Deacon Cornellís Homily

Readings:    Isaiah 52:13—53:12
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Passion according to John (18:1-19:42)
Date: April 19, 2019, Good Friday

"In the days when he was in the flesh, Christ offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God ... Son though he was, Christ learned obedience from what he suffered, and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."

Those words have always sounded wrong to me. Christ learned obedience from what he suffered? What does it mean the Christ learned obedience? Didn't he always obey his heavenly Father? As I reflected on this passage, I focused on two things: suffering and obedience.

Suffering can be a real stumbling block to faith. How do we understand suffering? Do we believe that God sends suffering as punishment? How do we reconcile that with the picture of a loving, caring God? Or how do we explain why very good people suffer? The Church teaches us that suffering is a consequence of original sin. By this we mean that the world as we live in it, with its pain and suffering, is the result of our collective and individual rejection of God. It is the cumulative effect of all of the actions everyone has ever done out of any motive but love. Suffering is both an effect and a cause. While it is the effect of our original sin, it causes us to have fear. And it is fear that the devil exploits to turn us away from God.

So while I cannot reconcile the image of a loving and caring God with the idea that God causes suffering to anyone, I can reconcile the image of a loving and caring God with the idea that God allows suffering because He sees, in his infinite wisdom, that suffering and pain can be overcome by love. He sees that human beings can transcend the suffering they encounter and so experience love and joy that make the suffering seem insignificant. The analogy I like to use is the one of parents watching their child learn to walk. They know that the child will fall and hurt itself, but they know that the reward of learning to walk makes the pain of learning seem insignificant.

What about obedience? How many people here think obedience is a positive term? I would guess that most of the people who think obedience is a pretty negative idea, think of obedience as blindly doing something you have to do, even if you disagree with what it is that you are doing. Obedience in the sense that it is used throughout the scriptures, is based on two concepts: hearing and trust. The hearing part is pretty obvious - you have to hear in order to obey. But what about the trust part? Well, if someone completely understood and agreed with what they were obeying, they really don't need obedience to do that. Obedience contains an overtone of doing something that you really aren't sure about, but you trust in the wisdom of the authority that you are obeying. When our kids were young, I expected them to obey me, even in the face of their disagreeing with me, because I would hope they would trust that my judgment is sound, and my motives are love and care.

There is an old joke about the atheist who fell off a cliff while mountain climbing. He just managed to grab a scrub tree growing out of the face of the cliff. As he hung there thousands of feet up, he began crying out for help. Nearing exhaustion, he finally cried out, "God help me". Suddenly a voice called out, "This is God. But I can only help you if you trust in me." "Oh I trust in you God," said the man as his fingers began to cramp. "Good", said God, "let go of the tree with one of your hands." So the man did. Then God said, "Now let go with the other hand." The man thought about it for a few seconds, and then began crying out, " Is there anyone else up there?"

So what Jesus had to learn was to be separated from the Father enough to have to rely on his trust of the Father, rather than his knowledge of the Father. This is partly what we mean when we say Jesus was a true human being. Part of being a true human being is to be incapable of knowing God fully so that we must rely on our trust of God. We must obey God, rather than act out of full knowledge and understanding. So suffering gave Jesus the experience of fear that separated him from the Father enough to have to obey him. Some theologians say that when we say in our Creed that Jesus descended into Hell, that this means that Jesus completely separated himself from the Father, for that is what Hell is. In doing this, he put himself fully into the free fall of our human sin. As Paul said, he who had no sin became sin for us. Jesus let go with both hands. And guess what? God saved him.

There is no one answer to the mystery of how Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection brings salvation to the world. But for me it is that by living among us, and the learning obedience from what he suffered, Jesus gave us a irrefutable revelation of how radically God forgives us, and how passionately God loves us. And by us I mean you and you and me. By responding to that love by loving God back and loving one another, salvation enters creation. Will suffering teach us obedience, or will it beat us down? Can we let go with both hands, or are we crying out, "Is there anyone else up there?"

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