Texts: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
The trouble is that even though it is a cultural habit for us to ask one another “How are you doing?” we aren’t prepared to deal with the answer. On any given day, most of us are probably “good” or “fine,” but some of us are not—but how do you respond then? When a stranger asks how you are doing, do you go into the whole story of how you are feeling sad or angry or disappointed? When I asked just now, was anybody inclined to truly answer that question from the heart, or did we all just complete the ritual with, “Fine, thanks”?
This is one of the small, subtle messages that reinforces the idea that when life is difficult, it’s best to keep it to ourselves. And yet, the reality is that suffering is a universal human experience. One thing that all three of our readings today have in common is that they touch on the age-old question of suffering, specifically why God allows—or perhaps even causes—it. This is a question that has caused people to lose faith in God: if God allows or imposes such suffering on people as we experience, this must not be a God that I would want anything to do with.
I must confess, it at first feels a bit odd to talk about suffering in this context. After all, most of us have pretty good lives: we are comfortable, privileged, and live in one of the richest countries in the world. We have the advantages of stable government, modern sanitation and medicine, and myriad technologies to make our lives easier. What do we have to complain about?
However, just because we lead relatively easy lives does not mean that we do not suffer. We are human; odds are that whether we know it or not, there are people here in this room who have faced addiction or abuse, who have suffered through a miscarriage, who have talked with their spouse about whether they should get divorced, who have wrestled with depression or loneliness, who have reacted to retirement or news of grandchildren with grief over aging as well as joy.
We rarely bring it up, except perhaps with a few close friends or family, but in public, we put on smile and pretend everything is okay because we don’t want to burden anybody with our problems or make anyone uncomfortable. We don’t want anyone’s pity, and we don’t want them to think we are complaining or that we are strange for feeling the way we do.
For us, suffering is a liability, a weakness. Although our experience with suffering is much different than the experience of people in Jesus’ time, we tend to have the same reaction. We first assume that pain is weakness, and in order to be strong, we must get past it. This is problematic because the central event of our faith story is the very public and terrible suffering of God’s own Son. If suffering is weakness, what does this say about God? Is God so powerless that God could not save God’s own Son from death? Or is God so blind with rage that even God’s own Son could not escape God’s punishment?
Each of our texts today tries to reconcile a loving God and a cruel world by finding different ways to explain why God allows suffering, or why God’s own Son was made to suffer. Hebrews, for example, uses a metaphor that was common-sense to the people of the time, picturing Jesus as a high priest offering a sacrifice of his own blood. Mark says that Jesus’ life was given as a ransom—a price paid to free slaves. Isaiah imagines the godly servant nobly suffering punishment that he does not deserve behalf of those who do.
Throughout the centuries, pious Christians invented a myriad of cruel devices to cause themselves pain because they believed that our suffering saves us by making us more like Christ: contraptions like the cilice and the hair shirt, as well as dangerous lies such as the idea that enduring abuse is one’s ‘cross to bear.’
What Hebrews tells us is that suffering actually makes God closer to us. Jesus’ suffering taught him what it was to be human; because of what Christ endured, our God understands fully and intimately the pain that we endure. If we can learn anything from this, it is that our suffering is not the result of God ignoring or punishing us; instead God enters into our suffering with us. Jesus paints for us the picture of God who voluntarily takes our griefs upon Godself, and invites us to do the same.
In that sense, God does ask us to seek out suffering: not for its own sake, but for the well-being of individual people and the community. Jesus gave his life in service to God’s kingdom, and shows us how to do the same. One way we can understand that self-giving is in “compassion,” which literally means “suffering with.” This means not only bearing the burdens of our neighbors, but also allowing them to bear ours.
As Christian community, we are encouraged to be open and vulnerable with each other. It is easy for us to talk about serving each other, but much harder to talk about giving others the opportunity to serve us. We would sooner be the ones washing feet than the ones whose feet are washed. Opening ourselves up like that makes it easy for the people around us to hurt us, intentionally or unintentionally; so we close ourselves off and keep our struggles private.
However, when we are vulnerable with each other and suffer together, we find that we are not the only ones with fears, doubts and pains; we become less lonely because we see that others share the same experiences we do, and we grow closer together. Being open with one another helps us serve each other, which also helps prepare us for service out in the world; it makes us better evangelists of the gospel because we become better at caring for each other. By bearing one another’s burdens, we not only hurt together, but as God works through that suffering to bring about new life, we also heal together. Through sharing the suffering of our neighbors, we can see as a community how God is with us in all our trials.
We may never have an adequate answer to why we suffer like we do. What we do know from scripture is that the model Jesus gives us for dealing with evil is to suffer it together. He brings us together around this table. Here we share, one loaf and one cup, we share one another’s joys and sorrows, and it is in that sharing that we become the one Body of Christ. If Jesus teaches us anything, it is that there is no power on earth—neither pain, nor shame, nor tragedy, nor even death itself—which is more powerful than God’s ability to bring life. As Christians, we do not seek out suffering, but neither do we shy away from it, because it cannot hurt us. In the one baptism we all share, we have already died with Christ and been raised to new life. Together, we share that promise and live that resurrection for and with one another.
The next time you or somebody else asks, “How are you?” let it remind you that God has seen that it is not good for us to be alone, and that through the gift of community, friends and family, God has chosen to be with us for both the good and the bad. Let it also remind you that God may be giving you the opportunity to serve someone else by offering compassion and being the Body of Christ to someone in need.