In 2004, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ hit theaters to both criticism and acclaim from Christians and non-Christians alike. I have to confess right here and now that I have not seen the movie. However, my dad did go see The Passion of the Christ in theaters when it came out over a decade ago.
When he came out of the theater, he saw a woman who had also just seen the movie standing outside—and she was crying. Sobbing, really. My dad was moved and curious, so he asked her—what did that movie mean to her? And through tears, she said, “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.”
Jesus suffered so I don’t have to. I don’t know this woman’s story or what brought her to that conclusion, and there are days where I really wish that were the Gospel—but it just isn’t. “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to” is not the Gospel, and it’s not our experience as human beings. We do suffer, every day in big and small ways. And though Jesus can help us bear our suffering, he certainly doesn’t shield us from it. Too many people have lost their faith because they expected him to do so.
Billy Joe Shaver must have read the sixth and seventh chapters of the book of Revelation before writing his song “I’m Gonna Live Forever.” “When this old world is blown asunder / And all the stars fall from the sky” might as well footnote Revelation 6:13—“The stars of the sky fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its fruit when shaken by a strong wind. The sky disappeared like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place.”
The book of Revelation is a graphic envisioning of the suffering that is still to be undergone by God’s people. When we meet these people robed in white in chapter 7, we hear that “they have come out of the great ordeal.” The previous chapter outlines that ordeal—war and famine and disease, death and destruction of all kinds.
No wonder their robes needed to go to the dry cleaner.
Now, the book of Revelation is an apocalyptic vision. Reading it is not like looking into a crystal ball to predict the future. It’s imaginative literature, which means I’m allowed to be a little imaginative in preaching on it.
So I’m going to ask you to use your imaginations for a minute. Imagine you’re a kid again, and you’re wearing your favorite pair of jeans, the comfy ones that you could run around in and do all your favorite activities in. Having been a kid, I’d be willing to bet good money that if we look closely at those jeans in our mind’s eye, we will not find them in mint condition. They will have rips and tears, places patched over or sewn back together, stains and marks and scuffs.
So imagine you’re looking at your jeans and that you’re going to tell stories through the stains. You might point to a grease spot from the pizza you had at your 8th birthday party, or the grass stain from when you caught that fly ball to make the last out and win the game. A patch might remind you of when you tore a hole in your jeans climbing a tree, or the fabric worn thin at the knees might tell of one of many of falls you took.
Now imagine the martyrs in Revelation chapter 7 telling the stories of their dirty robes. They might point out a blood stain from when they turned the other cheek, or dirt ground in from kneeling in prayers. The front of their robes might be damp with those tears God promises to wipe away, or they might have added a belt to their robe as hunger took its toll.
We wash our robes only after they’ve gotten dirty. And if we’re wise, we take a moment to tell the stories of the stains before we send them to the cosmic dry cleaner.
A few years ago, I heard a musician tell a story from when he had worked on a project collecting and translating worship music in Cameroon. He quickly learned that although you might be able to do a word-for-word translation of a song, you still might miss the point.
He gave an example—a woman had written a song about the Bible story where Jesus calms the storm at sea. It tells of being in the boat with Jesus and says that all was quiet—so they assumed this song was set after Jesus stilled the waves. But as they worked on the translation, the woman spoke up—no, she said, this was not about being in the boat after the storm stopped. This was about being in the boat while the storm was still raging. But with Jesus there, even in the midst of the waves, all was quiet, all was calm.
We wash our robes only after they’ve gotten dirty, and God wipes away our tears only after we have wept. Jesus didn’t take our suffering away—he participated in it, so that whatever we go through, we know that the God of universe has been there and has redeemed it. Whatever our great ordeal is, we know that God has experienced it, too.
We live forever only after going through the great ordeal. Stanley Hauerwas is an old Christian ethics professor at Duke, and he likes to remind people that we will not get out of this life alive. This is the part of the story that’s a little counter-intuitive. It makes sense that you would have dirty robes before washing them, or that you would cry before having tears wiped away, but if we are to live forever, shouldn’t that mean exactly what it means? Shouldn’t we be able to skip the death part—shouldn’t Jesus have suffered so we don’t have to?
Ah, but even Jesus didn’t skip the death part, and Jesus was the only one who could have. He could have come down from the cross, but instead he stayed, going through his great ordeal out of love for us so that we might never have to go through our own ordeals alone.
And this is how we live forever: by loving God and one another through suffering and pain and tears into healing and redemption and joy. By telling the stories of our stains, trusting that whatever hunger we have felt, whatever thirst we have endured, for whatever reason we have shed tears, God has felt and endured and shed the same, out of love for us.
When this old world is blown asunder
And all the stars fall from the sky
Remember someone really loves you
We’ll live forever, you and I
Sarah S. Howell