I was really struck by something I caught in the middle of the Beyond Belief programme on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago. The discussion was about the pitfalls of moving beyond inter-faith dialogue, which most people think is a good thing, towards inter-faith worship, which can cause offence at the very least. One comment really grabbed my attention and I’ve been thinking about it since. Apparently Muslims and Jews can worship in both mosques and synagogues, but they struggle to worship in a church. This is because of the iconography - in particular the images of Christ on the cross – of God suffering. To Jews and Muslims this is offensive, even blasphemous.
And yet this is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and it is the focus of this week as we begin our journey with Christ towards Jerusalem and to His crucifixion. The crosses we see around our churches focus our attention on the most mind-blowing doctrine of all - that the Almighty God, creator and sustainer of the universe, stepped into his creation and suffered alongside his creatures.
Immortal God – trapped in time inside the body of a defenceless and needy infant, growing and ageing with limited knowledge of past and future.
Immortal God – who understands my fears for the future, and my frustration with how slowly things change.
All-knowing God – restricted within the small brain of a newborn baby, learning to identify sounds, shapes and colours, to make sense of a mother’s face. Bound inside a human mind and the experience of human senses.
All-knowing God – who understands the limits of my understanding, and my daughter with her learning disabilities, and my friends with dementia.
Father God – whose birth includes questions about parentage, embroiled in a dispute between his brothers, worrying about his mother’s welfare as he reached his final days.
Father God - who understands the challenges as well as the joys of my family life.
All-powerful God – who rejected the temptation to demonstrate His power. Who chose to be a servant, to wash the smelly, dusty feet of his followers.
All-powerful God – who understands me when I feel powerless, when I am angry at the hypocrisy, the greed and self-interest that seems to motivate so many. Who teaches me to be a servant too.
Creator of the Universe – learning to be a carpenter, starting with the basics, in a humble family – patiently learning and growing.
Creator of the Universe – for whom no humble task that I do is meaningless.
God of Heaven – born into poverty around farm animals, to parents soon to flee as refugees. Choosing to live a wandering life with no home to go to.
God of Heaven – who knows what it is to be homeless and poor, and to rely on the generosity of others.
God of Glory – who opted to hang out with outcasts, with rejects, people with infections and mental illness. With people who knew they had messed up.
God of Glory – who reaches out to touch me when I feel side-lined and alone, who reaches for me in my mess and in my shame.
God of life - weeping over the death of a friend. Willingly handing himself over to his betrayer and his accusers. Silently taking the thrashing, and the taunting, the intense pain, and finally suffering a slow agonising death.
God of life – who knows my loss, who knows my grief, who knows my pain and weakness, who knows my rejection. Who knows my death.
When I’m struggling with the latest challenge associated with bringing up a child with a disability I don’t always want to hear from the professional or the other parent who has all the answers. I’m not especially energised by those who find everything easy – although I’m pleased that they do. What really helps me is when I know I’m not alone – when I go onto Facebook and share my problem and get responses saying “yes, we struggle with that too”. When I meet up for coffee with another parent in a similar position and we both know we don’t have to pretend.
Healing is found just as much through shared experiences like these as through solving the problems.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
But God empathising with me isn’t the whole story. It’s not sufficient that God shares in my suffering. I also need to be redeemed – I don’t mean redeemed in its original context of slavery – someone has paid a cash price to buy my freedom - but in the sense of redeeming a situation. Bringing hope out of hopelessness, forgiveness for an unforgiveable action, peace to a troubled mind, and new life out of death.
“by his wounds we are healed”
“by his wounds we are healed”.