Monday, March 19, 2018

Why we Sometimes Suffer

Hebrews 5:8-9 (NRSV): Why we Sometimes Suffer
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Setbacks, difficulties, and losses are part of our human drama. And I am no stranger to setbacks. When I was 21 and fresh out of active duty military, I returned home to finish my college degree. One of my goals was to apply and gain acceptance to the Rutgers New Brunswick campus. When I got the admission letter from Rutgers, it stated that I was only accepted at the Camden campus, which was my required second choice. I was devastated. Here I was a young dad, military veteran, and transfer student with strong grades. Why wasn’t I good enough for Rutgers New Brunswick? I suffered and complained. After a few days, however, I gave in and registered at Rutgers Camden. I remember feeling let down and unenthusiastic about starting my classes. But through perseverance, focus, determination, and the support of those around me, Rutgers Camden was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I loved it there! Class sizes were small, the professors were inspiring, and the curriculum was rigorous. I was given a great opportunity that I initially saw as a setback. And I learned an important lesson: Suffering through difficulties often yields wonderful things.
Jesus’ story is one of suffering. From the very beginning of the gospels, people around him sought his death -- Herod, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and Sadducees, even the people of his own home town. Hebrews 5:7-10 and John 12:22-30, both readings for this week’s worship, remind us that Jesus chose to suffer. In that suffering he could have demanded the Father save him, but he didn’t. For instance, John quotes Jesus in 12:27: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Christ offered his suffering as an act of love for us. The question, however, comes back to us.  Are we willing to suffer, too? After all, Jesus mentions in John 12:26 that “[w]hoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”
The poet Langston Hughes embodies the triumph of human suffering and perseverance in his poem “Mother to Son”:
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
The speaker of the poem, an older generation African American mother, addresses her suffering son. Perseverance, steadiness, and forward motion are the attributes that bring victory for the new African American generation of Hughes’ time. Hughes’ message, moreover, is one rooted in today’s gospel. We are to follow Christ, even when it means trudging through life’s trials. As Jesus models, the light of victory follows the darkness of our suffering.
I have always been a poor sufferer. Even the not-so-hard trials like fasting, prayer, and patience are a challenge for me. Jesus, however, is the perfect model. For “[a]lthough he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of [our] eternal salvation . . .” Hebrews 5:8-9.
I pray that we all embrace the difficult roads that lie ahead, knowing that God will provide the necessary grace for our victory. Amen.
Have a blessed week!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Let us Choose Love

John 3:16-18 (RSV): Let us Choose Love
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
John 3:16 is one of the most quoted verses in Scripture, and many Christians use it as their mantra to salvation. It is a beautiful quote from the lips of Christ, and its message is, in many ways, a summation of the gospel. However, we must consider it in its context, specifically along with verses 17-18. And we must consider its audience, Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, who comes to seek Jesus’ wisdom under the cover of night.
As verses 17-18 connote, Jesus did come into the world through God’s love. Christ’s mission, therefore, is not one of condemnation; it is one of salvation. Why, then, in verse 18, does John mention that some are condemned? If we look carefully at the text, we discover that condemnation does not come from Christ but through people’s faithless rejection of him. When it comes to faith, however, many people are their own worst enemies, rejecting what they know is true for something that conforms to their own worldview. The Pharisees were no different.
Nicodemus, although a Pharisee, seeks the truth, even if it goes against his Pharisaic worldview. He seeks out Jesus and desires, in John 3, to learn about being born from above and receiving new life in Christ. And it is in John 19 that Nicodemus later accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to receive, prepare, and entomb the body of Jesus. Nicodemus’ open-mindedness toward Jesus leads him to the truth, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ.
John 3:16 is a verse with impact, but we often neglect its complete message. Jesus came to save, not condemn. It is through our blindness, egotism, arrogance, hatred, and entitlement -- much like that of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time -- that we are condemned. As Frank Doyle writes, “It is not a loving God who condemns; rather [it is] people [who] choose to alienate themselves from his love” (“Living Space”). The question to ask, then, is what are we choosing -- love or alienation?
Heavenly Father, we pray for the grace to know, love, and imitate your Son in this world so that others are drawn into his light. Let us choose love. In Jesus Christ we pray, amen.

Have a blessed week!