How Do the Sick Participate in Christ?

Grateful for this reflection from our friend Jason Micheli.  More so than the stab of regret, […]

Grateful for this reflection from our friend Jason Micheli

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer injects into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, rather than seeing the true God we constantly remake God according to our image. God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, one of my Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism may strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess. There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk. Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that such anthropology-posing-as-theology forsakes the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet — thanks to the C-word — I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments. I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God according to our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Living with incurable cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth — I do that plenty), I think my experience these past few years, with its nadirs and maintenance chemo (where, what is being “maintained” is my life) allows me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Without intending it, I believe I spent much of my pre-cancer ministry shortchanging the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there. If I’m honest, my selective focus owed in part to the fact that I didn’t think the world or the Church needed another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, my emphasis owed to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. I didn’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

“The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…” I preached in some form nearly every Sunday. “Discipleship is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary. Discipleship requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing.”

And I emphasized this definition of discipleship not just in my preaching but in how I allotted my time, how I designed programs for the church and how I conceived of its mission.

Only later did I realize how unhelpful was it all.

Worse, I didn’t see until later its exclusivity.

Only after I felt a shell of myself, with thinned-out blood and an off-balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone could I see how incomplete and partial had been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross. As Gerhard Forde says, there’s no legal scheme to it. It is simple. Jesus lived a fully human life, the life God desired since Adam, and the Old Adam in us — the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me — we pushed him out of the world on a tree. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quietly exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I learned from the chemo chair, something that hit me listening to Mockingbird friend, Sarah Condon, joke about “Sick Day Christianity.”

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death — not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry — then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with incurable cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I have been these last couple of years. Sick, this question hit me with the equal and opposite force of a mother’s slap: How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry? Rather than, you know, receive it?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor — even if his followers frequently do — because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in my least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body… For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

I’ve spent considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the “love is patient…” pericope which concludes it. I point out to them — Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthians and especially not to love-stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 my persuasive efforts prove futile. But as much time as I expend steering people away from this passage, I have spent surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts — a hand here, an ear there, an eye — then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power. Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked. But what about those who don’t have the energy to feed the hungry? And frankly, those with an expiration date don’t have the peace of mind to be peacemakers. If Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit” is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps it’s better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. He lived it faithfully, and he lived it for us. In our place. So we don’t have to live his life.

Sick, I realized the question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life? The question is: how can I see the particularities and pressures of my life (with cancer) as a participation with whom I am already in by my baptism?

That’s as relevant a question for (healthy) pastors as it is for every one else.

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