To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
(To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.
The third day, he rose from the dead. The central event in all of human history happened in the middle of the night, in a tomb, in the dark, with nobody around, nobody to say much of anything about it, and even now, it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I remember listening to one of my preaching professors in seminary, Gail O’Day, who is now the president of the divinity school at Wake Forest, as she told the story of one sermon she’d graded, as the student tried to explain the resurrection, tried to find a way to use the words of a sermon to give the Resurrection the weight it deserved. He compared Jesus, she said, to a box of oreos. Here is what he said in the sermon:
It was raining, as I put on my rain boots and got in the car to go to the grocery store one afternoon about 3 o clock. I walked in the store and walked straight to the cookie aisle, as I had a hankering for some double stuff oreos. Not the regular ones, mind you, double stuff. As I approached the aisle, he continued, I noticed that there was a conspicuous hole where the double stuff oreos were supposed to be. They had the regular oreos, plenty of them. They had the watermelon ones—did you know there were watermelon oreos?—which of course they had those because who wants to buy watermelon oreos? And yet in the middle of all the different kinds of oreos, there was a hole, a place where the special, sacred double stuff oreos had been but were not anymore. Just like the women who watched the crucifixion, I was crushed.
And I want to the manager, he said, because I wanted these cookies, I needed them, and the manager said, I am sorry, but we are all out of double stuff oreos. They are gone. But I can give you a rain check, if you like, so that you can come back and find, that in that hole, that tomb-like hole in which you couldn’t find what you were looking for, you will find the double-stuff oreos you are looking for. And I asked him, so, how long do you think it will be before I can come back and you will have double stuff oreos? And he said, oh, come back in three days.
Let’s just say that that sermon didn’t get an A. I hope this one does better, though I want to acknowledge that when we talk about the Resurrection, we are talking about something that really defies logic. I mean, here’s your assignment: explain to me, in twenty minutes or less and using your own understanding of science and the universe, how somebody who died can come back to life three days later? I mean, without saying, oh, he was just in a coma, or whatever, which is silly, how can you explain it? You really can’t. And it is important, also, to acknowledge what the Creed does not say, which is that God somehow brought Jesus back to life. Jesus was raised all on his own, thank you very much, not reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster, not undead like a zombie, be he was dead and then he was alive, and it goes against everything we know to be true.
And that’s why it matters. That’s why it is so important. Jesus does this one thing that can’t be done, which is that he dies and then he is not dead. And in that action, in that one moment, the whole world is split apart, not in a destructive way, in fact, quite the opposite. The world opens up and love pours out, for death has been defeated, what was once the last word no longer is, for we discover in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the theologian Frederick Buechner says, that the worst thing ever to happen to you will not be the last. In the Resurrection, he says, what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death there ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.
And isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it wonderful. We celebrate the Resurrection each Sunday, and never as poignantly as at Easter, and we fill our baskets and hide our eggs and make the ham salad . . . and then we go about our business. I get it. The lead-up to Easter is a lot, and so when you get there, once Easter rolls around, it can wear you out! There’s a reason, after all, that the most attended Sunday of the year, Easter, is followed by what is typically the least attended Sunday of the year. When I was an associate pastor at a large church, we used to call the Sunday after Easter “National Associate Pastor Sunday.” That has the convenient acronym of NAPS, which is what the senior pastor was definitely doing that morning and what the congregation probably was doing, too.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think that Jesus was raised on the third day so that we could celebrate it and then move on. Like, I don’t think God would go to the trouble of disrupting the laws of physics and splitting time in two just so we could see what happens when you put marshmallow Peeps in the microwave, though if you haven’t tried it . . ..
I think God went to the trouble of being raised so we could be raised, too. And what is more, I think God went to the trouble of being raised on the third day so that we could have hope that is bigger than death, so that yes, we have hope of Heaven, but not simply this, for the implications of the Resurrection are much bigger than what happens when we die. Dead people don’t need hope. The rest of us do, and so it is the case that this defeat of death matters for our lives now, for the way we live and serve God now, for the way we do church now.
And so I guess I get the post-Easter slump in some ways, but in a very real way, if the Resurrection is the most important thing, then shouldn’t the Sunday after Easter be even bigger than Easter? Shouldn’t that Sunday be huge? In the wake of the Resurrection shouldn’t everything be different, I mean everything?
But then that National Associate Pastor Sunday rolls around and we’re just so tired, you know, so we take the week off, even the pastor goes out of town for some R&R, and it’s not long before we drift into familiar patterns, act like nothing has changed, fall into the same old ways of cheap grace and call on God only when we’re in a bind, or feel like we’re up against a wall, or we need to find a parking space or whatever.
I’m just wondering, what if we took the Resurrection seriously? What if we were willing to try really believing that when we speak, each week in the Apostle’s Creed, that on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, that we actually meant it? What would change? Think about the events of your life, the things that plague you, the things that frustrate you, the things that you go about your day doing. How would those things change if you viewed them through this lens, this reality of Jesus’s Resurrection, the promise of eternal life? What if we, together, decided that we really believe this stuff?
This is obviously not as easy as it sounds, as we already all profess to believe it, but it’s another thing to live it. I sometimes get asked about my own faith, about what it is that most shakes my faith, that makes me doubt the most. And I think people are looking for some sort of watershed event in my own life, a loss, a tragedy, something like that. But you know what makes me doubt the most? It’s not any of those things. The thing that makes me doubt the most is people who call themselves super religious and then, functionally, live as if nothing is different. We all know people like this—they’ve got the t-shirts with Bible verses and the faith-inspired jewelry and the little fish on the back of their car that says “truth” eating the fish with feet that says “Darwin.” None of these things bother me. What bothers me is when people—many of whom wear these shirts and display this fish—when these people come to church, or they don’t even bother, and they get in their enormous vehicle that guzzles fossil fuel like it belongs in a twelve step program for cars with drinking problems, and they proceed to peel out of the church parking lot and cut off anybody and everybody who gets in their way, and they pass the hungry guy on the sidewalk and nearly run over the poor woman crossing the street while balancing piles of groceries, all the while sporting a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you love Jesus.”
If this is you, and I hope it isn’t, let me suggest that Jesus has very little to do with the reason most people are honking at you.
And yet if I am honest, it is probably true that this caricature bears more resemblance to my own life than I would like to admit. I do believe in the Resurrection, I really, really do, but I don’t always act like it. I don’t always act like death has been defeated, such that the one thing in the world stronger than fear is the kind of love showed by Jesus on the cross. I don’t always live such that people who look at me can see that love written across my face. I sometimes get so stuck on my own life, my own stuff, that it seems like death has won, evil has won, and there’s nothing to do but look out for number one. I will own that.
But you know the biggest reason I think I get stuck on all that stuff? You know the biggest reason I think people come to church and worship God and then go about their business as if little has changed? I don’t think it’s because everybody is a terrible hypocrite or anything like that. I think the thing that keeps us from living into our heritage as children of God it is that the gift of love that was made manifest in the Resurrection, that defeat of death, that breakthrough of grace, I think it is quite simply so overwhelming we don’t know what to do with it.
Even the people we hold up as sterling examples of faith, of responding to the gift of the Resurrection, even those examples feel overwhelming. I don’t know why preachers do that sort of thing, you know, tell this passionate and moving story about the multimillionaire who sold everything he had and gave every dime to the poor. If I hear one more story about how wonderful Mother Teresa was and how we should all be like her, I’m going to roll my eyes so far back in my head they may get stuck there forever. I am glad the world had Mother Teresa. I know God is pleased, too. But these kinds of stories are so foreign, so overwhelming, that they can render you totally immobile. I am no multimillionaire. I am certainly no Mother Teresa.
The thing is, people don’t get to a place where they lead radically transformed lives because they hear a sermon. They get to a place where they do that sort of thing because they have experienced the God of Resurrection, the God who proves that love is greater than fear.
And so these kinds of stories, like the Resurrection itself, are so overwhelming that I don’t know what to do with them. And yet I am reminded that it was Mother Teresa, of all people, who said that small things done with great love can change the world. Small things done with great love can change the world. This, too, is the promise of the Resurrection, that God can use the smallest thing, the widow’s mite, the child’s gift, the smallest thing can be used to breathe hope into the world.
After all, the Resurrection started small. There was no trumpet, no Hallelujah Chorus. It was the middle of the night, pitch dark, no one around but Jesus and the angel—or whatever it was—that helped him move the stone. Nobody even noticed anything was different until well after sunrise, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James and Salome, these three women arrived at the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’s body with spices and found that there was nothing to anoint. The tomb was empty. Death had been defeated, and nobody had even thought to put out a press release.
It started small, and look what happened. A single act which inspired a cadre of misfit believers to form the Christian church, of all things, to withstand generations of abuse and torture, to reach out and welcome new people into the community of faith, to ride the waves formed by the ebb and flow of the centuries, and here we are, the beneficiaries of that act, of that small, revolutionary act, which happened in the stillness of night with no one around.
I can’t defeat death. I’m lucky to get out of the house in the morning with both of my shoes tied, and not together. But I can do small things with great love.
Since I started the sermon with a story about Oreos, I should probably end with one, too, especially considering the middle was so sweet. I was reminded of a story this week, a couple of you actually posted it on Facebook, about Alpharetta First United Methodist Church, one of our sister churches in the North Georgia Conference. Don Martin, the senior pastor of that congregation, happened to be seated next to a soldier on an airplane, as the soldier made his way back home after 18 months in Iraq. Don asked him, “What did you miss most during your time overseas?” and the soldier, without hesitation, said, “Oreos. Double Stuf!”
Now, of course, you can’t do justice to the Resurrection with a cookie, any more than a rain check to be redeemed in three days is anything like three days in the ground. But since that conversation, six years ago, Alpharetta First has partnered with a number of other churches, and this year alone, just three weeks ago, in fact, they blessed and shipped over five-and-a-half tons of Oreos to men and women serving in the armed forces overseas who craved a taste of home. We were reminded again this week of the unspeakable danger these folks face, and so what a gift that they were reminded, because of a church of all places, that they are loved. And, when you get down to brass tacks, the reason that the soldiers received that reminder is that a bunch of people in Georgia believed in the Resurrection.
I don’t mean to suggest that you can give somebody a cookie and be on your way and have properly honored the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But what you can do is act like you believe it is true. What you can do is sow hope: serve the homeless like some of our folks are doing today, break bread with strangers like others will do this week, welcome new people into the life of faith like you do every Sunday.
What you can do is take that gift of grace we have received because of the Resurrection, and find little ways to share it in the world, ways that start small and then before long add up to five and a half tons and then some, so that the greatest event in the history of the world doesn’t stay in history, but bursts forth every day from your heart and from your life. You can do that, and thanks be to God. Amen.
Monday, July 13, 2015
(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.
Well, we joke in the church sometimes that what it means to be Methodist is muddy enough that it seems like a fair middle ground between Catholic and Baptist, so we have a lot of mixed marriages in this church, one person grew up Catholic and the other Baptist or some similar tradition, and I am imagining that when we say the Apostle’s Creed, as we have been doing for the last several weeks, that the former Baptists among us have been saying to themselves, what on earth is this? It’s not in the Bible, and we didn’t grow up saying it, so why do it now? And the Catholics among us are saying, what about the part where Jesus descends into Hell? In many traditions, including the Roman Catholic tradition, it is common to say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and descended into Hell.
And the answer to the first question is that this stuff is in the Bible. The ancient writers of the Creed took this list of things that we affirm together from different parts of scripture, including the bit about Jesus descending into Hell. That comes from the book of Ephesians, where the author says that after he died, Jesus descended to the lower parts of the earth, which in old English language, is translated as Hell. And the author of 1 Peter says that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, which is almost as good a description of what hell is as trying to get a live human on the phone with the Dekalb County Water Department or turning left on North Decatur Road out of our church parking lot.
The reason, just so you know, that we don’t say this part in the United Methodist Church, is that it is actually not original to the Creed. It’s Biblical, the descent to Hell, but I was not included in the Creed until somewhere between the fourth and the eighth centuries, so John Wesley, the founder of our tradition, decided not to include it, but I would submit to you today that the descent into Hell is an idea worth exploring, and so I want to do that this morning.
You know, with all that has been going on in the world lately, I have been very intrigued by this idea that even Jesus died, that he was crucified, that he died, that he was buried where he lay for three days. I will acknowledge that in the midst of such great societal change in such a little time, the ground feels a little unsteady these days, my knees feel a little weak, and it’s enough to wear you out if you let it. I was talking to somebody this week about this passage and I finally looked at him and said, “Good grief, three days with nothing to do! That doesn’t sound like Hell—that sounds like Heaven!”
And yet in our understanding, during those three days, Jesus was quite busy, walking through hell, and for as much as the church doesn’t like talking about hell, doesn’t do such a great job of nuance so we usually leave it alone, for all of that, there are days that I wish we hadn’t decided, as a church, to take out the bit about Jesus descending into Hell from the Apostle’s Creed, because my Lord, when I’m walking through Hell, it does my heart good to know Jesus did it, too.
Do you know what I mean? With all the change we’ve seen in the world, with all the unsteadiness we’ve felt, don’t you take solace in the fact that Jesus walked through Hell, that nothing that happens to us is worse than what happened to God, that through his descent, Jesus went to the one place we all assume God doesn’t go, so that when the writer of the Psalm says that even when I make my bed in Hell, O God, you are there, what he means is that God is with us even when we’re walking through hell, too? I don’t know about you, but I have spent more hours, more time, walking through hell than I would like to admit. It is not easy, and yet, we are promised, that when we walk through Hell, God is with us.
And I find myself moved, moved, by this connection between experiencing death and walking through Hell, because as those of us who have experienced great loss know, you can’t take the journey through grief without walking straight through hell. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You’ve got to go through it.
I think about this passage in the apostle’s creed whenever I am with someone who is preparing for death, or whenever I am with a family who has experienced a loss. We have a tendency, when we’re talking about death in the church, to skip right over it, to say, sure, death, oh, but Heaven! How wonderful! And it is, it will be! But death, well, we don’t like to talk about death. We skip straight past it. We don’t do such a great job talking about what it means to have a good death.
And this isn’t a new dilemma. Death is not an easy thing to think about, let alone to talk about. In fact, the reason that the business about Jesus dying is included in the creed at all is that in the days and years after his death, there was great controversy about this point, about the idea that Jesus died, because people just couldn’t bear the thought that their precious savior died, that the little Lord Jesus, the savior of the world, would die, let alone be killed as an enemy of the state. So there was this idea, this heresy, called Docetism, that started to become popular in the centuries after Jesus, and the idea was this: If Jesus really was divine, if he really was God, then he couldn’t have been human. And in some ways, intellectually, it does makes sense, because when you start to think about what we actually believe, which is that Jesus was fully human and divine, and you do the math there, you end up with one plus one equals one, and this is what we believe, but you can understand how the Docetists struggled with this.
And so, they said, if Jesus was divine, he couldn’t have been human, and if he wasn’t human, then he couldn’t have had a human body, and if he couldn’t have had a human body, then he couldn’t have suffered, and if he couldn’t have suffered, then he couldn’t have died.
This wasn’t the majority view in those first Centuries after Christ, not by any means, but the further you get from an event, the more people take liberties with it. I wonder sometimes how the Virgin Mary herself would have described the birth of Jesus, in light of the songs we sing about that night, silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. It’s silly. I wonder what she would think about all that, and I don’t want to be too sacrilegious here, but part of me thinks that rather than this sweet, sacred scene, the birth of Jesus was more about Mary laying in a pile of hay, screaming at Joseph to find the nurse and get her an epidural!
The further you get, the more liberties people take, and this is what happened with the Docetists. In fact, it is why the Creed came together in the first place, to preserve, not to lock out, but to preserve, to say, here is what we know about who God is and how God works and so let us crystalize that understanding into a Creed, to remind us, to remind the coming centuries of the being and work of God in the world. And one of the big reasons they felt it necessary to do so was that people started to say, oh, God couldn’t have died. There’s no way God could have died.
You get why it’s hard to talk about, particularly when you’re talking about God, but when you’re talking about anybody really. Nobody wants to talk about death, let alone face it. You’d think that in the Christian church, we’d do this better than most, but that’s not true. I was reading something just the other day that mycolleague, Mark LaRocca-Pitts, wrote about dying as a Christian. Mark’s a hospice chaplain, to which I say more power to you, because that’s just not an environment I could thrive in. It’s not that I am scared of death. It’s just that it’s not something I like to think about all the time: you know, dying.
And Mark says that the thing about Christians is that you’d think we’d all face death with the same steely resolve, that we’d be good at dying, but you’d be wrong. In fact, in his experience, as someone who has seen many, many people die, you really can’t tell what a person’s religion is as he or she experiences death, not in the moment of death, not in the time before it. We believe in Heaven, as Christians, and so you’d think we’d all be ready to go when the time comes. And, he says, that’s not the case.
The problem, he says, is that the Christian church doesn’t do a good enough job talking about death. We talk about Heaven plenty, but we don’t do a good job talking about death, what happens at death, why it is part of life, and then finding ways to live that understanding out.
Here’s what that means. As Christians, of course, we are called to sacrifice for the sake of others, to lay down our lives for others. That doesn’t mean you belong on a cross. It means that you serve others, put the needs of others above yourself, work for the betterment of the world even when that work involves your own walk through Hell. This is what it means to be a Christian. Self-sacrifice, laying your life down for others can come in many forms, but each time we do one of these things, each time we lay our lives down for someone else, in a very real way, we are practicing for death.
Heaven is for real, and it is important, but if we really want to make peace with death, we’ve got to follow the example of Jesus, for as Mark says, “a faith that believes in a good afterlife can certainly help someone die well, but it must be a faith based on a life lived for the sake of others, of a life that has died to itself repeatedly and then seen new life spring from that sacrifice repeatedly. Having seen this in life, one can have faith they will see it again in death.”
In other words, believing in Heaven is important. But believing it in your head isn’t enough. You’ve got to believe it in your heart, and you’ve got to believe it with the actions of your life.
Friends, this is powerful stuff. It means that death isn’t to be feared, not when we’ve spent our whole loves preparing for it, spent our lives following the example of Jesus who laid down his own life that we may have it, and more abundantly.
And so it seems to me that by being scared of death, by not being willing to talk about it at all, we are doing the very opposite of the thing we purport to do by talking so much about Heaven. But that kind of focus often leads to refusing to talk about death at all, and when we do talk about it, talking as if it is something bad, something not of God, and that’s just not true.
In fact, death is of God because God has done it; God has died! And through death, God has redeemed death, made it just as much a part of life as breathing and being born. God has made it holy.
In fact, we learn in scripture and through the words of the Apostle’s Creed, that Christ walked through Hell—walked through hell—after death, so that there’s absolutely nowhere you can go that God is not, walked through hell so that this great idea we have of separation from God doesn’t make sense anymore, because God has bridged that gap, God has busted straight through the gates of hell, and so you should know this: when you are walking through hell, and you will, if you aren’t already in the middle of that journey today—when you are walking through hell, Jesus is walking with you. When it seems as if you are in the very worst moment of your life, God is with you.
I’m not talking about a cute poem about footprints on the sand, and it was then that I carried you. I’m talking Winston Churchill, who said, “when you are walking through hell, keep walking,” only, in this case, you don’t have to do it alone, for God is with you. When you are on that road, you are never alone. There are always two sets of feet—no, many, many sets of feet—because the path you are walking is one that Christ has led many people through, and if it feels like it’s a path that doesn’t end, let me encourage you to come back next week, because while it is true that we worship a savior who was conceived by the holy spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried and, my God, who descended into Hell, just wait til you find out what happened on the third day. It will blow your mind. Amen.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
Romans 8: 10 – 17But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
“The Strange Gift of Suffering”
We are going through the Apostle’s Creed this summer, piece by piece, and spending a Sunday on every single phrase in the Creed, as we explore together what it is we believe, what we hold in common, what we hold dear. And it’s one of the most curious things about the Creed that when it talks about Jesus, this in-breaking of God into the world, this fully human, fully divine savior, the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas and whose resurrection we celebrate at Easter . . . when we look at his life, as it is expressed in the creed, we go from “he was conceived by the holy spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” . . . to “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried.” The New Testament scholar in me sort of says, “wait, whaaaat?”
It’s like you don’t even need the rest of the Gospels, which are pages and pages of things Jesus taught and did between those two phrases, you know, the first moments of his life and the last two weeks of it! And none of it is reflected in the creed, this historic affirmation of faith, this most historic affirmation of faith.
It makes you wonder why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bothered at all to tell the story of Jesus, if, in its collective wisdom, the church has decided we can go straight form the birth to the days just before the death.
It is as if those early church fathers who crafted the creed quickly forgot that Jesus says things that are very radical, like “sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give drink to the thirsty and shelter to the homeless,” and you start to understand that it’s a lot easier to focus on the cross, on Jesus’s death, than it is to take seriously, to wrestle with the radical events and teachings that come out of his life. Yet in some ways, the Creed would seem to do that. It would seem to cut out, to take an exact-o knife and cut out everything but the first and last page of each of the four Gospels, and you’d go from being born to suffering, just like that.
But then, in many ways, life is like that. I remember listening to Emmaline howl in the moments after she was born. We go from birth to suffering very quickly in this life! And when I run up against suffering in my own life, or in the life of others, I start to become awfully glad it is present there in the creed! Friends, I will tell you, as I go about the work of Christ, as I seek to be a participant in that work, there are few things I encounter more than suffering. Oh, how we need a word on suffering. Oh, how we, God’s people on earth, need some words, some trustworthy guidance on the concept of suffering.
It may not be the most pleasant thing to talk about, but then, pleasant things are easy to talk about. Happiness, eh, I never met anybody who struggled with the fact that they had too much happiness. Or contentedness. Nobody’s ever come into my office and plopped down on a chair and said, pastor, I am just simply too content. Please help me.
But suffering . . . suffering is something else altogether. In fact, I would venture to say, that in ministry, in my role as a pastor, there is nothing in which I engage in more, than dealing with suffering. For it is the time in people’s lives in which they most need a word, most need guidance, most need God.
I hope you don’t hear me complaining about this. I really don’t mean to. I find it to be one of the most meaningful parts of my life, one of the highest privilege I know if, that I am invited into people’s lives, in these holy, difficult moments, in which what they are experiencing doesn’t match that which they hope for in their own lives. We call that suffering. And it can wreck you. It can make you feel like somebody has grabbed you by your feet and started shaking you until everything falls out of your pockets and, ultimately, out of your heart.
This is what suffering does. It blinds us to everything else. It brings us to our knees. It makes us ask difficult questions about God, about who God is and how God works and how we are called to respond to the suffering in our lives and, in particular, the suffering in the lives of others. And for as much as we try to avoid suffering, it can be a teacher. It can be quite a teacher.
You may know this if you are a student of comparative religion, but suffering is not one of those concepts that Christians have such a great track record with. We do a terrible job talking about suffering, especially compared to our sisters and brothers of other faith traditions. We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true. Some of our most meaningful revelations about suffering have actually come from other religions. Jewish theologians, in the days and years after the Holocaust, said, wait a minute, no, what has happened to us is beyond any meaningful rationalization. This is not God testing us. It is simply life. How profound. And so the proper response is not to get stuck on why, or in trying to avoid suffering altogether, but to work for a world in which love will win, in which good will win, and this seems to me to be an entirely reasonable response to suffering.
Or you look at those in the Buddhist faith, who view life as suffering, and have built their entire system of belief around the concept of suffering, around making peace with it, moving past it by working for greater understanding in their lives and the world. You don’t have to buy the whole cow to realize that there’s truth in that.
It seems that other religions deal with this better than we do, and yet I don’t understand why that is, because all you have to do is look to the life of Jesus to understand suffering. Here’s a guy who lived in occupied Palestine, who was greeted as a political messiah by a people hopeful he’d bring a sword and deliver them from their oppressors, in a day in which healing was rare if it happened at all, and of all the things we affirm together as people of faith, we remember that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, the provincial governor who ruled that part of the world with an iron fist and with, what, today, you’d call an itchy trigger finger.
Incidentally, Pontius Pilate is one of the ways we can identify the story of Jesus historically, as we know from accounts other than scripture that Pilate was a real person, and while he ended up with a reputation for having an unwillingness to treat people with different religious beliefs well, he never went after Jesus as such. He tried every way he knew to spare him, saying, “I find no fault in him,” but knowing that in order to keep his political power, he had to give into the crowds that were shouting “Crucify him, Crucify him!” And for this, the Creeds enshrine him as Public Enemy # 1, the only human mentioned in the Creed besides the Virgin Mary, full of Grace, and certainly not nearly in such glowing terms.
But getting caught up on Pilate isn’t the point, because the point of the creed isn’t humans. It’s God. And so we learn, in very specific, historical terms, that Jesus suffered, that God incarnate suffered and knows what it is like to suffer. And so when we suffer, when we experience suffering that blinds us to everything else, it is not that we are somehow far from God but in many ways, we are actually closer to God, we are right with God, for God knows what it is like to suffer.
Now, I want to pause and make sure we aren’t getting into dangerous territory, because it isn’t a far jump in some ways to get from where we are, which is that God understands suffering and suffers with us, to the idea, completely untrue, that God causes suffering. You see that a lot when somebody watches their enemies suffer, as in, you know, God must have wanted this to happen. But when we suffer, you know, not me! There’s no way God wanted this for me! So we need to be careful how we talk about suffering, because God doesn’t cause it. God didn’t cause the Holocaust. God doesn’t make people die, doesn’t make people suffer. That’s a lie. Don’t believe it. Just because God suffers along with you doesn’t mean that God causes you to suffer.
And it is likewise not true that when you are suffering, that God desires that you keep suffering, for this, too, is bad theology and it has led to all sorts of awful things: oppression, staying in an abusive relationship, that sort of thing. Just because God suffers along with you doesn’t mean that God wants you to suffer.
Even with that said, we still have this weird thing about suffering, like it’s the worst thing there is, like it is to be avoided at all costs, as if suffering was evidence that God has turned against you, and it sounds crazy to say, but we believe it! There is this idea—and I will tell you, in my experience this is a uniquely American idea—that anything that involves suffering is bad, as if suffering itself is the opposite of God, and that’s just not true, for we affirm every week, in churches all over the world, that even Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate.
I am reminded of the Roman Catholic writer Thomas Merton, one of my favorites, who was a student of Buddhism before his conversion to Catholicism, and ultimately, his entry into a monastery. Through the events of his life, he was one who understood suffering more than most. And he said this: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”
These are difficult words. And yet they ring true for me. I don’t like to suffer. I mean, does anybody? I try to avoid suffering whenever I can, thank you very much. It’s why I have to psych myself up before going on a mission trip, if I am honest. I mean, those experiences are rich and exciting, but I know when I am headed to Haiti, or rural Appalachia, or what have you, that I’m going to encounter suffering, might even have a little bit of suffering rub off on me, and I’d just rather live my life blissfully unaware that that sort of thing exists in this day and age, in this modern world in which I have a refrigerator and a thermostat and a Sleep-number bed! And yet if I didn’t go, I would miss out on the strange gift of suffering, for it is quite a teacher.
I have the same feeling of needing to psych myself up before going to a funeral. In a way, going to funerals is one of the most counter-cultural things we do, for when we go, we are willingly walking into a place of suffering, and in the church there’s joy, too, but as I have discovered, even when the person’s lived to be 98, nearly two lifetimes worth of life, there’s still suffering. And so when I have the occasion to go to a funeral that I’m not officiating, I often have to think long and hard before I decide to go. It’s not easy, making the decision to walk into that kind of situation.
In fact, I want you to know I have had the hardest time finishing writing this sermon. Maybe that’s why it is a little longer, because I have been stalling, because as I put it together it became clear to me that the sermon was moving toward an inevitable conclusion involving a story I’d rather not remember, that being the funeral of my friend Christopher, who died on January 2 of this year at the age of 40.
I think about Christopher whenever I think about suffering, because for the last few years of his life, he served as a therapist who counseled other pastors, so he heard stories of great suffering, great loss. But I also think about Christopher when I think about suffering because Christopher was one who suffered himself, who suffered from depression, who suffered through bipolar disorder, and whose suffering ultimately led him to take his own life.
Christopher was a pastor, and we served on staff together at one time, became the kind of friends who drove one another crazy and then could sit for an hour discussing some silliness just so that we had an excuse to spend the time. And when he died, I felt a lot of things, as tends to happen in these circumstances, but I did not feel surprised. Suffering, particularly suffering in the form of depression and mental illness, is an insidious thing. It is not to be avoided at all costs, but neither is it to be taken lightly.
And when they announced the day for the funeral, I wasn’t sure I could go. I didn’t have anything on my calendar; I just didn’t think I could. I didn’t think I was strong enough. And we went, of course, but I dreaded it all week, just felt total dread.
I wish I could tell you that the service was happy and everything was great and I felt redeemed by the whole deal. It was many things, but it was not happy. Christopher left behind 2 kids and a wife and many, many devastated friends.
And yet the reason I feel compelled to share this story is not to draw out sympathy, but to note one dynamic of suffering I think is particularly apropos to this morning’s scripture lesson. The apostle Paul writes that we suffer with Christ so that we may be glorified in Christ. Let me tell you what I think this means.
One of the traditions at funerals for United Methodist clergy is that when a pastor dies, oftentimes fellow clergy will wear robes for the service, will put on robes and white stoles as symbols of the Resurrection, and for this funeral, because Christopher loved exquisite vestments, loved the symbology of the church, his fellow clergy were invited to wear their finest vestments, of all colors and fabrics. I wore a red stole, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. It was, in fact, the very stole that Christopher had been given at his ordination. When I was appointed to this church, he gave it to me.
I don’t remember much of what was said at his funeral. Oh, I remember some things: his daughters, the story of the prodigal son my friend Dana read and preached from. What I do remember was the sea of clergy, dressed to the nines, so many that the church had to block off its fellowship hall just so we could all have room to get dressed. We milled about before the service, not knowing what to say, having no words to make sense of such a tragedy other than to call out the name of God.
I don’t remember much of what was said. What I do remember is that sense of solidarity, that sense that though we suffered together – no – because we suffered together, we were being saved together, we were bearing witness to the great power of love, the kind of love that grabs hold of your heart and refuses to let go.
You might say that of all things, that day, it was suffering that led to our salvation,
For when we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
In the name of the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, Amen, and Amen.