“He Learned Obedience Through What He Suffered”

“He Learned Obedience Through What He Suffered”

A sermon given on the first Sunday in Lent 2024 by the Rev’d David Curry, the rector of Christ Church in Windsor, NS, chaplain and faculty member of King’s-Edgehill School, and one of the PBSC’s longest-serving national Vice-Chairmen.

The temptations of Christ in the wilderness on the First Sunday in Lent are a kind of commentary on Creation and the Fall and on the Ten Commandments and the Exodus. They speak to the truth of our humanity as “co-workers with God” and the untruth of our humanity in its negation of God. They illuminate the struggle for us to take a hold of the grace given in Christ and as such they illustrate what Paul says in 2 Corinthians about our life in Christ. “We go up to Jerusalem” with Jesus as he told us last Sunday. We go up “as workers together”, having “receiv[ed] not the grace of God in vain”.

He uses three little words to describe the pilgrimage of our lives: two prepositions and a relative pronoun or conjunction: inby, and as. They reveal the human condition. We struggle to work with God’s truth and mercy in the face of the disorders of our humanity, in the forms of suffering the various distresses of the world. We endeavour to do so by way of the qualities of God at work in us, the spiritual disciplines that allow us to face such things – “by pureness, by knowledge, by long-suffering, by kindness”, etc. And we do as those who unite the seemingly contrary aspects and paradoxes that belong to our finite lives, ultimately “as having nothing, and yet possessing all things”. He is talking about how we live in the wilderness of the world while being one in Christ; “as dying, and, behold, we live”.

The temptations belong to the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry, to the beginning of the willed way of the cross, to the beginning of the way of suffering freely embraced. Jesus wills to learn what we have failed to learn. He learns obedience through the suffering which belongs to our failure to accept the givenness of the created order and the transcendence of God; in short what God wants us to do and to be. To be tempted comes with the territory of our being rational creatures – it belongs to the truth and good of our being. The temptations are our temptations. They recall us to the meaning of the Fall in Genesis. In this sense they follow logically upon the dust and ashes of Ash Wednesday; in short, to Creation and the Fall, and to the Exodus journey of learning through suffering.

To succumb to temptation belongs to our sinfulness – to our falling away from the conditions of our creaturehood. Its essence is disobedience – a willful denial of God’s truth upon which our being depends. In other words, Jesus does what we should have done but haven’t done and now cannot do – such is the reality of original sin and its legacy; however much we may want to do it, we can’t. We have no power of ourselves. Posse non peccare; non posse non peccare; non posse peccare, as Augustine puts it in what becomes a favourite aphorism for a number of theologians, catholic and reformed. That is, our humanity before the fall is “able not to sin”; after the fall, “not able not to sin”; and in Christ “not able to sin”. It is a way of thinking about the truth and untruth of our humanity.

The last belongs to the struggle of our lives; hence the story of the temptations. They are the threefold illusions of our fallen reality: the illusions of our technocratic control of the world, turning stones into bread, as it were; the illusions of our seeming invincibility that would subject God to our pride and vanity, to our whims and fantasies as privileged and entitled; and to the illusions of ourselves as God and as masters of the universe. They are all the things which we renounce in baptism: “the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh” (BCP, p. 525). Only in resisting these temptations can we begin to learn the meaning of our freedom and life as accomplished in Christ’s sacrifice.

The temptations of Christ are a most dramatic illustration of the lesson of our redemption. Christ is the new Moses who overcomes the acts of Israel’s disobedience and ours. The difference is that Moses can only state what Israel failed to learn. Jesus shows us the doing of it. He is ever the Word in motion, the Word that is done. And he does so in what belongs to his identity with us; in the soul and body of our humanity. He learns obedience in the being of the creature whose refusal to learn is disobedience.

It belongs to the mystery of our redemption as Hans Urs Von Balthazar puts it, that “Jesus always receives what he bestows”; that “he underwent what he redeemed”; that “he who delivers from death himself died”; that “he who gives resurrection himself rose from the dead”; that “he who baptizes was himself baptized”; that “he who saves in temptation was himself tempted”. Consequently for us, “because of what he is, he causes in us what he himself undergoes”.

The temptations of Christ show us the obedience which he learned and which we have failed to learn. But the lesson is shown so that in him we may learn to be what God would have us be – those who are willing to learn through the suffering which our disobedience occasions.

The temptations are the temptations of Israel; they are our temptations. Israel in the wilderness complained to God about bread and water. They tempted God; they put God to the test. In other words, Israel sought to make God serve the demands of our bodily and worldly desires – our appetites. Israel endeavoured to make God subject to our wills – to do for us what would make him acceptable to us. Israel in the wilderness denied the truth of the God who had delivered them from bondage in Egypt. They worshipped an image of their own making – the golden calf. Thus, Israel categorically denied the God who had commanded that “thou shalt have no other gods before me”- that is to say, “thou shalt not serve any other gods”. And Moses fasted forty days and forty nights in intercession to God for sinful Israel.

The whole story is deliberately recalled, recapitulated and re-worked in the person of Jesus Christ. He bears the temptations of Israel in himself and overcomes them. That he does so is not a display of divine power, an effortless banishment of the devil and all the vanity of his show; he does so only through the agony of suffering. “He learned obedience”, as Hebrews puts it.

His answers to Satan are the lessons which Moses taught but which Israel failed to learn. The answers are always and ever true but, more especially, they are true in him who does what he says and is what he does. What are those answers? “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”; “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”; and, as if to bring all things home to truth itself, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve”.

These are the lessons which have always and ever to be learned by those who would be the humanity that God would have us be. Yet they are the lessons which we all have failed to learn. We can only learn by going with him to Jerusalem, the pilgrimage from the wilderness of sin to the paradise of God’s love. We learn the truth of our humanity as found in him in his free-willing obedience to the Father’s will. He does so in what belongs to us, the very substance of our humanity.

David Curry
The Rev’d David Curry
“He Learned Obedience Through What He Suffered”