Why We Need Not Be Afraid – Part Four /Pentecost 11A – The Cross

Matthew 16:21-28

The late Canadian federal politician, Jack Layton, in his final words written in a letter to all Canadians, wrote: “Hope is better than fear.” He wrote those words less than 48 hours before he would succumb to the cancer that was killing him. One thing about Jack Layton, you couldn’t fault the man for being genuine, passionate and from-the-heart in his communication. In other words, he wasn’t just saying, “hope is better than fear” just because it was a good thing to say; He really meant it.

How could he rise above his fear enough so to make that statement, genuinely? Hope is better than fear. How could he maintain optimism amidst his suffering and even in the face of impending death?

I must confess my reaction would echo Peter’s: It is not right for our leader to suffer and die! For that matter, let’s not talk about suffering and dying at all. Conversations like this have no place in the corridors of power, amidst the expectations of greatness and glory! Yeah, Peter’s reaction makes more sense than Jesus’ morbid talk!

I am not someone who has suffered greatly – especially as I consider some of the stories of you sitting in this room today. I suspect, nevertheless, that suffering comes to us all at some point in life, even when we don’t seek it. It is a natural part of life. So, I wonder, how can I prepare myself for the inevitable?

“How can there be a God,” sceptics ask, “when there is so much suffering in the world today?” I suspect the answer is, because people of faith discover hope and wholeness not be denying their broken places in life, but by embracing this reality, in love.

Perhaps another quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson can help set the context for our discussion this morning: “The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear.”

Perhaps it’s not the circumstance itself that is the issue, but our response to it. Because I believe we’ve heard of many people who have faced incredibly desperate cirmcumstances in their lives, and yet were able to maintain and hold a high level of hope despite their circumstance. How do they do it?

Why we need not be afraid? Today’s reflection zeroes in on the Cross. Not the crucifix — we’ll save that image for Holy Week and Good Friday. No, let’s start with a plain, empty Cross not denying the suffering it has caused as a 2nd century instrument of torture and capital punishment but suggesting there is something hopeful beyond the suffering.

How can we learn to live in hope, not fear? Here are a couple of biblical insights that emerge from the assigned texts for this day:

1. Jeremiah 15:15-21 “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (v.18)

Jeremiah complains bitterly to God, in the first half of this text. He even has the gall to describe God as a “deceitful brook” and “waters that fail” (v.18)

But God is not offended by Jeremiah’s accusations. That’s because Jeremiah’s protest, uttered amid his suffering, falls safely within the biblical tradition of “lament”. You can find other laments in the Psalms, for example, such as Psalms 22, 42, 44 & 89. Challenging God’s apparent unreliability in this manner is “fully spiritual” (David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 4, p.5). Why?

This language and style of communication presumes a relationship of faithfulness. The Lament is language of fidelity. It assumes that God values relationship and is open to being affected personally by a believer’s suffering. It is reminicent of the way Job challenged God. Anger expressed towards God is a more faithful act than complacency and a fateful, passive resignation fueled by self-rejection.

The first strategy for finding a way beyond the fear is grounding ourselves in a real, relationship with a God who is willing to be affected by our very own suffering, who is willing to hear our pain, who is willing to walk with us in the woundedness of our life.

The Cross symbolizes Jesus’ sympathy with human suffering. Because Jesus suffered and died on the Cross, God is no stranger to the depth and breadth of human suffering, including our own. He knows it. He can take it. Let him have it. And God will respond. How? God’s response to Jeremiah’s vitriol is a loving promise for redemption.

The Cross stands at the intersection of divine interest and intervention, and our own personal and corporate suffering. At the very least, we are not disconnected from God in our suffering. Therefore, we need not be afraid.

2. Which brings us to the second biblical insight for approaching our own suffering not with fear, but hope and love: The dialogue between Jesus, Peter and the disciples in our Gospel text takes place in the north country, Caesarea Philippi. Remember, the disciples are fishers. They are lake people, accumstomed to life on and around Lake Galilee. Places like Capernaum and Tiberias are their familiar stomping grounds. So, why did Jesus drag his disciples far north into unfamiliar territory in order to tell them that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die?

In fact, the text reveals that he did not “explain” or “tell” them about suffering, but that he “showed” them. So there must be something he did with them to teach them about suffering. Is it the very action of removing them from the familiar, from the routine, from the perceived safety and security of their “comfort zones” of home and hearth to teach them about the meaning of suffering?

I wonder if their physical displacement represented gaining some distance and perspective on the subject matter. Being far away from home symbolized the inner need for distance and detachment from all that seems to be important and with which they identified their lives.

Which sets the ground for the famous yet difficult teaching of Jesus in this text: “If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus wants to give his disciples a vision of his mission and kingdom in which we are given hope through our suffering and death. But the path is a way of embracing our losses. The message of Jesus’ stories (called “parables”) is that in losing we will find.

In Luke 15 is a summary of the Gospel — often referred to as the “golden” chapter of the bible. In it we read the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the Prodigal Son (i.e. the lost son). Sometimes I feel the Christians, based on their behaviour, would rather have it the other way around: Would we rather have Jesus tell stories about never having been lost? Why not parables about staying found, with instructions on how not to get lost?

The hope comes when we “let go.” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we find a version of the famous Beatitudes -teachings of Jesus – containing a list of “Blessed are those who …” The first one is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

The importance of letting go of, releasing and forgiving are vital qualities in the process of healing. Letting go, first by being honest and angry with God; that is, getting it out. But, letting go of all our pretensions, perceived perfection and glory-fixations so that we discover who we truly are. In the poverty of our being, when we let go, we discover our true selves, not by identifying ourselves with our suffering but merely by relating to it.

And who we essentially are is nothing more, and nothing less, than be-loved, lovable and loving. Love is at the heart of faith. It’s not suffering for suffering’s sake. It’s not suffering for evil purposes. Jesus went to the Cross because he wants to love you and be with you and show you that hope is better than fear.

It’s suffering in full awareness of God’s love, compassion and promise in and through our suffering. And I think the way to that realization is in the art of “losing”: that in losing we will find.

If God is willing to love us in our suffering, perhaps we too can embrace the part of our lives in pain. Perhaps we can love the parts of our lives — mind, body, and spirit — that are hurting.

This week I heard the moving story of an elderly person who at a young age had to give up a baby daughter for adoption. Given the circumstances of her life at the time, and holding a faithful conviction that her daughter was meant to be loved and raised in another person’s household, she gave up something/someone near and dear to her.

She had to accept her loss. And she came to terms with the very real possibility that she might never again meet her daughter. Yet, she moved on in her life to experience many other blessings.

Then in the mid-1980s the Ontario Government passed legislation allowing for adopted children to seek out their birth mothers, if they so desired. Upon hearing of this news, this person called the government office and released her contact information, allowing for the possibility that her daughter, wherever she was, might wish to contact her.

Within two weeks, she received a phone call from her daughter. They planned for a reunion in a neutral city. And what a reunion it was! Even though their lives had gone in different directions and continued so after their meeting, they have been able to enjoy each other’s company and friendship to this day. They meet once in a while and are mutually blessed by their relationship.

In losing we will find. Not a reckless, indiscriminate, unthoughtful, impulsive letting go. But a letting go that is held in faithful, trusting and committed manner. We too can experience new life, healing, resurrection. It is not easy to take this first step. It requires some risk-taking. Yet, the cliche is true and analogous: Better to have love and lost, then never to have loved at all.

When we are honest, real and true — expressing our deepest feelings to God in relationship that will endure all; and, when we practice the art of letting go in so many areas of our lives holding the Cross as a symbol of the hope we have in Christ Jesus, we can be liberated from our fear.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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