Friday, April 14, 2017

For Others

For those few of you who don't know, last year I was in a head-on collision. I broke both legs, both wrists, my sternum, 6 ribs, collapsed a lung and did a lot of internal damage. I spent 40 days in the hospital, including 2 stints in ICU, and 100 days in a rehabilitation center learning to walk again. During the worst of it, when I had pain, when I threw a pulmonary emboli, when physical therapy had me in tears, my attention pretty much focused on myself. Pain gives you tunnel vision and all you can think about is how to make it stop.

I am here to preach on Jesus on the cross. And right off the bat, I want to say that I am not comparing my suffering to his. For one thing I was given fairly powerful pain meds. Immediately after the first of my 5 operations, I was put into a chemically induced coma for a week. So I did not suffer a 100th of the pain Jesus did.

Plus those directly in contact with me were working to save my life and make me better. Those directly in contact with Jesus' body were trying to make him suffer and die.

People who came to see me gave me emotional support. Many of those who came to see Jesus mocked and taunted him.

Finally, I did not deliberately put myself in harm's way, nor did I do it for others. Jesus took on the cross like a suicide mission and he did it for you and me.

The reason I started out telling you about the times I did feel pain was to emphasize how it makes you turn inward. You don't care about anything or anyone else, just your pain and when will it stop. And once again Jesus was totally different in this regard. As he hung on the cross he felt pain; he felt thirst; he felt exhaustion and air-hunger. And yet he was able to focus on others throughout his ordeal.

After they crucified him, after they stripped him naked and nailed his wrists to the cross beam and lifted it onto the upright and dropped it in place, and then bent his knees, turned his legs to the side, skewered his ankles with a long nail and hammered it home, he should have rained down curses on their heads. He should have asked God to strike them all dead. But instead, Luke 23:34 writes that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Could you do that? Based on my reaction when a hospital transporter banged my broken right foot into the side of a doorframe, I couldn't. And he hurt me inadvertently. The soldiers harmed Jesus deliberately. The transporter didn't want to cause me pain. The soldiers wanted Jesus to feel dreadful pain and then die. And yet he prayed for them.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) And how many of those listening to him then said, “Yeah, sure.” They probably thought he was naive to say such things. But while his enemies are actively torturing him to death, Jesus prays for them. He asks God to forgive them. Though they know they are killing a man, they are ignorant of the fact that they are murdering God. And yet Jesus prays for them. Despite his pain, he is thinking of their spiritual well-being.

The men being crucified on either side of him are acting as we would expect. The pain brought out the worst in them. Perhaps to take their minds off their own suffering they lash out at Jesus. They join in with Jesus' enemies who are saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself.” “And us!” chimes in one of the men. But perhaps because of Jesus' lack of ire in return, one of the criminals rethinks how he is spending his last hours on earth. Perhaps he heard of Jesus before and now sees how he conducts himself during his long and drawn-out death. He reprimands the other bandit, pointing out that they are just getting what they deserve. But what he sees in Jesus tells him this man is not a criminal like them. In fact, what he sees tells him that Jesus is what the crowd jeeringly calls him: the Christ, the Messiah, the king God promised to send. So he says to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Instead of a world-weary, “Sure thing, buddy” Jesus says, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in paradise.” That robber is the only person in the Bible who receives that assurance from Jesus himself. That Jesus was able to pull himself out of his own misery to give that promise to a man who earlier had been mocking him is astounding. Despite his pain, Jesus thought of the man's eternal well-being.

John's gospel tells us that Jesus' mother and his beloved disciple are at the cross. It must have been horrible for Mary to see her first-born, dying in shame and agony, as the crowds jeered him and the soldiers indifferently gambled for his clothes, which she probably made herself. And if Bible scholar Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological seminary is correct, the beloved disciple was Lazarus. (John 11:3) Imagine how hard it was to see the man who restored him to life die.

Jesus notices the two but more than that, he realizes his mother's situation. She is a widow and poor. Perhaps she is estranged from Jesus' brothers, who used to mock him and thought he was crazy. (John 7:3-5; Mark 3:21) Lazarus was well off, as evidenced by the tomb he was able to afford and his sister Mary being able to buy the expensive perfume with which she anointed Jesus' feet. Jesus is able to, at the time he is dying in horrible pain, think of a way to provide for his mother. So he says to her, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” John tells us the disciple took Jesus' mother into his home from that day on. Despite his pain, Jesus thought of his mother's physical well-being.

When I was in pain it was really hard to think of others. As my mother declined I was glad my brother was handling things because I physically and emotionally couldn't. But Jesus did what he could to make sure his mother would be taken care of and did so while nailed to the cross.

Jesus was able to think of others while fighting pain, exhaustion, blood loss and air hunger. And yet we Western Christians, living in the richest country on earth, think mostly of ourselves. We live in a world where millions needs help, such as our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity. Some are being sold into slavery; some are being beheaded; some are literally going to the cross for their faith. Others are fleeing and trying to get to more stable and more democratic nations, which are increasing turning their backs on them.

What would Jesus do? What would Jesus do from the cross? Why did he go to the cross? To rescue us. Out of love. What should our response to him be? What should our response be to a world God loved so much that he sent his son to die so we could live?

Let us pray:

Oh, Jesus, you did this for us. I am amazed and ashamed and grateful. As you took up your cross for us, help us take up our crosses daily for others. Help us to bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Help us to remember that what we do or do not do to the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the threadbare, the foreigner, the sick, the imprisoned, the least of your brothers and sisters, we do or do not do to you. Help us to show your self-sacrificial love in all we think, say and do to all people so that they may know you through us, the body of Christ, the ongoing embodiment of your love for the well-being of all those created in the image of God and for whom you died. Amen.

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