What is Redemptive Suffering?

Sermon Given October 17, 2021

Our readings this morning speak of redemptive suffering. 

First we have one of the suffering servant songs from the prophet Isaiah, something we even read on Good Friday, as we consider Jesus’ death upon the cross. The words have uplifted and haunted us for millennia. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53:6) This one, this sufferer has carried everything. We turned away, and God has given it all to this one, this nameless person whom modern day scholarship can guess about but can’t tell us exactly who Isaiah was referring to. What we do have is a description of the horrible abuse he experienced at the hands of oppressors while others watched helplessly, marveling at how he held his tongue and endured everything those in power unleashed on him. 

Directly before our Gospel reading today, Jesus shares his third, fullest, and final explanation of what will happen to him when they finally make it to Jerusalem. He shares openly that the Son of Man will be handed over to authorities by the elite, who will demand the death sentence. He will be killed and three days later will rise. Just a single healing narrative stands between what we have read today and Jesus riding a colt as the people shout “Hosanna!” We are so close to the end. And I think that James and John see and feel it. I’m sure all the disciples do. But they don’t understand what it all means. How could they? If I hadn’t been reading the Gospel all my life, I’m not sure I would believe it either. 

What would Jesus’ redemptive suffering bring about? What was the purpose of it? I think that’s where they get stuck, and we often get stuck too. They, because they had a vision of what being the Messiah meant, and Jesus was messing with their ideas. Over the past millenia, we have twisted and used the language of redemptive suffering to justify abuse, torture, and atrocities. Atonement, the becoming at one with God moment, the moment of the cross, is not well understood and I think sometimes is purposefully twisted to help maintain power structures that are not righteous or godly.

The disciples imagined that Jesus’ suffering would bring about a glorious day of God’s reign right then and there. Jesus would rise up and defeat the Roman empire, they would usher in an earthly kingdom that reigned with God’s power. The concept of a Messiah who suffered crucifixion, the most cursed of deaths, and then quietly rose again, appearing only to his followers, asking people to love and feed his sheep, that wasn’t part of the Messiah narrative that had been built up by those waiting for salvation from their enemies. Sitting at Jesus’ right and left, those were spaces close to the one whom James and John desperately loved, sitting by his side in the kingdom that would come to earth just as soon as Jesus had brought down the foes. They may or may not have understood the idea of Jesus being killed, but when Jesus spoke of rising, they imagined him rising into battle, not simply appearing to them. Jesus was supposed to lead them into battle to establish his kingdom on earth, not give them commandments and ascend back into heaven. But Jesus isn’t bringing an earthly kingdom. Jesus is presenting the vision of a heavenly kingdom, where whoever wants to be first must become last, where the one who has power must always serve those without. It’s not the path of domination, it’s a path of careful listening, of mutual loving, of purposefully giving of ourselves for the other. 

Since Jesus’ time, how much have we equated dominance with godliness and asserted that if one suffers at the hands of a dominant power, whether an abusive spouse or corrupt government, that it was God’s will? When people or institutions act like the corrupt powers of Rome or the temple authorities, we call those who suffer under them more Christ-like, as if God ordained them to live in misery in order to be more perfect in heaven.  But that suffering is not redemptive. That’s suffering that needs relief. 

Redemptive suffering is voluntary. It’s life-giving, it doesn’t conform to our expectations in a power-hungry world. My friend was once in a debate with others about whether suffering even could be redemptive. He asked his pregnant wife what she thought, and she simply pointed down to her swollen belly. Everyone who has been through pregnancy knows the discomforts, the limitations, the stresses, the fears, the pains of pregnancy. But the end result is new life, and that’s why they endure. Two of my friends in Iowa right now are experiencing pregnancy using a gestational carrier, otherwise known as a surrogate. This woman has given of her body for a child that is not her own. She carries the child because she believes that this life needs to be brought into the world, that her discomfort and the limits of this pregnancy is all worth it if she can allow these two to hold their newborn child, who could not come into the world without someone like her. That is redemptive suffering, going through trials and endurance with the belief that what you are doing brings new life and creates a little better world.

Last summer, people marched in the streets, they were pepper sprayed, injured, and thrown in jail because they saw a man die on video and were sick and tired of the systems that allow police officers to unjustly kill people. They stood up and made a stance, putting themselves at risk just like those who marched for civil rights in the 1960’s. Some even gave their lives for the cause. They did this because they believed that a more just world was possible and they longed to birth it into existence. 

The pain, the agony of suffering is not the point of redemptive suffering. Pain in and of itself doesn’t make anyone better. It’s a destructive force. Destruction is the opposite of creation. Death is the opposite of life. Isaiah didn’t memorialize the suffering servant because he was beaten and abused. He is memorialized because he stood up for what he believed in and chose to endure suffering rather than back down. He gave of himself for the hope of new life and a better world. By his wounds, we find healing through the ability to stand firm as he did. 

Jesus didn’t have to die. We know that he had the power to make it stop. So why was he up there on the cross? Why do we memorialize and honor that moment? I believe that it is because he took the place of the oppressed, the marginalized, all those who very well could have ended up on crosses right alongside him. He saw them. He felt their need, and in his dying he allowed us to see a new way, the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

I don’t pretend to have all the answers about what this Kingdom is or what it looks like. Sometimes I see it so clearly and other times it appears to fade from view. There are days when part of me wants to walk away shaking my head because even though I’ve studied these things for years, even though I know things like redemptive suffering and the Kingdom of Heaven at the heart of the Christian faith, I don’t have strong answers. I just have more questions. Instead of finding certainty, I find the mystery. I think my seminary mentor was quite right when he said that all atonement theories have some truth, all have some falsehood, but they all help us examine what it means to become at one with God.  I find myself exploring new facets of the cross on a regular basis, not being able to fully combine them all together into a nice systematic theology, but seeing them like the faces of a diamond, each one bringing new insight and new life. 

So I see the sparkling face of Jesus on the cross in order to give greater life to the oppressed, a small aspect of the much greater salvation narrative. He asks, “Are we willing to give of ourselves in order that those who suffer the most in this life can suffer a little less?” I’m reminded that Jesus took the place of Barabbas on the cross. Barabbas, someone who actually was part of a resistance movement against the Roman empire, the very crime Jesus was falsely convicted of, was allowed to go free.  He no longer had to suffer punishment for his actions. The one who was pushed down, who was oppressed by the empire, was given new life. We can debate whether or not he deserved it, but the truth is his life was indeed spared. What does that mean for us today? Where are the oppressed, the ones pushed down, the ones suffering under the status quo? What does new life mean for them?

The way of redemptive suffering is optional, it’s not required. God invites certain people to certain causes. One does not need to die on behalf of others, and indeed some who suffered greatly for a cause and a people lived. But we’re all called to remember, to reflect, to ask ourselves if we might be willing to give of ourselves if the call comes. We’re meant to be vigilant and thoughtful. We all have parts to play in the redemption story, there is no disposable person in God’s world. 

We must ask ourselves today; What can be birthed in the world if we willingly serve rather than expect service to be given to us? What is possible if we stop fighting with each other over who is the greatest or godliest, trying to build up kingdoms on earth,but instead go to the places where people have no power, are even crushed down and persecuted, and say, “These are God’s beloved too”?  Maybe that is how obedience to God leads to perfection, as we take the destructive crosses away from those who have endured them for too long, allowing those who have been crushed to experience new life.