Jesus Breathed His Last: Active and Passive Suffering
People's Congregational Church, UCC, Washington D.C.
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:44-46
I want us to be aware of two movements in this text -- two messages that can feel contradictory. They have to do with active suffering and passive suffering. To get there, let’s visit first Matthew and John’s Gospels quickly.
In Matthew’s version of the crucifixion of Jesus, Matthew uses a Greek phrase we translate as, “He yielded up His spirit” or “He released his spirit” (27:50). John uses a similar phrase: “He gave up His spirit” (19:30). These descriptions of Jesus’ last breath are bold and active. They emphasize the voluntary nature of Jesus’ death. Jesus is in control up to the very last breath. It fits in well with John’s theology. He’s the one who has Jesus say, “I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again (Jn. 10:17–18, emphasis added). For Matthew and John, It ain’t’ over ‘till Jesus says it’s over. Jesus is on top of the whole salvation process up to the very end of life . . . and beyond.
Mark and Luke use a different Greek phrase to describe Christ’s last breath. According to Luke, “Jesus cried in a loud voice, “Abba (Daddy), into your hands I entrust my spirit.” It still sounds like Jesus has some self-determination. It feels like Jesus is in control. He actively commits his spirit to God. Then Mark and Luke add this phrase: “With those words he breathed his last.” He just . . . expired. It’s one of those polite phrases we use when someone dies, similar to saying, “He passed on. He passed over. He was taken home. He’s lost.” It’s what we say when you don’t want to be blunt about death. It is also passive. In Matthew and John, Jesus’ last breath has some intentionality to it. For Mark and Luke, Jesus simply stops breathing. He’s had it. He’s done. He cannot suffer any longer. He takes one last gasp and he’s dead as a hushed world looks on in horrified disbelief.
Did Jesus die on the cross an active, intentional, voluntary act, becoming obedient unto death and securing eternal life for all who believe? Or, did Jesus die as a passive victim, exposing the human tendency to evil and corrupt systems? It’s a question theologians have fun arguing about: Was Jesus’ suffering on the cross was active or passive?
The answer is yes. I want to suggest that our journey to Easter involves both the active and the passive. We need to hold them together to experience the fullness of God’s promise.
On one hand, transformation requires active, untiring effort to face the love of God. God puts us face-to-face with the reality of sin, suffering and death in order to heal us. Facing God’s love is painful for us. It means we need to face our own death-dealing ways actively. Because salvation has already taken place. The presence of God is already in and around us. To grow in our awareness takes some activism. We have to give up our idolatries and biases. We need to reunite our dualistic perceptions. Our active role consists of reminding ourselves, day and night, at home and on the road, at work and at play, that we can entrust ourselves, that we can commit our spirits, to God’s mercy, just as we are. So, transformation is active.
After all, the Apostle Paul tells says, “Transform yourself by the renewing of your minds,” right?
No way. He says, “Be transformed.” I other words, transformation is also passive. I need to be open for something vital happen to me. I not only actively contemplate God, I allow God to contemplate me. Spiritual practices allow for passive receptivity to God in all situations of life.
And so, we are transformed by a mutual loving encounter in two dimensions: Active effort and passive receptivity. Works of compassionate justice balanced by open accessibility. Insistent love tempered by the capacity to be loved in return.
Scripture gives us another way to think of this balance. Paul says, “Love is patient. Love is kind.” The literal phrase actually has more flair: “Love does patience,” or as the KJV puts it. “Love suffers long.”
Love suffers long when your friends and co-workers drive you crazy or your kids and grandkids wake you too early in the morning when you were planning to sleep in. Long-suffering is a survival strategy we use to put up with people who make us nuts, because at the end of the day, we love them more than they grate on our nerves.
That’s what God shows to us, isn’t it? Long-suffering is the passive side of God’s love. Even when we have actively defied, God is patient. God suffers long for us.
But God’s love is also kind. It’s the active side of love. God’s love forgives. God’s love restores. God’s love makes us whole.
Active and passive.
We give and God receives.
God gives and we receive.
God’s insistent love is tempered by our need to be loved in return.
Our growing love is balanced by God’s desire to be loved with all of our heart, mind, and strength.
In my congregation, we talk about this dynamic as spiritual activism. Spiritual Activism is like a breath . . . a heartbeat . . . a rhythm. It means we breathe out and go out and do the works of compassionate justice in the world that God calls us to do. But we know we don’t get it right the first time around. So we gather together and breathe in. We pray. We listen. We receive. We refine our approach. And we realize we can’t stay in the pray circle forever. So we go back out. We exhale and reach out activley in our communities with God’s love. We feed and house the poor. We clothe the naked. We visit the prisoners. We include those who live on the margins of our communities. Then we breathe in again. We come back together to talk, pray some more and listen to for the wisdom of the Spirit.. Then, with another exhalation, we reach out to our families to make them healthier and more loving. Then we gather our families together to pray, and feel God, and listen to how we can be a better family. Then comes the hardest work of all. I breathe out and work on myself, doing whatever it takes to grow in spiritual maturity and wholeness. And I also receive what God wants to do in my life. It’s a breathe. A heat beat. A rhythm. And it’s what I wish for all of us as we approach the miracle of Easter resurrection.