A SUFFERING AND VULNERABLE GOD
Lutheran professor emeritus, Charles Amjad-Ali has said that what first drew him to the Christian faith was that it proclaimed a suffering and vulnerable God.
Now this is a man who grew up with different religious cultures and experiences….but what finally made a Christian out of him (so to speak) was Christianity’s proclamation of a suffering and vulnerable God in Jesus Christ.
I’ve never forgotten that statement from the professor. And today’s Gospel text certainly brought it back to my mind.
What has drawn people to Christianity throughout the centuries? What draws people to it yet today? Is it not the blessed truth of a suffering and vulnerable God who, in Christ, embraces us in our own suffering and vulnerability?
And isn’t it also true, then, that any so-called “gospel” which would omit, obscure, or play-down the suffering and vulnerable aspect of God is a false gospel? Yes, I think that is also true, indeed.
And yet what do we often see today, but countless forms of so-called Christianity which do just that – try to proclaim Christ without his suffering, vulnerable nature and calling Christians to “discipleship” with little or no sense of the suffering and vulnerable mission to which Christ calls the church-community?
I happened to turn on one of the “religious TV channels” the other evening when the baseball game wasn’t going very well, and the pastor spent the whole sermon (and it was quite long) telling people about the potential rewards they would receive if they gave to the church what God wanted them to give.
That’s a form of the “prosperity gospel” which is quite popular in its various expressions in these times. God will “make your dreams of personal success come true” if you give or do or think the right things.
And then there is so-called “Christian nationalism” which is becoming another popular false-gospel in these times. It’s the gospel of “American Exceptionalism” which is tied-in with national prosperity and pre-eminence; and mistaken notions of “freedom.” (Mixing Christ in with all of that)
And then there’s the “church growth movement” which has been a popular movement for several decades (and does have some things to teach us). But it’s often devolved into the “gospel” of “bigger, louder, richer, and busier is better” for congregations and church bodies.
These are all what we might call “Christian distortions” in our time; and the point is not to run down other faith expressions, but simply to say, where’s the central core of Christianity in all this? Where is the suffering and vulnerable God which drew Professor Amjad-Ali and countless others to the faith?
Another way to ask this is to say, “Where is the cross? And where is the cross-centered mission of the Church (the mission of sacrificial love and justice)?
But what we discover as we look at our Gospel passage today from Mark 8, is that this tension we are experiencing in modern times is nothing new. In fact, it was right there in the early Jesus movement and the early church of the 1st century.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ “lead disciple,” Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, which is a huge turning point in the story. No human being had yet dared to say that in the narrative until Peter did. So that’s a huge breakthrough.
But then, when Jesus indicates that being the Messiah, the anointed one of God who would transform history, means that Jesus will be rejected by the “establishment,” suffer, and die; and then rise anew, Peter doesn’t like it, to say the least.
“No way” is, essentially, what Peter says in rebuking Jesus. But Jesus rebukes Peter back in the harshest way possible… “get behind me Satan”, he says.
And then Jesus turns to the rest of his disciples and the crowd around him and he says that all who would be his disciples must also take up their cross and follow…follow him in the way of the cross, which is his mission and purpose of suffering and vulnerable justice, service, and love.
We might see Peter in this particular text today as perhaps being somewhat like many modern Christians who want some other kind of Messiah, some other kind of Jesus, and some other kind of God to follow, instead of the suffering and vulnerable God we know in Christ, who calls us to the same, for his purpose.
But then some would ask, with Peter and others, isn’t this God a weak failure in a world that often sets its rules through hard-power, injustice, and violence?
The answer is, no. The suffering and vulnerable God we proclaim in Christ is actually the strongest force that exists; for this God, alone, is strong enough to absorb all the horrible, selfish, brutal forces of the world into God’s very self/being and return it all back to us as forgiveness, reconciliation, and resurrection, eternal life.
And this God is also the One who, alone, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is able to transform us each day to look in faith to the crucified and risen Christ, to turn away from sin/idolatry, and to follow him and his way once again.
And this is truly Gospel – good news – which no other power in all creation can finally negate or destroy. Thanks be to God! Amen.