(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on March 22, 2015)
For those of us who have been in the church and around Christians for a long time, I think we tend to forget how strange and foolish the central part of our faith sounds.
This season of Lent, leading up to Easter, reminds us of the submission and suffering at the heart of Christianity…it really seems like a failure, the death of the one we put our entire trust in.
True, we believe and teach that it didn’t end there. Easter did come, resurrection conquered the power of death. But Paul and the gospels refuse to gloss over or throw away the suffering of the cross. We can say it even stronger than that: even with the truth of resurrection, we still put our eggs in the crucifixion basket.
Is it ok to use an Easter basket metaphor about faith? Or do I just confuse everything that way?
There’s something scandalous and strange and frankly offensive and unattractive at the heart of our faith. This is Paul’s message, and I think after 2000 years of Christian culture, we can forget how strange it is.
Here’s some of what I mean.
Last week, we sang a hymn that has a message exactly in line with Paul, who centers everything on Christ crucified. It’s a hymn that uses the metaphor of “blood” to stand for the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. The blood, the song says, is where our power comes from. I’ve known this hymn most of my life, and remember working at Forest Home Christian Camp in college, and hearing a singing group from Azusa Pacific University sing it often.
But look at the words we sang.
It reaches to the highest mountain,
it flows to the lowest valley;
the blood that gives me strength
from day to day,
it will never lose its power.
I didn’t notice anyone freak out about this, but I remember sitting last week in second service, staring at the familiar words even as I was singing, and wondering: can you imagine a picture that illustrated these words? It would be a bit gruesome, wouldn’t it?
A visual picture is not what the song aims for. The meaning of the metaphor is clear, and I agree with it. But, wow. Taking off my familiar eyes, stepping out of my Christian comfort zone…this is just bizarre. It isn’t just ancient Jews or Greeks that look at our central message and find it difficult to accept. For many today, the heart of our faith is difficult to embrace.
It isn’t just those unfamiliar with Christian teaching or imagery that find the cross difficult to embrace.
I see people and churches and entire movements in Evangelical Christianity that limit teaching about the cross just to how it forgives our sin, instead of embracing the cross as a way of life. We find it challenging to not just leap to Easter power, forgetting that everywhere we look in the New Testament, it is a way of life that includes obedience and surrender and “taking up our cross” which brings resurrection power.
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:10, emphasis mine.)
For all the strangeness, all the difficulty, all the foolishness of a savior who “failed” and was killed…I want to join Paul in preaching (and living) Christ crucified!
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-24, TNIV)
Jews struggled because they wanted to see miraculous signs, signs of unstoppable power to prove God was at work. Greeks struggled because they wanted to see wisdom which led to success.
How about us?
Why do we struggle to embrace the fullness of this sacrificial way of life? I’m going to ask you in a little bit why you think that might be.
But first, I was remembering something from a decade ago that fits right in line with today’s theme. Pope John Paul II was nearing the end of his life, battling Parkinson’s disease and other ailments that were causing him to deteriorate and suffer right in front of the world’s eyes. In his 27 years as pope, he had gone from being one of the youngest and most active popes ever, to someone who embodied physical suffering.
He let the world see his suffering. I read an article in Newsweek, weeks before his death, that talked about why he did this. It needed explanation, because many in America especially were becoming more and more bold, asking when the pope would resign, as it had become so clear that he was not physically capable of doing his job.
Nine years before his death, the pope had made clear what he was intending by not hiding his deterioration. “I must lead her with suffering. The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”
In the Newsweek article, a quote from an African bishop showed us in America what we were missing: the pope, visible in his suffering, is “a living presence of the very essence of Christianity, which is the cross—and resurrection.”
Protestants struggled to understand that the Pope could be more than his function, be more than what he accomplished.
Part of us balks at the idea that he could have value in suffering, value in BEING, even if he couldn’t perform religious duties. Too often leadership, even Christian leadership, becomes about performance, acts, deeds, accomplishments, rather than the cross.
I think that need for doing, that need for accomplishment is one of the reasons we can struggle to embrace this life of the cross. Now I want to ask you what you think: what are some other reasons we might struggle to embrace for ourselves the fullness of this sacrificial way of life that Jesus modeled? [ASK]
Certainty; Security; God works all things for good (if we can’t see it, we’re angry); suffering better have a payoff, not just random; Fairness; immediacy…God should act quickly
In some ways, I see how Paul’s words from long ago actually still relate to some of what we struggle with today.
The wisdom we look for is for things to add up, to make sense. We want guarantees that if we do “x” then “y” will always occur. Suffering without it making sense seems foolish to us.
The strength and power we look for is for God to always be fair, for God to act quickly, for God to work all things for good in our time frame. Death on the cross feels like losing, feels like weakness.
And then comes Paul’s words to us: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
If I were Paul’s editor, I think I would want to add “…in the long run” at the end of that verse.
Because there IS great power and hope shown in Easter’s resurrection and vindication. It IS a gigantic shout that God knows what God is doing, that our way of looking at things so often pulls us away from the humility, obedience, suffering and cross-bearing through which God demonstrates that resurrection power.
But I’d want to add “in the long run” because I think when things don’t work on our time-table, it can cause us to give up on the way of the cross and try to bring about Easter power on our own terms.
It’s hard to love people who keep making wrong choices, who keep hurting us. It’s hard to keep wanting to stay engaged in relationship when we are suffering and being wounded. Whenever I say that, I need to give a strong disclaimer: I’m not talking at all about continuing to suffer when you are being physically or sexually abused by someone you love. I’m also not ruling out the fact that sometimes loving someone requires us to set some clear boundaries, and not to rescue over and over again.
But I am talking about the reality that it is really challenging to serve sacrificially over the long haul. I always think back to the couple who showed up at my office at our church in Boise, the couple who had been homeless for decades, saying they wanted help. For months, I drove them places, I went to court with them, I found financial help, I used all my connections to find them a place to live.
But when they got angry at me because I wasn’t doing enough, I just gave up. I felt unappreciated. I felt angry that God hadn’t honored my hard work by “fixing” them. I wanted a happy ending on my terms that would honor the sacrifices I made, and when it didn’t come after a couple of months, I gave up.
I am not proud of that. I had my view of what was the right response for them to make, my view of what was fair, my view of what they needed. I often didn’t listen to what they really desired. I didn’t take into account two decades of choices and experiences that made it challenging for them to act like I thought they should act.
When I think back about that experience, to me it seems like I was only willing to sacrifice if there was a payoff in the short term.
When it didn’t come, it seemed foolishness to continue. Here’s what I think is the key: I did not ask God or consider the question, “How does God want me to serve?” I made up my own mind that it wasn’t wise, that it was foolish for me to continue. By doing so, what I was really rejecting was the way of obedience. Instead, I was choosing myself as the one who could decide when, where, and how my service was worth giving.
It very well may be that if I had sought God, I would have gotten the same answer, that it was ok to stop. But the point is…I didn’t seek at all. I just got tired and annoyed and I chose to give up. I chose not to follow the way Christ showed how to live based on my own “wisdom.”
I suppose that’s what I’m challenging us to consider today.
I’m not saying we have to suffer all the time, or that there is never a time to walk away from someone in need. I am saying that if we center our lives on “Christ crucified”, we are centering our lives on obedience to God that may cost us everything. Therefore, we must choose to practice listening and discernment. We must choose to seek God’s direction. We must choose to be the kind of people who don’t let the fact that we are suffering or annoyed or that we are not seeing results become the sole reason to stop serving another.
What the pope did, and what we can strive to do, is be so focused on imitating Christ and obeying God that we are willing to suffer with grace.
Seeing graceful suffering reminds us that the fabric of our world, the lifeblood of redemption, came through the willful suffering of God in Jesus Christ. The victory and vindication of God is not in glorious, overcoming power… but through redemptive, love-incarnated suffering. May we, with Christ living in us, strive to show it.