“This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.”
This is a phrase only a parent could utter. And a phrase no child could ever really understand. Certainly, when I heard it growing up, I was sure my parents had finally gone all the way off the deep end. Just how was my punishment going to hurt them?
But then, if by chance you become a parent, you begin to understand how your child’s hurt – her physical, mental, emotional hurt – causes you hurt. Not metaphorical or symbolic or even empathetic hurt, but real, genuine, true hurt.
One literary image of this can be found in Konstantin Levin, who is the co-protagonist in the novel Anna Karenina.
Konstantin’s wife Kitty gives birth to their first son Dmitri and when the child is born Konstantin is not happy to witness the birth – he is not proud or bursting with joy – he is terrified.
He is terrified, because, he says, he knows instantly that his heart is no longer safe behind the ribcage in his own chest, but now is vulnerable to the world.
This child who has been born is his heart and his heart will now grow, and learn to walk, and go running about out in the world, surrounded by the constant possibility of any number of threats, dangers and hurts.
Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina, had a deep faith in Jesus Christ, which pulses all through the novel, and his description of Konstantin’s feeling at seeing the birth of his child must surely help us imagine how God our Father must have felt to see his Son’s birth.
In the Incarnation, God’s Son, God’s heart, is no longer safe with God but sent into the world, vulnerable to what our sin would do to him. God’s heart has come into the world to die, but to die for a purpose: to draw the entire world back into the heart of God the Father.
Like a single grain is buried in the earth and therefore becomes a stalk of wheat producing many, many grains, Jesus’ one life will be given to produce life and health and salvation for many.
He will die and be buried to bring the abundance of eternal life to us, showing us the deep love God has for us and the deep love God has for the whole world.
And the whole world is just what this twelfth chapter of the Fourth Gospel is all about.
Until now, Jesus the Perfect Israelite has lived and ministered among fellow Hebrews – he has shown them he is from God in terms they can understand.
He has shown himself to be a kind of Prophet, like Moses, leading God’s people to Freedom.
He has shown himself to be a kind of Priest, like Melchiezedek and Aaron, making intercession for the people.
He has shown himself to be a kind of King, like David, anointed by God and chosen to be the head of God’s people.
But now Jesus begins to show he is also more than these archetypes from Israel’s history.
The signs Jesus is performing demonstrate that there is more to Jesus than anyone had suspected.
These signs are a part of God’s plan to translate his love so that everyone can understand it – not just the Israelites – not just people living in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see.
And so now, it in addition to attracting the attention of his Hebrew brothers and sisters, he is also attracting Greeks.
These Greeks have come to see the signs Jesus is performing. Specifically, they have come because they heard about the sign performed in Bethany, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave after the man had been dead for three days.
This big news traveled fast and now Jews and non-Jews alike have come to Jerusalem during the Passover to see for themselves what all the talk is about, and to get as close to Jesus as they can.
And they arrive just as Jesus is getting very close to the heart of the matter.
Jesus says, “Those who love their self, lose their self…and those who hate their self in this world, keep it for eternal life.”
Some may have found this confusing and some might still find this confusing.
But we might also be confused by the behavior of Narcissus, the character from Greek mythology who was so proud; he scorned those who loved him.
One of his enemies noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely a reflected image.
Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus spent the rest of his life by the pool gazing at himself. He loved himself so much he lost his life, or as Jesus might say, “Those who love their self, lose their self.”
And then from our Christian tradition we remember Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi who gave away their earthly wealth to serve the poor, Dr. King who led our civil rights movement in spite of threats on his life that would be made good on.
And we might also remember Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium who went to minister to people exiled with leprosy, people who had been placed under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokai.
After sixteen years caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, as he knew he eventually would, Father Damien contracted leprosy and died of the disease.
Or as Jesus might say, “Those who can see beyond themselves…find themselves…for eternity.”
All of these followers of Jesus Christ hated their self in this world for the good of their neighbor – or to put it another way –they chose to love others more than themselves as a witness to the one who loved them first.
Each one of these men and women, rather than overtaking others with power, sought how to come to their neighbor in humility with the heart of a servant – and in doing this they walked in the way of God.
Each one of these saints made themselves vulnerable as God has made himself vulnerable time and again throughout the ages.
Again and again, rather than demanding the allegiance of his people, God has invited us into mutual relationship, offering to enter into covenants with us, in the time of Noah, in the time of Abraham, in the time of Moses, and even though we broke all these covenants, God never gave up.
God remained vulnerable. God never quit loving us. God didn’t stop trying to reach us.
Finally God says, through the prophet Jeremiah, “The Days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with my people, not like the covenant that they broke. No, this will be a new covenant and I will write my law, not on stone tablets, but I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they will be my people. I will forgive their sin and I will remember it no more.”
It’s as if our sin, our war, our racism, our poverty, our hunger, our greed, our grief and suffering was hurting God more than it was hurting us.
It is as if God was watching his heart, out from behind his ribcage, hurting and being hurt.
And so with the determination of a Father God promises a covenant, again. But this time God plans a new strategy. This will be the final perfect covenant, the final perfect sign, the final perfect gift.
In Jesus, on the cross, God becomes completely and totally vulnerable. He comes among us himself, as one of us, and offers up the flesh of his wrists and his feet to be pierced through with nails; he offers up his side to be run through with a spear; he offers up his head to be crowned with thorns.
Jesus says, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it will hurt you…but I do it for you with love. I do this for you to bring you a new covenant, a new promise – the promise of forgiveness, the promise of eternal life, and the promise of God’s unending acceptance of you.”
Now, Jesus shows us just what he meant about seeds dying to produce a great harvest and just what he meant about choosing others over one’s self.
Jesus leads the way, making it possible for us to live this way too, writing this covenant on our hearts.
We are baptized into his death and resurrection and this is God’s greatest covenant with us.
We are joined to him forever.
And because he is with the Father, we are with the Father too.
We eat at the Father’s table and we are able to forgive one another with the forgiveness that comes from God, because we are able to be vulnerable with one another too.
We have nothing to prove. God has declared us welcome in his family, precious in his sight, forgiven by his mercy.
We have seen the cross of Christ and so we have seen the glory of God.
God’s mercy has been given to us. God gives his mercy to us today. And God promises his mercy to us forever.
THANKS BE TO GOD.