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Holy Week Lingers—When We Suffer

(A sermon based on John 18:1-19:42 for Good Friday 2013)

Our Lord suffered terribly on Good Friday. He suffered physically—the flogging, the crown of thorns, the crucifixion. He suffered emotionally—betrayed by one of his disciples, denied three times by one of his closest disciples, abandoned by all of them. He suffered spiritually, feeling abandoned by his own Father.

The Old Testament prophet reminds us, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5 KJV). In Jesus’ suffering and death we find our healing. We are healed by his stripes in so many wonderful ways. First, our sins are forgiven. Second, we are able to enter into a full and free relationship with God. Third, our guilt is taken away. Fourth, we don’t have to be afraid of death. Fifth, we are enabled to live as disciples whose obedience to God is always growing and whose personal relationships are always deepening. The list could go on and on.

But there is one thing that could not appear on the list. We cannot say that as a result of Jesus’ death on the cross we will no longer suffer. For our stripes to be healed means that our sins are forgiven. As long as we are in this world, though, we will be in a fallen world and so there will always be pain and suffering that comes along unbidden and certainly unwelcome. Sin and evil and their consequences are still present in our environment and so things like illness and injury and tragedies and stresses will still come our way, and please understand that I mean that in the loosest sense possible. I am not saying that every bad thing is the direct result of some sin we or someone else has committed; I’m just saying in the broad sense sin’s consequences do touch us.

Still, Holy Week lingers when we suffer. It lingers because we can know the fact of the presence of God in our suffering. William Placher has said that because of the cross, “nothing that can happen to us—no pain, no humiliation, no journey into a far country or even into the valley of the shadow of death—can ‘separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:39). The cross shows that in Christ God is with us, no matter what” [William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), pp. 128-129]. On this side of heaven we will never fully understand how our suffering can be transformed into something that serves God’s purpose—but it can; just as surely as the death of Christ transformed an ugly and brutal thing into the most powerful statement of God’s love, it can. But we live in hope and trust that, as the old song puts it, “We’ll understand it better by and by.”

Holy Week lingers when we suffer in the ways that all people suffer if we remember a few facts. First, God loves us. Second, God is with us. Third, suffering never has the last word in a Christian’s life. Fourth, suffering (or better put, the way we deal with our suffering) can give us an opportunity to display our Christian faith.

But there is another way that suffering can come to the Christian that we don’t like to talk about (at least I don’t) because it makes us uncomfortable. As Walter Brueggemann put it, “The cross places suffering at the heart of God’s character and at the heart of meaningful, faithful human life…” [Walter Brueggemann, “Editor’s Foreword,” Charles B. Cousar, A Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), viii, cited by Placher, p. 111]. There is a sense in which suffering is, while never to be sought after, nevertheless something to be embraced. This kind of suffering comes when we suffer for doing right; it comes when we suffer for bearing real witness to who Jesus is; it comes when we suffer for truly displaying the heart of God in the midst of a world that can’t take it. Jesus died on the cross but we also have to take up our crosses and follow him. Paul talked about one being resurrected provided that he had suffered with Christ. Jesus assured his disciples that if the world had rejected him it surely would reject them, and that possibility is multiplied by many times if we not only bear his name but bear his heart and his spirit and his teachings.

Such thinking properly understood will not lead to inappropriate martyr complexes; not all who think they are suffering for doing right in fact are. Still, it’s worth pondering on this ironically named “Good” Friday. Jesus was the most loving, most accepting, most compassionate, most forgiving, most peaceful, most graceful (by which I mean “full of grace”) person who ever lived.

His society couldn’t tolerate it.

Our society can’t either.

So think about it: what will happen if we live forgiveness in a world that believes in revenge? What will happen if we live acceptance in a world that promotes rejection? What will happen if we live compassion in a world that promotes selfishness? What will happen if we live peace in a world that promotes war? What will happen if we live grace in a world that promotes judgment? What will happen is that suffering will come. But when that kind of suffering comes, Holy Week is lingering.

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