Summary: 1. What does it mean for God to suffer? 2. What does it mean for us to suffer?
I was watching the ABC special “The Path to 9/11” a few years ago as it showed two Arab men talking in a restaurant in the U.S. They were planning the plot on the World Trade Center. One of the terrorists was telling the other that he had been in Germany and began talking about spiritual matters with a Roman Catholic priest. The terrorist said: “In Hamburg, I met a Christian priest and we spoke of religion. He told me how to make peace with God. He spoke of making peace with God and the afterlife: Accepting God’s word, turning the other cheek. As if that was enough. I told him that I do much more for my God. I wage war for him.”
There is the basic difference between Christianity and other religions of the world. The way of the cross is a scandal. For this man, and many others, it is a sign of weakness. An all-powerful God would not come and become vulnerable and die at the hands of his creation. It is unthinkable. And neither would he ask his followers to love the enemies of God, and their personal enemies as well. God would want them to be strong, not weak. He would want them to overcome their enemies, not turn the other cheek. God would want his followers to be victorious.
The people of Jesus’ day had no different expectations of God and his Messiah. It scandalized them to have someone say that God could die. They fully expected that when Messiah arrived he would crush the enemies of Israel. He would be the unquestioned King, and no one would be able to oppose him. Even if he was nailed to a cross, they would not be able to keep him there — he could walk away from it at will. That is why they taunted him at the crucifixion saying, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:40). There were unrealistic expectations of Messiah. That is what the devil tempted Jesus with: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, jump off the temple, because it is written that the angels will catch you before your foot touches the ground” (Luke 4:1-12).
This is what was happening in the scripture we read together today. Peter had just made his great proclamation that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. But to his astonishment, Jesus began to explain that he would suffer and die at the hands of his enemies. The Scripture says, “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” At this Peter revolted and, of all things, began to rebuke Jesus and said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” He could not imagine such a thing happening to God’s anointed and chosen One. But Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
And to make matters worse, Jesus began to explain that the way of suffering and the cross was not only the will of God for him, but for his followers as well. He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” But they wanted to be on the winning side. They hadn’t signed up for suffering. Following the Messiah was to be the way of blessing and getting victory over their enemies. What do you mean, “Take up your cross”?
So let’s look at this in a little more depth. First of all: What does it mean for God to suffer? Here is the dilemma: If God is a God of love, it means that God is vulnerable. Being vulnerable is always a part of love. There is risk involved. You risk being rejected. You risk not being loved back. You risk being hurt. That is the nature of relationships. The only way to avoid that is to avoid relationships and build a steel wall around yourself. The point is that God was not willing to do that. Love was who God was. It was an inescapable part of his being. God did not create the world to destroy it, he came to save the world in love. The Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). Because God loved the world, he risked being rejected by the world — even killed by the world. He made himself vulnerable.