Last Sunday, I was in a musical called “Paul and the Early Church.” The spring musical has become an annual event at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, one that provides seminarians with a creative way to express their spirituality in the midst of learning atonement theories and exegeting Hebrew passages.
The past three years, my colleague Sara Suginaka has written musicals that integrate familiar songs on the radio to the writings of great faith leaders of our church. Last year, our musical was about Martin Luther’s wife, Katherine Von Bora. This year, it was “Paul and the Early Church.”
Sara has a great knack of taking pop songs and turning them into avenues for telling a story. I never would have thought that Katie Perry’s “Hot and Cold” would be the best way to explain that both Gentiles and Jews can receive the grace of Christ. It was surprising that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” became the perfect tune to describe resurrection. I certainly wouldn’t have thought Beyoncé’s music would the best to explain how through Christ, God has changed the covenant with humanity from circumcision to baptism. (I somehow missed that during the Superbowl halftime show this year.)
My main number was based on our passage from Acts we read this morning. In rehearsing this scene, I realized for the first time that Paul was not so eager to be a leader of the church. He was easily frustrated, and felt conflicted both about his beliefs and why God had chosen him to spread the news of Christ. As seen with the oracle, Paul was “very much annoyed” (Acts 16:18) that people kept calling him a slave for the Most High. This word slave in Greek can also be translated as servant, but the implication that this is a servant who is without a choice.
Paul was elected to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the world, but this was not Paul’s choice. This is not a role he signed up for. He was a slave to the Most High.
This is what makes this moment in the jail cell so powerful. Here, Paul is held captive for spreading a message even though it annoys him. He is held captive by a guard who through his own social standing is also in bondage to a role he would not have chosen for himself if he had the choice. When the doors of the prison break free, the guard would rather end his own life then track down Paul and imprison him again.
In the earthquake, Paul and the guard see themselves in each others limitations. By sharing the experience of being suffering servants, they free each other. This is a turning point in Paul’s ministry, and from this point forward he can see the value in the work that he is doing. He is no longer a slave for the Most High, he is a servant by choice. Paul has been resurrected into
new life in Christ.
Paul suddenly becomes bold and tells the jailer, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Seeing how Christ has resurrected Paul to new life, the guard himself is able to be resurrected to new life. Not only does the guard help Paul and Silas escape, he tends to their wounds. A wounded healer, the guard is the most qualified to tend to their wounds because he carries spiritual wounds himself. These men are united in their shared experience of suffering and resurrection.
At the musical, I played an angel who brought the earthquake to the jail cell. While the angel image is really about Peter’s escape from the prison, my character helped bring to life that it was divine intervention that helped the Paul and the guard see each other as similar suffering servants. Their shared reality is what led to a new beginning, no matter how uncertain.
Set to the tune of “Some Nights” by the band Fun, our chorus rang, “But I still wake up, I still preach your Gospel. Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for. What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Oh God, I will go, I will go.”
After weeks of studying this passage and learning this song, I thought I had a good understanding of how God liberates us from the bondage of our fear to make us bold disciples for Christ. Thanks to this musical, freedom never looked so good. That was how I felt on Sunday. On Monday, I learned about Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus, and Michelle Knight.
Like I am sure many of us here this morning felt, it was if I had the wind knocked out of me. It is unfathomable to think of the deep and devastating horror these three women and their families have experienced over the past ten years. It is hard to think about the joy of Mother’s day when we learn that a woman was forced to become a parent while in captivity. It is even harder to imagine that such pain and devastation is in our own backyards, a few miles from where our children run free and play in the sun.
In the stark realities that continue to unfold with new findings in this case, the joy we experience in seeing Paul liberated from prison and his apprehension of his call seems a bit fleeting. It can lead to haunting questions. Where is God in the midst of these bleak situations? How can we preach the Gospel when the reality is that there is true evil right around the corner? What do we stand for, when our belief in human kind is shaken by the heinous actions of an evil man? What do we stand for, when we face the knowledge that God freed Paul but these three young ladies are held hostage for a decade? What do we stand for when we experience the prisons of our own indebtedness, loneliness, illness, or grief?
In moments like this, we may feel like the guard and Paul, unsure of what we stand for when the earth begins to quake and fear rattles our emotions in terrifying ways. But we can find reassurance that Christ stands for us. Jesus loves us so much that he came to live among us as human, living in our joys and in our sorrows. Walking among us, Jesus saw the evils of the world that are result of us being victims of a fallen humanity. He brought comfort to those who suffered at the hands of those who promoted ill in the world. Through the wonder of the cross, Christ put on the pain and suffering of our experience and wore it as his own.
Jesus is our suffering servant who can tend to us as a wounded healer. The humanity of Jesus is equally as powerful as his divine nature. His suffering rattled the world as powerfully as the earthquake. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that “Christ’s glory is inseparable between the Christ’s suffering on the cross.” (David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary)
This message is the end of an extended goodbye discourse Jesus shares with his disciples preparing them for his crucifixion. Jesus prays, reminding the disciples that they are all united with one another because they are united in Christ. He prays for love, using this word of hope no less than five times within these six verses. In the passages before this scene, Jesus gives peace, extends grace, and offers forgiveness. He does all of these things to reassure the disciples, and us, that he is united in humanity’s experience, for “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
As this beautiful exposition comes to a close, the very next moment leads to the betrayal by Judas, sending Jesus to the cross.
Jesus shares this message of love and unity knowing the suffering that lies ahead. Jesus shares this message because it is imperative that the disciples know that he stands for them, suffers for them, dies for them, and in rising, raises all of humanity to new life.
In baptism we put on Christ and are brought into a resurrected life where we are freed from the prison of our own brokenness. But before we ever thought to put on Christ in our baptism, Christ first put on our suffering at the cross. Wearing our suffering, Jesus is not merely observing the darkest moments of our lives, but journeying alongside them with us. Through suffering with us, Jesus enters our hearts, lighting the flicker of hope in the midst of despair.
Jesus is with us as our suffering servant, sharing our pain when we enter yet another round of chemo treatments. Jesus our wounded healer is the balm that tends to the wounds that medicine cannot touch.
Jesus is with us as our suffering servant when we are bullied at school, and carries the pain from the hurtful words on his heart. Jesus our wounded healer is the strength that helps us hold our head high.
Jesus is with us as our suffering servant when we are oppressed because of our race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, educational level and marital status. Jesus our wounded healer sheds our tears through his eyes, accompanying us in the darkest hour.
Jesus our suffering servant is with people being trafficked, the person detoxing, the person trying to break free from the cycle of violence in their community. Jesus our wounded healer is the hope for the hopeless.
Jesus was the suffering servant who stayed with those women in that terrible basement, mourning in the loss of their unborn children, the loss of their freedom, and the loss of their dignity. Jesus is the wounded healer who brings the resurrection of a new beginning for these women and their families.
Jesus suffers with us because our God loves us unconditionally and without reservation. Jesus heals through our wounds because he wears our wounds. God does not abandon us when the times get tough. God does not forsaken us when the darkness has set in. God is not indifferent to our pain. Our God is like the parents we celebrate today, who would stop at nothing to shelter God’s children from the aches of this world.
We may not always know what we stand for or how to move forward when the uncertainty of the world is before us. But even when we feel imprisoned by the hardness in our lives, Christ stands for us and with us, accompanying us out of darkness into the light of a resurrected life.
Amen.Photos courtesy Christopher Anderson of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.