Lent 5 (NL4)
March 18, 2018
The part of the passion narrative that we hear today is probably the hardest, because here is where the real pain and betrayal happen. Pilate continues to try to release Jesus, and “the Jews” continue to convince him otherwise. Jesus is flogged, mocked, handed over to be crucified, and hung on the cross between two others. It is all very painful to watch.
Before we get into this part of the story, I want to clarify something about John’s Gospel that I have been remiss in avoiding until now. Throughout this narrative, we hear about “the Jews,” about how they rallied against Jesus and convinced Pilate to kill him. Our 21st century ears may hear this message as anti-Semitic – it blames the Jews, even demonizes them. It has been damaging to this beautiful religion and its faithful followers. But it is important to know that the author of John’s Gospel was not anti-Jew. Jesus himself was a Jew, and would not be implicating himself or his people. Who John refers to when he says “the Jews” is really the Jewish leaders, in essence, Jesus’ colleagues – the same guys with whom he’s been in theological dialogue throughout the Gospel. And – this is important – watching their hurtful actions and shortcomings is not a reason to despise and blame them, but rather, it is an invitation to recognize our own shortcomings and sinfulness.
Perhaps that is what makes today’s reading so difficult. In a moment we will sing, “Were You There?” as we have done every week in Lent. Take the question to heart: what would you have done if you had been there? How would you have felt? What would you have said if you’d been there? How easy or difficult would it have been to resist the crowd – whoever they are – who is asking for Jesus’ death, and claiming to have no king but Caesar? How would it feel to see Jesus hanging on the cross? Consider these things as we hear this heart-breaking part of the story. Please rise.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The year was 1373, and an Englishwoman lay sick in bed. If she had a husband or children before, the plague that was sweeping Europe and now caused her illness had already taken them. We don’t know much of anything about this woman’s past, but we do know about her future. She would recover, and change her name to Julian – Julian of Norwich, one of the greatest English mystics of all time, and the first woman to publish a book in English.
The book she wrote was called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. In the 8th revelation, she reflects on Christ’s pain and suffering on the cross. She writes, “Is any pain like this? … Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, all my joy, suffer?” She goes on to reflect on the pain felt by all those who loved Jesus who also viewed this suffering – his mother, his followers, even us today – and goes on to make her most profound observation: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us, for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” In other words, Julian observed that in this moment of pain and suffering, God through Christ truly became one with all creation – all of us who suffer. “A great ONEING betwixt Christ and us.”
Let that sink in for a moment. In his suffering, God, the creator of the universe, became one with us in our suffering. We often talk about how Jesus suffered for us, died for us, and that’s very nice and important, too. Those words we hear as we receive the bread and wine, “given for you” are very powerful indeed – that God would care enough to do this for us, mere human beings!
But the word “with,” as in “one with us,” is something entirely different. Historian and religious author, Diana Butler Bass comments on this distinction. She observes that “for” is a preposition of distance. It’s contractual. It separates the actor from the recipient. Jesus, the subject, died for us, the objects. It doesn’t require a relationship, just good intention.
With, on the other hand, is a preposition of relationship. With implies accompaniment, moving in the same direction – it makes both parties participants in the action. Butler Bass writes, “With is the preposition of empathy… of being on the same side, of close association. ‘No, you needn’t go for me; I’ll go with you.’ With is about joining in, being together.”
That is a really different way to view Jesus’ action on the cross. It utterly changes how we understand God’s relationship with us, and ours with God. It is the natural ending to the story of a God who, as John said in the opening of his Gospel, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Or as Eugene Peterson translates it, a God who “moved into the neighborhood.” God didn’t get an upscale apartment in a nicer suburb across town, God moved right into the dirt and grime, right next door, even, down the hall, and experienced what it is like to live like we live, to feel like we feel, and yes, to suffer like we suffer. This is a God who dearly wants to know us, because God dearly wants to love us, exactly where we are.
But viewing God as one who is with us doesn’t just change our understanding of our relationship with God. It also calls for a radical shift in our relationships with others, and how we see our role as people of faith. For if God is willing to walk with us, and suffer with us, then we see that part of our call as Christ-followers is to do the same with those around us.
Oh, but “with” is so very difficult! Sure, being “with” those we love isn’t too hard, but what about those people we fear, or who are unknown, or who just rub us the wrong way, or with whom we fundamentally disagree? How do we be with them? Wouldn’t we rather keep our distance, perhaps occasionally reaching out with “for” love by donating goods or doing something nice? But suffering with is not something that is comfortable for us. Butler Bass comments on the difficulty, saying, “We hide parts of ourselves from our neighbors, withhold the sorts of secrets that weave regular relationships for fear someone will use something against us. We judge others on what they can do for us. … We are skeptical of with – indeed, much of what we do in the world makes us ridicule, doubt, and even fear with. … It is safer to remain at a distance, to stay away from with.”
One of the most devastating lines in the passion story is what the Jewish leaders say to Pilate when he asks, “Shall I crucify your king?” Did you catch their answer? They say, “We have no king but the emperor.” Utter rejection of Jesus the Christ. Complete aversion to being with this man who has given them everything, even their very lives, and his own. They won’t even be for him. They only reject, dismiss, toss aside, instead vowing loyalty to a ruler who offers false promises, who would never walk with them, and suffer with them, in any way, shape or form. Devastating.
Oh, this line makes me so uncomfortable, because I have to wonder: have I done this, too? Have I rejected Jesus’ offer to be with and suffer with me? Or have I, when tempted by some quick fix, turned to false promises, to Caesar?
Or, have I rejected Christ’s offer to suffer with me by letting the offer stop with me – by receiving the gift, but then not offering the same to another in need? Or, have I rejected Christ’s offer by not allowing others to suffer with me?
For the past several months, I have been holding office hours at Panera. Every Wednesday, I sit in a booth in the back with my tea, wearing my clerical collar, and hoping someone will come talk to me. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. This week I tried an experiment: I added a sign on the table that said simply, “Free Prayer.” I admit I wasn’t much in the mood to be there, or to pray for anyone else – I was feeling very stressed, and was mentally and emotionally bogged down with preparing for Holy Week. I was praying for safety for students and school staff who were at that moment preparing to participate in a national walk-out (and my husband was among the administrators charged with keeping students safe). And I was praying for my seminary, which is going through some really tough stuff right now, and the board was meeting as I sat there.
Suddenly a woman walked right up, sat down across from me and said, “I’d like to pray for you!” Uh…. Okay! She took my hands and offered a lovely and sincere prayer for the pastor – here I was trying to offer something to others, and this woman, this disciple of Christ, sat down with me, and prayed with me, as if she could see that I needed someone to pray with me at that moment. It buoyed my spirits. It lifted me up. Knowing that this woman, this stranger, would be willing to get right down and suffer with me for a moment – it was the “life abundant” that Jesus talks about coming to give us.
Who would have thought that such abundant life could come through the act of suffering with someone? Who would have imagined that the Creator of the universe would choose to show the depth of divine love by a willingness to “move into the neighborhood,” live like we live, and suffer like we suffer? Who would suspect that death on a cross would bring us the hope of new life?
Reading today’s part of the passion, as Jesus is flogged, mocked, suffers, and is crucified, is painful. It should be – that is what it can feel like to love, and to be with people in their pain. But in that, we also find hope to endure, and strength to love, because we know: we are with God, and God is with us. We are in this together, walking beside the God of love.
Let us pray… Suffering God, that you would choose to move into the neighborhood, live like us and feel our pain causes us to tremble, tremble tremble… even as it gives us hope to endure. Give us confidence that, with you walking and suffering with us, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 References to Julian of Norwich and Diana Butler Bass’s thoughts on her work are outlined in this sermon: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dianabutlerbass/2012/04/good-friday-being-with-jesus-at-the-cross/ (Accessed March 15, 2018)