For some years now, it’s been common to substitute a particular phrase for any word you don’t want to say. That phrase is “the [blank] word,” and we fill in the initial of the word we don’t want to use. I don’t know when people started doing that, but the trend seems to have taken off around the time of the OJ Simpson trial, when attorneys and reporters had to figure out a way to deal with Detective Mark Fuhrman’s frequent use of racial slurs. When they had to refer to Fuhrman’s words, they began to substitute “the n-word” instead of the hate-filled word he used. People now use the same technique for other words all the time. Often, it’s for an obscenity. (I’m not going to give you any examples of those!) But, suffice it to say, we use it for words that, for one reason or another, we don’t like to have to say out loud—words that embarrass us or make us uncomfortable.
There are a lot of “S” words in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his last earthly meal with his disciples, his betrayal and arrest and trial, and finally his execution. Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him to prepare for the entry into Jerusalem. His disciples set him upon the colt. The people spread their cloaks before him and shouted hosannas. The Pharisees demanded that Jesus stop his disciples from what they were doing, to which he replied that if he did, the stones in the road would cry out.
Later, at dinner, the disciples would squabble among themselves about which one of them was superior. Later still, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus would sweat great drops like blood in the midst of his anguished prayer that he might be spared from the ordeal ahead. The disciples would sleep to escape the grief they were feeling. When the crowd came to arrest Jesus, swords were wielded. Jesus was seized and taken to the high priest’s house.
They took him to the place called the Skull, where the guards and onlookers scoffed at Jesus on the cross, calling on him to save himself. Finally, Jesus commended his Spirit to God, and the spectacle was over.
There is another “s” word that comes in the middle of the story. It’s in the first sentence that Jesus says to his disciples at the table: “I have greatly desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I suffer.” We don’t like to talk about Jesus’ suffering much. The stories of his birth and life, the excitement of Palm Sunday, and the celebration of Easter are much more to our liking. But Jesus’ glorification and our salvation are inseparably tied to his suffering. We can’t ignore it. So, that uncomfortable, unpleasant word “suffering” is our focus today.
In the portion of the Covenant Renewal Prayer in your bulletin, John Wesley says, “Christ has told you that you must suffer with him.” But what does that mean for us? What does it mean to suffer with Christ?
In this place and time at least, we don’t expect to actually physically suffer for our faith. There are plenty of Christians in the world for whom the prospect of suffering and dying for Christ is a very real possibility. The danger is stark and immediate for them. But what does it mean for us who, thanks be to God, do not live with that immediate threat? How are we to faithfully suffer with Christ?
Jesus doesn’t tell us. In fact, Jesus doesn’t specifically call us to suffer with him. He talks about picking up our crosses and following him. He warns of the persecution and division that can occur when we become his disciples. He tells us we are to die to ourselves in order to live in him. Even Paul, who does talk of sharing in Christ’s suffering, doesn’t give us a detailed description of what it means. So, we need to draw some conclusions for ourselves about what it means to suffer with Jesus.
It could mean that we endure the sneering put-downs that much of the world directs toward Christians. Sometimes we’re described as having our heads in the clouds—dreamers who are out of touch with the real world. Or, we’re labeled as backwards sorts who confuse fairy tales with fact. Suffering with Jesus may mean that face the skeptics and say confidently with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”
Suffering with Jesus may mean that we stand tall when others lump all Christians together with the hypocrites who talk a good game but whose lives demonstrate no connection to Jesus’ teachings—people who call themselves Christian for the sake of their reputation or to gain votes, but have no intention of living according to the ethical demands of Christ. Just as Christ suffered the sneers and jeers and skepticism of the crowd, we are to suffer with him.
Suffering with Jesus can mean that we allow our hearts to be broken for those who break his heart—those who lack not only material resources but also the power and connections they need to improve their lives. Those who are ignored because they have no influence or their problems can’t easily be understood or solved. Those who are seen as undesirable, as disposable, as competition for the abundance we have and want to keep for ourselves. We suffer with Jesus when we feel the same compassion he did, and then act on that suffering by feeding, healing, touching, and welcoming the stranger and the outcast. And then, we press our government and institutions to adopt policies that make our nation and our world look more like the kingdom of God. We suffer with him and then we love our neighbors as he did, whoever they might be.
Suffering with Jesus may mean that we suffer our own pain as Jesus did, with faith that God is with us through our ordeals. Through all the pain and anguish of his arrest and trial, all the way through his terrifying and excruciating death, Jesus never abandoned his faith in God his Father, even when in his lowest moment he felt that God had abandoned him. Perhaps the way we suffer with Jesus is to cling to our faith that God is with us in and through the illnesses of our bodies, minds, or spirits.
We suffer with him as we die to ourselves. It is a painful process to give up control of our lives to Christ. We are so comfortable making our own decisions and choices. We like being in charge. It’s painful give up parts of our lives that we’ve enjoyed or that have defined who we are, but which we’ve come to know aren’t consistent with the Way of Jesus. Giving those up may feel like a painful amputation of cherished parts of ourselves. But just as he gave himself up for us in a way that caused him great suffering, we can suffer with him in giving ourselves up to him.
These are all ways we can throw our lot in with Christ and suffer with him. But in this time we call Holy Week, there is another way that we can suffer with him that we often neglect. In these days of Holy Week, we can walk with Christ as witnesses to what he experienced, being the ones who stand with him, not allowing the painful scenes of betrayal, desertion, crucifixion, and death make us turn our faces away from him.
The excitement of Palm Sunday and the joy of Easter tempt us to push the events of Holy Week into the background. To do this is like going from the excitement of learning that a long-hoped-for baby is on the way to the joy of holding that baby in our arms, without facing the messy and painful reality of childbirth. But, just as we can’t go from the elation of a newly-announced pregnancy to a cooing baby without the pain of labor, we can’t go from the triumphal procession of Palm Sunday to the celebration of the resurrection without going through the suffering of Jesus’ Passion. We can’t go from the shouts of “Alleluia” to the shouts of “He Is Risen” without the shouts of “Crucify.”
Just as a laboring woman has loving family or friends with her during childbirth, we are called to accompany Jesus during the events of Holy Week. We cannot suffer what he suffered, but we can suffer his Passion with him. The word “passion” is related to the Greek word pathos. It means the experience of something, and it almost always means experiencing something bad. Our word “sympathy” comes from the related word sympatheo—to experience with, to suffer with. We may not feel the same pain or distress Jesus did, but we can experience his suffering in sympathy with him, by his side, as his witnesses.
Peter thought he was prepared to do that. After Jesus broke the news about his impending betrayal by one of their own, after settling their argument about who was the greatest by pleading with them to serve as he served, after conferring his kingdom on them as his Father had given it to him, Jesus suddenly turned and spoke directly to Peter. “Simon, Simon, Satan has decided to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Peter, that your own faith may not fail.”
How must Peter have felt to be singled out in such a way? Didn’t Jesus trust him to be faithful? Didn’t Jesus know he could count on him to be there for him, to suffer whatever was to come with him? Peter blurts out, “Lord, I’m ready to go with you to prison and to death!” We know what happened, of course. When it came time to suffer with Jesus, Peter denied him three times, just as Jesus told him he would. From the time Peter leaves the courtyard in tears until the moment he runs to see the empty tomb, we hear nothing more of him. He was not able to suffer with Christ after all.
We have the same challenge before us. Will we go from the excitement of Palm Sunday straight to the wonder of the empty tomb? Or are we willing to walk with Christ through the painful part of the story and stand as witnesses to his Passion—to suffer with him?
As we consider our answer to this question, remember this: Just as we suffer with Christ, he suffers with us. He is not a God who is present with us in the good times but who disappears during the bad times. He’s not a God who is entertained by our celebrations but who looks away when we are in trouble or in pain. He’s not a God who leaves us to save ourselves, but instead is with us as we find new life in him. He’s not a God who is with us only in the Palm Sundays and the Easters of our lives, but he suffers with us through the hard days in between.
On Holy Thursday—Maundy Thursday—we will place ourselves in the same situation as the disciples, eating the holy meal together and hearing Jesus’ disconcerting words. We’ll have an opportunity to pledge ourselves anew to Christ and to faithfulness to the new covenant in his blood. We’ll recommit ourselves to suffering with Christ, taking our lot with him wherever it may fall. We will renew our promise that we will allow neither the demands of everyday life nor the reality of death to separate us from him.
Then, on Good Friday, we’ll walk with Jesus through his betrayal, his arrest, his trial, and his crucifixion and death. We will face the darkness with him, and we will suffer with him as his witnesses. I urge you to be part of these special services where we can be witnesses together, but if you can’t, I encourage you to spend time in sober reflection as you witness Jesus’ suffering and suffer with him.
On this Palm Sunday, as we begin this Holy Week, we have a choice to make. When the palm leaves have been discarded along the roadway, when the dusty cloaks have been retrieved and the parade is over, will we turn away from Christ’s suffering and wait for the dawn of Easter morning? Or will we walk with him into the upper room, sit at the table with him, follow him to the Garden of Gethsemane, and stand near him in the dark hours of his trial and execution? It is only by standing by his side through his Passion that we can fully appreciate the miracle of his resurrection. After suffering with him, we can then stand with him on Easter Day and joyfully declare that He Is Risen. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young