ministry and to his example. We who claim his name are called to follow the path he trod in submission to the will of his Father. That path eventually led to his death, a not uncomplicated and non-controversial fact that has irritated theological thinkers for two thousand years. But even that death must be seen as faithful yielding to the will of the father, even though he clearly would have preferred to have been spared the suffering (“If it be your will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”).
Now it can hardly be said that Jesus was a wallflower or a milquetoast or a shrinking violet – and I’ve run out of clichés. His submission was a discerning submission; it required him to decide in every situation whether a given course of action would be faithful to his Father or betrayal. And so he stood up to the “lawyers” – who I gather were the theologians of his day! – and to the uptights; he violated commonly accepted prescriptions on Sabbath activity and hung out with many who were considered unclean (although, in formulating our ethics, let’s not forget that he dined at many houses of apparently well-to-do types as well); as one friend put it, “he upset the hoity-toity by his hanging around with the hoi poloi.”
In all of this, he didn’t assert his own, deserved privilege. We read of no instance where he said anything like “I’m the Son of God; I can’t be expected to do that.” Instead, he read his Bible, he said his prayers, and as he met situations on the road, he dealt with them in the way fitting to the nature of the God about whom he read and to whom he prayed.
As I said, he bad mouthed the Pharisees and rebuked those who claimed to be holier-than-thou. But he didn’t push back for his own self-interest. He openly invited and welcomed many whom the religious establishment of his day warned against as unclean. But he also rejected any claims by even his closest friends to “seats of power” or to positions of influence. And when he was confronted with the final demand, that of his life, he responded the same way: He didn’t resist; he didn’t rebel; he didn’t take up arms; he didn’t seek the protection of his friends. Nor did he march forthrightly forward in the model of noble hero. Despite the slap to the faith of his followers, even though he brought down mockery and derision on all that he had stood for, he walked the Via Dolorosa to the cross in order to meet the final enemy on his own turf and there defeat him – not with swords or wits or ransom, but with the integrity and full force of godliness.
If we keep this model before us – and I think it important to accept Jesus as a model, whatever else we may develop in our Christologies – then our complaints against or concerns about submission can be placed in context. As I said, the Gospel is a summons to death. But it is a death of our old self, not a physical death (at least not initially; it may become such). We are called to “repent” – which is a call to reorient our thinking, our “knowing” (as the philosophers are trying to teach me to say), our sensitive spots, our lives. To die to self, which is the summons, is a call to remove oneself from the judgment seat and to allow God to sit there. It is to take one’s marching orders from him – not from one’s own previous sense of self, not from one’s political or ideological cronies, not from the wider culture within which one resides. It is to abandon claims to “count” in favor of a willingness to serve others. It is to stand up to a culture that says “You should come first” by saying “No; God must come first.”
To be even more personal than I have been up to now: It has taken me most of a normal lifetime finally to discover the desert Fathers and Mothers – those amazing and often bizarre creatures who sought solitude in the deserts in order battle the evils of this world and win a victory for Christ. Even though I have had wonderful experiences in monasteries and can claim to have been trained by one of the greatest of monks (Fr. Godfrey Diekmann at St. John’s Abbey), I am by nature distrustful of monasticism, mainly because I think it posits a kind of duality to Christian life – the hard life for monks, who get tempted to spiritual pride, and the “ordinary” and less-than-demanding life for the rest of us, who get tempted to spiritual ennui. And so I have resisted getting too friendly with the desert people in our Church’s history.
I am now, however, growing to appreciate more Anthony and Moses and Mary of the Desert and Mary Magdalene (who wasn’t technically one of the earliest hesychasts, but is treated in somewhat that fashion within the tradition – cf. Harlots of the Desert by Benedicta Ward). In part it is the guidance of such scholars as Ward and my friend John Chryssavgis, who lay out a kind of hermeutical lens for reading the sayings and stories. But part has also been, I think, the intervention of the Holy Spirit who has helped me to hear in their voices the crystalline call to set aside concerns and submit to God (however imperfectly I – or anyone, I suppose – might succeed). I see beyond the retreat from the world, which also bothered me a lot, to an alternative engagement with the world.
One of the things that I am learning – to my discomfort still – is that “activism” in the name of the Gospel is a dangerous thing. While I do not feel called to be quiescent, I find that my activism – whether broadly political or ecclesiastical – often devolves into my playing the world’s power games, and I lose touch with the proper ends and means of such activism. To cite a lowly example: I’m a liturgical perfectionist and it drives me crazy that my congregation, which holds itself out as something of a model of careful and reverential liturgical practices, does stupid things in sloppy ways – certainly not all the time, but often enough to make me bite my nails. For years, I have been a pain in the neck of the parish’s Worship Committee and pastor and cantor, by drawing shortcomings to their attention. But it dawns on me slowly that even though my motives may have been pure (and who among us can know), I was serving God less than my own standards and preferences. I was losing the ability to worship, to focus on what God was doing on Sunday and on how I was responding, because of my “critical” eye and ear. And so, in an effort to bring my soul back to the altar, I have resigned from the Worship Committee and resolved to focus on what’s happening more than what’s not.
I acknowledge that that is a minor thing – except for those who will be happy to know that I’ve left the committee, for whom it will be a reason to rejoice. But it is one illustration I can offer of what it means to submit, that is: by the power of God to set one’s own interests aside in favor of more serious attention to the work of God on-going in the world.
I’ll try to say more about the “activist” side of the story in my next post.
NOTE: Thanks for sticking with me in my process of thinking through a new idea about the Christian life. This is new stuff for me, in a sense. I am coming to terms with some new vocabulary as a result of my reading and talking with more Eastern Orthodox people. My friend C, as I have indicated, gave me this new word – and I do love new words. Another friend, Fr. John Chryssavgis has inspired me by the warmth and steadiness of his life and by the erudition and reverence of his books. At this time, Vigen Gouroian, an Armenian Orthodox theologian, is providing some guidance on the ethics component. And I find myself being drawn to Meyendorf and some others through the tricky marketing ploys of Light and Life Publishing – a local publishing and supply company which parks its stock on steel shelves by title, thus forcing one to browse to find something.
Of course, I perceive all this stuff through Western eyes and ears. I do not have Eastern liturgies in which to immerse myself while thinking and praying this through. And I’m not sure that I want that right now; I’ll settle for my recordings of Russian, Armenian, and Greek liturgical music.
But please know that while I write most of this is the indicative mood, I intend it to be considered in the interrogative. I do not claim final insights. What all y’all are helping me with here is to think through the nature of faith from a tack that I’ve not taken before. It’s a little less German, I think.