Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9, Mark 8:27-37, Philippians 2:5-11, True Christianity 126 (see below)
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In our text today, we find the origin of the famous phrase “take up your cross.” Indeed, this would seem to be an ideal extension of what I preached on last week: the necessity of spiritual trial. Jesus calls on us to have the courage to willingly self-sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, to willingly take on the difficulty of a life of faith. An inspiring and poignant sentiment. Which, however, leads us right into a discussion about suffering. How are we to understand suffering? Jesus said he *must* suffer; does that mean suffering is necessary? is it good? is it God’s will? The question of suffering is a complicated, emotional and nuanced topic. We will wrestle with it today and probably not come out with what feels like a definitive answer. But perhaps that is beside the point; in the end, I believe our engagement in the questioning what is important, and is what is holy.
In our story today, Jesus starts off by wondering how people are describing him to others. The disciples report comparisons to old testament prophets, which is understandable; Jesus’ ministry is in that same vein. But he then pivots, and asks the disciples about their own understanding of his identity. Peter’s answer is surprising: the Christ, or the Messiah. This answer was correct; it showed great faith and imagination. Except, that Jesus suspects that Peter is speaking aspirationally, and from his own hope and expectation of what the Messiah should be. We must remember, at this point, the Messiah was understood to be an anointed ruler who would restore Israel to freedom and dominance. Jesus had no intention of acting on such a limited, earthly scale. So he tells Peter not to say anymore, and goes ahead to explain what being the Messiah really means.
And that meant he started talking about suffering. Which was really completely opposite to the messianic ideal. How can a triumphant messiah/king suffer such rejection and pain as Jesus describes and still be triumphant? The disciples minds, and our minds, filled as they are with human concerns, human concepts of power, find it difficult countenance such a contradiction. So Peter objects. But Jesus stands firm. Fleshly, earthly, shallow human concerns, like winning, being right, being strong, being powerful, those are not what he was here for, no matter how superficially righteous our justifications for those goals may be. The power of God kingdom comes from self-sacrifice, from values that are counter-intuitive, inverted, inter-connected, empathic. These kinds of ideas are don’t come naturally to our human egos, so all of humankind shares in the rebuke Peter receives.
And thus we are told to deny ourselves. Deny our pretensions toward power, greatness, reputation. Jesus would suffer a shameful and tortuous death in order to demonstrate that God’s call is to something completely different; the relinquishment of self-centeredness and dominance. When we submit the priority of our self to the kingdom, we make ourselves less so that there is room for more; more love, more understanding, more relationship.
But of course, I've preached this before, as have centuries of Christians before me. Which is part of the problem. Sections of Christian thought has taken this nuanced, deeply counter-intuitive and powerful teaching about selflessness, and used it to preach submission and denial where submission does not belong.
The German theologian Dorothee Soelle begins her book titled “Suffering” with a story about a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. The husband drinks and takes out his own insecurity and disappointment on her, beating her, yelling at her. Yet, in this woman’s context, a small European village some forty years ago, Soelle writes, “…[the] idea that everything that is is the will of God still has deep roots…”(1) The dominant theological construct that undergirds this woman’s inability to get a divorce, is that “all suffering serves either to punish, test or train.”(2) And so, those in power, dominant religious and cultural authorities, direct someone who is powerless to continue in their powerless and suffering state, to deny their God-given sense of what is fair, loving and right, because if God always acts with good reason, who are we to question? To wish to “save their own life” indicates a lack of submission to God. Now to us, this might seem a ridiculous interpretation but believe me, it has been wide spread throughout history and is preached even today in many religious contexts. You can imagine how important such an idea was to the Christian justification of slavery and white supremacy, for example. Those in power have used a theory of Christian masochism, a clear distortion of Jesus’ call toward self-denial, to keep the lowly lowly and the powerful in power. Which of course, is a complete misunderstanding of the notion of Godly self-sacrifice and a complete misunderstanding of God’s relationship to suffering,
Soelle describes Christian masochism thus: “suffering is there to break our pride, demonstrate our powerlessness, exploit our dependency. Affliction has the intention of bringing us back to God who only becomes great when he makes us small.”(3) Essentially, this theory says suffering exists so that we can be taught a lesson about ourselves. It is given to us from God, so that when we are made small in comparison to God, we learn the valuable lesson of self-negation and henceforth look to God for all things. The more we self-deny the more godly our lives will be. Which perhaps can be a valuable lesson to those who need it, but this only for those we are already too proud, powerful and independent. Sending such a painful lesson to someone who is, by nature or circumstances, humble, powerless and dependent is abusive and unnecessary, and that’s not who God is or what God does.
Let’s contrast this with our Swedenborg reading for today: “Spiritual trials lead to a partnership [with God].” This is a very different understanding of the utility of suffering. “During our spiritual trials, we are apparently left completely alone, although in fact we are not alone - at those times God is most intimately present at our deepest level giving us support. Because of that inner presence, when any of us have success in a spiritual trial we form a partnership with God at the deepest level.”(4) This is not an image of comparable smallness and greatness, or a picture of submission and dominance, but rather presence, support, and constancy. So let us dispel some of the misconceptions of Christian masochism:
First of all, God does not *send* us bad experiences. Swedenborg writes: “The Lord does not tempt but liberates…”(5) Suffering exists because we live in an earthly world, filled with flawed human people, where our choices for good or evil must matter to have any meaning. So, suffering happens. The providence, the loving care of God, consists in the fact that God does not let any of our experiences be for nought. Suffering will happen to us at some point, but if we choose for it to be so, then suffering and trial can also be a means for strengthening our partnership with God, uncovering for us truths about the way we see and understand the world, and revealing to us the accessibility of love. That’s what resurrection is, life sprouting up where we thought there could be none.
Secondly, suffering is not a test. It is not something at which we can win or lose. Even Swedenborg couldn’t avoid using “success” language in the quote above, but the overall thrust of the idea is clear: God is intimately present no matter what. If we must use that word, “success” in suffering is not due to our silent endurance of it, but rather, how much have we come to understand and accept our essential belovedness throughout our suffering, even when it seems there is evidence to the contrary. We can’t deny ourselves into acceptability and worthiness to God, make ourselves so small that God will finally be pleased with us. No, God is with us from the get-go, and so therefore suffering is not a test of strength, patience, perseverance or determination, it is an opportunity for a deeper relationship with a God who is already present with us, an opportunity to realize how God is working on our behalf.
Third, just because suffering can be transformed, that does not make it inherently good. Taking up our cross, the denial of the self; many times we find this unpleasant because the human ego is naturally selfish, and the “destablization of the self-referential ego” as Richard Rohr puts it, can indeed propel us forward on our spiritual journeys. But that doesn’t mean that the notion of suffering itself, especially innocent suffering, is necessarily sanctified just because God makes lemonade when life gives us lemons. Soelle makes a bold statement: “only that pain is good which furthers the process of its abolition.” Meaning, in God’s eyes, there is no suffering without an eye towards that suffering’s ultimate end. This is what partnership with God is heading towards. Wholeness, peacefulness, freedom. God does not wish for us to suffer, only that if we must suffer, God will do God’s best to bring opportunity for transformation and relationship out of it.
And if pain and suffering in and of themselves are not good, then when pain and suffering are preventable, whether for ourselves and others, then it is kingdom work to prevent them, whether that means working to abolish systemic injustice, reverse climate change, search for medical cures, wear masks during a pandemic, and much more.
To the extent that pain and suffering takes away our potential for thriving, makes us so small and stuck and alone that we cannot grow and learn and blossom, obscures live-giving truths about ourselves, to this extent that it prevents us from entering into partnership with God and others, then suffering must be vanquished, we must prevent it wherever we can. Suffering is not ordained by God, it is transformed by God, and there is a big difference. The crucifixion was not an infomercial for the efficacy of martyrdom but a statement of hope for a broken world that within our experiences of suffering, no matter how shameful or difficult, God will be there and bring life to us out of darkness.
However, that doesn’t solve the thorny question lurking at the edges of all of this. What suffering is preventable and what is not? What suffering is productive and what is not? I’m not sure that is a line we can ever establish, ever draw with any complete certainty. What I do know that is our partnership with God demands that we continue to stretch our arms out over the world, using all our best intentions and capabilities to prevent suffering because that’s what love would have us do. And some suffering will not be preventable or foreseeable by us and we must forgive ourselves for that. But neither can we stop striving to bring comfort, freedom and peace for the world. In all of it, even in the tension and the uncertainty, we know that God is present and working for a closer relationship with us. Where chance and circumstance meet freedom and human decision; in this chaotic and uncertain space God stands waiting, ever-present and ever-loving. We take up our cross, we surrender to relationship, but we do not submit, for God would not have us be small, God would rather have us be ourselves.
(1) Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Fortress Press, 1975), page 11.
(2) Ibid, 25
(3) Ibid, 19
(4) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #126
(5) Emanuel Swedenborg, The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine #200 (a summary of Secrets of Heaven #2768).
5 The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away. 6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. 7 Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. 8 He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! 9 It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me. Who will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. 31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…
True Christianity 126
…The union itself [between the Lord's divine and human natures] was completed by the suffering on the cross, because this suffering was the final spiritual test that the Lord went through in the world. Spiritual tests lead to a partnership [with God]. During our spiritual tests, we are apparently left completely alone, although in fact we are not alone - at those times God is most intimately present at our deepest level giving us support. Because of that inner presence, when any of us have success in a spiritual test we form a partnership with God at the deepest level. In the Lord's case, he was then united to God, his Father, at the deepest level.