The Vulnerable God
William Placher writes,
Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to lay his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross — condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”
This week we reflect on the pinnacle of the vulnerably of God … the death of Jesus.
Pulled Into the Narrative of Suffering
In Matthew 20: 20 – 23, the mother of disciples James and John asks Jesus this question, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
Jesus’ response turns the whole conversation on it’s head. James and John’s mother assumes that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem to set up his Kingdom, whereby Jesus will claim the thrown of David and push the Romans and their rule out of the land of Israel.
The disciples see Jesus’ entering Jerusalem as a power play and they want a piece of the power.
It was evident that James and John, their mother and the disciples had yet to understand the nature of the Kingdom: freedom, vulnerability, love and often suffering.
Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” In the Old Testament “the cup” was a metaphor for suffering … the very opposite of power. In fact, power is the human response to suffering. Power is the human response to vulnerability. Suffering is the divine response to vulnerability.
Jesus then states, “You will indeed drink from my cup ….”
And although they didn’t understand it, the disciples eventually would understand the brokenness of God over the world. They would eventually re-narrate the vulnerability of God in their own suffering … a re-narration that God invites all of his followers to embrace. As we’ve prayed so often, “Lord, break my heart with the things that break yours.”
Simon of Cyrene
Perhaps that re-narration is nowhere more visually clear than in Simon of Cyrene. It seems that Simon is actually forced into helping Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha. Mel Gibson portrayed Simon in “The Passion of the Christ” as being unwilling to carry the cross.
And I think most of us respond in the same way. When God asks us to help him carry his burdens and we realize that his burdens are the weak, the poor and the sinful, we all turn our heads in disgust.
“You mean you’re calling me to weakness?”, we ask. “I thought you saved me in order to give me strength?” we snark.
And we find ourselves like Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry a cross that isn’t ours.
“But, you’re God … why can’t you carry this on your own?” we retort. “Aren’t you all-powerful? Aren’t you the one who created the world?”
The truth sets in.
God needs our help.
HE CAN’T CARRY THE BURDEN ALONE.
Some final thoughts from William Placher,
If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something about how we might seek our own fullest humanity — not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and the willingness to be vulnerable in love.
We become human when we become Simon of Cyrene and embrace the vulnerability of God by carrying his cross with Him.
A reading from The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 37 – 40:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Nearly two weekends ago we reveled in the uncomfortable in breaking narrative of the Kingdom of God.
And as the narrative unfolded, we played the part of Jesus.
We are used to playing the part of Jesus. After all, we’re Christians. We’re a “little Christ”, “followers of Jesus” who are supposed to think, feel and do like Jesus in this world.
I work at a funeral home where I regularly minister – what I hope – is the compassion, grace and perspective of Jesus.
Both my wife and I work and volunteer at a parachurch ministry for at-risk and vulnerable youth, being Jesus to youth who have little to no family.
And this past weekend we were the adoptive couple to a healthy newborn baby boy.
But, we didn’t play the part of Jesus that you might have assume we played.
You – and I – would assume that we would have played the part of the redemptive Jesus. The Jesus who swooped down in the life of this little boy and rescued him from a potential life of difficulty. His biological father out of the picture. His biological mother fighting to provide for herself.
And we – the 30 something, financially stable, mature Christian couple – swooped down to take him into our Christian family. We were the redemptive Jesus here. Right?
Nicki and I were the poor and broken Jesus. The Jesus in the jail. We were the homeless Jesus. The whore Jesus. The Jesus on the street corner begging for money.
We were the least of these.
In this situation, we weren’t the Jesus who gave all, we were the Jesus who received all. We were the ones who couldn’t provide for ourselves. We were the ones who needed the redemptive Jesus to come in and make us whole. We were the couple who couldn’t conceive.
We were the ones who needed to be lifted out of our misery by someone else’s act of unselfishness.
And by one act of unselfishness, we were redeemed this last week. We were lifted up. We were made whole by a young woman who made the utterly unselfish choice to give us her baby.
“For I was broken and infertile and you gave me your son. Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did it me.”
It’s not very often that we really get to act like Jesus. But last week, we were able to be Jesus – not in our giving – but in our receiving.
… and I took a picture of it.
There’s only two white guys in this picture: the one is the white pastor who is sitting beside the soundboard. The other is the white Jesus engraved in the stain glass. The rest are African American.
There’s a white Jesus in stained glass because this is a white church, that has had 30 plus pastors in it’s history, all of whom have been white.
And today the church is full of African Americans in a white church for a funeral.
The Mt. Zion AME church is in the process of being renovated. And this week the Mt. Zion AME church lost not one but two of their members.
The Parkesburg United Methodist Church opened their doors, their sanctuary and their cafeteria hall for not one, but both funerals.
African Americans in a white church where the white pastor isn’t in the pulpit, but serving the black female pastor in the pulpit by running the soundboard. In fact, he was serving since 8 AM in the morning when he helped carry the casket up the two flight of steps and into the sanctuary; when he vacuumed the entire sanctuary at 9 AM; extended gracious hospitality from 10 AM to 11 AM; and even organized five members of the auxiliary crew to set up plates and places for 100 plus people for the post funeral luncheon in the cafeteria hall.
This is how unity is supposed to work.
One hundred years ago, this wouldn’t have happened. Fifty years ago … maybe even 10 years ago this wouldn’t have been considered. But today I witnessed it. I witnessed the body of Christ.
It seems there’s two poles in the livings reaction to death:
the one pole is where people almost think death is unreal … that when we die we simply “go to a better place” where all is not only okay, but it’s better.
And then there’s another pole. It’s the pole of darkness. Where death is
The thick cloud of paralyzing despair … the broken apart heart.
When we experience death — especially of the traumatic and tragic kind — we will often go back and forth, from one pole to the next, yet drawn, pulled to the pole of the real where all is dark. And we fight it. Often changing poles day by day … at times, hour by hour. From despair to hope and back again.
What we should seek to find in our grief is what Parker Palmer calls the creative tension between the two poles … the middle ground where our hearts are neither
That last line encapsulates the creative tension I strive for in my life:
“We’re called to live in this world with broken, open hearts. Not denying the suffering and grief, but neither striving for perfection that takes us out of the action and into a fantasy world.”
Special thanks to Monika Allen — manager of all things awesome at YWAM Madison’s blog — who sent me the link to this video.
Where do you look for Jesus?
Do you look for Jesus in Church?
Do you look for Jesus in the Word?
In your quiet times?
We’ve all looked for Jesus in these places. And we’ve found Him there, once or twice. And we (I) have thought, “Jesus dwells in the Word … so I will wait here until He comes back to show Himself to me again.” And I wait. And we wait.
Martin Buber has said that community is the place of theophany, so we go to church and except that “where two or three are gather” there He is. And I wait. And we wait to find him in this place.
Quiet times alone in prayer, worship and the Bible are the place where our personal relationship with Jesus is built. And it’s true … to an extent. He speaks to us and then silence. Silence. And we wait.
Where is Jesus? Why is it that He’s so silent, so often, despite the fact that we are genuinely seeking His presence? Why does He so often remain so distant while our faith so languishes in the desert?
God is rarely present in a place, or a set aside time. But, “He dwells with the broken and the contrite.”
Jesus says, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
But, it is not us giving to the have not’s. It’s not those of us with a spiritually induced Messiah complex swooping in to help the broken. No, those aren’t the one’s meeting Jesus either.
Jean Vanier, a former naval officer, former professor who received his Ph.D. in moral philosophy in Paris, and eventual founder of “L’Arche”, (a movement of communities that seeks to create a family environment for those who’ve been rejected because of their mental disability), has this to say:
“Jesus came to bring the good news to the poor, not to those who serve the poor! I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, received the good news, in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love … God is present in the poverty and wounds of their heart.”
So that the one “place” we might always find God is in brokenness. I’ve seen people who have tried to “break themselves” so as to spur the presence of God in their lives. And that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Buber was right. Jesus was right. Theophany is in the community, AND he dwells with the broken! But it’s not always in individual brokenness, but in the broken community.
God calls himself the “Paraclete” which means “the one who answers the cry.”
We will find Jesus at the funeral.
We will find Jesus around the death bed.
We will find Jesus in the prisons.
In the hurting families.
With the fatherless. With the widow.
And we will find Him, not as outsiders of the broken community, but as ones who find ourselves apart of it.
And I think we will soon realize that He himself is not dwelling with the broken and the contrite as just the “Paraclete”, but because He too is most like … most comfortable with the broken. It’s not that he’s there just because he’s saving us … it’s that He’s with the broken because He’s most like us.
I hope we all find that Jesus dwells with the broken communities.