Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 7, 2019 audio
What are your favorite stories about Jesus?
- Do you like his parables? Those brief, charming, witty, insightful stories that condense so much knowledge about the kingdom of God into such a small, but powerful narrative?
- Do you like his healing stories? Those miraculous, awe-inspiring stories that fill us with hope in Christ’s promise of life abundant?
- Do you like the controversy stories? Those confrontations with the scribes, chief priests, and Pharisees in which Jesus gets the best of them and they walk away grumbling or, even better, simply silenced by Jesus wit and wisdom?
- Do you like the teaching stories? Those nuggets of wisdom that upend the settled order of the world in sayings like blessed are the poor, consider the lilies of the valley, this is the first and greatest commandment and a second one is like it?
I have my own favorites.
- I am partial to the Syrophoenician woman, whose quick wit moves Jesus from a gruff and dismissive “It is not right to take bread from the children to feed the dogs” to an appreciative “Woman, great is your faith!”
- I love the story of the woman at the well who asks Jesus for living water and turns from isolated outcast to chief evangelist.
- I love any story in which Jesus makes insiders out of outsiders: eating with tax collectors, telling Zacchaeus to come down from that tree, taking little children on his knee.
All of the stories about Jesus in the gospels give us insight into some slice of his character: his compassion for the crowds, his sharp intellect, his courage in confronting injustice, his inclusiveness, his sense of humor, his love for friends and disciples, his tireless preaching tours. All of them help us understand who Jesus is, what he is about in the world, and what he calls us to be about. But there is one story that overshadows them all, and Paul gives it to us in a single verse in Philippians 3:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
The best way to know who Jesus is, what Jesus is up to in the world, and what Jesus calls us to be about is through his suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus himself tells his disciples and would-be followers this over and over again while he is still alive and walking among them:
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matt 16:24
For whoever wants to save his life shall lose it: but whoever loses his life for my sake, shall save it. Luke 9:24
From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples, that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Matt 16:21
I don’t know about you, but I find it a little hard to reconcile these sayings of Jesus with other sayings in the gospels:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32
I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. John 17:13
So what is it that Jesus wants for us? Suffering, death, and a cross? Of or life, freedom, and joy? How do we reconcile these two strains of teaching in the gospels?
Maybe we don’t reconcile. Maybe, instead, we need to understand that we obtain the promises of life, freedom, and joy, by way of suffering, death, and a cross.
Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s words, but this time in the King James Version, which might shed some light on his meaning and on how the suffering death and cross of Christ fulfill the promises of life, freedom, and joy. Paul expresses the hope:
That I may know [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.
So often, for me at least, the vividness of the language of the King James Version of the Bible shines a light on meanings that others translation only obscure. Paul longs for three things in knowing Christ:
- The power of his resurrection
- the fellowship of his suffering
- and to be made conformable unto his death
To know Christ is to have access to the power of the resurrection, that is, abundant life. It is to be closely associated with or in partnership with his sufferings. And it is to live a life that is conformed to, or follows the contours of Jesus’ death on the cross. This kind of knowledge is much more than an intellectual knowledge, it is a bodily, heart-felt knowledge.
We confess our faith every Sunday in worship—we’ll do so today using the words in the Nicene Creed: For our sake [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” And it is important that we do so. But a bodily, heart-felt knowledge of Christ demands more than that: it demands that we join our lives to Christ’s sufferings and shape our lives by his death. It demands that we seek out and walk alongside and in solidarity with others who suffer in body, mind, or spirit and link our lives to them. It demands that our lives take on the shape of the cross, not only reaching up to God, but also reaching out to each other and to those who are outside the circle of faith or the circle of our friends or the circle of our family. It demands that we live a cruciform life.
Mary of Bethany seemed to understand these demands more intimately than Jesus’ disciples ever did. As the time of Jesus death drew nearer, Mary—in a last act of devotion—anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and dried them with her hair. Judas protested, insisting that the perfume could have been sold and the money used to feed to poor. But Jesus refused the either/or of devotion or service. Jesus calls us to both: to give our lives the cruciform shape of devotion to God and service to those who suffer. By shaping our lives according to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we embody the promises of life, freedom, and joy.
To the God of all grace, who calls you to share God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power forever! Amen.