Over the course of Jesus’ life and ministry, the disciple’s relationship with him deepens and changes—and so does ours. We always stand as sinner to our Savior, but as we follow Jesus in his mission, we also become a servant to our Master. As we hear the parables, we become a student of our Teacher, and as we learn to love others as he has loved us, we become a disciple to our Lord.
But as Jesus approaches his suffering and death, he deepens our relationship with him again. At the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus says, I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
Now we become friends to Jesus. Jesus needs more than sinners, servants, students and disciples to enter the suffering that he faces. Jesus needs friends who will accompany him, who will love him, who will suffer with him, who will not betray, abandon or deny him. None of his first disciples could do this, except John. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, all but John ran away.
Have you ever imagined that the disciples who fled in fear left an opening in the story for you to do what they could not? Have you ever imagined that Jesus calls you, “friend,” and asks you to enter his passion and fill the space vacated by the disciples? Have you ever imagined that the suffering you have endured in this life, opens up inside you, a bigger space of compassion so that you can be a friend to Jesus, so that you can be the one who stays by his side while he suffers and dies?
I invite you to imagine yourself inside the story as a friend who stays there with Jesus; a gift of sacred accompaniment. You may close your eyes and quiet your thoughts as you let your imagination take you to the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus and 2 criminals are crucified.
Crowds surround you as you make your way to the cross. The jeers and cheers have quieted down as death draws near. As you weave your way closer, you spot Jesus’ mother Mary, with Mary Magdalene, and Mary’s sister, standing at the foot of the cross with John. You make your way toward them so you can be there with Jesus, too. As you take your place beside them, the Mary’s and John nod their gratitude to you and squeeze your hand. They are so comforted that you had the courage and compassion to stay by Jesus until the end.
You look up at Jesus; his head is bowed. So many thoughts and questions are running through his mind: “Is this what happens when you love without limits? What should I have done differently? Just a few days ago I thought I heard Hosannas! Where are all of my friends? And, my Abba, my Father, where, oh where is he in all this agony?”
No answers come.
Jesus lifts up his head and sees you there with the women and John. You lock eyes and you see the relief flood over him as he realizes he’s not completely alone. He holds your gaze as if he’s soaking up your compassion and love. You remember that Jesus knows everything—all of your pain and sorrow, all of your goodness and joy, all of your temptation and sin. You feel flooded with his love. How can Jesus exude such love when he’s in so much pain? You also feel deep sorrow for his suffering.
It’s as if time stands still. As you hold his gaze, it looks like he’s about to say something. You step closer and lean in to hear what he says: what does Jesus say to you? What is Jesus saying to you as a friend who stays by his side?
You hold this message from Jesus in your heart. You will always remember what Jesus has done for you.
He saved all of us by not saving himself.
What is your image of God? It’s not a question we ask ourselves or each other very often. It doesn’t come up at the water cooler at work, or even around the dinner table at home. But it’s a vital question because as I read in my devotions recently, we become our image of God.
This is the same question being asked by the people of Jerusalem as Jesus makes his triumphal entry on a donkey. “Who is this? Who is Jesus?” Matthew reports that the whole city of Jerusalem was in turmoil over this question and with good reason. Jesus is not just “a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee,” but Jesus reveals the character and nature of God. So, what image of God does Jesus’ life reveal? We join the crowds in Jerusalem asking, “Who is this?”
Does Jesus reveal an image of God who is the judge and punisher of our sins, a God who makes sure we get our just desserts, and lets us blame people for their own misfortune? If not, those of us who think we are righteous are disappointed.
Is Jesus the morality police who condemns those who don’t behave according to strict moral codes so that, “we are in, those ‘others’ (whoever those ‘others’ are for us) are out?” If not, the arrogant religious are humbled as we stand on level ground with all sinners.
Does Jesus embody an image of God as the apex of power who will defeat the Roman Empire and make Israel (or America today) #1? If not, then those among us who want a political messiah are thwarted, and violence is not justified.
Does Jesus reveal a God who is absent—an old man with a beard in the sky who does not care about us personally? Does this far-off God “watch us from a distance,” (as the unfortunate lyrics of that Bette Midler song go) as if our lives don’t matter? If not, the powerful who oppress others stand accused, for our behavior matters, and the lowly are raised up.
Does Jesus show us an image of God who is a perfectionist who demands the same from us? A God who says that salvation is all up to us and you’d better hop to it because you’re on your own? If not, then the agitators and activists are brought down from their high horse.
Who is this Jesus? Everyone in Jerusalem is disappointed, for they are not getting the God they wanted. Perhaps neither are we. Is this why the crowd who cried “Hosanna to the Son of David” shouted “crucify him!” just a few days later? Because in Jesus, they did not get the God they wanted?
When I was in chemotherapy for breast cancer 9 years ago, I was angry at God. I have never known such a depth of physical suffering combined with a dark night of the soul. I was plastered to the bed for 5 months of chemotherapy, I was on disability for 9 months and couldn’t take care of my family. I didn’t want Jesus to suffer with me, I wanted him to take my suffering away! I did not get the God I wanted.
We are so disappointed that Jesus is not the God we want, that we put God to death in the end, even death on a cross. I confess that I am guilty.
But isn’t it in this death, that Jesus reveals who God really is? God’s image and character become clear—God is One who suffers on behalf of the world God made. Jesus reveals the length, the width, the height, the depth, (as Ephesians 3 says). Jesus reveals the expanse of God’s love in that suffering, so that in our suffering we might meet God there, and embrace a relationship with the One who called us into being and loves us no matter what.
It took time, but eventually the Spirit enabled me to see God in the midst of my suffering:
• in the dinners people prepared for us;
• in the Moms who picked up and dropped off my 3 kids for their basketball, soccer, and baseball practices;
• in my parents, 2 sisters and 2 girlfriends, all who lived out of state, who took their vacation time to stay with us and help my family;
• in the cards so numerous I could have wall-papered the bathroom;
• in the prayers that so many offered on my behalf;
I could go on and on and on about the ways God showed up in my suffering.
One thing becomes clear: there is no glorification of ourselves in this God who suffers with us, and for us, and alongside us. We do not get to be more righteous, more powerful, more moral, more favored, or more perfect, more holy than anyone else, than any other country, than any other community or group. The truth of who we are is exposed in Jesus’ suffering; all we can do is receive the unfathomable love of our God, and respond with our whole life, trusting that God never allows the cross and its suffering to be the end of the story.
For the character of this God who suffers, is also and always to bring new life, new birth, new joy, indeed, resurrection out of suffering. Through our relationship with Jesus, God asks us to participate with him in bringing love, healing, renewal, hope and resurrection to all people.
Last week, a pastor serving in northern Illinois asked me to go to a local hospital and visit the niece of her parishioner, who has breast cancer. She’s 30 years old with children ages 2 and 5. She had the same stage cancer that I did, the same surgery. She looked at me and said, “It’s so good to see you got through this; it gives me hope.” In fact, all my pastoral visits have been qualitatively different since cancer, because people know that I know their suffering. People know that I know what it’s like to be in the hospital bed rather than standing at the bedside. Only a God who suffers can give this hope, when all I did was show up. That is the character of God – to bring comfort, love and hope to others through our redeemed suffering. It’s not about us, but what God can do through us.
We become our image of God. So lean in to the passion story this Holy Week, and this God who suffers on our behalf. As you receive the body and blood of Christ at Communion, hear the story that through Jesus, you know that God knows you and your suffering.
When we receive the unfathomable love of God and we say “yes” to this God who invites us into an intimate relationship, then we can ask new questions. Instead of “Who is this Jesus?” We can ask, “Who is Jesus shaping me to be through my own redeemed suffering?” And “To whom is God using me to bring comfort, love and hope because they need to know that you know their suffering? There are people who need to know that you know. That is your passion story, because it makes it possible for them to know that God knows their suffering, too.
So Jesus’ passion story continues through our passion stories as we join him in making real the love and presence of this amazing resurrection God.
Image: Jesus Dies on the Tree by Jyoti Sahi; Jyoti Art Ashram, North Bangalore, India
A friend and I attended worship on the beach during spring break in Destin.
Worshipping outside, it’s harder to pretend that we are the masters of our own destiny and determiners of our fate. We are surrounded by the powers of creation that existed millennia before we got here and will be here eons after we’re gone. We don’t need to think about our smallness in the grand scheme of the universe. We are small, sitting in beach chairs while waves crashed before us.
How awesome that the Creator of all the incredible wonders around us, wants a relationship with each one of us personally. What kind of God is that? A relational God. A Trinitarian God. A God who became like us to show us eternal love, our ultimate destiny, and how to live until we get there.
Our ritual that marks that God desires this relationship with us is the Sacrament of Baptism. I’d never seen a Baptism in the ocean before and it moved me to tears. After the sermon and Communion, about 80 of us worshipping made a circle, held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. Then we all moved to the shoreline for the Baptism. A girl about 9 or 10 years old went forward with her dad and they joined the pastor in the waves. She folded her arms across her chest, plugged her nose, and they dipped her back in the water and up she came as we all clapped and whooped. Her dad wrapped her in a big towel and hugged her tight.
The pastor was about to give the Benediction and send us on our way, when a man came forward. He looked like he’d had a hard life, but he experienced something that evening on the beach that told him hardship wasn’t all of who he was, nor the end of his story. He was ready to commit his life to God, to follow Jesus, and enter a relationship with the Creator who could be felt in the wind, seen in the sunset, tasted in the bread and grape juice, and held in the people beside us. The pastor went back into the waves with a church leader. The man folded his arms across his chest, plugged his nose and down he went, backwards into the waves as the water God made washed over him, a sign of pure love and forgiveness, of dying and rising with Christ. The pastor and his assistant lifted him back up. And we all clapped and hollered for him, too. What a remarkable way to begin one's faith journey. Baptism is done to you, even as an adult. The man didn't dip himself back, he was dunked by two others, by love, by God. And he was raised up again. God uses us to claim others.
I had never seen so clearly how in Baptism, we not only belong to God and to the faith community, but also to the whole creation. That’s why faith is made up of the stuff of the earth—water and grains and grapes and people seeking to understand and order our lives in relationship with the Divine mystery hidden in all things.
The daughter of friends tragically died recently. Her name was Delaney and she was only 20 years old, the same age as one of my own children. She did not intend to, but she died from the effects of an overdose of heroin. Delaney was just coming into her own, discovering a vocation and a purpose that fit her talents and skills. She had stopped using drugs, and was on the path of a renewed life. Something happened that upset her, got her off balance, and the old demons came calling again.
Psalm 8:2 recognizes the power of truth that comes “out of the mouths of babes and infants” and we hear this wisdom not only in the witness of Delaney’s life, but in the words she left behind. Her parents found the poem below on her computer—a poem Delaney never shared. It reveals the depth of our human struggle for meaningful relationships, to be seen for who we really are, and to live with intention, offering insight beyond her years.
In Delaney’s words, we hear an echo of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 15:11 that is it “not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth.” We also hear God’s instruction to all of us through the prophet Samuel who was sent to anoint the young shepherd boy, David, to be king of Israel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature … for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Delaney points us toward the truth spoken by Paul in Acts 20:35 that it is "more blessed to give than to receive." And we hear the admonition given in the book of James that encourages us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
If I wanted to sit down and write a poem that encompassed messages from the Old and New Testaments as well as Jesus himself, I couldn’t do it. But Delaney did. With her parent’s permission, I share Delaney’s words in thanksgiving for her life, in honor of her memory, and in the hope that her life will continue to speak, and we will begin to listen.
by Delaney Martin
i seem to always speak words as if none of them mattered
so if you ask me why i spoke in an octave that could break glass
the only answer i have is that its already been shattered.
my sister used to ask if i could hear what i was saying
and to look into the mirror so i could see what i was displaying.
but it seems like nobody knows we weren’t given eyes to look but to see
so we just look on the outside and not what lays underneath.
and most of us know how to hear but not listen
barely grasping at the words, so all the meanings - we miss them.
what if one day someone told you life isn’t worth living?
if all you do is hear, they could be just another life missing.
and some day you’ll ask yourself why didn’t i pay more attention
to the people around me who needed affection.
and most of us run our mouths as if we're running a race
like being right or being wrong goes hand in hand with first and last place.
but I wish someone had told me sooner that every single word i speak matters
and had helped me glue together every single piece, as if the glass had never shattered.
so learn to give more than you take, rather than take more than you give,
its the difference between living a life you think you love, and loving the life you live.
we were blessed with two eyes, two ears and one voice.
once we've chosen how we use them we may never get another choice.
so make sure the way you choose, is the way you want for life
because how you choose to use them is how you’ll be seen through everyone else’s eyes