Thursday Theology: “Witnessing Christ”: Fred Niedner on the Fiftieth Anniversary of Seminex (Part Two)

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Co-missioners,

We send you the second half of Fred Niedner’s presentation at the Seminex event in Chicago this past April. You’ll find it stunning. See, not least, Fred’s summation in his second-last paragraph of the Church’s role in the world today. We hope you’ll share this widely.

Peace and Joy,

The Crossings Community

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Witnessing Christ: Preaching for the Church and the World

by Frederick Niedner

(Part Two of Two)

Setting the stage, from Part One of the essay

They had the votes, however, and they ruled that our simple gospel, and all who preach or teach it, were “not to be tolerated in the church of God.” There being no other church than God’s so far as we knew, they had effectively dispatched us to outer darkness, to the weeping and gnashing of teeth, to God-forsakenness. “Go to hell,” they said.

The only God we fully know and trust we see incarnate in the flesh and blood of the crucified Christ, and now, crucified with him by baptism into his death, we, like him, look at everything from the perspective of our cross-high perches, nailed as we are and dangling between heaven and earth, giving our lives for the world.

Harrowing of hell Christ leads Adam by the hand. On scroll in border, the motto ‘Entre tenir Dieu le viuelle’ (f. 125) Cropped.jpg
From Wikimedia Commons

From up here, cross-high, we learn to read the scriptures differently than we would had we never been crucified with Christ, and we see ourselves, for example in the wilderness, first with Israel, murmuring over food and water, then with Jesus, tempted to fix all that by turning stones to bread, giving us tomorrow’s bread today, thus slaying the Free Market god with its inviolable laws of supply and demand. Imagine a world in which no one lacks anything and everyone has more than enough! But from up here on our crosses, we can see that even then we would still die hungry, craving, and murmuring, “Is that all there is?”

From up here we can see that even if Jesus leaped from the temple, with us on his back of course, over the Kidron Valley below, but also over the Valley of the Shadow of Stillborn, or Cancer, or Car Accident, or Parkinson’s, and we all got our three-score years and ten, plus a bonus perhaps, we would still die begging for one more day despite not really knowing the point of any day along the whole stretch.

From up here, we can see that even if Jesus had given a nod to the Great Satan and admitted that without making some noise, hurting some people, and scaring all the rest into submission, having our guys in charge of the world wouldn’t really be any different than living in the Pax Romana or Pax Americana. We can’t run the world any better than others who have tried. The same folks who cried “Crucify him!” on Friday had shouted “Hosanna, save us!” a few days before. And remember, it was our own friends and brothers and sisters who said, ‘Not to be tolerated in the church of God,’ so, ‘Go to hell.’

From up here, hanging between two thieves, one of whom taunts while the other seems simply to want a friend, even if he’s half joking, when he says, “Remember me,” we can see that there really are only two kinds of people in the world—those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. Jesus didn’t, and we don’t. Truth be told, we’re all one kind of people, people with but a few more breaths, a few more moments in which to share the gifts of life and beauty and sweetness and looking into faces and seeing kindness and knowing love. “Sure, my friend,” says Jesus to the man dying nearby, and we with him, “you and I, we’re together. It looks a bit grim, hanging here like this, but so long as we have each other, it makes this ‘Paradise,’ oddly enough. The Garden of Eden, no less! Not only that, from up here it’s so easy to see that you’re the only treasure I have.” (This is my most cherished image of the church—a bunch of crucified people, still looking out for others as they hang there, still making plans.)

From up here, cross high, we can see all the places Jesus could see when he told his friends he would leave them soon but he’d go ahead to prepare a place for them—ah yes, the place in the heavenly mansions, but first the place that Judas also knew, where Jesus would be betrayed; the hard-paved place of judgment, where he would be condemned; the Place of the Skull, where they would crucify him; and the place in a garden, where they would bury him. He prepared them all, so when his friends got there, and get there they would, those places would be ready. In each, he would be there to greet and comfort them. We know how it works, because those are all our places now, our stations. We bear witness in those places. We comfort. We sing, even there. In his name, we un-hell those hell-holes.

From up here, we look down even on the highest and holiest mountain, the one in that precious vision of Isaiah 25 which we revisit sometimes on Easter Sunday, and often at funerals. We see underway there the feast of fat things, of wine on the lees well refined, and God wiping away the tears and the shame and all the pain forever. But from up here we see also a bit further down the incline, into the subsequent verses of Isaiah 25 we choose not to read at our festivals, where the Moabites, our hated enemies, retch and flail in the dung-pit, swimming in the urine that flows down the holy mountain when we drink like that. From up here, we can’t miss seeing that down there is where we’d find the crucified Christ. That’s where he hangs out. So, for now at least, that’s where we would find our own party venue, our hell-busting feast in the dung-pit where we sit with the damned. These, after all, are our people.

From up here, we see signs already now of coming days that might be hell on earth. Its hallmarks will be dehumanization, demonization, and suppressing our own compassion and humanity so we can make ourselves be people who, to save our institutions, will throw our colleagues overboard to lighten the ship. Eventually, it won’t be merely institutions we try to save, but the food supply, and water, and then our very lives. We will learn to treat other people and other people’s children in ways we could never abide treating our own. We will find it in our hearts to justify that.

From Canva

We, however, are already crucified. Our hard hearts get nailed daily. Hell is where we do our most important work. But how? We can’t fix the world. We can’t save the earth. Sorry, Calvin, but we don’t do governing or economics or science any better or more wisely, and certainly not more righteously, than all those others. Oh, we will work with everyone else to do the best we can, and we will be leaven, perhaps. But mostly we will behave like mustard bushes dropping mustard seeds, an invasive species whose arms and branches give harbor to the birds, and all the other little ones, everyone deemed expendable, the canaries in our coal mines.

In a world that will dehumanize multitudes in order to save a few, we will hang nailed with the condemned, still making friends, still forgiving sins, still making Eden of our last days and final breaths. We are witnesses to the truth that God, the God we know in Christ the crucified, is with us here in the silence of God-forsakenness.

We are witnesses, Christ’s witnesses, here in the universe of spectacles and ruins, opulence and poverty, yelling and silence, blinding light and consuming gloom. We preach Christ crucified, foolishness even to us so much of the time, but the Holy Spirit uses our halting words to put ligaments and muscles even on our bleached, old, forgotten bones. We stand, we sing—Ah, do we sing!!—and together we go out into the world, and there, too, we are witnesses to what’s in the heart of God who so loved the world that he handed over the Son, and all us sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of Christ, that the world might be saved, not condemned. We witness to God’s heart most directly and surely by simply being Christ’s broken, crucified, and risen body in the world. Merely by being here, we un-hell hell. Our job is not to take over the world, but to be in the world, embodying God’s love, wherever there is loneliness, hopelessness, condemnation, god-forsakenness, or every other outpost of hell we can see from our vantage point as the fellow-crucified.

“Go to hell,” they said 50 years ago. And so we did. And ever since, we’ve helped get it ready for everyone else who will land here, including our children, and some of theirs. After all these years, all that’s left to say is, “Thanks be to God!”


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
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