by Jason Micheli
Matthew 3 (click to see Scripture text)
Fellowship of the Crucified
Father Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk and the prior in charge of the Abbey of Our Lady of Atlas in Algeria. He was beautified four years ago.
Christian De Cherge had served there as an officer in the French army during the Algerian War and, shortly after his ordination to the priesthood in 1964, he returned to the country to minister from the little abbey to the poor, mostly Muslim community of Tibhirine. De Cherge’s father viewed his son’s vocation with unmeasured disappointment. After all, their son was brilliant. He’d graduated at the top of his class and his future could have been bright, pursuing any career he chose.
Instead de Cherge felt called.
Along with his fellow monks, de Cherge toiled in relative obscurity for three decades, winning the trust of the poor and befriending leaders in the local Islamic government. When Islamic radicalism spread to Algeria in the early 1990’s, to the consternation of their superiors in Rome and to the anger of their families in Paris, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to leave their monastery, because they refused to cease serving the community’s poor. To meet a violent end, they knew, might simply be the consequence of constancy to the Lord who had called them to such a place.
On January 1, 1994 a premonition came over de Cherge, a vision of his own impending murder. Indeed he and seven of his brothers from the Abbey were kidnapped and eventually beheaded by terrorists calling themselves the Armed Islamic Group. Anticipating his own murder, Christian composed a final testament and posted it to his family to be read upon his death.
In it, de Cherge wrote:
“If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was not taken. My life was GIVEN to God. Indeed this ending had its beginning in my baptism.
I ask them to accept the fact that our Lord was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families — you are the hundredfold granted as was promised!”
Finally, remarkably, at the end of his letter de Cherge addresses his executioner with absolution:
“And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this Adieu to be a “GOD BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Tibhirine, 1st January 1994
On receiving the news of her son’s beheading, Christian de Cherge’s mother opened his sealed letter and read his testimony on May 26, 1996.
It was Pentecost Sunday.
As it turns out, Pentecost was a fitting feast day to read her son’s final adieu for the red paraments of Christian altars and the red doors of many churches have always symbolized not only the God who comes like tongues of fire but the blood of the martyred saints. Indeed the Church has always been sustained and nourished by both the Holy Spirit and the blood of the saints. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Put simply as I can, I think it true that if there were no martyrs there would be no Christianity…we are still only able to be Christians by the ongoing sacrifice of the martyrs.” In fact, it’s on Pentecost that Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preaches the first Christian sermon in which he declares, “This Jesus whom you killed God raised up and of that we have all been made witnesses.” And that word, witness, in the Greek it’s martyras.
This Jesus whom you killed God resurrected and we have all been made witnesses. We have all been made [potential] martyrs.
The word witness and the word martyr are the same word in scripture.
Not witness and crusader.
Witness and martyr.
It’s sewn into the meaning of the word that to bear witness to God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ is to elicit hostility and confrontation from the world— even that word, world, has sinister connotations in scripture.
In other words, to be incorporated into Christ and his Kingdom is to be conscripted into conflict, for the Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven is the Christ whom the world crucified.
You can see the conflict announced in our scripture text today, an earlier appearance of the Holy Spirit.
By preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, John symbolically recapitulates Israel’s exodus from Egypt into the promised land, which itself is a prophetic critique that God’s people have not lived up to their vocation to be a light to the nations. Instead, like all the other kingdoms of the world, Israel has chosen to worship at the altars of the false gods, Mammon and Mars, Greed and Violence.
That John calls God’s People to repentance in the wilderness of Judea not at the temple in Jerusalem is a rebuke of Israel’s entire temple system. It’s a righteous rejection, as unsubtle as his camel hair coat, of Israel’s priestly caste, all of whom— in the name of peace and stability—actively collaborate with Caesar whose evil empire is built— like all empires— on fealty to Mammon and Mars, Greed and Violence. This is why John calls the priests who have come from Jerusalem to Judea to investigate him a “brood of vipers” who are ripe for the wrath of God.
Jesus signals his agreement with John’s unyielding critique of the kingdoms of this world by electing to begin his ministry with John’s own message.
All of the Gospels go to lengths to report that Jesus initiates his work of announcing the Kingdom of God by joining John’s prophetic critique of the kingdoms of this world. This is why Jesus submits to John’s baptism even though Jesus is without sin and has no unrighteousness that requires repentance. Jesus begins his work of announcing the Kingdom of God by submitting to John the Baptist’s baptism in order to signal his concurrence with John’s message. It’s not just an act of humility; it’s an act of solidarity.
In other words, by accepting John the Baptist’s baptism Jesus announces that the Kingdom he brings will be an alternative to the kingdoms of this world. He’s not bringing advice for how his followers can negotiate life in the kingdoms of this world. He’s not bringing insights to add to the kingdoms we build in this world. He’s bringing an alternative. He’s calling forth an alternative community.
As Jesus came up out of the water, Matthew reports, the sky was torn asunder and the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove, alighting upon Jesus.
Now remember, Matthew’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. So when Matthew identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament does scripture depict the Holy Spirit of God as a dove. No, Matthew expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence. Matthew expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different. And keep in mind, Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living in the empire that crucified Christ. So when Matthew depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird. The Romans, Matthew assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their kingdom with the king of the birds, the eagle. It was as ubiquitous a symbol in the Roman Empire as it is in the empire called America. The eagle sat atop imperial banner stands, its talons gripping with the letters SPQR. Rome etched the eagle into monuments, sewed it into flags, and stamped it onto currency.
In all four Gospels, the ministry of Jesus begins with this symbolic, visual clash, Dove vs. Eagle.
A collision of kingdoms.
That’s what Matthew wants you to see, but that’s not all Matthew wants you to see because in the very next verse God declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” The Father’s declaration over the Son is a direct quotation from the second psalm, an enthronement psalm that anticipates
the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world: “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my beloved son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’”
Matthew expects you to know Psalm 2.
Just as Matthew assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.
There’s a reason we started a series on Matthew 5-7 in Matthew 3. The order in which the Matthew arranges his Gospel is constitutive of Matthew’s message.
Matthew starts you not at the temple in Jerusalem but at the Jordan River in Judea. Matthew shows you a Dove not an Eagle. Matthew reports to you the Father calls the Son “beloved.” Matthew informs you that next, immediately after his baptism, Jesus encounters the devil in the wilderness, who tells Jesus that the kingdoms of this world are the devil’s possession to give. And finally Matthew tells you— chapter five— that, having been tempted by the Ruler of this world, the very first words out of Jesus’s mouth announce an alternative Kingdom, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”
The Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of the Kingdom Christ brings. The Beatitudes are the preamble to the constitution of the Kingdom Christ brings. And baptism is the passport that makes you a citizen of the Kingdom Christ brings.
This is why, for instance, Matthew makes explicit that Jesus does not direct his sermon to the crowds who have gathered from the Galilee on the Mount of Beatitudes to listen to him. The crowds may hear him, but Jesus addresses not the crowds but his disciples. In the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, Jesus does not provide principles according to which anyone can or should live. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not offer a general teaching that is intelligible apart from following him. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does not give the Church a strategy to make the world a better place.
Rather, the Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s description for how the community of the baptized will be the better place he has already made in the world.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t teach that after we welcome the stranger the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.
Jesus doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Jesus doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Jesus doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us or that in forgiving a sinner the forgiven sinner will suddenly become a more forgiving person.
Rather, in a world of violence and injustice, in a world of greed and despair Jesus creates a people— through water and the Spirit, Jesus creates witnesses— who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor, care for those who have no one, and forgive those who do not deserve it. To bear witness to the Kingdom of Christ in such a world is to invite conflict, to risk offense, and to expect suffering.
The Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of the Kingdom of Christ. The Beatitudes are the preamble to the constitution of Christ’s Kingdom. And baptism is the passport that declares to whose Kingdom you ultimately belong.
Nico Smith was a South African Afrikaner minister, a prominent opponent of apartheid, and a professor of theology at the University of Stellenbosch.
Eventually in the mid-1960’s, Nico Smith began aggressively challenging apartheid in his classes, which provoked conflict with his superiors who wanted him to give his students the theological material without shaping them in a particular direction. “Teach theory, not conclusions,” they ordered.
Smith didn’t heed them. He also joined public protests against the government’s bulldozing of squatter shacks in Cape Town. Summoned before a church commission to justify himself, Smith decided to resign his professorship. Instead, he left the pro-apartheid Dutch Reformed Church and joined its colored branch. In 1982 he undermined the apartheid regime by preaching in an area of Pretoria designated for non-whites only. And in 1985, he and wife moved to that community to live.
Nico Smith attributed his peculiar and dangerous witness to an encounter he had with the theologian Karl Barth in the early 1960’s. A staunch supporter of apartheid at the time, Smith attended a lecture by Barth and the two spoke afterward. Smith describes the key moment of the exchange as follows: “Barth then looked at me and said: “May I ask you a personal question before you leave? Are you free to preach the Gospel in South Africa?”
“Of course,” I replied, “I’m completely free as we have freedom of religion in our country.”
Barth immediately responded by saying that that was not the type of freedom he had in mind.
He wanted to know whether I, if I came across things in the Bible that were not in accordance with what my friends and family believed, would be free to preach about such things? Or would I temper the demands of obedience?
I was once again embarrassed and said I really did not know as I had never yet had such an experience.
Barth then leaned a little forward in his chair, and said, “But you, it may become even more difficult. You may discover things in the Bible that are contrary to what your country is doing. Will you be free to preach about such issues?”
Once again, I had to say, “I really did not know.”
Barth then just said, “It’s OK, you may go.”
In the tram back to the city center, I thought about Barth’s questioning of me, and I said to myself, “I’m sure Barth thinks we in South Africa are Nazis and he wanted to warn me against apartheid. Barth had had the courage of his convictions, the courage to make me suffer, potentially, for his convictions. With his gentle but somewhat rude questioning and in so many words, he had shaken me by the collar and said, “Remember, your baptism!”
Barth had reminded Nico Smith of the passport he carried.
The story of Christian de Cherge and his fellow monks’s martyrdom is depicted in the award-winning film Of Gods and Men, and the movie makes explicit their deliberations during the years just prior to their deaths. The brothers of Tibhirine did not take extraordinary precautions to secure their safety. They did not cease their practice of welcoming the poor off the street to sleep in their abbey or of inviting strangers— possibly radicalized strangers— to eat at their table. They did not screen those they sought to serve. They did not fortify their abbey with defensive measures. They did not take up arms. They determined simply to continue giving God to the poor in their community in the same manner God gave himself to us in Christ, in meekness and in humility. They did not seek martyrdom but rather they understood martyrdom will always remain a possibility for those who live in this world as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom. They did not seek to die in such a manner in order to earn righteousness but rather, having been clothed with Christ’s righteousness in their baptisms, they could imagine no other intelligible manner in which to live.
They were not attempting to earn the Kingdom.
They were simply attempting to exemplify it.
To bear witness.
In the increasingly dangerous months before his martyrdom, Christian de Cherge’s mother accused her son of foolishness, insanity even.
“No,” he insisted in a letter to her, “I’m simply living out— living into— my baptism.”
In a few moments, through water and the Spirit, Graciella and Leah will be made witnesses. One is still a child while another is an adult. For both though, no matter their ages— baptism into the way of Christ is a cruelty if that first Christian sermon preached by Peter on Pentecost is wrong. To baptize anyone of any age into a cheek-turning, enemy-loving, trespass-forgiving way is cruel if that way ends only with a cross. If God has not raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, if the Holy Spirit has not come to continue the work of establishing Christ’s Kingdom, then the way of Jesus will always end with a cross.
And we should not impose it upon anyone.
Much less baptize them into it.
But the good news today is that, for the first time, Peter is not wrong. Christ is risen indeed. Heaven has been torn asunder and the Spirit has been loosed. God is able, therefore, to give himself to us in an ordinary creatures like water, wine and bread, and words thereby making our lives more than they otherwise would be. God does so by joining our lives to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “fellowship of the crucified;” that is, the baptized are those pledged to live according to a truth that can only be known by God raising Jesus Christ from the dead; namely, that the truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk, not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor, and not in the grain of an AR15’s laminated stock. The grain of the universe is revealed in the way of life that led to the world to pound nails into wood through flesh and bone, the way of life we’ll soon wet the heads of Graciella and Leah as they join the fellowship of the crucified, the community called by grace to bear witness to a truth that can only be known because the tomb is empty and the Spirit is here— the truth that the grain of the universe runs not with those who build crosses but with those who bear them.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’
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