Sunday, April 09, 2006

“Suffering Love”[1]

Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11

There are a lot of places in this world that can feel hopeless. There are a lot of places in Dickinson, TX that can feel hopeless! Whether it’s a relationship that feels like quicksand, or a job that is suffocating, or an addiction that is slowly eroding your soul, any of us can find ourselves in situations that feel like we’re beyond even God’s help. But that is not the message of the Gospel! The good news of the Gospel is that because of Jesus’ death on the cross, there is nowhere we can go that is “too far” for God to save us.

Made Himself Nothing. The Scripture texts for today bring us face to face with what is most difficult in our faith. At the heart of the Christian faith, we confess that the one who shared the vast grandeur of God not only became a vulnerable human being; he also subjected himself to humiliation and actually tasted death. How does the one who is equal with God “empty himself”? How does his obedience to God lead him to death? The short answer, though not a simple one, is this: it is the mystery of God’s love. And as one of our confessions puts it, God’s love is a mystery beyond our understanding.[2]

Part of what makes the gospel of God’s love through Jesus’ death so difficult to grasp is that we rarely see it enacted in real life. Think about it: when was the last time you met someone who gave up the offer of prestige, or power, or better pay for the chance to give themselves away in sacrificial love? There have been people who did that throughout the ages—one that comes to mind is Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite writers. After holding positions at some of the most prestigious universities in the country, he chose to become the chaplain at the Daybreak Community in Toronto, a home where the mentally handicapped live with their caregivers. Nouwen was following what he called the path of downward mobility[3]—the same path that Jesus walked when he made himself nothing and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Into the Abyss. Why would the Son of God do such a thing? Again, the short but not simple answer is this: to recover us. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus went into the abyss of human suffering in order to redeem all of us who have been trapped there.[4]

One of my favorite scholars says it this way: “Through his forsakenness Jesus has brought God to the Godforsaken.”[5] In Jesus the Christ, God is revealed as the redeemer of the despised, as the savior of the hopeless, as the one who chooses the unwanted.

The good news of the Gospel is that there is no depth of suffering that Jesus in his abandonment on the cross did not reach.[6] Truly does our catechism state that “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[7] All the loneliness, agony, alienation, cruelty, abandonment, estrangement, despair, shame, rejection, self-destruction we could ever experience is redeemed by Jesus’ death on the cross.[8]

What this means is that no one can sink so deep as to be beyond hope, beyond the reach of God’s love. However far we may fall, the love of God has already been there in Jesus Christ, and is waiting there to bring us back home.

Unconditional Love. How can the willingness of God’s Son to experience the depths of our suffering miraculously save us from it? Once more, the answer is short but not simple: because the powerful love of God transforms us.

The good news of the Gospel is that the clearest demonstration of God’s mighty power to save is found in a broken and helpless man hanging on a cross. Jesus’ death as an outcast, as one of the “Godforsaken,” reveals the unconditional love of God more powerfully than anything else.

That love is powerful because it is unconditional: God loves us before we could ever love God. That love changes everything—changes who we are, changes our outlook on the future, changes our purpose for living; it brings us new life.[9] God’s unconditional love in Jesus’ death on the cross means that we don’t have to try to reach up to God, because God has reached us—wherever we are. Wherever we can go, God has already paved the way from death into his life.[10]

Conclusion. What does this mean for us? It means that, if we follow the one who identified with the outcasts in order to redeem us all, then we must do the same.[11] It means that we are not a fellowship of the righteous, but a fellowship of the godless who have been accepted because of Jesus’ abandonment on the cross. We are not a fellowship of the holy, but a fellowship of sinners who have been forgiven through his death. We are not a fellowship of the elite, the select, or the esteemed, but a fellowship of the excluded, the rejected, and the abandoned who have been reclaimed by the suffering of divine love on the cross. The death of Jesus the Christ on a cross shows us that God’s love is a love that will not rest until it reaches out to every God-forsaken place we can possibly go to bring all of us back home to God. That means that if we seek to follow Christ, we will also reach out to the abandoned, the excluded, and the Godforsaken with the love we have found in Jesus the Christ.

[1] A sermon preached 4/9/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Confession of 1967 9.15

[3] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 100-101.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91.

[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 94. Cf. also Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 242-43.

[6] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 95

[7] cf. Study Catechism, q. 45.

[8] Moltmann, Crucified God, 246, 277.

[9] Moltmann, Crucified God, 245, 248-49.

[10] Moltmann, Crucified God, 254-55.

[11] Moltmann, Crucified God, 19.

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