15 March 2010

The Journey of the Cross: IV. (Com)passion

Matthew 9: 35-38

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 14th March 2010

What does it mean to live a cross-shaped life? What does it mean for us to live lives formed by the cross of Christ? When Jesus invited his disciples to join him in the kingdom he said one must first take up a cross and follow. The God’s Kingdom is the way of the cross; the way of the cross is the way of God’s Kingdom. Cross and kingdom cannot be separated. To embrace one is the embrace the other. The way of one is the way of other.

Three weeks ago we saw that one way to approach Jesus’ cross is from the perspective that it was not the inevitable goal of his life, but the consequence of being faithful to his identity as the Son of God, and his commitment to preaching the good news of God’s Empire. Undying commitment to one’s calling will inevitably mean facing considerable temptation to give up, to find an easier way, to deny one’s identity. Commitment to God’s Kingdom inevitably involves some kind of cost, as we saw last week. This is the way of Jesus Christ we find in the gospels. While Jesus’ life and work were unique to him, something of the pattern of his life, of his journey informs and shapes the pattern of lives that seek to be in conformity and relationship with him; his life defines the template of our lives; his journey shapes our cross-like journey.

The word passion is often used to describe Jesus’ journey to and experience of the cross. It’s a term used for the events and the spiritual, mental, and physical anguish Jesus faced in the hours leading up to his crucifixion. The etymology of the word lies in the Greek verb paschō, meaning to suffer. We see it used in Matthew 17:12, “…for the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands,” meaning the chief priests and Pharisees (with parallel passages in Mark and Luke), and in Acts 1:13, “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them….” The Greek paschō was translated into Latin with the word passio, hence passion, meaning “to suffer.”

The implications of this are quite uncomfortably obvious for us. To live a cross-shaped life means suffering of some kind is never very far away. The cross includes passion, an experience of suffering. To suggest otherwise is to try to have Christianity without a cross – and there are far too many expressions of that in the history of the church. This might not sit well with us. As Protestants, we prefer, as my mother described, an “empty cross,” without Jesus. Ours is the cross of resurrection, we like to say, not of Good Friday suffering. This is true. But we need to remember: we don’t get to an experience of resurrection without first dying. The way to the empty tomb is through the suffering of the cross. This is difficult to hear, I know. I don’t really want to preach it. Heck, there are times when I don’t even want to live it. It’s not a popular image. This is not the kind of message that churches generally use to market themselves to gain new members. You don’t see this on church billboards. “Come join us and suffer like Christ!” What kind of impact do you think that would have for the thousands of people who drive past us on Frederick Road? This is not the message of the mega-church or even large churches. This will never be a message embraced by the masses. From the beginning this has always been the subversive message of a minority, when the church was indeed a tiny, struggling minority in the vast Roman Empire. That is before Christianity became the official religion of in 313 AD. Some historians say that’s when Christianity lost its soul. (1)

Now all of this talk about passion and suffering is depressing, I know, but it’s also dangerous when it is divorced from some larger purpose or meaning. Jesus’ passion, his sufferings were never just for the sake of glorifying suffering. This is not some kind of embracing suffering for suffering’s sake. Neither does this mean that in order to be more Christ-like one must suffer more. Jesus didn’t suffer on the cross because he had to. We could say it was his choice. Not because he wanted to suffer, but because the depths of his love for the good news of God’s Kingdom, a worldview that offered true justice and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, and when – in compassion – he looked out and saw the desperate conditions of the people and how far they were from the Kingdom. Jesus’ love for God and for them led him to his place of passion. That’s what compassion does.

It’s when we make this link between passion and compassion that our lives become more and more cross-shaped. (2) The link is there within Jesus’ life. The passion Jesus underwent in Jerusalem had its origin out among the people, helpless and harassed (no doubt by Rome), who wandered directionless “like sheep without a shepherd.” On his Kingdom of God preaching and teaching tour through the cities and villages of the Galilee Jesus saw the people – the masses, the crowds – he spent time with, lived with, ate with the people, no doubt hearing their stories, hearing their hopes and dreams, their concerns for family, for children. He saw the abject living conditions of the people, he saw the way the Roman occupying forces were brutalizing them, he felt the burden of their lives, weighed down by heavy taxation. He saw the diseases and illness of the people and offered healing. They were helpless.

Matthew tells us, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them….” Five times in Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus expressing compassion, often for the crowds who were helpless or hungry. Indeed, just before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we find in Matthew’s gospel an account of Jesus healing two blind men who stand along the road, crying out for mercy. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus said. They said, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him (Matthew 20:34),” — right into Jerusalem, right into his passion.

So what is this compassion? It’s more than pity. He wasn’t just “feeling sorry” for them either. It’s far more profound that than, its meaning goes much deeper, very deep, actually, down right into one’s gut. The Greek verb Matthew uses here is splagchnizomai, and literally means “to be moved as to one’s bowels.” It refers to our entrails – our vital inner organs, stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidney. In Jesus’ day the bowels or entrails were thought to be the seat of love and caring. Although we don’t believe this to be biologically true, our language still reflects this understanding. (3) We know what it’s like to live from one’s heart; to hold to a conviction or belief that’s grounded deep within the core of our being. We also know what it’s like to be in turmoil or distress, to feel it in the pit of our stomachs, to become “sick” with worry and concern and feel it within. We know what it means when we hear someone has a “broken heart.” For Jesus, splagchnizomai, compassion, here is a deep feeling in his gut. He looks out and not only sees the suffering of the people he deeply feels the suffering of the people, deep in his gut, tearing up his gut. We could say, becoming sick in his stomach over the plight of God’s people.

This is a moment of suffering. Jesus is literally suffering here. To suffer means – the literal meaning of the word – is to undergo, to receive. Jesus receives their experience and makes it his own; he participates in their suffering and makes it his own; he shares their pain, shares their condition, and that experience moves him to act, to care, to alleviate their pain and suffering. Here we see the link between compassion and passion. And we begin to have a clearer sense of the cost involved in this way of being. And it begins to dawn on us that what Jesus did there with the crowds is intensified on the cross: receiving our experience and making it his own; receiving our sin into himself and making it his own; participating in all the suffering and hurt of the world and making it his own; undergoing the brokenness of our lives and making it his own; sharing our plight, our condition, experiencing it all – taking it all into himself – in order to bear our pain, to bear our sorrow, to enter into our loss and then acting to move us beyond that point by overcoming it all and offering something new in its place!

Compassion is excruciating – for Jesus, for God, and for us. The use of this word is very intentional, with crux, cross, right at the center of it. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way of the cross. But we have to go even deeper, all the way down into the depths of Jesus, all the way into his guts and find there in him the very heart of God, the stomach of God who is participating and sharing in the depths of the human experience. In the heart and stomach of the Son of God we see the stomach, the heart of God disgusted by the sufferings of God’s people, mourning over their condition, and wanting to save. It’s why Jesus could say, “Blessed is the one who mourns, for he shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).” What we discover in the way of the cross is the way of God. This is how God chooses to be toward us as the God of compassion and passion. What was true then, is still true today.

When this way fills our way we know why the early church understood love as empathy and sympathy. Em-pathos means to put myself in the skin of one who is suffering, to try to understand it, to feel it, and act, either to alleviate the suffering or at least stand there and try to share it – even if it hurts. It means imaginatively putting oneself in another’s situation in order to apprehend or fathom what it feels like from their perspective, to discover what the world looks like from their perspective, what it’s like to be that other person, and then determine how one might act. And sym-pathos means, “I choose to suffer with you.”

For as the cross has shown us, “there can be no love without suffering.” “For suffering,” if you think about it, “in the widest sense means the capacity to be acted upon, to be changed, moved, transformed by the action of another,” or through relationship with another. (4) To suffer love means to be acted upon. Perhaps this is the greatest threat to love and compassion in the church and the wider world, for to be aware of another’s feelings is to participate in them, to be influenced by them. It’s the sharing of the experience that transforms – and here we see the great cost in living this way, because to live in our guts, to feel with compassion inevitably means we will be changed, we won’t be the same. To take on another’s suffering and pain, to participate in it with them, to stand with them or attempt to share the experience with them means we will inevitably be changed. There’s no way we can go to such depths without it having some kind of impact upon us. And that scares us – rightfully so. When we imaginatively put ourselves in the place of the people of Haiti or Chile and allow their plight to touch us, we act. When we imaginatively think what it’s like to be a child in Nepal and allow their situation to touch us, we act. When we put ourselves in the place of the homeless of Catonsville and Baltimore and allow their plight to touch us, we act. When we care for the neighbor who shares the pew with you, the neighbor who shares this sanctuary space and you allow their lives to touch you; when you reach out to a neighbor or co-worker, a child, parent, older-adult in need, allowing their world to touch yours, we risk being changed. Sometimes it’s all too much; the need is too great, too painful. So we stop reading the newspaper, we don’t watch the news, we don’t pay attention because we can’t, it’s too overwhelming, we don’t have enough energy to care or we don’t want to be hurt or – worse – inconvenienced by all this, we don’t get close, so we remain aloof. And many simply cannot go there or won’t go there without the grace of God. Some know that’s it’s only because of the grace of God and the bottomless depth of love that one is able to endure all things for the sake of the other, believe all things for the sake of the other, hope all things for the sake of the love (1 Corinthians 13: 7).

There’s an old Hasidic tale that tells us how [compassion can] happen. "The pupil comes into the rabbi and asks, 'Why does Torah tell us to "place these words upon your hearts"? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?’ The rabbi answers, 'It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.'"

A cross-shaped life begins again and again in the human heart. In hearts that on a daily basis risk being broken open with compassion toward the crowd, the people. When we risk the depth of feeling for the needs of our neighbors, when we share their plight, when we, as Paul said, suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15), when we undergo what another experiences, to stand, to participate, to share, to suffer, this is the way of the cross. It’s the way of Jesus and his people, because we have seen in Jesus that it’s God way of being in the world. It’s God way of saving the world, with us and for us.
Photo: Georges Rouault(1871-1958), "Crucifixion"

1. This refers to the Edict of Milan when Emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as the religion of the empire. There is a tradition coming from Pope Sylvester (Pope from 314-335) that, “…at the moment when Constantine bestowed large endowments on the church a voice from heaven was heard to say, ‘Hodie venenum effusum est in Ecclesiam.’ ‘Today is there poison poured upon the Church.” Cited in Douglas John Hall, Thinking Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 202-203.
2. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at a time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972).
3. After the sermon, Jeff Bolognese noted that this way of understanding “bowels” was still common in the nineteenth century and can be found in Charles Dickens (1812-1870), A Christmas Carol (1843). When Scrooge meets Marley's ghost, Dickens writes, "looking through his waistcoat, [Scrooge] could see the two buttons on his coat behind." There's a line right afterward that reads, "Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now."
4. Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love (Welwyn: James Nesbit, 1968), 117, cited in Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 170-171.

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