May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you!
I am Alexander Busch of the Evangelical Church of Lutheran Confession in Brazil, currently serving as pastor in the western State of Paraná, about a three-hour drive from the Iguaçu Waterfalls.
On this Good Friday service, I would like to share with you a brief reflection on a reading from Matthew 27.46, where it is written, “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The gospel readings we are hearing today are full of suffering, innocent suffering. Jesus is arrested, accused of a crime he did not commit. He suffers in loneliness, abandoned by his disciples, while strangers mock him at the foot of the cross. Jesus is killed, killed on the cross like a criminal. Suffering by itself is already a great tragedy, but what about the suffering of the innocent Jesus? How do we understand the suffering of Jesus?
Of course, we all have been through moments in life where suffering just doesn´t make sense: the suffering of a beloved person who is suddenly stricken with a serious illness; a stillborn baby – such great expectations of the parents turned into a painful existence. Or a widow, who asks herself or himself, why did my partner die to so young? The suffering by depression that sometimes leads a person, even a Christian person, to commit suicide. The suffering in this country, Brazil, and around the world because of covid-19 – many deaths unfortunately due to the irresponsibility of political leaders who deny the danger of the virus and do not provide a well though strategy to fight against the pandemic. These are but a few examples of suffering that overwhelm the human spirit; senseless, unfair, innocent or lonely suffering.
From our distant human origins to the present day, people, in the face of suffering, have been dealing with the question “why?”. Regardless of what religion they profess or even among those who do not profess any religion, we ask “why?”, trying to find some answers to deal with the harsh realities of life. And there are no easy answers. But we must say something, otherwise we run the risk of being paralyzed by fear and despair.
For the early Christian communities, the experience of Jesus crucified raised questions, fear and perplexity. Who is Jesus if he died crucified? Isn't it written in Deuteronomy, “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God´s curse” (Dt 22.23)? And what about Jesus´ message? What is this Reign of God, if the God proclaimed by Jesus was defeated on the cross? How could Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.
The New Testament brings forth several interpretations of Jesus' death. In addition to the witness of the four gospels, we have letters of Paul and others who deal precisely with these questions. The New Testament allows us to see multiple perspectives. Yet, there is a common thread that connects these various interpretations of the cross: Jesus´ suffering is a gesture of God's love. “For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son”, as it is written in John´s gospel. Or in Paul, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5.8).
Let us be clear beforehand that this love is not about glorifying suffering for its own sake. God´s love does not condone injustice and oppression that causes suffering. God´s love, however, is love that is willing to suffer, to become vulnerable, in order to seek closeness and intimacy. God's love risks everything, even being hurt and rejected. Perhaps, if you are a father or a mother, you know that love encompasses suffering. There are times when we suffer because of our children or we suffer with our children. Indeed, you and I, we are God´s passion and for this reason God becomes vulnerable in the person of Jesus, on the cross.
Jesus did not die for God. He died for us. His death is the ultimate expression of God´s persistent love to be in full solidarity with human suffering. “Only a suffering God can help us”, wrote the German pastor Bonhoeffer imprisoned by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. “Only a suffering God can help us” because a suffering God loves us to the point of getting to know our suffering. In love God is willing to become fully human, close and vulnerable, and in pain, motherly pain, God gives birth to a community of people who live in solidarity with one another, who know that God walks with us in our suffering, who reach out to others in order to relieve their suffering; a community of people, who confess that God´s love is also disclosed in the crucified Jesus and that suffering does not have the last word, but life, resurrected new life is God´s will and last word for us. Amen.