Tim Keener, Passion Week 2020
How do pain and suffering draw us into God’s Kingdom?
A friend recently sent me this quote, “We must cooperate with life as it is, as it comes.” The thought captivated me for several days. A global pandemic is currently life “as it is.” So, I began asking myself, “how do we cooperate with Covid-19?” And how can we think theologically about Covid-19 through the lens of Scripture?
For the most part, we probably don’t want to cooperate with Covid-19 . We would rather avoid it and quickly come up with a vaccine to eradicate it. But there is a third emotional response to anxiety besides fight or flight… it is to ‘free’ or to let go. This is not giving up. It is a healthy emotional response of: accepting, committing, and taking action. This is cooperation and it embraces that Covid-19 is changing humanity.
Some of us are noticing the strange way Covid-19 is changing us. It is drawing us into relationships as we spend more time with our children and call our parents more often. Covid-19 has also forced us to look more closely at our habits and behaviors. We are forced to reckon with our internal dialogue—where our thoughts and feelings go when we are stressed. We’re forced to look more closely at our relationships to neighbours and to our cities. Covid-19 also forces us to ask questions and make necessary compromises as it relates to our politics.
Most importantly humanity as a whole is required to look at our relationship with nature, and to share in its sickness and lack of care. And if we allow it, Covid-19 will allow us to confront a false narrative of endless economic growth and productivity. Most economists are predicting a global recession. In the pre-Covid world, ‘recession’ means ‘something is wrong,’ but recession might very well be the necessary response to our unsustainable production and growth.
Economic recession is not just the only recession we’re experiencing. We’re experiencing a recession of work, activity, travel, purchasing, and even individual freedom and autonomy. Covid-19 has required us to retreat from doing and dig deeper into being. This is hard work in reprogramming our sense of centeredness. Spiritually speaking, Covid-19 is requiring us to cooperate in the slow work of God, which includes facing our broken self and our broken world and the process of deep change (i.e. repentance).
The Global Church is experiencing a Lenten season like no other. A theologian friend said it can only be called a “Eucharistic fast.” At no other time has such a great number of Christians worldwide (billions) been cut off from celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
This week is passion week, when Christians remember the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Scripture readings speak candidly to our situation today. Jesus’s disciples were passing through a time of intense pain and suffering. It was confusing and their future was uncertain. Nonetheless this time of pain and suffering was a necessary part of God’s work of addressing human brokenness (i.e. redemption).
Holy Communion and the Passover Meal
Walking alongside of Jesus and his disciples during this week can help us understand how pain and suffering can usher us into God’s kingdom and reign. We get a particular glimpse of this in the Last Supper in Luke chapter 26.
Jesus and his disciples gathered like other Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem for the seven-day festival of Unleavened Bread. They found a place to celebrate the Passover meal commemorating the Israelites flight from Egypt. This is the setting from which Christians draw their liturgy of Holy Communion. Jesus took bread, broke it, and said, “take and eat this is my body.” He then took the wine, gave thanks, and said, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus was very clearly appropriating the meaning of these Passover symbols for himself. The Last Supper was a ‘new’ Passover. The Old Testament context of the Passover was God liberating his people from Egyptian bondage. The New Testament context of the Last Supper was a Jewish people (as well as many gentiles) oppressed under Roman rule. At the last supper Jesus was demonstrating that he was the Passover lamb, the sacrifice, for all those who are oppressed under the guilt and consequence of sin.
Consecrating Pain & Suffering
The pain and suffering of the Passion Week were a necessary part to God’s plan to reverse the broken order of the word through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples had to cooperate with that suffering. It was painful, they certainly didn’t want to embrace it, and they didn’t know exactly how it would all turn out.
One disciple found this cooperation impossible. At this meal Jesus said to his disciples, “one of you will betray me… someone who shares in this meal.” This person was one from within, someone who under the pressure of the pain and suffering would not remain committed to the larger redemptive plan God was carrying out. Judas notably spoke up, “surely you don’t mean me, teacher?” He knew he had been unfaithful but remained undiscovered throughout the Passover meal. In the pain and suffering Judas failed to be faithful to the redemptive work of God.
Cooperating with pain and suffering means more than just enduring it. We must actually make it holy. Thomas Merton wrote,
“The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering. Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration.”Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island
Today, Christians are called into faithfulness in this moment, to not betray the redemptive work of God through the pain and suffering of Covid-19. Like the disciples, we might like to avoid it, or get quickly through. But we must do more than just endure it—we must consecrate it—remaining dedicated to the redemptive purpose of our suffering.
For the disciples, God used their suffering to ultimately exalt Jesus’ way and God’s kingdom. This way broke down racism (Jew/Gentile), liberated women, and confronted the evils of power and greed. The Gospel of Jesus, or the News of God’s Good, proclaimed freedom for the poor, the incarcerated, the sick, and the marginalized (see Luke 4).
In our Covid-19 world, God can also use our suffering and pain to exult Jesus’ Way. Through Covid-19 we are being required to confront our individualism, consumerism, wastefulness, and expectation that life is about always getting more… better jobs, more assets, growing economy, and more mobility and ease. The pain of Covid-19 is forcing us into recession… the slow work of God, ultimately bringing us back to Jesus’ way: living in service, humility, and self-giving love.
Ultimately, we may not have the choice of enduring the suffering, isolation, and anxiety of Covid-19. But we do have the choice of making it holy. By cooperating with the suffering, and pain, we are consecrating it (setting it apart for holy purposes). When we do this, we are drawn into deep change that contributes to God’s redemptive process of redeeming, renewing and restoring all things.
Photo: Chinese Christian Art, Vatican Museums