On the cusp of Holy Week, Trygve preaches on two narratives of passion that present themselves in the Christian life.
The Cross and Self-Denial
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it.”
I love this time of year. Spring. New life. Fresh Starts. The currents and momentum will soon be pulling us out into the wide open landscape of summer. Soon the sweet smell of grass will be in the air. People will be blooming out in the pine grove like lilies of the field. Yes, I love spring. Spring is the season when passions are ignited. Feelings start to become more fresh in springtime. Spring is a season of passion.
I love passion. I’m a romantic at heart. I feel deeply. I always have. But there are two different kinds of passion. Two passions with two different kinds of scripts to live out. Choosing the right script to live into is a watershed decision. A watershed is a divide – if the rain falls on the west side of a Mountain divide, the water will drain towards the western slope. If the rain falls on the eastern side of the mountain slope, it will drain eastward. How we view passion is also a watershed. These can be described in two scripts.
II. Script 1: Romantic Passion
When I was young, I had a baseball coach whose daily mantra was “Play with passion.” This was his key to our success. If we played with passion, it would give us an edge. Passion was the needed ingredient of confidence to perform well, make our mark, to win! I took this to mean playing the game with intensity, emotion, and visible enthusiasm. This is the romantic idea. Passion was something within, a subjective feeling, an idealism, a call to be a visionary, that I needed to generate in order to play the game at a peak level. I took my coach’s advice to heart. In everything I do.
Passion was a means to play well. More passion, the better the performance. Of course this passion had to be controlled, channeled, disciplined. So I read motivational books. I mediated on sayings like “The me I see is the me I’ll be.” I read books that I thought would give me an edge. I’d go to camps. Listen to speeches. Anything that would help me.
At heart, “to play with passion” was a way to be a better me – a better person – more authentic. I liked it. At heart, I’m a romantic. I enjoy intense feelings, experiences, in all its forms. I am also a competitor. I am built for the ring – the rough and tumble. I like it. I like to win. Passion was a way to play the game better. The game is about winning. But the danger with this script is that it makes life a game, and the point of a game is to win. The way to win is to be someone who will be stronger, faster, fiercer, more intelligent, more prepared, more passionate than the other person. Passion was a feeling. I loved to feel passion. I wanted to play the game, and more, to live with a defining “passion”. I still do.
Or do I? Do I really want to live with passion? What does this passion mean as a Christian? What does it look like to leave it all out on the field of faith as a follower of Jesus?
II. Script 2: The Cross
There is another script to live out. It’s also a script about passion. But this script reframes the popular notions of passion that we have been given. It is the script given to us by God.
The season of Lent is preparing us to enter Holy Week, or, in what some traditions, is referred to as Passion Week. This is a week when we cover the history of Jesus’ Passion. Christ’s Passion is the Christian theological term used for the events and suffering – physical, spiritual, and mental – of Jesus in the hours before and including his trial and execution by crucifixion. The etymological origins of the word derive from the Greek verb πάσχω (paschō), meaning “to suffer”.
- Jesus Enters Jerusalem
- The Last Supper
- The Arrest of Jesus
- Jesus Crowned with Thorns
- Jesus Mocked
- Jesus Carrying the Cross
- The Crucifixion
This is Passion. God’s passion. This is Jesus, son of God, suffering by the world for the world God so loves. To live with passion as a Christian is an invitation to suffering.
I see the difference of script 1 and 2 especially in the image of Jesus carrying the cross. In this sketch of Jesus Carrying the Cross by Otto Dix, I find my youthful notions of playing with passion confronted by a sobering realism. In this scene, Jesus, with swollen face, has passed through the gate of the Temple, and is bearing his cross as he walks up the slogging path to Golgotha. He is struggling for every step, reeling as he walks, with the swelling mob, all agog with curiosity, following after him. Leashed like a dog, Jesus can’t stand, or bear the weight of the cross, because his body is already bleeding out, as the flesh of his back is ripped open by a whip laced with shards of glass and serrated rock. This is a horrific scene of human torture. This is a picture of Jesus’ passion.
Now, I have to ask myself, do I really want to live “Play with passion?”
As a Christian, “to play with passion” means to live a life that suffers. This is not easy medicine. Nothing in me wants to suffer like Jesus. In fact, I go to great lengths to keep suffering at bay. Modern dentistry is more than enough for me! But Christ shows us that a life of passion is a willing entrance into selfless vulnerability, not selfish protection. It is a passion defined not by romantic subjective enthusiasms, but by an objective act of physical and emotional suffering for and with others. Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
This kind of passion is to be the defining quality of life together in Christ.
III. The Problem
There is a conflict between script 1 and script 2. Script 1 was given to me and I just tried to “play the game of faith” with more passion. My passion. It was always about my emotional intensity and performance. Script 1 told me that passion was always performing and feeling. To achieve my goals I needed to do more, be more, feel more. So I made Bible study a goal. Prayer a goal. I had to “do more and be more” kind of faith. A passionate faith was a heroic faith.
Heroic faith is about me doing things – overcoming my weaknesses, pulling myself up by my spiritual boot straps. A heroic faith teaches you to depend on yourself. Which means that Script 1 throws you back on yourself. It’s a kind of natural selection. Survival of the fittest – and to the degree that Jesus makes us stronger – more passionate – great.
It’s subtle but important to pay attention to. We use script 1 to make our faith about us. We actually use God as a kind of cosmic coach to make us perform better. We take verses like “Take up your cross and follow me” to mean “It’s your cross you have to bear” – tough it out – you can be your own Jesus. Jesus suffered – so can you – you can “do all things in Christ who strengthens you.” Meaning, you can do it all! That is Script 1: you don’t really need God at all.
Script 1 nurtures us to think that my faith, that Christian passion, is about me – about what I can get out of this, how I am doing, living, performing – and it forgets – it forgets others. Script 1 passion is inward focused. Spiritual navel gazing. It is about using God to develop inner resources in order not to be weak – not to fail. Script 1 uses God for our own promotion. When faith becomes about you – performing for others – it’s exhausting. Faith just becomes a game we play. That kind of game is fake.
But script 2 – Jesus’ Passion – gets the attention off ourselves and namely onto another. Script 2 is not about a game. The point of the Script 2 – Jesus’ cross – is that we can’t do it all. Script 2 reminds us that we can’t fix all our problems with a little more motivation and willpower. We need something that we can’t do for ourselves. Script 2 is a passion that reminds us that we need God! God is what we need!
Dix’s image of Jesus carrying the cross is a reminder to live our life with a defining passion of Jesus. But Jesus’ passion is not about getting worked up in the locker room. Christian passion is not a pep-talk intended to motivate us to win a competition, or get a better grade, or even to be a better version of yourself. The passion to “take up our cross” is an invitation to a new life of passion where we enter with God into the suffering of others, and of ourselves, without fear, avoidance, or self-protection.
The good news is that Christ’s passion on the cross means Jesus suffering for us within the Holy Spirit is still suffering with us. In taking our humanity, Jesus heals all humanity in himself. That’s the point of Script 2! Script 2 passion is not something we have to generate. It is a passion given to us in grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But it does require us to follow Jesus. “If any want to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me!”
This does not mean we will save ourselves in our suffering – No! We have already been saved by the cross of Jesus once and for all. But it does mean that because we are saved by Christ’s suffering, we are now free with Jesus to enter into the suffering of others and the world.
Script 2 passion reminds us that God does not leave us alone to ourselves in the loss, the grief, the pain. Whatever we carry today, Christ is carrying it with us. He who began a work will see it to completion. Which is why Jesus’ passion is the power to redefine our relationships, our conflicts, our politics, our imaginations, our notion of success itself.
Today, trust that Christ’s passion – his suffering – has redefined your reality that is filled with new possibilities. Right now you are sitting by others. They may be suffering. You may be suffering. Script 2 reminds us not to avoid the pain – don’t look away – instead enter in – make eye contact and carry the pain all the way to Jesus – the son of God – who refuses to look away by entering into our lives with a defining passion.
This will hurt. It may even scar. But if we do, we may discover a God who is already there, suffering with us, and in Him our capacity to live with passion is enlarged, as we discover a confidence that we can never lose, because in the cross of Christ, we have already won.