On Suffering and Witness
A sermon on Luke 24: 36b-48
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]
Jesus has a bit of a reputation for violating expectations: healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors, casting a member of a despised ethnic group as the hero of one of his best-known parables.
I saw a clever tweet this week that pointed out how the exhortation to “be like Jesus” might be taken as an encouragement to “drink wine, call people hypocrites, and upset men in power.”
It was a caution against trying to squeeze Jesus into a passive, inoffensive, religious box. He doesn’t fit, and he has a consistent habit of doing the unexpected.
Usually, these unexpected actions are powerful challenges to the status quo. They violate purity laws, or social rules. They disrupt systems of oppression and prejudice.
But in today’s gospel, we get something a bit different.
It’s a scene of awe and wonder. Jesus has appeared out of nowhere, causing fear and confusion, disbelief and joy. It’s a moment that throbs with the supernatural.
And then he asks for a snack.
It’s just so out of the blue. Why would Jesus feel the need to eat at that particular moment? And why would Luke make such a point of recording the fact?
Sure, it is evidence of his bodily resurrection, but so is the fact that he is standing there, inviting his friends to touch his scars.
Why offer this second proof that is so…prosaic?
A piece of broiled fish is not what we expect in a numinous moment, and I think that is the point. It’s one thing to manifest his presence in a physical way. It’s another thing to demonstrate hunger.
Hunger is the universal human experience. No matter what differences of culture, race, gender, or class people have, we all have this one immutable thing in common: we all know the daily need for food. We know the physical experience of hunger.
It is an inescapable reminder that having a body means having needs. It’s a mark of our essential dependence. We cannot sustain ourselves without nutrition from outside sources. We regularly need food.
Jesus shares this embodied reality, and he wants to make sure his disciples (which includes us) understand that. His resurrection has not made him untouchable, and it has not separated him from the shared experience of need.
This perspective helps me to understand the other detail of this story that takes me off guard.
That detail comes at the end of the reading, when Jesus is opening his friends’ minds to understand the scriptures and he says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day….”
This takes me off guard because I’m used to a slightly different formula, thanks to early indoctrination in theories of substitutionary atonement. I expect Jesus to say that the Messiah has to “die and rise again.”
But that’s NOT what he says. And it’s not what Peter repeats in his sermon that we heard from Acts. They both highlight not Jesus’ death but his suffering.
Why? Because suffering is also a universal point of connection. Just as hunger reminds us of our common experience of dependence and need, so suffering reminds us of our common vulnerability. None of us are immune to suffering.
Unlike death, suffering is not something we fear in the vague future. It is something we know.
We know pain in our bodies and in our hearts. We know the terror of feeling helpless to stop the hurt. We know the trauma of loss, and rejection, and betrayal. Every human being knows – on some level – what it is to suffer.
And when we know that Jesus suffered, we know that the most desperate and broken moments of our lives are familiar to him. He knows what it is like because he has suffered too. That suffering connects us.
By asking for food, and by naming the necessity of his suffering, Jesus is showing us that neither death nor resurrected life can separate us from him. He shares our experiences.
There is deep comfort in this assurance, but I think there is more than that. I think there is also a call to do likewise.
Jesus did not appear to the disciples only to comfort them. He came to commission them, to call them as witnesses.
But what does that mean? When Jesus tells them “you are witnesses of these things,” what is he communicating?
I think he means something more than a call to tell the story of what happened in that room, or even to share the bigger story to which he opened their minds when he explained the scriptures.
I think he means that they are to bear witness in their own lives. I think it means that in the same way that he expressed his essential human connection to them through hunger and suffering, that their witness is to start from that same place of essential human connection.
Witnessing is not about explaining theology. Witnessing is about walking in the way of Jesus, identifying with the needs and the pain of other people.
This past week has provided all too many public examples of the pain that our fellow humans beings experience, pain with which we are called by Jesus’ example to connect, pain from which we must not distance ourselves if we are truly to be his witness:
As Jesus asked for food, and named his suffering – emphasizing his connection with the need and vulnerability of the human condition – so we must make a point of recognizing our connection to all who suffer this week:
We must reject compassion fatigue and recognize our connection with all who are grieving the mass shooting in Indianapolis on Thursday night, and with all whose grief or trauma from other shootings has been pulled to the surface yet again.
We must let ourselves feel the fear of trans children and their families as 30 different states in our nation currently debate legislation that would strip them of opportunities, protections, health care, or names, and some even threaten to imprison parents who provide life-saving affirmation to their children.
We must weep alongside the Black mothers and fathers, siblings and cousins who are again crying out their grief over the needless killings of Adam Toledo and Daunte Wright… and screaming their frustration at the weaponization of black stereotypes in the trial of Derek Chauvin… and shuddering from the fear that each new killing elicits.
These are just the headlines of suffering from this past week. We all know how many other sources and forms of suffering can be found in the people around us, if we will only open our hearts to feel it:
Small business owners who have lost everything to the COVID crisis;
people battling disease, or health crises, or depression, or other mental illness;
victims of bullying or of crime;
unwanted, abused, or trafficked children;
desperate refugees and asylum seekers still barred from entry or languishing in inadequate border facilities;
the perennial reality of our neighbors who are physically hungry.
So many people are suffering, and I know how easy it is to get overwhelmed. Shutting down our empathy can feel like the only way to survive, and I don’t believe that Jesus wants us to incapacitate ourselves under the weight of the world’s grief.
That’s not what he does. What he does is to deliberately affirm his connection to human need and vulnerability.
He refuses to distance himself, or to see himself as different. He demonstrates his commonality with all who hunger, with all who suffer.
And he calls his followers to be witnesses of these things.
He invites us to ponder how it might change us, and change our witness, if our first response whenever a new headline hit is to cultivate our sense of connection to those who are suffering?
To resist standing in judgment or defense, and to just remind ourselves of our shared humanity. To open our hearts to compassion for the need, or fear, or grief, or hunger of people we might otherwise distance ourselves from.
My hunch is that it would open our minds to understand the witness of Jesus who did just this with us.
And I also suspect is that it would make our proclamation of repentance and forgiveness much more powerful, because that repentance and forgiveness would have started in our own hearts.
Thanks be to God.