Undying Love?

It’s funny the things that stick in my head and prompt me to write a blog post. Take yesterday for example: just a couple of words from a prayer in an open time of worship at church. The lady thanked Jesus for his “undying love” for us and promised her undying love in return.

Now I understand what she meant by “undying” – enduring, lasting, limitless even. Yet given the things I’ve been reading lately – Moltmann’s The Crucified God and Fiddes’ The Creative Suffering of God – it’s the dying love of God that has captured my imagination.

The love of Jesus that we celebrate in our communion meal is precisely the opposite of an undying love – it’s love that could only be expressed by dying.

There’s a story that’s often repeated by people talking about the suffering of God told by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor. Wiesel was held in the Auschwitz death camp, where one day the whole camp’s population was summoned and made to stand facing three gallows. They had been set up for three Jews who had been found with weapons, suspected of sabotage and resistance. As was the custom after an execution, they were all forced to file past the corpses to get their food, a warning not to cross the camp commandant. Two of the executed were men, they died quickly, but the third was a young boy.

But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished

Behind me I heard the same man asking:

“For God’s sake, where is God”

And from within me I heard a voice answer:

“Where he is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
(Wiesel, Night)

A God who is actually alive is one who will die for us, with us. If God’s only response to suffering is to take us out of it is as good as dead until he turns up. A God who suffers with us is present in the depths of darkness as well as the light of liberation. A dying God is more alive, more real than an undying God, a passionless and distant observer.

Christian theologians speak of a ‘cruciform God’, God who is shaped like a cross. It’s a shape he chooses to make himself known by throughout the scriptures, it’s the definition of his love. It’s a shape that should be stamped all over the church – a shape that we not only wear around our necks or place on the top of steeples but that we take deep into ourselves. It’s a shape that refuses to be co-opted by power or prosperity theologies, a shape that cannot help but give itself away.

Last week, preaching at my home church, I began to hint at this. After Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (which is affirmed with a blessing), Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah. Why would he do that? It’s quite a strange puzzle, until you look at the next few verses where Jesus begins to reveal the suffering he will endure and Peter try to tell him off. It shows just how much the disciples have fundamentally misunderstood what it means for Jesus to be Messiah and Son of God – it’s about suffering, not an easy ride.

It’s here, at the end of Matthew 16, that Jesus says that anyone who will follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross”. This can mean nothing less than taking the cruciform shape of the love of God into ourselves, of choosing suffering and rejection, of responding with a dying love. Being a disciple means dying so we can really live – not martyring ourselves to get a reward in paradise but a kind of dying life (as opposed to a living death) where we can see the Kingdom really coming.