Recently I listened in as two men chatted about the sufferings of life and the loss of loved ones. Each had experienced a tragically painful loss in his life. One had lost a spouse and an infant child to a car accident, and had recently experienced the death of another child. The other had years ago lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash. Maybe you were listening too, to Vice President Joe Biden, and to Stephen Colbert on late night TV last week.[i] And maybe you were struck, as I was, by the wonderfully acerbic expression that Stephen Colbert attributes to his mother in the face of such suffering: “What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart?” Indeed!
Well, the Irish have not cornered the market in broken hearts, even if they have set a high standard for wearing those broken hearts on their sleeves. There are plenty of broken hearts to go around for every family, language, people, and nation. But the next time I return to Ireland I will try that line out in the pub. What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart? For today, however, let me borrow Mrs. Colbert’s pithy observation and apply it even more broadly: what’s the use of being a Christian if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart? Can you hear Jesus asking that question, when he calls out to anyone who will listen to him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This is not happy stuff! This is hard news to hear, and Jesus knows we don’t want to hear it. Why else would he ask the next ridiculous question he asks: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” This is a timely question in latter day America: what would it profit you to gain the whole world but forfeit your life? Most of us could find an easy answer to this question: I don’t know, we’d say, but I’d sure be interested in finding out! Just how much money are we talking about anyway…?
But Jesus is all but telling his would-be followers that if they follow him they need not expect riches, fame, glory, or success – all of which were at least as appealing obsessions back then as they are now. He might as well have said, What’s the point of following me if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart? Because, of course, life is going to break your heart. There are broken hearts here today, I know, for sure. The real question is whether or not there are any hearts here that haven’t been broken? If so, I’m afraid the bad news is that life is going to break your heart. Maybe it won’t be a car accident, or a plane crash. Maybe it won’t even be death. It could be lost love, failed business, a crippling addiction, a degenerative illness, a war that drives you from your homeland, or who knows what. Irish or not, life is going to break your heart. I suppose you could phrase the question still more broadly: What’s the point of being a human if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart?
When Jesus starts talking this way, it does not go over well. Peter, for one, thinks the message needs a bit of re-tooling, and he tells Jesus as much. But Peter is young, and his heart, I suppose, had not yet been broken. And when Jesus predicts that the Son of Man (by which he means himself) would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, Peter can’t follow his thinking, he can’t even listen to the end of the sentence. After all, how could the Messiah have a broken heart? The anointed one of God must be a winner, a champion, a victor, a hero; not a schlub whose humiliated heart is broken in shameful disgrace and defeat. Peter doesn’t see the point.
But it’s a point that those whose hearts have been broken are able to see. The point is that Jesus’ heart is broken too. It’s broken when his dear friend Lazarus dies. It’s broken by his religion and its leaders who disappoint him and fail their own people. It’s broken by his fiercest friend who denies even knowing him when the going gets tough. It’s broken by his neighbors, friends, and kinsman in Nazareth. It’s broken by an un-just system that arrests him, and flogs him, and eventually kills him, not because he is guilty of anything, but because it is expedient to treat him thus. Yes, Jesus’ heart is broken too. Like a wise and loving teacher, he told his disciples that his heart was breaking, just like theirs.
Peter couldn’t hear him, and he speaks for all the people who don’t want to hear him, who want a winner in their corner, not a fellow-sufferer.[ii] And Jesus might have said, What’s the point of being the Messiah if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart? But instead he said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” which, to my reading, amounts to pretty much the same thing, under the circumstances. Because Jesus actually has more to say about that than Mrs. Colbert, if only Peter would stop and listen. Once my heart is thoroughly broken – as broken or more-so than every human heart - Jesus says, then I will rise again. Yes, my heart will be broken, but I will rise again.
This morning we have the great joy of welcoming an infant child, Teddy, into the household of God as we baptize her. In a few minutes I will stand at the font and sing about the water in it and what that water means to us. And if you listen closely you will hear me sing these odd and somewhat off-putting words about the water: “in it we are buried with Christ in his death.” Why would I sing such a thing? It sounds so dark and deadly, not at all the kind of thing you want to sing around a child. You might as well sing, “What’s the point of being baptized if you don’t know that life is going to break you heart?” And this is not the kind of song one generally sings to children (unless, perhaps, you are Irish).
But the Christian faith is not merely a proclamation of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. The Christian faith is a proclamation of sunshine that dawns after the darkest night; of sweetness that soothes the bitterest taste; and of a rainbow that appears after the murderous devastation of storm, flood, and disaster. The Christian faith is placed in a Savior who rises in solidarity with every broken-hearted human, only after his heart has been broken, too; whose resurrected life is lived only after he has passed through the veil of suffering and death; whose divine power of love is most perfectly displayed in his moment of greatest weakness on the Cross. For not only are we buried with Christ in his death in the water of baptism. By it we also share in his resurrection, and through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit! What’s the point of being a Christian if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart?
Life is going to break your heart and mine – probably more than once. And it is a broken-hearted Savior who calls to us, and tells us that if we want to follow him we should bring our broken hearts with us, and be prepared to have them broken again – that’s what it means to deny yourself and take up your cross: it means to follow the way of heartbreak, and not to be afraid of it. For we know what Peter did not know – that only a broken-hearted Savior can truly save the broken-hearted. Only a Son of Man who has known deep suffering can redeem the bottomless suffering of this world. And only a Messiah who has lost everything and died a shameful death of disgrace can win real victory that triumphs over death.
In a widely read recent profile, Stephen Colbert, talked about the death of his father and his brothers, and referred to a letter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, in which the great English author responds to the objection that he seems to treat death not as a punishment for original sin but as a gift. Colbert says that “Tolkien says in a letter back [to his critic]: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’”[iii] Although Tolkien didn’t exactly write those words, they are probably close enough.[iv] And they surely point us to the Cross, that looks for all the world like a severe punishment (no matter how artfully you dress it up), the condemnation of a loser, and that certainly sounds like a punishment when Jesus tells his followers to take up their crosses and follow him. Until you stop and are patient enough to listen to end of the sentence, to hear Jesus promise that he will rise; and you learn that the Cross is the surest way, the only way, to the Resurrection, and it always points the way to new life – and always for those whose hearts are broken.
What’s the point of being a Christian if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart? Take up your Cross – that gift of God’s – and see it for the gift that it is, and follow Jesus, and let his broken heart make your heart whole again.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 September 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Thursday, 10 Sept 2015
[ii] You know the type.
[iii] Joel Lovell, “The Late, Great Stephen Colbert,” in GQ, August 2015
[iv] It seems likely that Colbert is referring to Letter 212 in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine gift.”