Life and Death, Suffering and Joy
The Collect: Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.
Now, what is that supposed to mean? How does the way of the Cross become the way of life and peace?
In a few moments, we’ll hear again the story of Jesus’ last days on this earth: the joy of his entrance into Jerusalem, his deep friendship at the Last Supper, and then his suffering, and his death. It all happened almost 2,000 years ago in history. But as Christians we understand that it is happening now…it is an ongoing event, a present experience not just for Jesus, but for us. That is the point of this day, of this remembrance.
This Sunday, which is both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, contains both joy and deep sadness. It’s a bit jarring…but then so is life. None of us lives very long before we experience the whole range of human events and feelings. We love the good times; we would choose not to have the bad times. But we are going to get both, as Jesus did: Joy and pain. Crucifixion and glory.
Isn’t that the way life is? A journey of varied experiences, highs and lows. In the language of our spirituality, these experiences are called life and death. Not in the physical sense, but on every other level.
Anyone who has been through a serious depression has experienced death right here in this life. There is no other word for it. It’s a kind of living death…which leads some depressed persons to choose to end their lives to escape the pain of it. That’s one form of living death with which I am familiar.
But there are many other forms of death that we suffer: serious losses - of a marriage or relationship, a beloved job, a home, a dream for the future. Hurts and betrayals caused by people we have loved and thought we could trust. The loss of health and the ability to live as we wish to live, whether it’s physical health or mental capability. Financial loss – poverty – is its own painful kind of death. And then there is the loss of one’s self and one’s freedom that comes through addiction. So many have succumbed to opioid addiction in our time. They are living dead.
But human life, for most of us, more life than death! Most of us are blessed with enough health and vitality to enjoy the beauty of the day, the pleasantness of friendship, the love of relationships and family. We have good food to eat and comfortable homes. We are thankful for past good times. We have good things to look forward to. We have meaningful work to do, and a sense of accomplishment. We have enough, if we have the grace to see that it is enough. For most of us, on balance, life overcomes death. That is one meaning of resurrection.
Each Gospel tells Jesus’ story a bit differently. We read Luke’s Gospel this year. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ love for his disciples, his care for people, and his commitment to nonviolence. He not only does not resist his captors and executors, but he actually heals the wound of one of the soldiers who comes to take him to his death. He will not injure or punish anybody. And it is only Luke who reports that Jesus offers paradise to the thief who was crucified next to him – an incredible act of love and generosity of spirit. Finally, Jesus extends a blanket of forgiveness over all who have wronged him: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What could be more gracious?
If you remember anything about Holy Week and Easter this year, remember this: Jesus sets forth a pattern of life for all of us. This pattern comprehends all of human experience, and Jesus sanctifies it all. Anybody who tells you that Jesus will bring you prosperity, success, and perfectly straight white teeth, is telling you a lie. Jesus comes to show us the way to live life to the fullest, with and through death, and to live again. It’s all included. And in Jesus, it is all holy ground.
When we say, Jesus died for us and rose again, that’s what it means. Jesus shows us the way, and we are going to experience it all. Jesus’ joy is our joy. Jesus’ suffering is our suffering. Jesus’ story is our story.