How old were you when your heart broke the first time?
Heartbreak is a near-unforgettable feeling. The shock. The emotional dissonance. The emptiness. The fall into the abyss of disappointment
Peter’s heart is breaking in today’s Gospel. He has realized that Jesus is the Messiah. He is filled with hope and expectation. The Chosen People will be released from oppression and will be the champions. The Reign of God, so long-awaited, is coming into the world.
From that time on, Jesus began to show them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
It is not surprising that Peter rebukes Jesus. What Jesus is saying sounds like blasphemy. This is not the prophecy Peter knows so well. It is not supposed to be this way. The Messiah is supposed to be glorified. It would be helpful if the Messiah stuck to the story that everyone already knew.
The sharpness of Jesus’ response is surprising. Just five verses after he identifies Peter as the Rock upon whose shoulders will be built the church, Jesus’ words are harsh. Jesus the Messiah identifies Peter as his adversary. In the Hebrew tradition, Satan – åatana (Satana) – is the great adversary of the Almighty, not the evil guy with horns and a pointy tail. Peter is making it difficult for Jesus to be who he really is.
It is a lot easier to preach success, triumph, and prosperity than it is to preach the cross. There are a number of modern churches which do not have a cross in the sanctuary. That is not accidental. The cross, with or without the figure of the suffering Christ upon it, is a terrifying and painful image. And – – God knows that suffering and tragedy are part of human life. Aren’t suffering and loss the predominant themes of Coronatide?
Suffering is a terrible reality. It can be cruel to spiritualize it. We must never justify it or blame God for it, especially when the pain is of human origin. Usually, I preach that the generosity of God, taking on the burden of human suffering, is a comfort. In this season, that feels a bit inappropriate, not because it is untrue but because that sounds presumptuous. Today I ask you: As our hearts are breaking, have you experienced God, willing to get down to our level and to suffer along with us? Are you feeling the profound empathy of our God, who is willing to struggle and bleed, who experiences isolation and injustice, who cries along with us?
When this feeling of comfort is not a part of our experience, we are in the heartbreak stage. That is painful but not a moral failing. In spiritual terms this is called desolation, or a dark night of the soul. Every faithful person experiences this now and again. The only way out is prayer and patience.
The world tells us that if we are not champions, then we are losers. The world wants to blame the “losers” for their plight. That is what frightens Peter. If truth be told, that is part of our consciousness as well. The cross, the suffering, the shame all mingle together in one dreadful cocktail. The gospel of Jesus teaches us that suffering is unavoidable and not a curse. We are not losers. We are human. Through the cross of Christ, the grace of God is revealed in the context of human pain. We do not have a fair-weather God. Just as Jesus came alongside the suffering and marginalized, we need to stand with those who suffer, and share our common human burden.
Most of us would prefer to get to that resurrection experience by sidestepping the cross. Yet Jesus asks us to take up our crosses, and to deny ourselves, so we can live and live well. He is not telling us to be masochists or to go out and seek ways to suffer. He is inviting us to a new way of life, which perceives our inevitable suffering as participation in the life of God, who has endured agony for love’s sake.
Jesus anticipates that as we dwell in the way of love with our neighbor, we live into something much larger than our individual context. When our hearts are breaking, we are standing on holy ground and we are never alone. We are surrounded and sustained by that cloud of witnesses to grace. Suffering, loss, and death always lie along the human way. Living in the context of covid or a deadly hurricane reminds us that there is no rising without dying. The key, says Jesus, is to die before we are dead. To die to our illusions of control and self-sufficiency. To our addiction to achievement and status, comfort and consumption. To lay to rest an ego-centered, ego-serving way of life. Jesus asks us to share in the sufferings and losses of our neighbors, to help them carry their crosses. An eternal life starts on this side the grave and extends beyond it in ways we can only imagine.
There is profound truth in that. Human life contains suffering and loss and it is difficult at its best. God in Christ is with us through it all. Living as though we actually believe this is the work of our faith. Our call is to know that there is meaning in our crosses and in helping others to carry theirs. This is what makes the way of Jesus great. This is what transforms the world. It is not what we expected. Ultimately it is better.
Jake Owensby. Looking for God in Messy Places. “After the Hurricane.”