This Sunday I’m preaching from one of my favorite Bible stories, in John 11, where Jesus exclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The context of the story is the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and so the text speaks voluminously on the theme of life, death, and hope.*
One of my favorites scenes in the story is when Jesus approaches the tomb where Lazarus has been buried and sees Mary along with some other Jews crying. There, the text says two words, “Jesus wept” (v. 35).
Though it’s the most simple of sentences possible, it’s a profound statement about God. You see, from the Gospel of John wants us to know that Jesus is God in the flesh. In fact, the beautiful mystery of the incarnation is not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus. And in this story God is so identified with the pain and suffering of those mourning the death of Lazarus, that God weeps too.
Ash Wednesday and The Suffering
This is who the church is to follow, this God who comes full of grace and truth, who has become flesh in the person of Jesus the Messiah. As Jesus identifies with the suffering of the world, weeping with those who weep, so also must the church.
Enter Ash Wednesday. It’s the beginning of Lent, a season that some Christian traditions observe for forty-six days leading up to Easter Sunday. The practice derives from an ancient religious practice of using ashes to express mourning. For example, after suffering his afflictions, Job sat among the ashes and later used ashes in his response to God (cf. Job 2:8; 42:6). So a part of Ash Wednesday and Lent is reminding ourselves that we, as the people of God, are identifying with the brokenness and suffering of the world.
I neither commend nor condemn the observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent for Christians. I believe we have the freedom in Christ to either participate in this observance or not. However, as followers of Jesus, we must be people who learn how to identify with the suffering of others. In doing so we become the hands and feet of Jesus, offering the expression of God’s grace and truth. It’s an expression that acknowledges the unfairness and pain of a broken world marred by suffering but it’s also expresses the promise of hope we have in Jesus. For Jesus’ next act is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, a sign pointing toward his own resurrection which stands as the assurance of life to all who believe in him.
Identification With the Suffering
Of course, Lent is just a season for those Christians who choose to observe it. Identification with the suffering isn’t just for a season. This wonderful ministry should last until the day when Jesus returns, making all things new and drying up the tears from every eye.
Fortunately, in my experience, the church has done this well. I’m aware of the horror stories in which churches have failed the suffering miserably but that hasn’t been my experience. When I lost my father at the age of twenty-two, it was the church — a particular church I barely knew — that identified with my suffering. I remember the cards, the calls, and the visits. When my son died and life for my wife and I suddenly seemed to collapse, it was the church that lifted us up. I remember the church gathering in the trauma center to weep with my wife and I. We remember the days that followed with the church coming by to just listen, to serve, to comfort (we remember the little puppy we named “Shadow” that was given to us), and occasionally speak a needed truth, a word of hope. None of that ministry required any fancy programming or high-cost expenditures, just people willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.
And, of course! This is what we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ.
So with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we enter the suffering world around us as people bearing witness to the grace and truth of God!
* This post is published as an article of the same title in Connecting 29 (March 5, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.