12 August 2018

Enough to raise the dead

[RCL]: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

One of the reasons we have beautiful religious art is because of the way they tell us the story of something, in ways that manage to touch our heart, often with lasting consequences. Travel to the city of Rome and at the basilica named for St. Peter near the main entrance, you will find one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world, the Pieta of Michelangelo.

[ Image of the Pieta – 360 video ]

Mary the mother of Jesus is shown seated. On her lap, in her arms, she holds the lifeless body of her son, newly brought down from the cross. You may be familiar with this eloquent work in marble. Perhaps you have stood before it. One day, I hope to get to see it.

Mary appears quite young. And somehow the body of her adult son rests on her lap without seeming awkward. The Pieta possesses a strange beauty and grace that engages the viewer.

We are invited to contemplate the sorrow that floods her heart. It is a sorrow uniquely her own. Yet it is also universal, the sorrow that arises in our hearts in the face of death when the corpse is a child, a young person, someone innocent.

The Pieta thus presents with sublime eloquence the loss Mary felt when she cradled the dead body of her child, the sorrow that enveloped the heart of our Savior’s earthly parent.

Today’s selection from the Second Book of Samuel is the last in a series of Sunday readings that focus on David, Israel’s greatest king. This last selection does not recount his death in old age. Instead, it recounts the murder of a young man, the king’s son, Absalom, and the grief that seizes David as a result.

An unforgettable moment in biblical literature confronts us: David the king, deeply moved, retreats to an upstairs chamber, weeps as he goes, and cries out repeatedly, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Absalom is murdered by David’s soldiers because he had revolted against his father, claiming the kingdom for himself. That rebellion must be put down, yet King David tells his forces that for his sake they should deal gently with the young man Absalom.

The royal command is ignored, however. David’s general and ten soldiers surround Absalom and kill him in the forest of Ephraim. They subject his body to a disgraceful burial, tossing it into a hole in a field, then covering it with a big pile of stones.

How should the king react? How would you react? David does not celebrate this rebel’s defeat. He remains instead a father. We hear in his outcry a father’s grief at the murder of his child.

And so we come across something important in how we understand the teachings of the Bible. Part of what it means for scripture to be inspired is that it contains several layers of meaning. In this portrait of David, the grief-stricken father, there is something more than what happens in history, time and again. We have here also a reminder of what happens inside the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The cross brings suffering to the Father as well as the Son. The Son dies a real death. The Father suffers a real bereavement. Together Father and Son are one in the Spirit, and the cross reveals the Spirit as an abyss of sorrow.

This is what the Godhead undergoes freely—for us. I think we should pause and think about this. [pause]

If David, a who let’s remember, is a sinful human like us, laments loudly the killing of his rebellious son, then the death of Jesus, who obeys the will of God, brings grief past our ability to imagine to the heart of his father. The Father accepts this grief even as the Son accepts his death.

They do so freely. Because love is the motive.

So, in the Pieta of Michelangelo, we have the image of the sorrow felt by the mother of Jesus over his death.

And in the story from Second Samuel, we have something that points to the grief felt by the heavenly Father over that death.

It is a mistake to think that while God the Son suffers for us, God the Father does not. The Father of our Saviour knows a unique brand of suffering because of the death of his Son, even as King David experiences heartbreak because of the death of Absalom.

God the Father is not nailed to a cross. Yet, God, the Father knows the pain of witnessing his Son nailed to a cross. God the Father suffers due to the death of his Son. This is an important insight. It makes a difference regarding practical matters.

Many people choose not to understand God in this way. They can perhaps abide the suffering Son and his grieving mother, but not the suffering Father. I think this is because their view of reality demands a hard Father not only at the centre of the Godhead but also in society and personal life.

The hard Father imposes harsh discipline, using physical, force if necessary. The hard Father abstains from tears, even at the death of his child. There is no room to question the hard Father. Control is the key. MThe goal in this worldview is for each person to become his or her own hard Father. Let each be ready to use some violence to others, or self, in the interest of maintaining control.

And this is because the order is abundant, of course, in the hard Father world. What that world lacks are empathy and compassion. Many of us grew up in this kind of environment.

So, David crying out in grief at the loss of his rebel son. Mary cradling the body of Jesus at the foot of the cross. God the Father left grief-stricken at the death of God the Son. All this creates a challenge to the sovereignty of the image of the hard Father.

There are hard Father versions of Christianity, for sure, but they fall fatally short of the truth of the Gospel. The most authentic Christianity is presented by the tears of David, the tears of Mary, the tears of God. The most authentic Christianity does not surrender empathy and compassion in order to purchase the illusion of control. I have experienced both, to be honest. And to be fully honest, I have practised both.

What we find when we look properly, is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ keeps challenging the hard Father regime in the interest of a heavenly Father who is not afraid to weep.

This challenge takes place not only in churches but in halls of government and private homes, in public places and the depths of the human heart. God wants us to surrender our control needs and become as human as he is in Christ. A willingness to weep places us on the road to personal and collective salvation.

Now is this building a significant edifice on a slim biblical foundation, using a particular reading of David’s grief? I don’t think so, because this theme of the Father who suffers runs through the two testaments.

Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel has written that he finds this God everywhere in the writings of the biblical prophets.

We may recall how Jesus announces that mourners are blessed. I suggest the chief mourner of all is God the Father, and that the coming of his reign on earth as in heaven will be the blessing our grief-stricken Father will receive.

Jesus also tells a story about a father and his two sons. Each of the sons turns out to be a disappointment to his father. The younger one leaves and lives an overindulgent life. The elder stays back and hardens his heart. Each boy dies in a different way.

But when the moment of crisis arrives for each, the father is there, stronger than grief, welcoming home both the prodigal party boy and the son who had become a hard father. Jesus concludes the story before we know how each son responds. Yet there’s reason to hope that the old man’s tears are enough to raise the dead.

Here is the thing, though: that story is not just about them — it is about us. Each one of us is capable of being the prodigal party boy or a hard-hearted hard father or even something of both.

So today, let us remember that when we decide that it is time to go back home to God, we will always find a Father waiting to welcome us. Happy, rejoicing, ready to give us a wonderful reception — and with that, just a single question matters, one that answers all the rest, is this one: Will you join the celebration? Will you take for your own a broken-hearted God?

This is the joy and the miracle of Christianity: we are dead people, dead rebels, dead authoritarians. But God sees us not simply as ourselves, but in his child Jesus. And the tears of God the Father as he beholds the suffering of his Son are enough to raise the dead.