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Perfect Suffering

Sermon - 10/15/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Hebrews 2:5-18

I want to begin a series this morning on Hebrews, commonly known as the letter to the Hebrews.  The 24th book in your New Testament, not to be confused with the Old Testament (because of the name).  But it's not really a letter, it's more of a homily.  Nor is it really addressed specifically to Hebrew people.  So the name is a bit of a misnomer.

But before I read the text for this morning, I want to give just a little bit of background on what we know about it.

About the author, we can't say a whole lot because we don't know who the author was.  King James attributes Hebrews to the Apostle Paul, but the letter itself does not make that claim.  That was a tradition that was added onto it long after it was written.  So we don't know who it was, it's anonymous.

About the intended audience, to whom or for whom it was written, we can't say a whole lot either, because we don't know who that was.  

About the context, historical context in which it was written, we can't say much because we don't know where it was written, or when it was written.

So in other words, you know as much as scholars about Hebrews, which is "diddly-squat"!  But there are a few things we can say about it.

We do know, for instance, whomever this anonymous author was, he was very well educated.  Hebrews is probably the most sophisticated, highest form of Greek that we have in the New Testament.  And what's more, it shows that the author was very aware and likely educated in classical Greek rhetoric.

We also know that it was most likely written in the second half of the first century, roughly about the same time the gospels were written.  And that it was written to address Christians in a very difficult time when the world was increasingly becoming hostile toward the faith.  And some were doubting their faith, and hence the overall purpose of Hebrews is to strengthen the community of disciples.

So with that in mind, let me share with you this text from the second chapter of Hebrews:

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. 6But someone has testified somewhere,
‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   or mortals, that you care for them?
7You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
   you have crowned them with glory and honour,
8   subjecting all things under their feet.’

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting [right] that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying,
‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
   in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’
13And again,
‘I will put my trust in him.’
And again,
‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Speaking of temptation, I thought that I might show an illustration for this theme from Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" that depicts the suffering of Jesus.  But, that scene is terribly violent, and horribly depressing.  And what's more, it's longer than most of my sermons.  It's overwhelming, literally overkill.  So I decided against it.

When I was looking through some of the images you can find online from the movie, I didn't even dare show those.  Just simply too strong.

But I thought of that scene because it displays graphically what many if not most Christians believe:  that the suffering of Jesus must have been so terrible because he had to bear all the sins of the world.  And the theological word we use for that idea is hogwash, I mean, atonement.  Sorry, that just slipped out.  Atonement.  Which simply means to make reparations for a wrong, for an injury.  Religiously speaking, it means the redemption of humanity through the suffering and the death of Jesus for our sin.

So we have been taught that someone had to atone for our sin to make us right with God.  And that someone, of course, was Jesus.  And since our sins are so great, his suffering, therefore, must have been absolutely terrible.

Now there's just 1 little tiny problem with that idea.  And that is, why would a loving God demand that someone, anyone, bear that kind of suffering for our sin?

So I want to suggest to you another possibility that helps to understand the suffering of Jesus without making us guilty for it.  And more importantly, that will help us, I would hope, to lesson rather than to increase suffering in the world.

I love verse 10 in this passage when the author says 'God did the right thing when he made Jesus perfect by suffering'.  And I'm so glad that the author has told us that, because otherwise we might have thought that God did the wrong thing!

Gary Larson, the cartoonist who I miss so terribly, had a wonderful cartoon depicting God as a game-show contestant:

And you can see the score is 1,065 to zero, as the announcer says "Yes, that's right, the answer is Wisconsin.  Another 50 points for God!  And, uh-oh, looks like Norman, our current champion, hasn't even scored yet".

We don't entertain the possibility that God could make a mistake.  We assume that everything God does is right, correct, all the time.  But that does not mean that we should never question God.  From the cry of Jesus on the cross "O Lord, O Lord, why have you forsaken me?", to the cry of every parent who has lost a loved one in a tragic accident, or every person who has seen a loved one die in tragic circumstances, and wants to know 'why, God, why?'.  

We have every right to question God and to demand a reckoning, as did Job of old.  Why is there so much suffering in the world?  Why must we always have the poor among us?  Why must there always be war and rumor of war?  Why do the good die young?  Why is life not fair?  Why, God, why?

And only when we ask those difficult, hard questions -- challenging, yes, God, but also challenging our assumptions.  Do we find God, like Job, in the whirlwind?  And we see a glimpse of that larger reality, that larger truth that is beyond the reality we know.

From my own struggles with such questions, my own study and reflection, I have found that those kinds of questions lead us not to conclude that God did the wrong thing, but that very wrong is not the doing of God, whereas the right that is done by God is what we so often have difficulty seeing.

One extreme example:  fundamentalist preachers and fanatic Muslims alike attributed September 11th to God.  That God either willed it, or allowed it to happen.  As Pat Robertson said, God removed his protective hand from America.

Pope Benedict tried to refute such thinking in his unfortunately controversial address that he gave at the University of Regensburg in Germany last month.  His point, lost in the furor over his comment on holy war and Islam, was that faith and reason need each other to avoid such dangerous thinking.  That religion without reason too often results in violent fanaticism.  He said "God is not pleased by bloodshed.  Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly without violence and threats of violence".  

Do you hear that challenge, the challenge that comes to us?  And the importance for us to reflect seriously on the relationship between God and suffering.  For suffering that is caused by God, if caused by God, can be no more good than suffering caused by anyone else.  But God can work through suffering.  God can even bring redemption out of suffering, bring good out of it.

Amidst that enormous tragedy on Sept 11th, we saw true beauty and heroism such that the symbol for God's presence and action on that fateful day was not the collapsing buildings, but the police officers and the firefighters rushing to help, often to their own death.

Such never compensates for the tragedy.  But it does give us hope that death will not be the last word.  And so we see in the sacrifice of those public servants, just as we see in the sacrifice of Jesus, acts of God are not those that take lives, that add to suffering, that cause pain or make war, but those that enhance life, that bring beauty and joy and hope to our world.

Thus the suffering of Jesus was not perfect because of its intensity or its enormous pain, but because it completed the humanity of Jesus.  It made him like us.  In other words, Jesus suffered as we suffer.  His suffering was not just for us, it was with us.  

And so I suggest to you instead of seeing a-tone-ment as the primary way to interpret the death of Jesus, we see it as at-one-ment.

In other words, that through his suffering and death, Jesus is at one with us and we with him.  Therefore, that our sin is not the cause of his suffering.

Does that make any difference?  Let me suggest to you 3 possibilities.

First of all, shifting the emphasis from a-tone-ment to at-one-ment is more than just a shift in syllables.  Interpreting the meaning of Jesus' passion and death as at-one-ment is fundamentally a different understanding.  A-tone-ment essentially says if Jesus hadn't gone to the cross, if he hadn't given his life for us, then we could not be forgiven.  We would therefore deserve to suffer if not for that sacrifice of Christ.  I think that that's wrong.  That's just plain perverted theology.  At-one-ment says that the suffering of Christ was not necessary at all.  God would still love us, and forgive us, the same if Jesus had lived to be 100.  We did not cause Jesus to suffer -- it was the imperial power of Rome that caused him to suffer.  We did not make Jesus die -- we have enough guilt in our lives to add that.  It was the collaboration between religious power and political might that caused his death.  

Jesus chose the way of the cross as a purely voluntary act of love and justice rooted in his solidarity -- his at-one-ment -- with the suffering of humanity.  His suffering, as the one totally innocent, was the ultimate protest against the power of empire and the rule of oppression.  His death was God's "no" to the rulers of this world.  As we read in verse 14 of this text, that is why Jesus became one of us -- he died to destroy the devil, who had the power of death.

If nothing else, we should learn from the example of Jesus that suffering which is not born of love, which is not voluntary, which is inflicted upon others, cannot be and never is the will of God.  Therefore, when we as a nation condone the use of torture and suspend the right of Habeas Corpus (a basic principle in English common law and democratic jurisprudence for over 400 years, which protects the rights of those imprisoned to have their case considered in a court of law), when we abolish that basic human right, we can hold whomever we like for as long as we'd like without any protection against cruel and inhuman treatment, the very soul of our nation and the spiritual strength of our heritage is lost.  And we will be a country with only military power and no moral authority in the world.  And I fear that day.

As Garrison Keillor wrote in his column condemning the vote of Congress just a couple weeks ago on that issue, he said:  "If the government can round up someone and never be required to explain why, then it's no longer the United States that you and I always understood and our enemies have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  They have made us become like them".

That is the opposite of at-one-ment.  Instead of becoming one with Christ, rising to the way of God, we have become one with our enemies, stooping to the way of evil.

That leads me to the second way that at-one-ment makes a difference.  At-one-ment emphasizes our connections over our individualism.  It's not just between us individually and God, it's between us collectively and God.  The lesson of global warming, that we reflected on a couple of weeks ago, is precisely that.  We are all in this together.  It's not one nation against another nation, it's not Republicans against Democrats, it's not black against white, it's not Christians against Jews, it's not Muslims against Hindus, it's all of us together. 

I think that point was made beautifully in our video last week when a mother talked about how being a mom changed her.  This intensity of a feeling of connectedness that she felt with all mothers who grieve for their children.  Whether they be American soldiers or Iraqi citizens who are killed in that war, or wherever.  To identify with them is to be at one with them.  The Amish demonstrated this so beautifully, and unfortunately tragically, when they befriended the family of the killer of their children.  And took her food, and brought her into their community of love and forgiveness.

Finally, at-one-ment emphasizes our connection with God, not our separation from God.  Marianne Williamson says it so well in that quote that was used in the delightful family movie, "Aquila and the Bee" (if you want a good, wholesome movie, get that movie, it is just a wonderful, delightful movie that warms your heart).  At any rate, in that movie, they use this quote, but they never cite the source of the quote -- it comes from Marianne Williamson:

Let your light shine.  Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination. 

Remember what the author of our text says?  God has put everything under our power and has not left anything out of our power.  We are powerful beyond imagination.  Williamson continues:

It is our light more than our darkness which scares us. We ask ourselves – who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are you to not be so?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn't serve the world.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It's not just in some of us, it's in every one of us.  As we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same. 

 

Followers of Jesus, be one with our Lord.  Let your light shine to the glory of God.

 


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