Saturday, October 21, 2006

Redemptive Suffering

Many Roman Catholics speak of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. I've always had a really hard time with that. In fact, I've had a hard time with many Catholic attitudes toward Mary, but I've discovered that in many instances if I substitute "Church" where they're saying "Mary" it makes sense to me and I think there's probably a road back to the Catholic faith from there.

My proposed substitution still doesn't work for a lot of people because they see the Church as an institution trying to tell them what they can or can't do or even believe. I've never seen the Church that way. To me, the Church is us.

All of this is a very long introduction to my encounter with this' week's lectionary texts. I think this week's text picture the Church, each of us individually and all of us collectively, as co-redeemers with Christ.

The Old Testament lesson is the servant song from Isaiah 53. I don't think any Christian can hear this and not think of Christ, yet the scholars tell us not to, or at least to think exclusively of Christ. Perhaps Isaiah means Israel, perhaps himself, perhaps another.

I'm intrigued by the handling of this in the discussion between Philip and the Ethopian eunuch in Acts 8. "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" the eunuch asks. And then the book of Acts does something amazing. It leaves the question open. It reports, "Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus."

Now a lot of people read into that that Philip simply explained that it refers to Jesus, but the actual text allows for a much bigger interpretation. Suppose the prophet means himself AND someone else AND the people of Israel AND Jesus Christ AND the Christian people of God. Suppose we all bear one another's iniquity and by this we are healed.

The psalm for the week includes the passage Satan tries to use to tempt Jesus in the desert: "he will command his angels concerning you." The whole passage does tempt us to look for glory instead of suffering. It speaks of protection and deliverance. Yet the New Testament's use of this text shows us something deeper in it. The line that jumps out at me is this: "I will be with them in trouble." This is God's plan for our protection. He doesn't keep us out of trouble. He is with us in the trouble.

In the New Testament lesson the author of Hebrews expounds on Christ's high priesthood. Speaking first of every high priest chosen from among mortals he says, "He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness." O that all our leaders were so. Then Jesus in the days of his flesh became our high priest. "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." The mortal high priest is able to deal gently with others because he shares their weakness. Jesus is able to redeem us because he shares our suffering.

So far it may not seem like I have much of a case for my co-redeemer reading of these texts, but I think it comes together in the gospel reading.

James and John come to Jesus and ask for places beside him in glory. Jesus asks, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" The beautiful little fools respond, "We are able."

Jesus tells them that they will, but he goes on to explain "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant," and the basis for this teaching is in Christ himself, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." As the master came to serve, so the disciples will serve.

So how are we co-redeemers? I certainly don't mean that our suffering makes atonement for others or that we somehow accumulate merit for others. Those theologically loaded ideas of redemption obscure the depth of the gospel and block us from seeing our involvement in the gospel. But if we view the gospel in terms of God breaking into the world, then each of us can be agents of redemption.

When we server one another and bear one another's iniquities in the name of Christ, we are certainly a means of grace to one another, as surely as when we preach the gospel or administer the sacraments. And so I don't think it is a stretch to put any Christian into Isaiah's servant song and say, "upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed."

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