We conclude tonight our preaching series Breaking the Word where we have been examining several theologically complex words popularly used by the Church, but not always fully understood, and we have tried to break them open in understandable ways so that they may be more helpful in our conversations, but also in our concept of God and the ways in which we pray.
My word for tonight is “Passion”; a concept that is no less difficult to grasp than the others such as ‘conversion’ ‘forgiveness’ ‘grace’ and ‘redemption’ and perhaps even more difficult because of the popular way in which it is used both in our culture, but also in Scripture.
For most of us, and interestingly enough for most of Scripture the word ‘passion’ is connected mostly to the emotions of anger and lust. If you do a word search of the Bible, that’s what comes up.
- For the Lord’s anger and passion will smoke against them.[i]
- Then Judith came in and lay down. Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the day he first saw her.[ii]
- Do not fall into the grip of passion,* or you may be torn apart as by a bull.[iii]
- Evil passion destroys those who have it, and makes them the laughing-stock of their enemies.[iv]
- But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.[v]
I’m sure by now you get my point that passion in Scripture is not always regarded as a good thing, and some uses of the word might even make us blush if we used it in certain company. I joked last week that this sermon might have to be posted with a triple X rating if I used a couple of the passages that use the word ‘passion’ in them.
Popular speech is not much better in helping us to understand this word in a theological context because there too we mostly use it to describe someone who is consumed, or fixated or enthusiastic about something: I for instance, am passionate about beekeeping; you might be passionate about healthcare legislation or the Red Sox; someone else might have a passion for golf or gardening. So for most of us, it’s not terribly clear how we get from beekeeping or the Red Sox to the crucifixion and how on earth do we begin to make sense of “The Passion of Christ”?
Well, there is another word that is perhaps more helpful to us than ‘passion’, and that’s the word ‘compassion’. Like its partner ‘passion’ the word ‘compassion’ crops up in scripture repeatedly, but in very different contexts. That word ‘compassion’ is often used in gospel stories of healing, love and reconciliation.
- When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.[vi]
- So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.[vii]
- As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.[viii]
It is that sense of gut churning compassion, sympathy, longing and desire that begins to touch on the meaning of our word ‘passion’ as we can understand it, not in its popular sense, but in its theological one for Christ’s passion is not about anger or lust or even his interested enthusiasm but it is rather about his compassion, his sympathy, his longing and his desire; for it was love and not anger, desire and not lust which led him to and held him on the cross.
And once or twice in my life, I have seen that compassion, that sympathy, that longing, that desire, that love acted out in ways by individuals that were nothing less than Christ-like.
On one memorable occasion I was with a family whose husband and father was dying. After he died, as the family and I were leaving the hospital, one of the nurses commented to the adult children that their mother have been incredibly brave throughout the entire ordeal. When asked what she meant, the nurse went on to say that on the two or three occasions when their father had been brought into the emergency ward, his wife had stayed quietly by his side. Each time one of the nurses suggested she might be more comfortable in the waiting room rather than in the examining room watching the doctors and nurses work on her husband, she quietly but firmly informed them she was quite comfortable where she was, thank you very much. After awhile the nurses came to understand that she had no intention of leaving her husband’s side and they came to accept her silent, calm, loving presence in the room.
It is that sense of loving, sympathetic suffering for or with another that begins to touch on what we mean when we speak of passion, not in its popular sense, but in its theological sense.
And how often have we done or seen the same? How often have we, when someone we love has been in agony, or distress, or turmoil found the quiet loving strength to sit with them in that moment? How often have we found the compassion, the sympathy, the longing, even the desire to just sit there with them throughout their ordeal knowing that that simple act of quiet companionship was a gift of God to both them and to us? How often have we too discovered the strength to suffer with those whom we love for the simple reason that we love them, much as that soon to be new widow found the strength to sit in sympathetic, suffering love with the one whom she loved?
It is that quiet, compassionate, sympathetic love that is willing to suffer with and on behalf of another that is the root and source of Christ’s passion. Indeed it is God’s quiet, compassionate, sympathetic, suffering love for us that we see in the person of Jesus which we will celebrate as we remember Christ’s Passion in the days of Holy Week and Easter: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day, for these are the days when we will truly discover that:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone
who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed,
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but
in order that the world might be saved through him.[ix]
That overwhelming love for us, so that ‘none may be lost’ is the whole point and promise of the cross.
Now, some of us are of an age that we were told “love means never having to say you’re sorry”[x] but the reality is that real love, passionate love, compassionate love is not just about saying you are sorry, even dozens of times a day if necessary, but it also means a willingness to suffer beside and on behalf of those whom you love not because suffering in itself is good, but because you desire for them the best that can possibly be, just as God desires for us the best that can possibly be:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.[xi]
It is only because God, who loves us with an everlasting love[xii] and who desires to turn our sorrow into gladness that Christ’s passion and death on the cross begins to make sense for us. For it is there, on the cross, that Christ keeps company with us in our pain and sorrow. It is there on the cross that Christ shows the depth of his quiet, compassionate, sympathetic, suffering love for all those whom God loves.
Those of you who have heard me preach this Lent will know that each time I have preached I have ended in the same place. And I end in that place again tonight. Lent is not a time for us to do something more for God, although many of us do. Rather Lent is a time to discover what God is doing for us. And what God is doing, at least for me this Lent, is reminding us all how very much we are loved: by God, by Jesus, by the saints, and hopefully by one another and to discover again the truth of the words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” [xiii]
My friends, all you have to do to ponder Christ’s passion is to gaze upon the cross and discover, or discover again that you are indeed Christ’s friend and that God loves you very, very much indeed.
[i] Deuteronomy 29:20
[ii] Judith 12:16
[iii] Ecclesiasticus 6:2
[iv] Ecclesiasticus 6:4
[v] 1 Corinthians 7:9
[vi] Matthew 14:14
[vii] Luke 15:20
[viii] Colossians 3:12
[ix] John 3: 16,17
[x] Love Story, 1970, staring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, based on the novel by Eric Segal
[xi] Jeremiah 31: 12, 13
[xii] Jeremiah 31: 3b
[xiii] John: 15:14