Proper 4B, 6.3.18: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
I have not been as excited about a set of readings for a while. Paul piques our curiosity by suggesting that we carrying the death and life of Jesus in our bodies, all at the same time. And as I wrestled with what that means to us in our 21stcentury lives I came to the conclusion that how we think about our lives and those of others actually makes a huge difference in how we live out the reality of Jesus in our own families, in the communities we serve, and in the world.
I admit, I came to the decision of what I wanted to talk with you about long before I figured out the how. And I was pondering the how I happened upon an article by a professor of Christian Ethics at Baylor. He wrote an article called Aging from the Perspective of the Crosswhich helped me a lot. Bear with me a moment please….
We have a rather muted way of looking at the aging process in the modern world, particularly in western society, sometimes even those who are going through the aging process. One way that we can do this is by having this rosy outlook on the lives of those we call, sometimes rather patronizingly, “seniors.” The great Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and author of many books I adore, wrote this with Walter Gaffney in his book, Aging: The Fulfillment of Life:
“We believe that aging…overarches the human community as a rainbow of promises…Aging is not a slow decaying but a gradual maturing, not a fate to be undergone but a chance to be embraced.”
Seeing an older person and saying they have “lived a good life” or “are wise” is wonderful and true, typically. But Henri Nouwen is probably not describing the typical experience of a person who is actually dealing with old age. And the writer of the article, Stephen Sapp, says that aging is very often a very real walking of the way of the Cross. People, as they get into advancing age, are often dealing with a lot of challenge that may not be all that fun. There is illness which, if we live long enough, we understand will happen. Sometimes it is gradual, sometimes sudden and serious, while in other circumstances, not as difficult. But the real challenge for people as they age, in my experience of ministering to and loving elder adults, is the overwhelming sense of loss. Losing so many of the people that they love, from spouses to adult children, to dear friends and colleagues. And there is the loss of capacity, the diminishing ability to do the things that they once loved to do, enjoyed doing…the loss can seem overwhelming.
But what we may be missing is the omission of intention. Aging is one way that we carry the death of Christ in us, the reality of His suffering, His passion, and how we are in communion with Him when we suffer. “Hans Küng goes straight to the heart of the matter: “Discipleship is always—sometimes in a hidden way, sometimes openly—a discipleship of suffering, a following of the cross.” Not only may disciples be afflicted as a result of identifying with Christ, but in varying degrees they will share in the suffering that is inevitable in the fallen world.” This is not only true for older adults but for any of us, who have been persecuted, sick, marginalized, broken or wracked by the reality of our own sin.
The suffering of the Cross causes us to be reminded that we are finite and dependent, ultimately, on God alone. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20 it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Later in 2 Corinthians 12: 7-9 he says, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. It is in weakness, channeling the death of Christ within us, whatever that weakness may be, that we have perhaps the greatest opportunity to see the life of Christ at work within, at one and the same time.
When Paul says that he carries the death of Jesus in his mortal flesh he is not saying he is dead but rather he relates his suffering the reality of Christ’s suffering, understanding that where suffering is, there Christ is also. We see it today, in the Gospel of John, as Jesus heals the man with the withered hand. The man is probably poor, on the margins because of his affliction, and the “rules” says that he cannot be healed on the sabbath. Jesus was not a rampant rule-breaker but he always stands with those that are afflicted, separated, alone, done for… and to them he brings the good news that he is with them and loves them and, in His way, will heal them. He chooses life, always, through the goodness of His own life, willingness to sacrifice, which is made most real in His own willingness to suffer and die that the life He offers might finally, and totally, shine in the darkness of our suffering world. Jesus chooses to allow light and life to shine in the midst of death and darkness but sometimes we can only see the light when it is set against the darkness.
The Fisher King
I remember a powerful movie from the 1990s starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. In brief, we see both men in a fallen place: one, Bridge’s character, because of his own pride and callousness, and Williams, because of loss and tragedy is homeless and mentally incapacitated. The two men become friends, ultimately and the Williams character believes that he is a knight on a quest for the holy grail. And the grail is a large silver trophy of some sort sitting on the shelf of an elderly gentleman’s home in Manhattan, where this story takes place. Bridge’s character thinks this is crazy and wants no part of it. But when Williams’ character is left in a catatonic state following a violent attack, Bridge’s character goes on the quest and gets the grail. He doesn’t think it will help but does this for his friend as an act of love and friendship.
And that is what the life of Jesus in us is, how we live out the Resurrection in the world: by acting in the world and shining the life of Jesus into the darkness, into the places in the world where Christ is being crucified over and over again. We cannot see or have the Resurrection without the darkness. Liberation theologians of the 1970s understood that the crucifixion allows stands in the shadow of the Resurrection but the Resurrection means nothing without Christ’s sacrifice. We are all stumbling around, as children of the crucifixion but, yet, we carry in our lives the possibility of Christ’s Resurrection, too and it is our suffering, our brokenness through which, more often than not, the life of Christ shines the most. Life and death in Christ can be most clearly seen when we reach out our lives in love to another, as we understand that all people carry as the cross of Jesus. And we speak the truth and reality of Christ’s life into the pain of the world. But we also understand that we learn from our brokenness and while it is not desirable, it is the way of the world. At the same time, light is the way, too, and it overcome the darkness. I will end with Paul….
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”