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“I gave up all that [superficial righteousness] so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.”
Philippians 3:10 (The Message)
There probably is not a season when my Christian angst is greater than during the one through which we are currently passing. My earliest memories of this season are set in my church-of-origin. My father, who was a great preacher, would preach the Crucifixion story using words that evoked such violent and horrific mental images that it made my hands, feet, and side hurt. And my heart – my heart would break to think that anyone as good as Jesus would have suffered all that he suffered. No matter how many times I heard Daddy (and others) explain that a loving God not only permitted, but willed, that to happen so that God could forgive us for our sins, it was hard for me to reconcile the end with the means, and the means with love.
So, looking back, I think that my coping mechanism was to simply block out the story of the Crucifixion as quickly and completely as I could. I remember suffering through it at church and immediately turning my attention to the upcoming joys of Easter – new clothes, getting my hair “did” in curls just like Shirley Temple’s, and lots of assorted Easter candies. Our tradition did not observe Lent, so it really wasn’t that hard to give the least thought and attention possible to the whole suffering, betrayal, and death aspects of it all.
Fast forward many years and, as an MCC’er, I was exposed to very intentional and vocal observance of the Lenten Season. I learned that many people, like myself, find this to be an emotionally, spiritually, and theologically challenging time. But no one, apparently, had come up with the same remedy for it all as I had as a child. They were not blocking out the painful parts of this season. They embraced them! Frankly, my very first impression, as a new MCC’er, was that some folks seemed to enjoy wallowing in the pain of remembering how Jesus suffered and died. I even heard talk about “taking the journey to Calvary” with him in the days leading up to Good Friday.
My first response: “Thank you, but no.” I just did not get it. I could not understand why – especially in light of knowing that the Crucifixion was not the end of the story – why would we intentionally sit down and immerse ourselves in the sad, painful, depressing, excruciating details of all that Jesus endured?
I think I understand it better, now. At least, I can say what makes sense for me, in my experience and journey. Resurrection is an inherently relative term. Those who are resurrected are resurrected from something. To be resurrected, literally, is to be re-placed, or placed again – after a period of displacement – into a state or status that one had occupied previously. So, in the Easter context, we’re talking about Jesus, who was alive, and then dead (displaced from among the living), and then resurrected from the dead back to life.
Is it becoming clearer, now, why we cannot experience the power of his resurrection, without spending some time as partners in his suffering? And how can we be partners in his suffering, if we are not even willing to sit with the story and to sit with our emotions and questions – however difficult and uncomfortable they may be?
No one can experience resurrection without first experiencing death. And, I suggest, we cannot fully experience the power of Christ’s resurrection in our lives, without the vicarious experience of his suffering and death – to the limited extent that we are capable of imagining it. I know some people say, “But he went through all of that so we don’t have to!” I used to say that, too. Now I say: 1) We still don’t have to. No one is asking us to suffer precisely what he suffered; 2) We still don’t have to. I am suggesting that, to the extent that we can, there may be value (even great value) in sharing in his suffering. I’ve come to believe that the power of his resurrection is inextricably tied to the devastation of his death; in much the same way as the experiences of sadness, illness, and failure enhance and intensify the experiences of joy, good health, and success.
So to those open to a word of advice – take some time, in the next couple of days, to really sit with the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death. It will not feel good. But I suggest that we do it, anyway. Especially if – and because – we are looking forward to “having church!” this Sunday. Let’s not try to bypass Good Friday and go straight to Easter. I truly believe that Resurrection Sunday will be more meaningful, more powerful and more transformative for us, both individually and collectively, if we’ve spent some time sharing in his suffering first.
The good news, in the closing words of Rev. Elder Ken Martin’s Good Friday Meditation, is this: With God, the worst thing that happens is never the last thing that happens.