We have been looking at a series of letters written by Henri Nouwen to his nephew, Marc, discussing his Christian faith. In the first letter, Nouwen talks about how Jesus is the very heart of his existence. In the second, he talks about how Jesus is the God who sets him free. Last week, we began our examination of the third letter in which Nouwen focus is on the compassion of Jesus. We continue with that letter today. If you happened to miss the first two, they are in the last three Friday posts on Facebook and are also available under the Pastor's Desk tab on our church website (irvingtonumc.org
Letter 3: Jesus: The Compassionate God (Pt. 2)
Last week we learned about the Isenheimer Altar, located in the chapel of a hospital for plague victims in France. The altarpiece vividly depicts the suffering and death of Jesus. As Nouwen focuses on the cross, he finds it to be the sign of the most radical transformation in our manner of thinking, feeling, and living. He writes:
For most people, suffering and death are still the chief enemies of life .. We must try, somehow, to get them under control as well as we can .. Many sick people don't have much understanding abut their sickness, and often they die without ever having given much thought to their death .. So much attention is given to keeping [us] alive that there is hardly time to prepare [us] for death. Jesus' attitude was quite different. He encountered suffering and death with his eyes wide open. Actually, his whole life was a conscious preparation for them. Jesus doesn't commend them as desirable things, but he does speak of them as realities....
On a number of occasions, Jesus foretold his own suffering and death .. Just listen to what Jesus has to say: "If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it." Finding new life through suffering and death: that is the core of the good news. Jesus has lived out that liberating way before us and has made it a great sign .. the authentic sign is not some sensational miracle but the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus .. To look suffering and death straight in the face and to go through them oneself in the hope of a new God-given life: that is the sign of Jesus and of every human being who wishes to lead a spiritual life in imitation of him.
So what, in concrete terms, are we to make of Jesus' suffering and death? In my second letter, I wanted to show you that freedom is an essential aspect of the spiritual life .. it should be clear now that compassion must be added to freedom. The spiritual life is a free life that becomes visible in compassion. God sent Jesus to make free persons of us. He has chosen compassion as the way to freedom. That is a great deal more radical than you might first imagine. It means God wanted to liberate us, not by removing suffering from us, but by sharing it with us. Jesus is God who suffers with us.
God's love, which Jesus wants us to see, is shown to us by his becoming a partner and a companion in our suffering, thus enabling us to turn it into a way of liberation. You're probably familiar with the questions most frequently raised by people who find it difficult or impossible to believe in God. How can God really love the world when he permits suffering? If God really loves us why doesn't he put an end to war, poverty, hunger, sickness, persecution, torture, and all the other misery we see? If God cares about me personally why am I in such bad shape? [Nouwen discusses his life with the poor and sickness.] I have discovered that the victims of poverty and oppression are often more deeply convinced of God's love than we middle-class Europeans are, and that the question of the why of suffering was raised less by the people who tasted suffering themselves .. While it seems to be getting more and more difficult for a lot of well-off people to have a sense of the nearness of God in their day-to-day lives, many men and women who are suffering are filled with the Spirit when they tell how God gives them hope and courage .. They know Jesus as the God who suffers with them. Jesus is the compassionate God who comes so close to us in our weakness that we can turn to him without fear.
When you come to see Jesus as the compassionate God, you will begin increasingly to see your own life as one in which you yourself want to express that divine compassion .. to make your own life a life for others .. Passion becomes compassion for you. You are incorporated into Jesus .. you come to belong to Jesus in the most intimate way. Jesus suffered for you, died for you, and is risen for you so that you may suffer, die, and rise with him.
What do you think about Nouwen's perspective on suffering and death? Every week I have asked you to write your own thoughts as if you were writing a letter to a loved one about your relationship with God. Today, we will be concluding our third letter on the compassion of God. What would you write about suffering and death? About what the cross means to you? Does the fact that Jesus willingly suffered and died on the cross for us (for you), offer you hope and courage?