At the centre of our beliefs is the suffering and death of Jesus expressed in resurrection and his call that we too take up our cross and die into life. Some wise ones have described this as learning to die before we die, or learning to let go and let be, so that we can enter into the fullness of our loving Source. However we understand it we need to reflect on suffering and how suffering might lead to life. (Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 17  Matthew 16:21-28, Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, and Romans 12:9-21,)
Our readings this week do not sit easily side by side. They not so much contradict each other as they describe all too clearly the conundrum in which we live our lives of faith! If we can live in the creative tension then we will be initiated into the citizenship of heaven on earth, of the kingdom of God breaking into our world now, of learning how to live connected to our eternal loving source now rather than later as a distant reward.
Let us begin with Jeremiah, the weeping prophet (or in the Australian idiom the “whinging” prophet!) I always feel a bit sorry for Jeremiah because he did have a hard time of it and was given a hard job. I would be complaining also. So following the well established ‘lament psalm’ format Jeremiah: describes his suffering; asks quite accusing questions of God; condemns his enemies and petitions for them to be punished; confesses his ultimate faith in God; and allows for a divine response. And God’s response is something to the effect that persecution has not derailed God’s promise to deliver. Indeed it will be Jeremiah’s perseverance that is the vehicle by which the people are won over. In the midst of injustice, Jeremiah is not to allow evil to overcome good. Jeremiah is basically told to persevere and thus to help deliver his people eventually to the promises made by God to them.
And in the gospel this week Jesus is telling the disciples that (having just worked out who he really is in the last paragraph) if they are really going to follow him it means taking up their cross and going where he is going – into the firing line! And when Peter takes Jesus aside and says “God forbid it Lord. This must never happen to you.” we know what Jesus says: “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” There is no nice way of dressing things up. To follow Jesus is to put ourselves in the way of suffering.
But why? Why suffering? I don’t know of a straightforward answer but I think there are several levels of response. Firstly Jesus invites us into life abundant and full-on which includes joy and garden variety suffering, not simply one or the other. So our life is going to be both full of joy and full of suffering, like everyone else’s. Except we are promised ultimate and eventual joy.
Secondly that there is a suffering specific to the gospel which is that if we proclaim the kingdom values of Jesus we shall upset people and get pushback including from the religious. If we side with the people Jesus is particularly concerned for then we shall find ourselves on the vulnerable and unpopular side of many arguements. If we proclaim with out lips and our behaviours a Christ crucified not victorious then we shall find ourselves aligned with suffering.
And thirdly there is also something about the purifying and freeing effect of losing our small particular ego or life for the sake of becoming part of the Christ. This seems to be essential to our spiritual growth and development. Paul spoke earlier in Romans about dying with Christ in order that we might rise or live in him. There is this spiritual/psychological sense in which we die in order to live most fully.
Many spiritual traditions have glimpsed that somehow suffering is the beginning of wisdom, compassion, some might say enlightenment or awakening to who and what we most truly are. And we Christians who have death and resurrection as the centrepiece of our beliefs should understand the connection between suffering and dying and life. Remember every Advent we begin the journey of preparing for the birth of the Christ with the imperative to Awake, or to stay awake! Is suffering the only way to awaken? Quite possibly not, but most of us do not want to get serious about life until we need to, and suffering makes staying in the same state of half life very unattractive, and so we begin to search for the more real, the truly alive - or the way, the truth, and the life!
But knowing that we must suffer for the gospel does not mean we can insist others suffer too and certainly not simply because they disagree with us. Jeremiah suggested that those who resist him should be dealt with severely and God told him to persevere, to keep on going!
Paul describes this much higher path to which we are called which is to live a life of love no matter what reaction we get from others. The suffering we take on voluntarily as part of the path of faithfulness and growth is not to fuel vengeance upon others. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them... Do not repay anyone evil for evil... Beloved never avenge yourself, but leave room for the wrath of God ... No ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink ‘... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is a very high standard of citizenship. It is living by kingdom values and principles in the midst of this world. It is what it means to be transformed and not conformed by this world. And it is not easy. It is not natural to many of us. Nothing less than a form of dying will set us free to live such a resurrection way of life.
And we are called to this because we need that sort of love that transforms us as much as those we interact with. And this world desperately needs this standard of love. Passionately practical get-down and get-your-hands-dirty love where ever the need is for this sort of love. Jesus proclaimed love in his talks and then he walked (or lived) love in his table fellowship with the dubious, and miraculous healings of the unimportant, and love to his last breath even upon a tortuous cross.
Love is needed wherever we find ourselves. It is not simply our left over surfeit of love and good fortune when we are at the top of the cultural and social pile and life is good and we can afford to feel a bit sorry for those less fortunate but it is the compassion of the fellow traveller when we share out of our little. And such loving will lead to suffering and setting us free, to loss of control and the making of meaning, will break us open and make us whole, will empty us and fill us with all that is good and true.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and renew our hearts with your self-giving love.
You may wish to explore more about suffering and death as part of the life of faith. You are welcome to take a look at a course I wrote to explore this issue. Because it is such an important and deeply personal topic I encourage any who are feeling very distressed or disturbed about their own suffering and loss to seek personal company before embarking on this journey.