Pain is Our Teacher
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted
up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
--John 3:14-15 NRSV
I haven’t been able to read any of the retrospectives chronicling one year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Living with the pressure, stress and confusion of the past year has been difficult enough that I don’t wish to turn back and reflect upon it. Yet, as is the case with all pain, I know the time will come when I need to take stock of all that has happened since this pandemic began. Neither denying pain nor wallowing in it offers a healthy way out of it but looking at one’s pain, when energy exists to do so, allows pain to be our teacher.
Over the past two Sundays, I’ve been preaching out of the Gospel of John and if you were able to track what I’ve been saying (a big IF sometimes, I know, given who the preacher is), you have heard me mention that John’s Gospel presents a different understanding of Jesus’ death than elsewhere in the New Testament. Rather than seeing Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice offered for human sin, a means of conquering evil or as Jesus being our substitute and taking the punishment due us for our sins (the most prominent theological understandings of Jesus’ death—not all of them are actually found in the Bible), John presents Jesus’ death as a universe-changing moment for humanity to look at its own pain and turn away from what causes it.
In John 3, Jesus references a story from the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) from Numbers 21. It’s a weird one that I was never taught in Sunday School. In it, once again the Israelites in the desert wilderness complain against God, even though God miraculously rescued them from slavery and continues to provide for their needs. So, snakes come upon their camp and start killing people with poisonous bites. God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and hoist it up on a long pole. Anyone bit by a snake, should look up at the bronze serpent and they will be saved from death. Why an image of a snake? Why not a pill or a vaccine or just make the snakes go away? Perhaps, God wanted the people to remember what bit them and why. Their refusal to trust God, despite God’s continued care for them resulted in poisonous snakes. They need a reminder of what caused the threat to their lives and who saved them from it.
Jesus says in John 3 that just like that bronze snake, he will be lifted up. By “lifted up” he is referring to his inevitable death “lifted up” on a cross and his inevitable ascension “lifted up” to heaven after his resurrection. Just like with the bronze serpent on a tall pole, people get to look upon Jesus on the cross and see the pain of this world and why it occurs. On the cross, humanity gets to see the violence, deception, betrayal, self-serving politics, oppressive religion, torture, derision and abuse inflicted upon the most innocent victim ever, in sum all the ways we humans damage one another, ourselves, creation itself and even God. Then people get to look at Jesus lifted up to heaven resurrected and whole in order to see that God’s healing and redeeming love is greater than all the pain we cause.
Once we see the pain of our world and ourselves and then see a way beyond it, we are changed. We become people no longer intent upon a way of destruction but rather people intent upon God’s way of love. We may choose God’s way of love half-heartedly and imperfectly, but nonetheless we are changed. Looking at Christ’s pain—which is also our pain--allows pain to be our teacher, so that transformation can happen.
Moments when we can look at our pain are moments when we look at the snake that bit us or look at the Cross and its depravity. Such moments allow us to learn from past self-inflicted mistakes, heal from past abuses inflicted upon us and recover from the toll this life can take upon each of us. We discover strength we didn’t know we had to offer empathy and kindness to others in need of healing. We learn gratitude for blessings taken for granted. We understand who our real friends are because they are with us in our pain instead of turning away from it. Pain becomes our teacher.
I pray for you the same thing I pray for myself: for pain to become our teacher. I pray for moments of clarity and strength which allow you and I to look at the pain in our own lives and the pain in our world so that pain can show us God’s way of love, healing and forgiveness. As we grow closer to an end to a pandemic, as mass shootings return to the headlines, as the daily pains occur while we live our complicated yet blessed lives, may there be tender moments for you and me where we can allow our pains to teach us its sacred lessons.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.