Monday, April 13, 2015

Seeing and Believing

Seeing and Believing
John 20:1-18[1]
In the face of all our discussion of suffering during Lent, it may seem like faith in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on that first Easter morning might have little relevance for our lives right here and right now. In comparison with the kinds of experiences we have to endure in this life, something that happened so long ago and so far away might simply not seem to make a real difference in our lives. Beyond that, when you look at the massive suffering and violence that seem to dominate the world in which we live, it’s all too easy to conclude that money and power and violence have the last word in our world. These harsh realities can make faith seem at best quaint and at worst a delusion.[2] The fact of the matter is that we live in a world where it’s not easy to truly embrace the faith that Jesus’ death and resurrection brings new life to us all.
I’m not so sure that the original witnesses to the resurrection had an easier time with faith. Our Gospel lesson for today presents several different responses to the resurrection. Mary Magdalene seems to react initially with fear when she sees that the stone has been move from the tomb. So she runs back and tells the Apostles. In response, Peter and John run to the tomb. John the beloved disciple is the first one to reach it, but he hesitates to enter, perhaps out of the Jewish concern for becoming “unclean.” Later, when he does enter, the Scripture says that he “saw and believed.” When St. Peter gets there, he sees the empty tomb, and examines the wrappings that had been used to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, but it seems he doesn’t understand what to make of all this. The Gospel reminds us that “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).
Three people, witnessing the same events, with three different responses: fear, confusion, and faith. I think the first two responses pretty well explain themselves. When confronted with the empty tomb, I think it would have only been natural for those who had witnessed Jesus’ terrible death to react with fear or confusion. It’s John’s faith that seems to be hard to explain. What was it about what he saw that enabled him to believe?[3] After all, he saw the same thing they did. It could be that John did remember and understand that Jesus had said he would have to suffer and die, but afterward he would rise from the dead. Or maybe John was just one of those people for whom faith comes easily.[4] Perhaps the difference was in the way he saw what they had all witnessed.
When Mary returns, it would seem that she is still overwhelmed with grief and fear. She actually encounters Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. She mistakes him for a gardener and actually asks him if he’s taken the body somewhere. It’s only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes him and believes.[5] It takes his voice, his initiative to reveal himself to her, in order for her to get past her grief and fear and to be able to see in such a way that she could recognize that Jesus was alive and standing right in front of her. Once she was able to get past her own feelings and see clearly that Jesus truly was alive, she returns to the Apostles again and tells them she’s seen Jesus.
When I think of this story, I wonder what the Apostles were thinking when Mary first told them she had seen Jesus. Did some of them think she was crazy, or simply hallucinating out of her extreme grief? Were some of them confused? As the Scripture states, they didn’t yet understand that Jesus would rise from the dead. I think it’s a pretty good bet that some of them doubted—seriously doubted—that what she was telling them could be true. As some of the disciples unknowingly tell Jesus, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).[6] In the same place they reported that some of the Apostles had gone to the tomb to “see for themselves,” but they didn’t see Jesus (Luke 24:24). It would seem that there was a wide variety of responses to Mary’s story, but it doesn’t seem that faith was the primary one at first.
The plain truth is that faith is difficult for some of us. There are all kinds of reasons for that. Some of us simply cannot get past bad experiences we’ve had in church. Some of us have a more questioning bent of mind, and we are more prone to doubt than to believe. Others may simply find faith to be mostly irrelevant to the reality of our lives. When our experience in life has been mostly tragedy, suffering, hardship, rejection, and pain, it can seem like faith is just so many pretty words. They may mean something to others, but they don’t have any real significance for life as we have experienced it.
But I think for all of us—those who are quick to believe and those who are slower to embrace faith—what makes the difference is encountering Jesus, alive and present with us here and now.[7] That’s what made the difference for most of the disciples on the first Easter. When we have an encounter like that, it changes the way we see things—whether we’re struggling with tragedy, or whether we’re living the good life, whether we’re prone to believe or more prone to doubt. It enables us to see that God does not operate within the limits of the way things normally work in our world. An encounter with the living Christ can enable us to see God’s new creation already working in hidden ways here among us. It enables us to see the resurrection as a promise that points toward a future filled with hope and joy and love and life.[8]  Having an encounter with the risen Christ makes it possible for us to see the realities of our lives from a completely different perspective: it enables us to see and believe.[9]

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/5/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 182: “when we experience tragic suffering in our own lives and see so much tragic suffering in the world, we wonder whether all talk about a loving and just God is not in fact ... wishful thinking; cf. also John Caputo, On Religion, 91, where he lays out the options: believing that the world of faith is what is “really real,” believing that faith is “unreal” in comparison with the observable forces at work in the world, and a third way, in which faith is directed toward the reality that is beyond what our senses perceive as real.
[3] Scholars speculate about why he was so quick to believe. Cf. Raymond Brown, “The Resurrection in John 20: A Series of Diverse Reactions,” in Worship 64 no 3 (May 1990):194-98. Cf. also Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XII-XXI, 1005: the emphasis on the Beloved Disciple’s faith is not due to “Peter’s hardness of heart; rather faith is possible for the Beloved Disciple  because he has become very sensitive to Jesus through love.”
[4] Cf. Brendan Byrne, “The Faith of the Beloved Disciple and the Community in John 20,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23 (1985):86.
[5] Cf. Frank J. Matera, “John 20:1-18,” Interpretation 43 (Oct 1989):404.  He says, “Resurrection faith is a gift.  It occurs when God speaks to the hearts of believers, calling them by name.”
[6] Cf. G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 373: “The lack of understanding of the Scriptures concerning the Messiah’s redemptive work is beautifully illustrated in the Emmaus story (Luke 24:25–27, 32).”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:144, where he discusses the disciples’ ability to recognize the risen Christ. He says that when they did recognize him, it was because ability to do so seems to have been “given them by Jesus Himself.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99, 191.
[9] The Study Catechism,” Approved by the 210th General Assembly Of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) (1998), question 132, says it this way, “there is … a depth of love which is deeper than our despair, and that this love … will finally swallow up forever all that would now seem to defeat it.” Cf. also Caputo, On Religion, 125: in the face of the “specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces,” “Faith is faith that there is something that lifts us above the blind force of things, .... That there is something ... or someone ... who stands by us when we are up against the worst, who stands by others, the least among us.”

Monday, April 06, 2015

Where Is God?

Where Is God?
Psalm 22:1-19 [1]
At the beginning of Lent we looked at the second half of the Psalm for this evening from the perspective that God is on the side of those who suffer rather than being the one who inflicts suffering. The Psalmist says it this way: “he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Ps. 22:24). But as we conclude this season with the remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death, I think it is fitting to take another look at the first half. Especially since Jesus himself quoted the first line of the Psalm in his agony on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).[2]
It is a cry that leaves us deeply unsettled. The idea that the God who promises never to forsake us would in fact do so is troubling to say the least. And the prospect that he abandoned his own Son at the moment when he fulfilled his commitment to God’s saving purpose most completely I find to be shocking. I think Jesus knew he had to die.  Yet he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  I believe Jesus trusted that God would raise him from the dead. Yet he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” What troubles me is the question where God was while all this was happening. 
I know the standard response: “he had to turn away because Jesus took all the sin of the world on himself and God cannot look upon sin.” That just doesn’t cut it for me.  I want to know where God was during the awful silence that followed Jesus’ prayer, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  It is a prayer after all, addressed to God.  Jesus wasn’t just acting out some sort of elaborate play. This was the real thing.  And when the agony of the cross overwhelmed him, Jesus cried out one of the most heartbreaking prayers of the Bible.  And God’s response was … silence. Did God really forsake Jesus on the cross?
Maybe the answer to this problem is that we’re looking at this in the wrong way.  We tend to equate silence with abandonment.   But maybe that’s not what was going on at all. Sometimes we’re silent with those who are suffering because we are suffering with them. I believe that’s where God was; rather than abandoning his Son, God was right there with Jesus, experiencing all the anguish that heartbreaking prayer expresses.[3]  God was silent because God was suffering with Jesus.  To some of us it might seem even more shocking that God would allow himself to undergo such humiliation. It might seem even more deeply unsettling that God allowed himself to become so apparently powerless and weak.
Again, I think we may be looking at things from the wrong perspective. The Scriptures tell the story of how, time and time again, God reveals his power in weakness.[4] This is a mystery as deep and as hard to explain as the trinity. In that moment, God made it clear once and for all that his suffering has become our redemption, that his apparent weakness is actually his powerful love transforming us all, along with all creation. Yet it also communicates that important reality that we started with at the beginning of our Lenten journey this year—God suffers with all who suffer. 
Perhaps the more practical question applies to us. Just what do you do when you feel abandoned by God? That’s when the silence of God is most disturbing—when we cry out for God to redeem us.  At those times it can seem like all our suffering takes place “under a silent heaven.”[5] That’s when we may begin to wonder whether any of what we’ve believed is true at all. At least, that’s what I do—I complain, sometimes bitterly. I wonder why I ever believed in the first place. And I complain again.  I contemplate walking away from it all for good.  And I complain some more! Perhaps you do something like that. But if you do, I think we’re in good company.  Moses, Gideon, Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Jesus—they all cried out to God “Why?”  Sometimes patiently, sometimes bluntly, but always honestly and in a faith that leaves behind all superficiality.
That may be the biggest surprise in all of this—that the cry “My God, My God, why?” can be an expression of faith. In his agony Jesus cried out to God, which in and of itself demonstrated his faith that God had not abandoned him. When we feel abandoned by God and we cry out to him, even when we’re complaining or angry or afraid or all of the above all at the same time, we’re still crying out to God. We’re praying. That, in and of itself, is an expression of faith. It may be as small as the tiniest seed, but it’s still faith.   And when we pour out our hearts to God, we discover that “God is not an abandoning God.”[6] Any lingering doubts about that on Good Friday were settled on Easter!
When we wonder where God was while Jesus was suffering on cross, the answer is that God was right there suffering with him. That applies to each and every one of us when we cry out to God in our moments of despair and anguish.[7] When we wonder where God is when we’re suffering, the answer is that God is just a present with us as he was with Jesus. God will not abandon us any more than he abandoned Jesus. If God seems silent, it is not because he is ignoring us, it is because he is suffering with us.[8] That’s where God always is—right beside us, walking with us every step of the way, supporting us in ways that are sometimes unseen and unfelt. But they are real nevertheless. Wherever you find any suffering or heartbreak or anguish in this world, that’s where God is, pouring out his love to bring healing and new life.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A Maundy Thursday meditation delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 109, where he says that the psalmist’s complaints express “the contradiction that rends the soul when the unity of faith and experience is broken.” Thus he “can speak of that rupture theologically only as forsakenness, as the distance of God.”
[3] In several of Jürgen Moltmann’s works he holds in tension the idea that Jesus died a “God-forsaken” death together with the idea that Jesus was never more closely aligned with God’s will than when he died on the cross. He resolves this tension in different ways in several of his works, but in The Way of Jesus Christ, 173, he says that far from being unconcerned about what was happening, far from abandoning his Son, “in the surrender of the Son the Father surrenders himself too.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV:244-48. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 205: “God is not greater that he is in this humiliation.  God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender.  God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness.  God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.”
[5] Cf. Helmut Thielicke, “The Silence of God”, a sermon preached during the battle of Stalingrad in The Silence of God, 14.
[6] Cf. David Garland, Mark, 600: “Amid human hatred and violence, God may seem to be absent; but never was God more fully and forcefully present than when Jesus died on the cross.  God is not an abandoning God.”
[7] Cf. Martin Marty, A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, 174 “God participates in the life of the people [who suffer] and suffers at their side.” Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 764: “The affliction is still very real, but the affliction itself has somehow become an answer (v. 21b). What the psalmist now affirms is that God is present with the afflicted.”
[8] Cf. Thielicke, “The Silence of God,” 14-15: “Even when He was silent, God suffered with us.  … Even when we thought he did not care, or was dead, He knew all about us and behind the dark wings He did His work of love.”

Saturday, April 04, 2015

He Saved Others

He Saved Others
Mark 15:22-39[1]
  As we come to the conclusion of this season of introspection, not only must we confess that we can be strong-willed people. We must also confess that we can all be people driven by our self-interest. Or perhaps we should simply use the word we’d rather avoid: we can have a tendency to be selfish. Now, obviously, a certain amount of self-interest is healthy. Without it, we can simply become a doormat for anybody and everybody to walk all over. But the kind of self-interest I’m talking about doesn’t have anything to do with that. It’s what compels us to “look out for number one,” even when that means we ignore the consequences our actions have on others.
  I think most of us would rather not have to admit that we can be selfish at times, but it is a part of our human condition. Often, I think we can be most selfish when we are least aware of it. Something triggers a deep-seated fear, or something makes us angry, and all we can see is our own concerns. We go into a kind of “tunnel vision” where we lose our ability to understand or even be aware of the needs and concerns of others. And the fact of the matter is, when we get into that mode, we can be incredibly unkind, thoughtless, and even downright mean. It’s a reality of human existence we’d rather not have to admit, but the truth is that we all have a selfish streak.
  I guess the real question is what to do about it. Of course, the proverb that being aware of a problem is the first step in the right direction certainly helps. But I think if we really want to learn to step out of our selfish tendency, we need an example of how to do life differently. I think that’s where our Gospel lesson for today can help us. In it, we find a particularly distasteful episode where those who were present at Jesus’ death were ridiculing him.  The soldiers mocked him by dressing him up like a king.  The crowd made fun of him for claiming to be able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.  And the religious leaders scoffed at the idea that he could save anyone: “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Mk. 15:31). In their minds the very fact that he was hanging on that cross meant that he couldn’t save anyone.[2] 
  And yet, I think that there is some irony going on in the way Mark tells the story of Jesus’ passion. We may not be used to seeing irony in the Bible, but I think it’s fairly common, especially in the Gospels. For example, in John’s Gospel, when the Jewish authorities decide to have Jesus executed, the high priest says, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn. 11:50). John is quick to point out that the High Priest wasn’t aware of the real truth of what he was saying. I think that there’s something like that going on in our lesson for today.[3] Think of it: of course Jesus couldn’t save himself. If he had saved himself, he wouldn’t have saved “others”, which includes the ones who were mocking him, and all the rest of us as well.[4]
  What the crowds at the foot of Jesus’ cross failed to recognize was that our God is one who saves us through suffering love. The God who never quits loving us is a God who suffers with and for us.[5]  Part of the mystery of our faith is that it was God who was suffering on that cross.  God suffers on behalf of people like you and me because that’s who God is—a God of suffering love.  The reason why God suffers for us is because the only real way to break the power of evil in this world is to absorb it.[6]  As one of our confessions puts it, in the cross, an “abyss” of sin and violence and anguish has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[7] 
  The challenge is that all this runs completely contrary to what we expect from our faith. The fact of the matter is that when we make the decision to follow Jesus, we are choosing to follow a man who was ridiculed, humiliated, and ultimately executed.[8] That’s not what we expect as the “reward” for our piety. Like others before us, we assume that if we practice our faith, we will benefit from it not only spiritually but also tangibly. Our lives will be “blessed by God,” which means we will be spared the suffering of those who go their own way and ignore God’s truth. But the plain truth is that we live in a world where following Christ—really following Christ and not just “playing” at discipleship—means that we must expect to face the “contradiction” of the world in which we live.[9] If we follow a Savior who was ridiculed and humiliated, opposed and executed, then we must recognize that we are exposing ourselves to ridicule and humiliation, opposition and even hostility.
  I think it also means that we are called to follow Jesus in his willingness to save others rather than saving himself. Jesus said it this way: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk. 8:35). The suffering Savior who served the suffering God calls us all to be suffering servants, taking on the suffering of others in order to help them find the salvation Jesus offers.[10]  That’s how we “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him” (Mk. 8:34). That can be difficult. It can be painful. But giving up our self-interest on behalf of those around us is how we become part of our Savior’s work of saving others.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/29/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, 505: “If Jesus can’t save himself, how can he build another temple? How can he restore Israel? The mere fact of the crucifixion appears flatly to contradict Jesus’ previous preaching and prophesying.” Cf. similarly Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16, 1052: “the chief priests and scribes imply that Jesus cannot be ‘the Christ, the King of Israel,’ because he cannot save himself.”
[3] Cf. also Adela Y. Collins & Harold W. Attridge, Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, 748, where they point out that “For the evangelist and his audiences, however, the inscription [“the king of the Jews”] is ironic, because it unwittingly expresses the truth that Jesus is a king.
[4] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 1052: “the mockery in 15:31-32a ironically expresses the deepest secret of Markan soteriology: the compassionate deliverer of his people, ‘the Christ, the King of Israel,’ must save others through his atoning death, and therefore he cannot save himself by descending from the cross.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:602: “His mission as Messiah and Son of Man is fulfilled along the lines of Is. 53. There is no question of His by-passing death and the grave. He has to tread this road to the bitter end. He is as helpless in face of death as any other man. Nor would he be the Son of God—of a God friendly to man—if he were not ‘obedient even unto death’ (Phil. 2:8).” Cf. similarly, M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:491.
[5] Cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246, 277.
[7] Cf. “The Study Catechism, Full Version” Approved by the 210th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.), (1998), question 45.
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:167: “His power is present to men in the form of weakness, His glory in that of lowliness, His victory in that of defeat. The final concealment is that of His suffering and death as a condemned criminal. He who alone is rich is present as the poorest of the poor. As the exalted Son of Man He did not deny the humiliation of the Son of God, but faithfully represented and reflected it even to the minutest details.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 109–110: “On the cross [Jesus] dies in forsakenness by God and man. Or is this the greatest of all the miracles, the all-embracing healing? ‘He bore our sicknesses and took upon himself our pains … and through his wounds we are healed’ (Isa. 53:4, 5). This was how the gospels saw it. So Jesus heals not only through ‘power’ and ‘authority’ but also through his suffering and helplessness.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21: “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.  It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”
[10] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 124, 134-35.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Learned Obedience

Learned Obedience
Hebrews 5:5-10[1]
I realize you may find this really hard to believe, but when I was growing up, I was what you might call a “strong-willed child.” I know, it’s hard to fathom. But then, I would imagine there are some others in the room today who might have to make the same confession. Many of us come into this world with a strong sense of what we want, and how we want it. We can tend to think that we really do know what is right and best and perhaps even the steps we need to take to achieve that. And if someone else doubts us, we are likely to be more than willing to enlighten them about the error of their ways. Unfortunately, being “strong-willed” isn’t something we tend to “outgrow.”
And yet, life experience does have a way of mellowing many of us. We learn that trying to “make” things happen backfires as often as it succeeds—maybe more so. We watch our plans and dreams and ideas run up against the reality of life, and oftentimes the impact leaves our notions at least bruised if not completely broken. And after a few times of going through that process, we may begin to realize that, no matter how much will power we exert, there are some things you just can’t make happen. You can’t make someone love you. You can’t make a prospective employer hire you. You can’t control what other people do or say or who they choose to be.
I would say that our tendency to be strong-willed also affects our ability to learn how to relate to God. Faith and obedience are qualities that don’t just come naturally for many of us, myself included. They have to be learned. And oftentimes, the learning process can involve some hardships, some losses, and some suffering. Our Scripture lesson from the New Testament for today addresses this in a way that we might find surprising. In the letter to the Hebrews, the Scripture says that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). It seems shocking: why would Jesus need to “learn obedience”? Wasn’t his whole life, in fact his whole existence, one of obedience to God?[2] So why did he have to “learn obedience”?
I think the answer has to do with what happened when the Son of God became a human being. It’s not like he was inherently willful and disobedient and had to be taught by the consequences of his actions how to obey God. The very act of becoming a human being was an expression of his obedience to God. But I think what Jesus learned was a first-hand experience of what it means to suffer as a mortal being.[3] That wouldn’t have been a part of his experience as the Son of God who lived in the Father’s love from all eternity. He had to become one of us in order to experience the full meaning of our suffering.[4] And his willingness to undergo that, especially in the agony he suffered as he faced an excruciating death, was the ultimate expression of his obedience to God.[5]
While it’s not necessary to restrict what our Scripture lesson says to this one event,[6] it’s natural to think of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane.[7] I find it wonderfully reassuring that, when faced with one of the cruelest means of executing a person ever devised, Jesus asked God to deliver him from it! It’s hard to imagine Jesus being truly human and not facing the excruciating torture of the cross without feeling anguish and praying “with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7).[8] And yet, the end result of his prayer struggle in that garden was that he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). [9] He squarely faced the ultimate suffering, and he pledged to obey God’s will. That’s obedience!
One of the main themes in the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus serves as an example for us all. He is the “pioneer and perfecter of the faith.” He marked out the path of the kind of obedience to God that trusts and surrenders to God’s will no matter what. And he finished the course by following through with his determination to obey God, even when it meant going through suffering that he would rather have avoided.[10] And in all of that, he set the example for us to follow. I think one of the reasons why the Scripture emphasizes his suffering here is so that we could know that his obedience was no play-acting. He experienced the same struggles and hardships that we do—and some would say he went through suffering most of us strain to even imagine. And yet, despite the suffering, he remained true to his course of obeying God.
Most of us don’t come into this world with the kind of determination to obey God that Jesus had. We buck our parents, we resist our teachers, and we ignore our spiritual leaders. Some of us here today still have the idea that we know what’s right and that others don’t have a clue about life. Those of us with a few years under our belt remember what that’s like, and also remember the experiences that taught us to take a humbler approach to life. It’s amazing how much we learn from the hardships and disappointments we go through. That’s something that never changes. And that’s where the kind of obedience that Jesus learned comes into play. If we can surrender our lives to God in the spirit of “not my will, but yours be done,” then perhaps the suffering of this life can become a learning experience for us as well. It can teach us that what we think we want may not always be in our best interest. It can teach us that the path of faith is one that trusts and obeys God’s will no matter what. Our experience in life can become a matter of continually learning obedience to God.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/22/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 153: “A fundamental affirmation of Hebrews is that Jesus was obedient to God’s will from the start of his earthly career (10:5–10). Thus, he can learn obedience only in the sense that he comes to appreciate fully what conformity to God’s will means. Because he has learned that lesson, he can be the sympathetic heavenly intercessor on whom the addressees can rely and, at the same time, a model for them in their attempt to be obedient to God’s will.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters Bible XII:63, where he says, “being God’s Son did not exempt Jesus from learning, from obedience, from suffering, so complete was his identification with all who share flesh and blood.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:158: “the New Testament has treated the vere homo [truly human] so seriously that it has portrayed the obedience of Jesus throughout as a genuine struggle to obey, as a seeking and finding.”
[4] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “What God Wants,” The Christian Century (Mar 21, 2006):19: “No one can walk this human path in faith and obedience without encountering suffering.”
[5] Cf. Attridge, Hebrews, 152: “The force of the remark [that although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered] is that Jesus is not an ordinary son, who might indeed be expected to learn from suffering …, but the eternal Son. Suffering and death are not, however, incompatible with that status; they are, as Hebrews constantly emphasizes, an essential part of the Son’s salvific work.”
[6] Cf. Lewis F. Galloway, “Hebrews 4:14-5:10,” Interpretation 57 (July 2003):295: “the suffering of Jesus certainly included more than his final spiritual battle and agonizing death. Jesus suffered when religious leaders opposed him, his own family misunderstood him, and his friends betrayed and deserted him.”
[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1.264-72. Contrast Attridge, Hebrews, 148-50, where he is at great pains to argue that a connection with Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is “artificial and unnecessary.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 173-74 where he maintains that God actually abandons Jesus in the experience of the passion. He says that Jesus “suffered paradoxically from the prayer that was not heard, from his forsakenness by the Father.” Yet, Moltmann can also say in almost the same breath that the fact that Jesus “learned obedience” from what he suffered “means an inward conformity between the will of the surrendered Son and the surrendering will of the Father.” He leaves this apparent tension unresolved for the most part. There is quite a bit of variety in the answers to the question what it means when the text says that Jesus’ prayer “was heard.” See William L. Lane, Hebrews 1–8, 120.
[9] Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:270 insists that Jesus prayer “is not a kind of return of willingness to obey, which was finally forced upon Jesus and fulfilled by Him in the last hour; it is rather a readiness for the act of obedience which He had never compromised in His prayer.”
[10] Cf. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 121, where he presents an interesting take on the idea that Jesus “learned obedience.” He says, “From Scripture, and especially from the Psalms, Jesus learned that his passion was grounded in the saving will of God and could not be severed from his calling. Thus in the declaration that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered,” the term τὴν ὑπακοήν, ‘obedience,’ has a very specific meaning: it is obedience to the call to suffer death in accordance with the revealed will of God.” That Jesus took his cues about his mission from Scripture is clear. But I’m not sure I would see quite such a specific background to this passage saying that Jesus “learned obedience”; after all it says that it was from “what he suffered” that he learned this obedience.