Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Lent

The God of Suffering Love

Many of us have probably seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie. When it was released in 2004 it caused quite a stir amongst different groups of people, not least for its gruesome and bloody portrayal of the torture that Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of his earthly life.

The word ‘passion’ has its origins in the Greek verb ‘pasch?’, to suffer. So when we talk about the Passion of Jesus, we are referring to the suffering he endured, particularly during the last week of his life. In a matter of days, from the time that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, receiving wild acclaim from the crowds laying palm branches in front of him and hailing him as the coming King, to the utter humiliation of being crucified at the hands of the Romans, Jesus’ life was turned completely on its head.

He knew his days were numbered of course. The unfolding events of that tumultuous week came as no surprise to him. Luke 9 tells us that he resolutely set out for Jerusalem, telling his disciples that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in that centre of power. His disciples were expecting him, as the Messiah, to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime, violently if need be. So for Jesus to speak about his upcoming death was something the disciples were simply unable to comprehend. No wonder Peter earlier rebuked him and said this must never happen (Mark 8:31-33).

While Jesus knew full well what he was up to, we also see, in all four Gospel accounts, that his attitude was one of service. That was in fact the very reason he was heading to his death, “to serve, not to be served, and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.” (Mark 10:45). For his disciples this required a complete change of mindset to understand what he was on about. The saying ‘everything you know is wrong’ was one they would have come to intimately relate to. And so, as they were squabbling over who would be the greatest in this new kingdom that Jesus was bringing in, Jesus turned it all around and said to them that if they want to be first, then the way to do it is to serve. And, as always, Jesus walked his talk. By leading the way himself, he had the moral authority to tell his disciples that the way of life was the way of putting yourselves out there for others. And that inherently involves suffering.

If we watch the news every day we are reminded that we live in a world of suffering. Despite great progress towards poverty alleviation over the years, there are still 22,000 children who die every day from poverty-related diseases. The Christian faith proclaims loudly and clearly that the cries of the poor are heard by God, for this is a God who has been in their shoes. He does not sympathise from afar; he empathises from within. We see Christ in the eyes of those who suffer. This is God come to earth as a human person and walking in our footsteps. This is a God who says in the Garden of Gethsemane that he is troubled to the point of death, who is so anguished that he sweats drops of blood as he contemplates the incomprehensible enormity of what he is about to go through, all for love, all to make a better world in every way. Who could imagine a God who is anguished, a God who suffers, and a God who, through all of this, serves? Is this not love at its best, continuing to give despite the cost?

Such extravagant love is of course what inspires us millions of Christians to work for the betterment of our world, to work to bring in the kingdom of God. The love of God gives us the strength to be the best we can be in our efforts to set the world right. Love shows us the way, love we see personified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A Lenten reflection

If you were walking around in a supermarket not long after Christmas you could have been forgiven for thinking that you had skipped a couple of months of your life, such was the proliferation of chocolate Easter eggs already for sale. We are a society addicted to consumption. We want it all and we want it now.

The temptation to succumb to the consumerist way of life is with us daily. So as we come into the season of Lent, which is about going without, it is timely to remind ourselves that Jesus faced the same temptations we do. In Luke 4 we read that Jesus was shown all the kingdoms of the world, in all their glitz and glamour, and was told it could all be his if he would just sell his soul. Those forty days in the wilderness for Jesus were a time of extreme testing and trial, and it is during Lent that we identify with this as many of us make our own sacrifices.

Jesus resisted all the temptations thrown at him during that time, because he knew a better way. Not an easier way, but a better way. What the gospels show us, and what Lent reminds us of, is that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. In his day that meant nothing less than a death sentence. When Jesus told his disciples about this in Mark 8, it was the major turning point in his ministry. It was the beginning of the end. Sometimes referred as the Caesarea Philippi Declaration, this was the first time Jesus made clear to his disciples that he was going to go to Jerusalem to meet his death.

What we also see in this enormously significant passage is that the disciples just didn’t get it. How could they? They had a completely different mindset. Their idea of a messiah was one who would overthrow the tyranny of the Roman Empire. After all, that was something that the Jews had been pinning their hopes on for hundreds of years. They had been under the yoke of oppression for that long and they had had enough. So when Jesus came along and spoke to his disciples about self-denial and taking up your cross and that he was going to die, should we be surprised that they couldn’t deal with it?

If we ever needed it, Lent is a time for reminding us that following Jesus is a struggle. When we commit our lives to bringing in the kingdom of God in all we are and all we do, it can be easy for cynicism to easily take hold as we see corruption and injustice always seeming to win the day. How do we go on when it always seems to be two steps forward and three steps back?

Lent though prepares us for what lies ahead. For many it is a time to give up some indulgence, like chocolate or coffee (or something even more difficult like Facebook!). It is a time to identify with suffering, with going without, in order to realise more our dependence on the God of hope. In a world where we constantly face the temptation to want it all and want it now, Lent offers a different way. The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross. It is an unavoidable fact of life. There is no resurrection without death.

This year, let’s consider giving up something during Lent. It can not only bring us closer to God, but it also helps us identify more with those whose entire lives consist of going without. And by doing this, you may just find that you experience a joy that you would not otherwise experience; a joy that can give you strength to continue the good fight. As author Walt Wangerin says, “Joy knows suffering and still does not despair. Joy sees the suffering of others and does not turn away, but moves forward in courage, to comfort and to heal.”

The prophet Nehemiah also says, “the joy of the Lord will be your strength”. Jesus knew this. He knew it on the night he was betrayed and we can be sure he knew it during his forty days in the wilderness. The journey of struggle to set the world right is a long one. But it is one that brings life and joy, and that is why it is worthwhile. May that be your experience of Lent this year.

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