Today we celebrate the execution of a young Jewish man who made some startling claims.
Very few serious historians doubt the historicity of the death of Christ by crucifixion, and one of the peculiar things about this moment in history is that his followers came to claim that his execution was actually a victory, not only so but they also claimed that one of the most common things this young Jewish man said was that his followers were to follow his example and be ready to suffer in the same way he had.
The gospels record the 33 year old carpenter as saying we must take up our own crosses in Matthew 10:38, 16:24, Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23 and 14:27.
Not only had Jesus suffered horribly, he told his disciples that to follow him meant also being willing to suffer.
No-one wants to suffer, and yet Jesus claimed that suffering was actually the path to life. It is hard to imagine a more counter-cultural message.
N.T. Wright, in his latest book The Day the Revolution Began (which I wrote about here) said:
The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people.
This is the strange secret of the Christian faith that I (unsurprisingly) don’t hear lots of people talking about. Yet whenever the Christian church has been at its revolutionary best, it has been full of people who were willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of love.
This kind of behaviour isn’t normal.
Two statements in particular have been framing my thinking about this week.
In 1938, Carl Jung wrote:
Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.
As I have hung around the planet for over the past five decades I have seen the truth of this statement both in my own life and also in the lives of those I interact with.
One of the easiest ways to get rich is to come up with a new way to avoid suffering, an anaesthetic that helps people avoid reality.
Whether it be through video games, substances, porn, television or other strategies, we all have ways to avoid legitimate suffering, and we all know that those strategies don’t help us, what we might not be so aware of is that the avoidance of legitimate suffering is affecting our mental health.
Sometimes though suffering can’t be avoided, and then we tend to try something else.
Two days ago I heard another statement that I haven’t been able to stop coming back to. Parker Palmer is a respected author and philosopher who was in a conversation with John McKnight and Peter Block (you can listen here) and he made the statement:
Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering
He is right. When we can’t avoid suffering, it is tempting to want to blame someone for it, and if possible make them suffer too.
Both these approaches to suffering (avoidance or violence) are normal.
What Jesus did on Good Friday is not normal.
N.T. Wright says:
The revolution he accomplished was the victory of a strange new power, the power of covenant love, a covenant love winning its victory not over suffering, but through suffering. This meant, inevitably, that the victory would have to be implemented in the same way, proceeding by the slow road of love rather than the quick road of sudden conquest. That is part of what the Sermon on the Mount was all about.
Did we really imagine that, while Jesus would win his victory by suffering, self-giving love, we would implement that same victory by arrogant, self aggrandizing force of arms? … Once you understand the kind of revolution Jesus was accomplishing, you start to understand why it would then go on being necessary for it to be implemented step by step, not all at one single sweep, and why those steps have to be, every one of them, steps of the same generous love that took Jesus to the cross. Love will always suffer.
Good Friday is a reminder of a completely different approach to life… a life that actually produces life by being willing to die…