“Minimum Salary”

Text: John 16:16-33

One of the best commentaries on the Gospel of John is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a novel which also has a good deal to say about theological education. I want to begin by quoting at length a passage from that novel that has to do with a novice priest who has recently graduated from a theological school of sorts and who is struggling to discern the particular shape of God’s call upon his life.

What precipitates the crisis that animates this scene is the discovery on the student’s part that his mentor, his beloved professor and teacher, is not a saint. Perhaps for most students at Union-PSCE such a discovery comes well before graduation, but for Alyosha the discovery that his mentor, Father Zossima, is not only mortal but is subject to the same humiliation that death brings to us all, that discovery almost shatters his faith. He knew that his teacher would die, but he had thought that his teacher’s saintliness would have preserved the old man from the corruption of death, and render him a kind of relic, bearing mute witness to his own holiness. But that is not what happened. Like Lazarus, the dead Father Zossima, soon “stinketh.” Upon discovering this and in confusion and despair, Alyosha flees the monastery, wanders about the town, and returns, exhausted, late at night only to find another monk sitting beside the coffin of his beloved teacher, reading the Gospel text aloud.

Alyosha sits down in the darkened room and tries to pray. His prayers, however, are interrupted by the monk’s reading of the Gospel lesson. So, reluctantly, he begins to listen. The monk is reading from John 2, the story of the wedding at Cana. “And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, ‘They have no wine.’” “Ah yes,” Alyosha thinks to himself, “I was missing that, and I didn’t want to miss it, I love that passage: it’s Cana of Galilee, the first miracle … Ah that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief, but their joy Christ visited. He worked his first miracle to help men’s gladness… He who loves men loves their gladness… There’s no living without joy.”1 As Alyosha continues to listen, he dozes off and in a dream his former teacher comes to him in a vision, his tired old face now crinkled in a smile. “We are rejoicing,” the little, thin old man tells him. “We are drinking the new wine, the wine of new, great gladness. Do you see how many guests are tasting the new wine?… Do you see our Son, do you see Him?”

“I dare not look,” whispers Alyosha.

“Do not fear him. He is terrible in his greatness, awful in his sublimity, but infinitely merciful. He has made himself like unto us from love and rejoices with us. He is changing the water into wine that the gladness of the guests may not be cut short.”2

Alyosha wakes from the dream, looks again at the coffin to reassure himself that his former teacher is actually dead, and then makes a decision. He turns sharply away, going down the steps and out of the monastery entirely. He leaves his school behind and does not look back.

He did not stop on the steps either, but went quickly down; his soul overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft shining stars stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed out against the sapphire sky… The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of the earth was one with the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood, gazed out before him and then suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it. But he kissed it weeping and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it forever and ever. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears.” His elder’s words echoed in his soul….. Within three days, he left the monastery in accordance with the words of his teacher, who had bidden him to “go forth into the world.”3

I would encourage you, if you have not already done so, to read this novel, which has so much to say about the human heart and the joy that sustains those who undertake the risk of teaching and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, in truth, it is the joy Alyosha comes to know that I want you to see, and to see it not as a virtue or as a kind of optimistic spirit to be cultivated or even the musings of a “beautiful soul,” but as “the minimum salary,” the gift that is paid regularly, if surprisingly and sometimes quite subversively, to those who offer themselves in Christ’s service. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy,” Alyosha, the seminary graduate remembers his teacher telling him; it is not men’s grief but their joy Christ visited.

So what do you make of this scene of passionate joy? A mystic caught in an ecstatic moment who is both enraptured and perhaps also disturbed? A student momentarily paralyzed at the prospect of leaving the friendly confines of a seminary campus for the more daunting world outside? And kissing the earth and watering it with tears of joy? When was the last time such an over the top liturgical act made sense to decent and orderly Calvinists? Or even warmhearted Wesleyans, for that matter?

I think that if we are honest with ourselves, we are a bit embarrassed with Alyosha’s antics and don’t know quite what to do with such joy. Yet, strangely Scripture embarrasses us in much the same way. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter,” the psalmist writes; “and our tongue with shouts of joy.” (Ps.126:2) “Who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” the author of Hebrews (12:2) reminds us in a phrase that stands in stark contrast to more recent depictions of the Passion. Love may be the first fruit of the Spirit but the second is joy (Gal.5:22) which Paul has no trouble turning into a verb, enjoining us to “Rejoice always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Phil.4:4) In the synoptics, the complaint most often voiced against Jesus is not that he is grimly prophetic, but rather that he is a “glutton and a drunkard,” who enjoys the life of the party a bit too much, and inevitably with the wrong people (Matt.11:19). In John’s Gospel, as we have heard read this morning, Jesus talks to his disciples about that joy a new mother knows, a joy that includes labor pains that may well be full of tears but which are soon put aside when the child is laid in her arms. That joy, he says to his disciples, is the property that rightfully belongs to those who follow Jesus Christ. “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22)

I suspect that for many of us “joy” seems a harmless thing, an ornament, perhaps, to the Christian life but not its essence. It is easy for us to assimilate the word to our notions of optimism or fun or positive thinking or even being in a good mood, all pleasant and even marketable commodities but sustainable only if one ignores the harsher realities of disease, poverty, oppression, and death. Candide, one suspects, is modernity’s “take” on joy: a naïve pleasure indulged in only by fools, by people who do not really know what is going on. “Those who are laughing,” Brecht once said, “have not heard the terrible news.” After all, how can one be joyful in the face of so much suffering? Life is a serious business. You may be forgiven even today for thinking that the past three years or so have been devoted to the serious business of learning to exegete a biblical text or engage in the exhausting tasks of pastoral care or undertake the demanding work of preparing to teach, all for the sake of taking seriously a world that is very serious about itself and its own needs. Alexander Schmemann, in noting the almost obsessive seriousness of our own culture, especially the seriousness of its games and entertainments, asks, “How can one be joyful when so many people suffer? How can one indulge (in the festival of worship) and celebrations when people expect from us ‘serious’ answers to their problems.”4 He then goes on to describe how the church often forfeits its claim to joy precisely at this point, and always in the name of some good work or serious cause. “Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. They believe that the only way to be taken ‘seriously’ by the ‘serious’ – that is, by modern man – is to be serious, and therefore, to reduce to a symbolic minimum what in the past was so tremendously central in the life of the church – the joy of a feast.”5

We work so hard to do without joy, even to the point of specifying what is the absolute minimum we can believe and still retain the good opinion of the all too serious modern world. But “the absolute minimum,” while entirely respectable, is not enough; it is not enough to sustain you in ministry or to sustain a life in faith. “It was not men’s grief, but their joy Christ visited,” Alyosha discovers. The Gospel is large, unmanageable, embarrassingly beautiful, extravagant enough to make you embrace the earth and even kneel to kiss it, enough to send you out of a seminary, not trying to preserve all you have learned for fear of losing it, but crazy enough, foolish enough, joyful enough to spend it all on a world – or what is harder, on a congregation – in any case on folk who are busy reconciling themselves to the sad wisdom of death and do not quite know what to do with a gospel of resurrection joy.

It is that sad wisdom I would warn you of today. That is the wisdom that seeks to preserve its life and even justify itself, and it is the wisdom, I regret to tell you, that pervades our churches and pulpits, and is not unknown even in our life together as a seminary. Such sad wisdom is what is overcome in the joy of the feast that Alyosha hears in the story of the wedding at Cana. That is the joy that converts him from being reconciled to death and its very “spiritual” ways, to embracing the earth in all its delicious earthliness. That is why joy is so un-ornamental and why it has so little to do with the “immortality of the soul” and so much to do with the “resurrection of the body.”

The work upon which you are about to embark is so much not a career, so much not even a “second career,” but more like a fearsome quest or pilgrimage, full of dragons, a long obedience that will engage you with principalities and powers quite beyond your imagining. Our culture’s image of a pastor or a teacher does not envision anything so dangerous or so demanding. Pastors and teachers are thought to be “helpers” who are “nice” people who do “kind things” for others and are unobjectionable if harmless folk. This is an image, I believe, by which our culture attempts to reassure itself that it is well insulated from the severe mercies of God’s grace. Yet, I tell you that as pastors and teachers you will see the power of death to divide races in the communities to which you are called, and divide churches which you will pastor, that will celebrate violence and war between nations and families, and even marriages, and will rejoice in dividing your own heart and in all forms of despair and self-destruction. And precisely here, you will be asked to “help.” You will be asked, daily, to enable folk to live with less than what the Gospel promises, to get by with a “symbolic minimum” of the Gospel’s story. You will be asked not to preach or teach anything as radical or extravagant or as beautiful as resurrection hope, but rather to offer “explanations,” even to “explain death,” to help folk become adjusted to that “final reality.” Such “help” is not an unpleasant task. A culture bent on pursuing its own happiness has a way of rewarding those in the “helping professions” and is always eager for the Gospel to prove itself useful in one way or another. But precisely here, you must learn to say, “No.” Precisely here you must learn to laugh and to rejoice in the Gospel’s glorious lack of explanation, lack of resignation, lack of seriousness, and celebrate instead the divine comedy that insists on embarrassing us with its feast of bread and wine, of resurrection joy, of its crude, subversive, even outlandish insistence that Jesus lives. That news does not “help” the world further its agenda, especially not its sad agenda of resignation to death and the deadly ways we justify ourselves or make our theologies more acceptable to the pursuit of its happiness. Yet as Master Calvin would remind us, the gospel is not first of all about our own salvation. Indeed, I hardly need to tell you that our only real comfort is that we belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to ourselves but to One who is faithful and who is relentlessly ingenious if not downright sneaky in drawing us out of our agendas into his life, “making us wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”6

How sneaky this One is can be seen in the fact that the gospel you are called to serve is not merely good or true, or even powerful, but is, as Alyosha discovered, surpassingly beautiful. That may be what we least expect of the gospel, that it is…. beautiful. But that is why joy is so much at the center of the faith, why the Christian life is, among other things, an aesthetic response, a way of living “gracefully” before the God of grace, the way of learning to dance before the God whose life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church Fathers thought best described in terms of a dance. Do not hurry to make this “grace” a thing of moral rectitude. We Calvinists have much to answer for in that regard. But first of all, rejoice. As the text says, though you will soon “be scattered, each one to his own home,” be of good cheer. Living gracefully is the gift of that One who has overcome the world.

Let me end with two more quotes from Dostoyevsky. The first is from a sermon given by Father Zossima describing to “graduating seminarians” the “minimum salary” of faith. He says:

My friends, pray to God for gladness. Be glad as children, as the birds of heaven. And let not the sin of men confound you in your doings. Fear not that it will wear away your work and hinder its being accomplished. Do not say: “Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good works from being done.” Fly from that dejection!7

But how is one to do such a thing, to keep disappointment and even despair over one’s own efforts at bay? How are we to “rejoice always,” to “be glad” and what would it look like if such a miracle were to occur?

At the end of the novel, Alyosha has found himself among a group of boys, one of whom has died after a long illness. The boy who died, whose name is Illusha, had been an outsider, the butt of jokes and object of ridicule, until Alyosha came and brought a measure of reconciliation and peace. There are 12 boys who are following Alyosha, and this clear reference to the New Testament is made unmistakably clearer, when Alyosha talks to his 12 disciples on the way to the funeral breakfast. Kolya, the leader of the boys, asks Alyosha, “Karamazov, can it be true as they teach us in church, that we shall all rise again, all, Illusha, too?” And Alyosha replies with the beautiful, simple, but wholly mysterious truth of the Gospel: “Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened.” Alyosha says this, half laughing. “Oh how wonderful it will be!” cried Kolya. Aloysha says: “Well, let us go! And now we go hand in hand.”8

How does joy overtake us amidst all our seriousness and lethal efforts to become reconciled to the sad wisdom of death? As it did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, or those who were fishing all night with nothing to show for it, or those huddled in an upper room locked against the world. It creeps in when we weren’t looking for it, and surprises us with the presence of the risen Lord, who will surprise you in your teaching and pastoring and studying. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again, a little while, and you will see me…” So even though there is pain and longing and disappointment and defeat, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

It is the risen Lord, alone, who saves us from the hopeless pursuit of happiness and makes our work instead so full of joy. Well, now, let us go. And now we go hand in hand. Amen.

THOMAS W. CURRIE is Dean, Union Theological Seminary/ PSCE in Charlotte, North Carolina.


1 F. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett, Signet Classic, 1980; p. 331.

2 Ibid. p. 333.

3 Ibid. pp.333-334.

4 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973; p.53.

5 Ibid. p.55.

6 The Heidelberg Catechism, answer to Q. 1.

7 Dostoyevsky, Op. Cit. p. 295.

8 Ibid. p. 700.

Send your comment on this report to The Outlook
          Please include your full name, hometown and state.