Sunday, 29 March 2015

Participating in Suffering - 2 Cor 5:21, Luke 23:42 - 43, Isaiah 53:4 - 6

A big question in our age is the one on suffering. Arguments for atheism often start with 'How can there be a God when there is ...'. Stephen Fry recently articulated this (see here for a good response). It is a valid question, but note how the very question affirms God as all powerful, even as loving. Where the questions fall short is that they assume God remains remote and detached, looking only for God to remotely waive a wand to fix things.

Theologians have wrestled with this, especially in the light of the world wars of the last century. German theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann reflected on Auschwitz and wrote in the 70s 'The Crucified God'. The answer lies in the cross, where God in his perfection becomes the one with all the badness of mankind loaded onto him (2 Cor 5:21). This happens in the reality of Roman torture and execution.

This is God experiencing suffering directly.  In our first instalment we saw how God presented Christ on the cross - like a son willingly carrying out a father's assignment. In fact Moltmann asserts that Father, Son and Holy Spirit all participate and suffer through the episode of the cross: the Father has to watch, as if helpless, while the Son physically suffers. The Spirit is active, preparing and leading the Son to this crucial event in history.

Note the Bible does not directly give us data on the suffering of Father and Spirit, but we know that suffering always extends across relationships: witness the weekly scenes on our TV news of parents' grief over a son/daughter tragically killed or murdered. With God as three persons in relationship, maybe Moltmann was right.

This idea simply does not work in the other great religions, which describe God as all-powerful and therefore never vulnerable. The Muslim's holy book therefore even tries to directly refute the death of Jesus (regarded as a prophet). Yet for the Christian it becomes the only way that actually makes sense.

Christ taking on our human badness, deals with the brokenness of world.

It is as if Jesus on the cross is able to hoover up all that which is bad in the world. Our badness is put on him, and dealt with (see Is 53:4 - 6). It is a cosmic hoover, because it is actually capable of removing everything through all history (both before the actual event and ever since).

The benefits are immediate: in that snippet from Luke where one criminal cries out to Jesus, Jesus replies 'Today you will be with me in paradise'. Jesus on the cross has a transforming effect, enabling people to move on and forward.

If we want to understand God therefore, let us not start with assumed superlatives (e.g. 'all powerful') and then made deductions. Instead let us look to Jesus, and Jesus on the cross. Faced with ill effects blighting lives, let us pray by putting the cross between the person and the issue - looking at the issue through the cross.

The call on us is to follow, to be ever closer to Jesus. Thats the scary bit, since to be close to Him will mean being closer to the cross, following his way of a life laid down. This way does not need great cleverness, nor strength, swords or missiles. It is the way that will change the world, hoovering up the bad so people can be transformed and move forwards.

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