As I observe Holy Week along with billions of other believers, I have been pondering not only on how Jesus’s death and resurrection restored our relationship to God the Father, but also how they made him the conqueror of all suffering and death.
Many of us came to faith in Jesus because we were moved and convicted by the gospel story as told through the innocent Son of God dying on the cross in our place for our sins. This atonement aspect of the gospel captures the sheer scope of God’s grace, sacrificial love and mercy.
Yet I fear that sometimes when we consider the image of Christ on the cross we look at him as a passive scapegoat instead of a warrior who went to do war with sin, suffering and death willingly and joyfully.
In John 10:18, Jesus himself said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (NIV)
Hebrews 12:2 likewise says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
It may seem like a theological technicality, but there’s a world of a difference between Jesus being carted away passively to the cross than he facing it head on. In fact, everything about Jesus’ journey to the cross was active, from him “becoming obedient to death” (Phil 2:8) to him “scorning its shame.” Jesus’ victory on the cross was neither accidental nor incidental — it was deliberate and intentional.
In light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic we are living through, the message of Jesus as a servant who willfully confronted death and suffering is all the more relevant to us. We can learn from his example as we minister to those who are suffering in these two ways:
We need to ask God for faith and courage to face the weeks and months ahead.
The last thing Jesus did before his arrest, trial and eventual execution was pray. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane dripped with passion and brutal honesty: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
We can also pray a similar prayer as we prepare for what the COVID-19 will bring in the days and weeks ahead. Already there have been over 1.4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 80,000 deaths worldwide. Tragically, those numbers will continue to rise while doctors, nurses, researchers and government officials work around the clock to care for sick patients and to stymie the progression of the virus.
Jesus’ prayer was both an act of submission and obedience. In praying “Your will be done,” he was resolving to follow the Father’s plan, all the way to the cross. While Jesus was fulfilling a unique, unrepeatable mission given to him, our current path — whether we want it or not — also leads us to confront evil, suffering and death. And like Jesus, we have the choice whether we will do so with faith, believing we can trust that God will be with us as we minister to those who are suffering.
We need to join together to alleviate suffering.
Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus taught us to fight suffering and death proactively. We must remember our Christian faith is about life before death as much as it is about life after death. In other words, we have to care about the here and now even as we care about the hereafter. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that what we do for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned is done to him. We need to stop creating a dichotomy between spiritual and physical needs.
In the midst of our own troubles, we need to look after those who are likely to suffer the most, especially the poor who will be disproportionately affected. Consider the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world will face economic hardship to a point anybody who is reading this article probably will never face.
My home country of India is being hit especially hard by COVID-19. We are a nation of more than 1.3 billion people and our leaders have ordered a nationwide lock down. Already millions of people are out of work. Many cannot feed their families or afford basic necessities or doctor’s visits.
Now is not the time to say, “I have my own problems because of the pandemic, and I don’t have the time and energy to think of other people who are affected by it.” On the contrary, this pandemic is an opportunity to adopt Christ’s mindset which Paul described in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (NIV)
As Easter 2020 approaches, let us remember that Jesus, on an Easter Sunday 2,000 years ago, rose victorious over death and suffering. And let us follow his bold example knowing we can face our present suffering with joy and faith.
Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/leolintang
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is a Christian theologian, author and human and civil rights activist. He is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, an organization that advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. He is Archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.