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07 April 2012

The Fifth Word on the Cross: Longing to belong

There once was a man who set out to find the end of the world. The man was a philosopher. Philosophers are never happy here. Now is not their time, and here is not their space. They always live somewhere else.

So the philosopher left his family - his children, wife and parents - and began his quest to find the end of the world. He passed many mountains and many seas. It was a very long journey, and many times he thought he had arrived. This often happened when he was tired from his journey.

Then he would deceive himself for a while, but only until he got restless again, and his old idea would take over: this is not the end, it's still the middle. And he would commence his journey again.

On his way he passed many temples. He met many teachers, people who were convinced that they had arrived. They said they had found the end of the world, and where was he going anyway! For a time he would believe them, but sooner or later he told himself that the teachers and temples were only symbols pointing to the limitations of humanity. The end was not here; he needed to go on.

It is reported that after a long, long time our philosopher finally came to a place that looked like the end. This time he was not tired; this time he was not exhausted; this time he was not deceiving himself in any way. There were no temples, and no teachers; he was absolutely alone.

The horizon had disappeared, and there were no further destinations for his journey. Even if he wanted to continue, there was nowhere to go. There was even a sign saying: THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD. Someone who had gotten there ahead of him had been kind of enough to leave a sign.

Our philosopher was standing on the very edge of the world, a great cliff beyond which there was nothing but chaos, nothingness and emptiness. All of a sudden he became frightened, very frightened.  He had not expected this.

There was no God and no paradise; in fact there was just chaos, utter chaos and emptiness.  You can just imagine him standing there at the edge of the cliff, trembling and shaking like a leaf, as the sweat trickled down and a knot built in his stomach. He could not take this!

The philosopher became so frightened that he turned back on his heel. He ran back in the direction he had come from.

Because he ran so fast, he never got the chance to notice that the sign board had another message. On one side was written, THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD. On the other side it said, THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE OTHER.

The philosopher only knew that he was very frightened, and so he ran and never looked back on his quest. He returned into the world and lost himself in it. The more he played the games of the world, his memory of his journey faded. He banished the dangerous cliff from his dreams and with it his dream of finding the end of the world.

The story I just told you describes two attitudes we all know well, control and faith. The philosopher was all about control, and when he came to the end of what could be known, he didn't have the faith to make the leap into nothingness.

There are those, like my philosopher, who have trouble giving up control and therefore never really believe or trust in anyone. But today we have come together to think about the One who was not afraid, but embraced the end.

Jesus took the plunge down that cliff. He didn't need to run back into the world when chaos gaped, for he had figured out for himself that being in the world should never be the same as being of the world. He took the plunge and emptied himself in the process.

The act of emptying himself (kenosis in Greek) is self-surrender in complete humility and trust. The word kenosis describes a person who is willing to leave his head behind and follows his heart, who stops being attached to the things of this world, who replaces worries with trust, and who knows that letting go of everything will actually result in receiving everything.

If absolute control is one extreme -- represented by the philosopher --, the other extreme is absolute faith -- represented by Christ's self-emptying.  

Jesus' self-emptying to the extent of dying on the cross, that is the highest form of self-denial, yet, also the highest form of love. Jesus is the Love of God in flesh, who embodies God's Love in action, a love which is absolute and unconditional – yet as we see in the fifth word, this love is also raw and realistic and gritty: <28> After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty."

If there is a particularly enigmatic and mysterious word among Jesus’ last seven words from the cross, this is it.  This is the Second Person of the Trinity speaking! How can this be?  This is the same One who told the woman at the well that He Himself was the sort of water she needed to drink only once, that she would never thirst again.

Matthias Grünewald: Cruxifixion

That the Son of God could be thirsty is a painful thought. One of the strategies to deal with that pain is to avoid it; one of the members of my last full-time church told me, “I never go to church on Good Friday – it’s too sad!”  A more sophisticated strategy of avoidance goes all the way back to the first century, and it’s called Docetism. It’s the belief that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion. Where Docetism is taught, the cross becomes an object lesson that God is teaching us about how bad we are, how much we’re loved, how bad the Romans are, and more such things. But none of these attempts (which are alive and well up to this present day) has been able to do justice to what we see happening there. For what we see is intense physical suffering and agony.

It is approaching the 9th hour (3 p.m.). Jesus has been hanging on the cross for 6 hours. The combination of Jesus' loss of blood, his exhaustion, his nervous tension and his exposure to the weather has generated a raging thirst. Jesus' cry "I thirst" was not a polite and quiet request for a glass of water. No, it was a cry of agony. Jesus' thirst while hanging on the cross in our place showed the reality and intensity of his physical suffering. His thirst consummated his physical suffering and thus enabled Jesus to know that all was now completed. And so, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled he cried out "I thirst" asking for and then receiving a drink of wine vinegar from a sponge held up to his mouth on a stalk of hyssop.

But in spite of the reality and intensity and significance of Jesus' physical thirst, I am convinced that something deeper is being expressed by this 5th word. Underlying his physical thirst is another kind of thirst that Jesus experienced in a deeper, more profound way on the cross --spiritual thirst. The Greek verb for "thirst" or "be thirsty", διψάω, is found five times in the gospel of John in addition to our text here in John 19. All five refer to spiritual thirst. In John Chapter 7 Jesus declared, If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from him. John helps us understand what Jesus meant by adding in the next verse: By this he (Jesus) meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.

This thirst that Jesus was speaking about is a spiritual craving for God, a longing that operates deep within the heart of every human being created in the image of God. According to John's gospel this universal spiritual thirst can be quenched and satisfied only by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to give to all who will believe in him, and who will give to the believer eternal life. And it is this kind of thirst, spiritual thirst, that Jesus experienced on the cross.

The man who hung there was the eternal Son of God. Jesus of Nazareth was the Word of God who became flesh. He had existed from all eternity in the most intimate, in the closest fellowship imaginable with the Father. Even when he voluntarily left heaven's glory and emptied himself of all divine dignity and authority to become a man, he still maintained throughout his life sweet communion and deep intimacy with his heavenly father, until …

Until, that is, he hung on the cross. There, as he took upon himself the sins of all his people, Jesus Christ experienced, for the first time in all eternity, the horror of separation from God. The Father turned his back on the Son while he hung there on the cross, in our place. Jesus had known the joy of intimate fellowship with his father, and now during this time of separation, Jesus wanted it back; he longed for it; he thirsted after God. On the cross Jesus was the supreme fulfillment of Psalm 63:1: O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

This then, at the deepest level, is the thirst Jesus experienced on the cross. He was physically thirsty to be sure. His physical thirst consummated his physical suffering. But his physical thirst was only the tip of the iceberg. Jesus' deepest, most profound thirst was spiritual, thirsting after his father, from who he was separated as he hung on the cross. Jesus longed to belong.

Our deepest thirst is our longing to belong.

Johnny was one of my patients in the Pediatric ER. He was brought in from school, by NYPD, in hand cuffs, and the cops told us that he had practically demolished the principal’s office in response to being reprimanded.  He was such an angry little boy when he was walked into the ER.

After we asked the cops to take off the hand cuffs, Johnny allowed our psychiatry team to speak to him, but for an hour he just stared at us without saying a single word. Then, tears flowed, and Johnny spoke.  He told us that in the seven years he spent on this planet, he had already been in nine foster homes.  In some of those he was treated well, in some he was sexually abused, and in most he was physically abused. When you are used to being shoved around and mistreated, you become very weary of people who ask you to trust them. 

Johnny longed to belong, and had longed for a long time. In the various foster homes he had been told to belong, yet almost never felt safe. Johnny was spiritually thirsty, and his thirst had not been quenched. 

Because Johnny couldn’t stand his newest foster mother and categorically refused to consider going back to her house, it became necessary for us to call ACS, requesting their help. As the usual wrangling between ACS and the foster agency took its course, a few days passed. During those days, Johnny had to stay with us, right in the same spot, on his stretcher right in the noisy ER, filled with screaming kids and stressed nurses and doctors.  But these few days gave us a chance to get to know him, and a chance for him to get to trust us.

The transformation we saw was incredible.  Over the course of a few days, Johnny’s angry smirks more and more looked like happy grins.  What had been a dying little flower just days ago turned out to be a flower in new bloom.  Where the nurses had been used to hearing angry growls from his corner of the ER, now they heard the sounds of laughter.  Johnny became the favorite patient of each staff member.

And on the last day of his stay in the ER, when he finally was allowed to put his street clothes back on and leave with an ACS worker, he flew into my arms and drew me into a huge hug. During those few days in the ER, Johnny made some small steps toward learning how to trust, and he got a bit closer to what he longed for: to belong.

All of us are constantly moving back and forth somewhere between the need to control everything (as in the philosopher) and the willingness to risk truly lived faith (as in Jesus). In fact, most of us are pretty much in the same spot where little Johnny was when he came to my ER: We long to belong, but because our trusting others has ended in disappointment and heartache a couple of times, we have become weary.  Even though we long to belong, we are afraid of getting hurt again.

When the philosopher got to the cliff and found nothing but nothingness and chaos, he ran away in great terror.  When Jesus got to the point where he felt like God had turned his back on him, he said, “I thirst”, and even in that one lone phrase (dipso in Greek, sitio in Latin, ani tsema in Aramaic), he said what he needed.  Perhaps he was just saying the word “Water!” with the last bit of power in his voice, but he expressed his longing for his God. As he hung there alone and apparently God-forsaken, he made that great leap of faith, that great leap into nothingness that is required to truly leave this world. He made that leap for you and for me, for he knows our weary lives, and our fear of letting go.  He knows.  Our longing to belong came from his lips when he said, “I thirst”.

THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD, said one side of the sign in my story. But the other side of the sign said, THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE OTHER.  The philosopher in my story stands for the many among us who connect themselves so firmly to this world that they cannot imagine the existence of another.  Their ego simply will not allow them to think outside the box; it won’t let them take the leap because without the trappings of this world our ego is useless. 

Jesus, on the other side, let go of his ego and its temptations.  He taught that whoever wants to save his life here will lose the life that counts, and that only those who are willing to lose their life here will gain Life Eternal.

When we sing "I'll Fly Away", it is not just a bit of pretty music we use to comfort ourselves with at sad funerals. The hymn indicates where the philosopher got it all wrong; it shows the way for us to have the same courage Jesus had. 

You and I, we are invited to jump down the cliff, to embrace that nothingness that comes when someone is literally at their wit’s end. This is the end of the world; it’s the beginning of the other.  Come, take that leap of faith. You can do it! 

Jesus, in thy thirst and pain, While thy wounds thy lifeblood drain, / Thirsting more our love to gain: Hear us, holy Jesus. Thirst for us in mercy still; All thy holy work fulfill; / Satisfy thy loving will: Hear us, holy Jesus. May we thirst thy love to know; Lead us in our sin and woe / Where the healing waters flow: Hear us, holy Jesus. Amen.
John 19: 28-29

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