Living Fully on the Path of Suffering

by | Feb 11, 2018

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Mark 9:2-9

 Last week I sat down and read in its entirety one of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. I chose the Gospel of Luke, in order to prepare for a more prayerful, slower reading that our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has invited all in the Episcopal Church to undertake, starting today and continuing throughout the 40 day-season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday. The Gospel of Luke is the first selection for the Episcopal Church’s “Good Book Club,” which will continue after Easter with the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to Luke, that tells the story of the early church.   

Obviously I was reading this week for breadth, not depth, taking in the entire arc of Jesus’ life and death. It took about two hours. Had I been reading the Gospel of Mark, I would have been done in less than an hour. For while the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is essentially the same in three of the four gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–Mark’s is leaner than the other two, with more action, less of Jesus’ teachings. Something to keep in mind if when choosing which gospel to read.

All three accounts land at roughly the same place at the same time to tell the story that we just read from the Gospel of Mark. When I came to Luke’s telling of the story this week, I realized how much the importance of that fateful day, when Jesus took three of his closest disciples with him up a mountain, is amplified when we remember its place in the story.  

To be sure, this wasn’t the first or the last time that Jesus went off to a secluded place to pray. That was his custom. He would go to a mountain or into the wilderness to pray. The texts rarely tell us what happened in his time of prayer, but in this instance they do, and we can understand why. For on that mountain, on that day, Jesus was swept up into a transcendent experience. He seemed to be transformed by light. He was visited by two of the great spiritual ancestors of his faith. A divine voice spoke from a cloud, as it had at his baptism, confirming his identity as God’s son.

This was, by all accounts, a big deal. Yet Jesus, Peter, James and John didn’t talk to anyone about it. As Mark tells the story, Jesus orders the others not to say anything until after his death. In Luke’s version, it says, “And they kept silent, and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Why not? Why not speak of such an amazing an event, so confirming of Jesus’ identity as God’s chosen, so unambiguous in glory? Only with a wider lens are we given clues as to why Jesus and his disciples would choose to keep silent.

Remember that Jesus’ public ministry, which began after his baptism in the Jordan River and 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, took place in the towns and villages around the Sea of Galilee, where he grew up. He taught in synagogues and in open spaces; he healed people from diseases and cast our demons–the inner tormentors that, by whatever name we call them, can make life a living hell. He created quite a name for himself, established a large following, and made those in authority nervous, by what he said and did and how the crowds responded to him.

All through this time a question hovers in the air: Who is this man? He speaks with such authority and acts with such love. He has compassion for the outcast, the poor, and all manner of sinner. He prays to God Almighty as if he knows God intimately and encourages us to do the same. In his presence, there is healing, there is food in abundance, there is life.

The more time people spend around him, the more convinced they become that he was no ordinary man. If God Almighty were to visit us in human form, they concluded, this is what God would look like. And Jesus himself is not exactly discouraging this manner of thinking about him.  

Imagine what hope would be stirred by such a man, such expectation for healing and liberation, such anticipation of God’s almighty power at last casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. There was excitement in the air, the stirrings of a movement, maybe even a revolution.

But then, in a turn that no could have anticipated, Jesus began to speak quite openly about suffering. Specifically his own suffering and inevitable death. No one wanted to hear this; no one, in fact, could hear it, anymore than we can hear something so far from our frame of reference that we have no place to put it.  

Shortly after he first broached the subject of his suffering and death, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to a high mountain. There, they saw him in what could only be described as glory. This amazing  experience of divine affirmation and love did not contradict Jesus’ foreboding sense of what was to come. Rather, it confirmed it. In Luke’s version, the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah is explicit: “They spoke to him about his departure–his exodus–which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Suffering was the path before him, and when Jesus came down from the mountain, he began to walk it. Onto Jerusalem, he told his followers, where my fate awaits.

Jesus didn’t want to talk about what happened on the mountain because it would seem to confirm all the fantasies about him and his power at the very moment he was to sacrifice his life. I daresay the disciples didn’t dare speak of it because it was too much for them to bear, this knowledge that the one upon whom all their hopes rested was on his way to Jerusalem to die.

This juxtaposition of God’s love and Jesus’ suffering, and the inevitability of suffering in a life devoted to love, is at the heart of Christian faith. I have never fully understood it, but I’ve seen it lived in the lives of remarkably brave human beings. I’ve come to believe in its truth and power, no matter how hard I resist the reality of suffering in my life and in the lives of those I love. Every year at this time, Christians are invited, in the midst of everything else our lives require of us between now and Easter, to keep part of our mind’s eye and spiritual heart focused on Jesus and his walk toward Jerusalem. It’s not the easiest thing to do: who wouldn’t rather stay on the mountain of glory, or at the least on the path of least resistance and the sweet illusions we can maintain for ourselves when life is going well?

I ask you to hold the image of Jesus’ walking toward Jerusalem and all that awaits him there, while I tell you about another person who is doing the very same thing right now.

Kate Bowler is a history professor at Duke Divinity School. She wrote her dissertation and first book on the history of what’s known as “The Prosperity Gospel,” a strain of American Christianity that believes fortune to be a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of spiritual failing. Bowler admits that at age thirty-five, everything in her life seemed to point, in its own way, toward “blessing.” She had scored her dream job right out of graduate school, was married to her high school sweetheart, and was hopelessly smitten with her toddler son.  

Then she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

In a radio interview this week she said:

My diagnosis was like a bomb went off and everything around me was debris. Before my diagnosis, I assumed that I was the architect of my life, that I could overcome anything with a little pluck and determination. I pictured my life as an enhancement project, as if life were a bucket and my job was to put things in the bucket. The whole purpose was to figure out how to have as many good things coexisting at the same time. Then when everything fell apart, I had to make a switch in my image of life. Maybe life is more like moving from vine to vine, and I’m grabbing on, hoping for dear life that the vine doesn’t break.

I started to practice giving things away; imagining my husband living without me; raising our son alone. But then the people I loved would come back at me and say, “We are going to fight this.” They wanted to pour their certainty into me, to remake the world as it was. But there was no going back.

In her memoir Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved Bowler chronicles the first year after her diagnosis, a year she was not expected to survive but did, thanks in large measure to harsh chemotherapy treatments combined with experimental immunotherapy.  

Near the end, she describes the moment when her doctor suggests that it’s time to stop both regimens of chemotherapy–because they are no longer helping her–and rely solely on the immunotherapy. It feels as if two of the vines she depends upon will be cut and she’ll swing on the one vine, praying it holds her up.

She doesn’t know what to do: “I’m not sure I want to know what happens if I stop chemotherapy, but at the same time I want to get it over with,” she tells him. “What would you do?”

“I’d go to work,” he said. She realized that she was in presence of one who was well acquainted with suffering. “We’re all terminal,” he reminds her. “Take a deep breath. Say a prayer. And get back to work.”

When she tells him of how she dreads dying, he says this: “Don’t skip to the end.”

So Kate Bowler has gone back to work, doing her best to cherish each day, and not skip to the end. “Yes, I’m going to die,” she writes at the end of her memoir, “but not today.”

That’s exactly what Jesus did after coming down from the mountain. He saw his future clearly before him, one that would not end well, but he didn’t quit living, and he didn’t skip to the end. He started walking to Jerusalem, and as he walked, he continued to do what he had been doing all along: heal the sick, feed the hungry, preach good news to the poor, challenge the religious authorities for the cruelty of their purity codes. Yes, he was going to die, but not yet. There was still good work to be done.

What I hope you take away from this juxtaposition of Jesus’ coming to terms with suffering and Kate Bowler’s story is simply this: First, a gentle reminder that our life’s task is not to fill our bucket with as many good things as we can. Life is a gift; a mystery; and a journey, and for all of us, the journey on this side of heaven will end. Suffering and death are the greatest frontiers of human life. They lie beyond our understanding, but we are beyond God’s grace and love when suffering and death come to us, as they will. Suffering is not our fault. It is the price of being human in a world where the kingdom of God has not yet fully come.

But knowing this, we needn’t skip to the end. We, too, can live each day fully, cherishing moments of goodness, doing the work God has given us to do, and if we feel so called, following in Jesus’ ways of love.  

Will you pray with me?  

Lord Christ, from the beginning, your followers have tried to understand why it was that you needed to suffer and die as you did. Today, we thank you for facing into the reality of suffering with such courage, and going about your life, not skipping to the end. We ask for the grace to do the same, and grace to accept that perhaps everything doesn’t happen for a reason, but simply happens because we are human. Thank you for walking the harder road with us, helping us to be brave. We know that we’re going to die, Lord, but not today. Thank you for the work you’ve given us to do, and life we’re blessed to live. In your name, we pray.