Confronting Suffering, Transforming Suffering
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
On Good Friday, I was looking at art depicting the crucifixion to post to our church social media. Bloody Jesus on the cross. Defiant Jesus on the cross. Stoic Jesus on the cross. Peaceful Jesus on the cross. And I kept scrolling. Nope, not that one, too scary. Nope, too European. Scrolling, scrolling.
But then something caught my eye. Not a specific image. I don’t remember the image. But what I saw was Jesus' feet and the nails going through them. I paused and imagined what that must have felt like, being literally nailed to the cross. That pain. That agony.
I paused and was a bit surprised, a bit ashamed. I had been casually scrolling through hundreds of these images of deep and unimaginable suffering, and it didn’t phase me. Jesus’ crucifixion has become so ubiquitous, so familiar, that its suffering and revulsion didn’t register for me. Yeah, Jesus was crucified. We see it everywhere. Right there on our wall every time we worship in this building. In tattoos on people’s arms. On necklaces. And in thousands, probably tens of thousands, of pieces of art.
I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that we see a depiction of the crucifixion every single day, and we simply don’t notice it anymore.
I know, I know—it’s Easter. The day of resurrection. A day of joy and celebration. A day of relief and hope.
But I mention my obliviousness to the agony of the crucifixion for a reason. I mention it because of today’s gospel. To Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who went to the tomb, their experience of Jesus’ crucifixion was very different. It was personal. Deeply personal. Jesus was not only their teacher but their close friend. They shared meals with him, traveled with him, supported him, laughed with him.
They were at Golgotha. They saw their wise, loving, sometimes fiery friend actively dying an unthinkably cruel death on the cross. Those nails holding his full body weight. The crown of spiky thorns. The soldiers mocking him. I can’t imagine what kind of trauma that was for them. The devastation. The terror. I imagine it was a relief to them when Jesus finally let out his last breath. Their friend’s suffering had finally ended.
That’s the experience they brought to the tomb with them. And unlike us, they didn’t know what was going to happen. They only had their sadness and their love. They only wanted to tend to the body of their friend. Give him a proper Jewish burial.
I mention all this because it’s all essential to this special, amazing day.
Because we don’t get resurrection without Good Friday.
We don’t get resurrection without an ending of some sort.
We don’t get resurrection without enduring suffering.
We don’t get resurrection without death.
We don’t get resurrection without crucifixion.
But that’s the good news, isn’t it? That all this suffering can be redeemed.
And we all know there is suffering right now. Bodies lining the streets of Bucha, Ukraine. Ice sheets the size of counties melting away at the poles of our planet. The threat of a new wave of Covid. Shootings in malls and subways.
Our world is awash in suffering. Sometimes we are like the eleven disciples who got the good news from the women about the empty tomb, and we do not, maybe cannot, believe.
But the women, they believed. They saw the empty tomb, they heard the good news that Jesus had risen again, just as he said he would, and they believed.
Can you imagine their joy? Their relief? After all that terrible suffering, their friend was okay.
The cross does not have the last word. The pain and torment and death that it represents does not have the last word. But that doesn’t mean that suffering doesn’t change us. And maybe that’s the good news, too.
Later in this gospel, when the risen Jesus reveals himself, he tells his disciples to look at his hands and feet as proof that he is who he says he is. To look where the nails were, the signs of suffering. In the gospel of John, Jesus even invites Thomas to touch the wound in his side.
The evidence of his suffering is not erased, even after resurrection. In fact, the suffering is what Jesus points to so that his friends might recognize him.
Resurrection doesn’t destroy our suffering. Resurrection transforms it, giving us new life. If we’re willing to let ourselves be transformed. If we’re willing to look our suffering in the eye, as Jesus looked at the cross, and let God change us, as Jesus was changed.
I know some of you know what I’m talking about. Those of you in recovery, who have stood in front of a group of people and said to them, “My name is…and I’m an alcoholic. I’m an addict. I’m codependent.” That is looking your suffering in the eye in order to open yourself up to transformation.
I know most of you have lost loved ones, some in terrible ways. I know some of you have contended with life-threatening illness or injury. I don’t know all the ways that each of you has suffered, but I do know that you are here, with this church family, letting your suffering be transformed in this very moment of Easter.
But I want to be careful to say: not all suffering is transformational. Not in this life, at least. Sometimes suffering is utterly senseless. Sometimes it is downright evil. The cross was senseless and evil. But Jesus shows us that not even death has the last word. That in the end, even if we don’t know how, our suffering will be transformed.
It is our call as followers of Jesus to live resurrection every day. To confront suffering every day—our own and the suffering around us—to recognize it, to not become numb to it, and to live in a way that believes that it can and will be transformed.
Our call is to believe the tomb is empty when someone unexpected tells us that it is. Our call is to know that Jesus rises again and again and again in each of us. Every single day.