That I should serve as the pastor of a church called Holy Cross is ironic. You see for years and years, before I ever dreamed of being the pastor of a church named Holy Cross, I’ve been trying to figure out how crosses became so popular. Personally, I can’t abide crosses! I hate them! I can’t abide the glorification of an instrument of torture and death! I have never understood why crosses are worn as jewelry! People would never dream of wearing an electric chair around their neck. I cannot for the life of me, imagine that any of Jesus’ followers would have ever considered wearing the symbol of Roman tyranny and persecution around their necks.
The early followers of the way; the first Christians used the fish as the symbol of their faith. For a very long time, I used to wear a simple fish necklace that a little girl made for me. Just before I went to seminary, my friend gave me a slightly more elaborate necklace with even more fish on it. Before I was ordained, I insisted that I’d never wear a cross. But then as an ordination gift my wife Carol had her son design a cross that is made up of fish and I must admit that it’s difficult to see this fish cross as an instrument of torture. But then I read a passage like the Gospel text from Mark 8:27-38 and once again the cross becomes a symbol of torture. In this text, the gospel-storyteller we call Mark has Jesus insist that, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross an follow me.” All I can say is “Woa, wait just a minute Jesus. Take up my cross and follow you. Wait a minute; I know where you’re going. You’re on your way to Jerusalem and I know exactly what’s going to happen when you get there. You are going to stir things up, get yourself into trouble, upset the powers that be and the next thing you know they are going to nail you to the cross and you are going to suffer and die. If I pick up my cross and follow Jesus, I’m going to end up right there with Jesus, hanging from my cross, suffering and dying and for what? What’s it all about Jesus? Why are you so hell-bent on getting yourself crucified and why do you want me to join you?”
It happens to me every year. No matter how hard I try, the journey of Lent leads me right back to the cross. And just like Peter, I want to rebuke Jesus. I don’t want a suffering Messiah. I want a Saviour who is triumphant without all the suffering. Or at the very least, I want a Messiah who doesn’t run the risk of having his followers glorify the violence of the cross. From the moment that Jesus hung there on the cross, his followers have been trying to understand why and all to often they point to God and they say that the violence of the cross needed to happen in order to satisfy God’s need for justice. They twist and turn things and before you know it God is reduced to some grand executioner in the sky who demands a blood sacrifice. Before you know it, they’re glorifying suffering as if suffering was somehow God’s will for us. Are we all expected to forget that Jesus said that he came that we might have life and live it abundantly? Christianity instead of encouraging people to live, encourages the followers of Jesus to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus, in such a way as to suggest that suffering is good for us or worse yet, that suffering is God’s will for us.
All too often, Christianity’s cross-eyed perspective has distorted the Good News that God is LOVE and we are left worshiping the cross instead of the ONE who came proclaiming a reign of God that would see the end of institutionalized torture, violence and death.
As part of our training, pastors are expected to complete a year of internship. An internship is where we are given the chance to put all the stuff we have learned at seminary into practice. All the theology, the psychology, the liturgics and all the pastoral care skills that we have learned from all the lectures, all the books, and all the papers that we have been writing are supposed to help us to be pastors. Well one of the first things that you learn on internship is that seminary is no substitute for experience. I became painfully aware of my own lack of experience while waiting in line at a funeral visitation. There I was in my brand new clergy collar wondering what on earth I could possibly say to a woman who had just lost her husband. I knew that one of the responsibilities of my new job was providing comfort to the bereaved. But what comfort could I offer?
My seminary training had taught me the right words to say. But all of the words that came to mind seemed like nothing more than empty platitudes. This woman’s beloved husband lay dead in a box and I could only imagine her pain. At the time, I’d never been married. I have never known the pain of losing a partner. What could I possibly say? I don’t remember what I actually did say to that grieving widow, but I do remember what I learned that evening. After I had mumbled a few words of condolence to the widow, another woman came up behind us. When the widow caught sight this woman, her eyes filled with tears and she fell into the woman’s arms. The woman held the widow and said over and over again, “I know, I know, I know.”
I found out later the reason that this woman knew. Just a few short months before she too had lost her husband. She knew the sharpness of the grieving widow’s pain. She knew the horror, the fear and the sadness of such an overwhelming loss and she more than anyone else in the room knew how to ease the pain of someone who had been similarly afflicted. Since then I have seen others who have known pain offer similar comfort. No one can comfort a grieving widow in quite the same way another widow can. No one can comfort a grieving parent in quite the same way as another parent who has also lost a child. No one can comfort the victim of terror in quite the same way as someone who has also been terrified.
When someone shares in our suffering, somehow the knowledge that we are not alone, that there is someone out there who knows the pain that we are going through, the knowledge that we are cared for by someone who truly knows our pain comforts us and gives us the strength we need to endure our suffering.
To be alone in our suffering is the most terrible thing that we can imagine. The Good News that God is LOVE means that LOVE will not let us suffer alone because LOVE is determined to suffer with us. Working in, with, and through those who have experienced our pain LOVE is able to enfold us and say, “I know, my child, I know.”
During the season of Lent, I am often tempted to cast aside any talk of suffering. After all, we are a people who refuse to see suffering in the same way as our ancestors did. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. We think pain should go away, preferably immediately. Turn on any TV set and before long you will be deluged by ads touting instant cures for almost anything that might ail you. If a person continues to suffer, we are likely to recommend therapy. We view suffering as the exception or as a disruption of life, something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible, or—when that is impossible—drugged out of human consciousness. Unlike our ancestors, we no longer see suffering as a normal part of life. We see ourselves as in control of our lives, and we expect to have the power to make suffering go away. So we banish talk of suffering and even those who sufferer to the margins of our lives. Where our ancestors learned to cope with suffering, we are surprised and dumfounded when it comes to our door, or to the door of someone we love. Lest we be accused of wallowing in suffering we banish talk of such misery from the public sphere.
We want a religion that is “uplifting” so let’s sing a happy song and send everyone home smiling. Peter’s objection to Jesus’ talk about suffering makes sense to us. Peter expected Jesus to be the kind of Messiah who would save his people from suffering. Jesus’ talk about suffering provided no easy answers and sent Peter into a tailspin. We too, would like some answers to the questions of suffering. Lord knows denial doesn’t work. Living our lives as though suffering won’t touch us, might work for a while, that is if we’re prepared to wall ourselves up and shut ourselves off from the trials and tribulations of life, but sooner or later someone or something will surely touch us. When we open ourselves up we run the risk of being hurt. Medications and therapy have their place but they won’t protect us from come what may. Some expect governments to protect us. Some look to wealth to protect us. Still others seek power to protect themselves. Most of us know we cannot protect ourselves, so some of us turn to someone who or something that is more powerful than we are. So many people cry out for a religion that will provide them with answers to the problems of suffering and they put their faith in answers. Answers they learn by rote and mouth with assurance when suffering strikes. Answers that they insist will suffice if we only have faith, declaring that faith will protect us from suffering, bring us security, and give us victory. Convinced that answers will save them from suffering they insist on a church that avoids the cross, a church that uplifts and promises victory and triumph if you only believe in the answers.
As tempting as it may be to put away our Lenten traditions, to avoid Gethsemane, to ignore Good Friday and head straight for the triumph of Easter’s empty tomb, we are the ones who follow a crucified Christ. We proclaim a theology of the cross and worship the One who has made God’s very self vulnerable to our suffering. We follow a crucified Christ because only a crucified messiah reveals God as a suffering, vulnerable God.
Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch Christ suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of reality is One who enters into suffering. Only a suffering God can help. Only a fellow sufferer can understand our suffering. Only God can know. The image of a vulnerable and suffering God is objectionable to those who seek an invincible God who shields us from our own vulnerability. But the image of a God who knows our suffering is the image that is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The God who has been revealed to us in Christ, is LOVE that hears the cries of those who suffer.
The scriptures are full of stories about our God who hears the cries of the poor and defends the orphans, upholds the rights of widows and immigrants and seeks those who are lost. God suffers with God’s people. God comes among us as a vulnerable baby born among the homeless, lives as an immigrant, associates with the outcasts and compares the reign of God to receiving a little child. The one who reveals such a God, is then executed as a criminal and buried in a borrowed tomb. This Transcendent LOVE has moved into our vulnerability, our guilt, our alienation, our suffering, and our death. God has claimed our weakness as a resource for divine power. God has claimed our wounds as the means of healing.
Following a crucified Christ, we can face our own vulnerability. We don’t have to hide behind a mask of control or wear the protective armor of invulnerability. We can confront our weakness and as the Apostle Paul taught us, we can declare that “when I am weak then I am strong.” We can take up the cross with the full assurance that Christ has gone before us and now shares its weight and pain. We follow a wounded healer who transforms our brokenness into wholeness and gives us the power to embody healing. God who is LOVE living and breathing in, with, through, and beyond us is that power!
She didn’t have to take up her cross. No one expected her to. The pain of her loss was too much to bare, and her own wound was inflamed by the news of yet more suffering. The death of her beloved is the cross she bears, a burden that seemed to heavy to carry out into the world. But she picked up her cross and as vulnerable as she was she ventured forth determined to suffer with those for whom the wound was fresh. People talk a great deal about the idea of solidarity, but that day, solidarity took on flesh and was embodied in an embrace between two widows; widows whose wounds shared the contours and textures all too familiar to our God. In watching the tender embrace of grieving widows, I have seen the ability of our God who is LOVE to sooth the suffering and heal the afflicted. Not with power and might, not with answers or magic, but with grace that is embodied when the vulnerable reach out with love.
Each of us has crosses to we must bear. I believe that the contours and the textures of our wounds are transformed by LOVE living and breathing in, with, through, and beyond us. Jesus invites us to pick up our crosses and follow Christ into the world. Following Christ we can enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We can experience the power and LOVE that is God through vulnerability. Kinship, friendship, solidarity with those who suffer brings with it the a power which is divine. Nothing so snaps us to attention and moves us into the depth of life’s meaning as an anguished cry from someone we love. Peripheral concerns are stripped away and when enter the sacred world of shared suffering. We enter into the presence of our crucified God. We follow the crucified Christ as a people of hope because we live on the other side of the cross from Peter. What Jesus hinted at to Peter all those years ago happened. In, with, through, and beyond us the Crucified One becomes the Risen Healer.
Those who follow Christ know the future does not belong to the triumph of suffering, sin, and death. It belongs to the reign of God. The reign of the One who calls us to take up our cross and follow Christ into the world. LOVE living and breathing in, with, through, and beyond us is Christ’s body in a world in need of the healing balm of LOVE; LOVE that takes on flesh and dwells among us.