September 13, 2015
"I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine," "Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering."
Those words were written by Kayla Mueller. She was the young American woman killed this year while being held hostage by ISIS. This excerpt was from a letter she wrote to her family in 2011 while she was serving with an aid organization in India. The Huffington Post quoted this in an article after it was confirmed that she had been killed by airstrikes on the compound where she was being held.
“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine.” Those are profound words and they reflect a deep faith of a woman who I believe, and to quote her parents, lived more purposefully in her 26 years than I have in almost a half century. As I read them again, I wonder if they aren’t linked to the question Jesus asked of his disciples in the road to Caesarea Philippi.
“Who do people say I am?” Jesus asked while they were on the way to the villages of that region. The disciples immediately offered answers. “Some folks are claiming you are John the Baptist.” “Other people are saying you’re Elijah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked them even more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter rushed in with his declaration, “You are the Messiah.”
We don’t know if Jesus cried, “You got it, Peter!” But we do know that as soon as Peter said this, Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what Peter had just revealed. Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. This is the Messianic secret scholars have written about. While there are probably many reasons why Jesus didn’t want the larger population to know his identity as the One sent from God, I suspect that he knew full well how the title Messiah would be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Jesus understood that if people recognized him as the Messiah, they would expect a certain kind of action from him that was not going to happen. They would expect him to be someone that he was not. And when the people’s expectations met his reality, there would be confusion and anger. We know that this is exactly what will happen, but it was too soon for that. Jesus knew that. Jesus knew the time was not yet right, so he made them keep his truth a secret.
While the larger population could not yet understand Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, these were his disciples. These were his closest followers. These twelve were the ones he had called to follow and they had responded without hesitation. Now that Peter had declared his identity, they had to know the truth about what it really meant to be God’s Messiah.
So he began to tell them, to teach them, that as the Messiah he would suffer. “He would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
However much Jesus wanted the disciples to keep his Messiah identity under wraps, he spoke to his disciples “quite openly” about his suffering and death. This was too much for Peter. Peter pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him. Rebuke is not a word to be taken lightly. Peter rebuked Jesus in the same way Jesus rebuked demons. Peter must have spoken to Jesus harshly, angrily. We don’t know what he said to his teacher, but we can imagine several possibilities. I think Peter told Jesus to knock it off, stop saying these crazy things. Not only was he scaring and confusing the disciples, they were in the heart of Roman territory. The villages of Caesarea Philippi were towns bearing the name of Caesar. What Jesus told them was scandalous, treasonous, terrifying, and dangerous; not only for him, but for his followers as well.
Even if what Jesus said wasn’t a potential threat to their well-being, it still made no sense. Jesus was teaching the disciples, proclaiming to them that as the Messiah he would suffer. God’s messenger would suffer. God’s Son would suffer. God would suffer. How could there be a suffering God? Wasn’t God supposed to end suffering? Wasn’t God supposed to be the balm, the antidote to suffering? Wasn’t God supposed to be above suffering, the torment and bane of human existence? But Jesus said that he would suffer, greatly. This couldn’t be right. This could not be the way God planned to save them, through a suffering Son.
But that was what Jesus told them. The crux of being the Messiah was suffering. The cross was at the heart of the matter.
Jesus did not let it end with his suffering. He told them that if they want to be his followers, they must deny themselves, pick up their own crosses and follow him. He would suffer for their sake and for the sake of the world; in turn they must be ready to suffer for him.
To deny themselves was not about giving up a beloved treat or pastime. I don’t believe it was about self-mortification or beating the flesh into submission either. Denying themselves was more about serving and following and following and serving even if it meant the sacrifice of their own lives. Perhaps they would lose out on some of the things of this world, but in following him they would gain so much more. This was not a big selling point for discipleship. It wasn’t for them. It isn’t for us. At the end of Mark – the actual end, not the shorter or longer version – Jesus dies without followers. Jesus dies without followers. They run away afraid. God suffering and dying on a cross was a cross they were afraid to bear.
Jesus called the disciples and all those who would listen to follow not only in his footsteps but in his suffering. Perhaps the next question he should have asked them after, “Who do you say that I am?” was “Where do you see God?”
Maybe that is what is at the heart of the matter. Following Jesus is a matter of faith. Following Jesus is also a matter of choice. It is choosing to live differently, intentionally and mindfully – mindful of the ways we treat others, mindful of how our living impacts other people and creation. But maybe following Jesus also means that we see God in ways we never expected to. Maybe it means that we recognize God in places where our instinct tells us God should not be. Kayla Mueller wrote that she saw God in the eyes of the suffering. Where do we see God? Wherever we see God, however we see God, what is at the heart of the matter is that God calls us to follow. God calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. God calls us to be his hands, his feet, his voice, his heart. No matter how hard or challenging that is, no matter how we try and how we may fail, the good news is that our suffering God is a God of grace and mercy, love and compassion. Where do we see God? How will we meet him there?
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.