Sunday, March 12 2006

Click here to read Mark 8:27-38.

His teacher was the Messiah. Not just another run of the mill holy man, passing magic tricks off as miracles. Jesus was the anointed One, the Beloved Son of God, the Christ. This peasant from Nazareth was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the answer to centuries of hope. God finally walked the earth, and soon his full glory would be made manifest. The Roman government would flee from the Israelites’ land, and once again the people of God would have a mighty Kingdom on Earth. Peter was delirious with joy, and spoke the truth on his heart: You are the Messiah.

And then the object of Peter’s hope dashed his hopes with a new teaching, that he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter rebuked Jesus. We don’t know quite what he said, but he led the Son of God away from the Disciples like a misbehaving child, and attempted to put Jesus in his place. I can imagine his alarm as he desperately struggled to convince Jesus that the Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die. I can imagine this because I would have had the same reaction.

Many of us have heard the story of Jesus Christ so many times that we forget how radical it is. God doesn’t merely walk the dusty roads of Galilee; God walks to his death with a cross on his back.

One of the best novels I’ve read in recent years is called The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The protagonist, Pi, is unusually precocious when it comes to faith. Although he was born a Hindu, the young Indian boy is equally captivated by Islam and Christianity. There is a great scene in which his three religious teachers discover he has been moonlighting in other religions.

But what Pi has to say about the strange new story of Jesus Christ echoes Peter’s bafflement. He reflects,

“That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers … But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified -- and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying… divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar (His Son) die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect? Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.”

What Pi is encountering here is the scandal of the Christian Faith. We have, in the person of Jesus Christ, the unique, offensive, and saving story of a God who suffers and dies on account of his compassionate, insatiable love for Creation.

Pi was familiar with many gods, and they were all invincible and immortal. Peter wanted a powerful God who saves his people from suffering, not a weak and broken God who bears the burden of suffering and death himself. Jesus rebukes Peter because Peter is wrong, but the fire behind his rebuke is pure fear. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and instead of the mighty Superhero we long for, he is a vulnerable, breakable human being.

Jesus Christ reveals a God who suffers. And though we might think that suffering and death spoils what is perfect, the crucifixion of Jesus on the Cross reveals an utterly different sort of perfection—a perfect love. And this love is more powerful than pain, more powerful than sin, more powerful than death itself. It is a love that saves and reconciles, and it is a love that understands, profoundly, the breadth and depth of human experience.

The vulnerable God of Jesus Christ suffers alongside humanity, making himself known among the poorest and weakest of his children. A painting by W. Maxwell Lawton offers a powerful illustration of this (you can see the painting here). Lawton is a Christian painter who is living with AIDS. His experience of the Christ who bears the burden of human experience led him to paint a portrait called Man of Sorrows. At first glance, the painting seems very similar to the many portrayals of the Passion of Christ. But gazing at the painting, you soon recognize the gaunt features and skin lesions of a person dying of AIDS.

Along with the relentless blight of violence throughout Creation, the global AIDS crisis is one of the most painful contemporary expressions of human suffering. Forty million people are infected throughout the world; that many people standing in a line could stretch from Los Angeles to New York not once or twice, but three times.

In the United States and Europe, people who are HIV positive are treated with expensive drugs that increase their quality of life. But seventy percent of those who are HIV positive live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS drugs are scarce. Without treatment, these people suffer from a terrible wasting illness and repeated bouts of pneumonia. Eleven million African children have been left orphaned by the pandemic, and many of these children carry the virus themselves.

The Crucified Christ doesn’t avert his eyes from the pain and injustice of HIV/AIDS. He doesn’t wash his holy hands of the isolation and shame the virus brings about. He bears the cross of ultimate compassion, experiencing the utter brokenness of humankind.

He becomes the Christ with AIDS. He becomes the Christ with depression. He becomes the Christ with hunger pains and alcohol addiction and intense loneliness. Through the cross, God identifies himself once and for all as a God who loves us enough to share our pain.

But the story doesn’t stall out on Calvary. By accepting our vulnerability and bearing our sorrow, “God has claimed our weakness as a resource for divine power. God has claimed our wounds as a potential means of healing.” (Bishop Kenneth Carder) The love of God in Christ Jesus transforms suffering and death into joy and new life. Even as Jesus discloses the frightening, difficult path ahead, he reveals God’s staggering promise of resurrection. After three days, he will be made whole again. The power of his vulnerability and the force of his love will shatter the suffering, brokenness, and sin that hold God’s people in thrall. Even the taste of death will be vanquished.

I have heard two great lies that relate to this text, both of which are incredibly popular among Christians. The first is the lie of Peter. Somehow the very real crucifixion of Christ and the obligation to carry one’s own cross is thrown out entirely. The Christian faith is seen as little more than comforting life insurance. At its worst, this lie turns God into a pawn at the beck and call of believers, doling out fancy cars and job promotions to those who “name and claim” what they want.

Not only is this lie an affront to the sacrificial love of Christ, it is also thin ice for Christians. If you believe that your problems will vanish when you become a Christian, your faith is bound to crash. We are assured that when the work of Christ is fulfilled, “death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” But in the meantime, we must rest in the assurance that through Christ, God has intimate understanding of our suffering, and bears it with us.

The second lie is even more dangerous. This lie exploits the call to carry one’s cross to condone unjust suffering. Are you a slave? Endure your humiliation as Jesus did. Are you abused? Accept the beatings as Jesus accepted his. This lie corrupts the meaning of the cross. It turns the sacrificial love of Christ into a tool for cruelty.

By challenging us to take up our cross, Christ “calls us to live the life he has made possible for us through his death and resurrection- a life where we speak his name without shame, and do his will, knowing that there may be a cost to our discipleship, but that we've already gained life with the divine.” (Lori A. Cornell)

Like Peter, we do not like to hear about rejection and crucifixion. We would prefer to skip ahead to the resurrection. But God chose to transform weakness into power through Christ’s sacrificial love. We are called to follow Christ, even to the point of death. The divine logic of losing your life to save it certainly isn’t rational. But if we are blessed with enough wisdom to know our weakness, we will put our trust in the wisdom of a vulnerable God.

May we each live the new life we are given through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, who is the Messiah, the Son of God who lives, and dies, and lives again.

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