- Jeremiah 31:31-34
- Psalm 51:1-12
- Hebrews 5:5-10
- John 12:20-33
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.
I have a confession to make.
I am a wimp.
I know this specifically because how I am when I get sick. The last time I was sick with the flu, I sat very, very still, on the couch, and sipped water and whined a lot.
Because I am a wimp.
Compared to many people around the world, I know so little of suffering. And yet, when I’ve had a small taste of suffering of any kind, I wonder how I will do when I really come up against true suffering.
In the midst of many relatively brief, although particularly nasty illnesses, I often forget what it feels like to not feel nausea time I breathe, or speak, or stand. To know fear every time I opened my mouth to eat or drink. I can remember one particular time, after being unable to keep food down or in me, I grew so tired, I could hardly move without breaking into a sweat.
And, while I have tried to find something redemptive in even those small sufferings, I struggle to come up with much of anything. It seems that I always just want to be done with it. I’ve wanted my old life back where I was no longer reliant on a electrolyte solutions that tasted like sea water, and where sleep was uninterrupted by my body’s desire to expel what had taken it over. Or, I’ve whined with all the pitiable noise I could muster, to anyone who could hear – most often my poor spouse – that perhaps death might be preferable.
It’s interesting to me that when we are at our weakest we are shown the fullness of our humanity. We see how frail the human body truly is, and how weak the human mind can become. It’s a strange gift in the midst of our suffering. I say gift because I don’t think we are always aware of our frailty – at least, not when we’re feeling okay, when all our systems are working at the expected strength. To be sure, even something as simple as a stomach bug can become a reminder of one’s mortality and limits.
These curious thoughts came up again as Jesus speaks to us with images of dying and rising.
And thinking about the flu and all the ways people in this world suffer in sickness, I thought about how I have always found it curious that there is a lack of physical human condition stories of Jesus. For example, we never hear of Jesus being down with a cold or the flu. But, then, I don’t imagine that it would make for very good storytelling. I know that no one really wants all the disgusting details of what a stomach bug does to me and my body, so maybe I don’t really want to know what it did to Jesus. But, we do get told in some way that Jesus, like us, was subject to the human condition. We can find many instances of Jesus being weary or tired and going off on his own to rest.
I like this reading from John because it highlights a truth that we need to know: Jesus came to us as one so very human that, eventually, the demands on his body became too much.
On the cross, his frail body failed, and his lungs did not hold up forever. We have come to know from those who have studied how crucifixion actually works, that crucifixion is more accurately: death by suffocation. Hanging there, the body folds over on itself until the airflow is cut off. Whether or not that was the case for Jesus, we no real way of knowing. We do know, however, that his breathing eventually stopped, and the life in that human body came to an end.
We believe that he suffered; we confess it as we speak the words of the Apostle’s Creed.
I don’t believe God ever wills suffering. I don’t. Even the smallest suffering I have ever endured in the form of the flu. But, I do believe that God is present in the mist of that suffering, and I have seen God use these small ‘deaths’ in my life to deepen the creative wonder of life for me, and those I walk alongside. Reflecting back on the different ways I feel I have suffered has shown me things that enable me to look forward at the life I have in the present differently.
So, even though Jesus doesn’t expressly state once again how or why he is going to suffer and die, there is an important message to be found in this text about the frailty of his life and the wonder of God’s presence when I reflect on a peculiar little seed.
That grain of wheat.
That grain of wheat that dies — its whole purpose is to die and multiply. Not just taken down by the weaknesses and frailties within its very being, but actually being born and created in order to die for the sake of a more abundant life. I don’t know if a seed ‘suffers’ in the dark beneath the earth, but I did wonder about it this week. I don’t know if the grain of wheat ‘hurts’ or ‘cries out in pain’ when it feeds on itself and transforms in order to give its growth its first sustenance, but I did wonder about it. I don’t know if a grain of wheat sees its death as glorious in any way, but I did wonder about it.
We have before us this wonderful image of a grain of wheat whose entire reason for being is to die so that something more might come of it. And, we hear this certain truth, bearing down us more surely now than ever before in this season: Jesus did suffer and die for us. We are at once confronted with this completely impossible to comprehend expectation that our lives as we know them and cherish them are steeped in frailty and finality ended with death. But, we are also offered this equally impossible to comprehend promise in love so much greater than anything humanity could come up with to handle the truth of finality that says death is not the end.
Jesus came for the life of the world: a purpose that would lead to, even require, his dying. Jesus came for the judgement of the world: a love and light that shines with triumph from the height of human suffering and death. And it is glorious.
Through Jesus – through his birth, life, teaching, and through his dying and rising to new life, God has changed everything.
And, even though the world is still full of all kinds of suffering, there is always this message of hope for us to hear. God is working in the midst of it all. God is not going to leave the world, or those who live in it, in this current condition. We are encouraged by the truth that God can’t stand all the pain and suffering and oppression and injustice that so many people suffer, just as we can’t stand it. There is incredible hope that, through Jesus, God has and is changing everyone and everything for the better.
For some, those changes can take place quickly, like the timely end of a bout of stomach flu. For some, those changes take place more slowly and over time. And for some, those changes don’t seem to happen in this life.
For most of us it seems as though the changes of new life that God is working, and that we’ve heard about throughout Lent, don’t just happen automatically. We don’t go to sleep and wake up different. Most of us seem to have to work at it. And some of us have to work really hard.
Maybe this is what Jesus is talking about when he says that we must hate our lives.
Maybe hating out lives means that we come to a place where we can safely acknowledge our flaws, failures, frailties, fears – how bound we can become to sinful behaviour, the ways in which we do more harm to ourselves than good. And believing that God loves us more than we could ever love ourselves.
Maybe hating our lives means seeking ways to be a person always open to God’s loving presence, allowing God’s love and light to flow through us, especially in the midst of suffering. And believing that God is there even when we don’t feel like that’s possible.
Maybe hating our lives means taking the risk of faith to entrust our lives to the control of someone greater than ourselves, and discovering that what is really changing the world is not because of our efforts and control but because the glory of God has already left everyone and everything changed. And believing that it’s not for God’s benefit, but for ours.
Let us pray:
God of innumerable mercies, give us the grace to be daily buried in the love of Christ, like the seed that is buried in the earth, and thereby may we begin to live more abundantly. With his help, may we learn of that fruitful life which spent in loving others can glorify your name throughout the world. Then may the earth know its Saviour, who with you in the unity of the Spirit are loved and worshipped, world without end. Amen!
[From re:Worship; written by Bruce Prewer, and posted at: http://www.bruceprewer.com/]
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