“Solidarity in Suffering”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (NRSV)
This morning, instead of wading just one more step through the river of Lent, we’re going to rock hop to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, then leap to the ascension. We’re going there because the ascension, like the crucifixion, begins a period of waiting. Each time Jesus leaves, his departure prepares the way for a completely new form of presence, with new dimensions and new mystery.
During Holy Week each year, I try to imagine the feelings of abandonment and loss that the disciples must have felt on Friday and Saturday. And I imagine them bearing both a heavy shame for having deserted Jesus, and a smoldering anger at having felt deserted by him and by God. If Jesus were really the promised and long-awaited Messiah, how could this have happened?
The disciples were hardly the first or the last to find themselves dismayed by a perfect storm of furious grief. And like all of us, their grief was uniquely theirs. They had to figure out how to live in the midst of and then to live through an acute disruption of life. And while Easter did change things for them, it was probably more disrupting than Jesus’ death itself. What does life mean when we find our lives reconfigured by something as unnerving as the proclamation of resurrection? Then, after walking in and out of the disciples’ lives in some form after the resurrection, Jesus leaves again.
One way to look at Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is to see them as five movements of one opus, The Incarnation: God’s all-in presence with and commitment to the Creation. Jesus’ ministry and death reveal that where any part of the Creation suffers, God is in the midst of it, transforming that suffering into something new and renewing beyond our imagining. Our desires and our culture—even our “religious” culture—try to tell us that happiness, health, and wealth are how we know God loves us. But the gospel shows us that God’s love becomes most real and powerful when we follow Jesus into the suffering around us and participate in God’s transforming work of resurrection.
It seems counterintuitive, but shared suffering leads to the holiest of places. Eons ago, Isaiah spoke of the transformative nature of suffering: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity…and by his bruises we are healed.” (Is. 53:3a, 5c)
Last week, Richard Rohr wrote: “For God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the [true] meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole.”1
Our current global crisis calls us to remember that in God’s Creation, we are one—one people, one humanity, one world. One whole. The suffering of one is the suffering of all, and to share suffering is to begin to heal it. To share suffering is to participate in God’s solidarity with all things through Jesus.
When Jesus leaves the disciples that second time, it is for good—and I hope you hear the double entendre in for good. His departure means that while his physical presence is gone for good, he unleashes a new presence for the good of the Creation. The risen and ascended Jesus is our energy, our hope, our joy, our purpose, our love. He is the eternal Spirit that empowers us to live in our own here-and-now realities sharing, as Paul says, “the mind of Christ.” (1Cor. 2:16)
Through the opus of the Incarnation, God declares love for and solidarity with the entire world. The ascension, then, represents the gateway to Pentecost—the revelation of the mind of the Christ which is eternally present in, with, and for all things. Jesus calls his followers into the world not to end suffering, but to enter it, to stand with those who suffer and to offer a cup of cold water, a loaf of bread, ears for listening, arms for embracing, eyes for weeping, and hearts for holding all that brokenness.
In a commentary last week, David Brooks talked about the importance of establishing that kind of solidarity with one another during our uniquely trying time. This experience has made him distinguish “between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection,” he says, is about empathy and kindness, which is always important, but “Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good.”
“[Solidarity] starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation—to one another and to all creation.
“Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. It is out of solidarity, and not normal utilitarian logic, that…a soldier “risk[s] his life dragging the body of his…comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not for yourself or another but for the common whole.
“It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.”2
Each gospel records different last words of Jesus, and in Luke, those last words are, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
The disciples don’t yet understand that Jesus’ absence is making way for Pentecost’s new kind of presence. But they will understand. And they will continue not only to follow Jesus, but to walk with him in ministries of solidarity all the days of their lives.
Most of us are physically absent from one another right now, and that absence is an act of holy solidarity. As we name the suffering within us and enter the suffering around us (from appropriate distances!) the ascended and still-incarnate Christ resides faithfully in our midst, deepening our love for each other, and strengthening us to endure days of anxiety and alienation.
In that same article, David Brooks raises a hopeful question. “I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.”3 So, we endure for our sake, for the sake of people next-door, and for the sake of all whom God loves, from Jonesborough, to Washington County, to Washington state, to Italy, to China.
It’s become the mantra, the cliché, the hashtag, and it is the Truth: We’re all in this together. And God’s Christ is right here with us.
May his presence be real to you.
May his presence be real through you.
May he bring all of us his peace.