The following is an interpretation of Luke 23:27-34 to bring out the themes being discussed this week. Quotes are derived from the CEB translation.
Jesus has been betrayed, damned, scorned, and mocked. Now, he is being sent to the cross. As before, his experience isn’t his alone. Others are included in it.
A group of women who love Jesus follow behind him and Simon of Cyrene as they carry the cross to Golgotha. The women wail in anguish for what’s happening to this man they love. Jesus turns to them and says, “Don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and your children. Pain is coming to you too, pain so bad, you will long for death to escape it.”
A short time later—who knows how long the walk took—they mount the hill, a place so acquainted with death, the people call it “the place of the skulls.”
There, Christ is killed. He falls to one of the most painful forms of execution ever devised by man. He is crucified, and in his final moments, he forgives his executioners, granting them grace on behalf of their ignorance.
This week, we want to focus on pain, physical pain, on tribulation so terrible, we cry out for death’s escape. Pain is certainly part of human existence. Because we have bodies with nervous systems, we all experience pain in a variety of forms, some of us in greater intensity than others.
Christians, historically, haven’t dealt well with physical aspects of our being. We’ve long maintained a divide between the physical and the spiritual aspects of our lives. We tried to negate the physical, called it “the flesh,” and pinned all our sins to it. We’ve repressed it. We’ve avoided it. We’ve tried to hide it.
If we believe that Christ redeemed everything when God became human in Christ, we must believe that includes (perhaps especially) our physicality. Pain is intensely physical. Pain screams at us, “You are more than merely spiritual! You are physical!” Pain deserves our attention, because pain is an unavoidable reminder that we are physical beings, that we are like Christ in that way.
There is the pain of injury, of disease, of infirmity, of physical abuse. There is immediately experienced pain – pain inflicted on our own bodies – and there is empathetic pain – pain that we feel because of the another’s pain. These are pains we don’t see coming. They happen to us. They are not welcome. They must be endured.
There is another kind of pain. There is pain we choose. It too comes in many forms. There is the pain we endure to get stronger – the pain of exercise. There is pain that is in the service of heath. Think of the stick of the needle that delivers medicine into your body or the chiropractor’s healing, hurting hands. There is pain involved in acquiring a physical skill – the pain of acclimating your body for a task, the calluses that develop on your fingers as you learn to play the guitar. Pain can be welcome, or at least expected and comprehensible, and easier to endure because it is understood.
Pain is central to Rocky’s life as well. A boxer knows pain. She or he chooses it willingly, some of it for good as she or he exercises and other pains for ill as she or he is pummeled in the ring. A boxer’s family and friends experience pain too, though they likely would not choose it. They love their boxer, and so they feel pain on her or his behalf.
As you watch Rocky 3, pain close attention to the pain Rocky and his community experience. Think of the various kinds of ways you too have experienced pain. Pay attention to your body. Embrace your physical humanity. Christ did.
Watch Rocky 3. Stop the film at 1:28:54, right after gets knocked to the mat for the second time while fighting Clubber Lang. (You’ll watch the rest of the film on Easter.) After watching the film, read the rest of the reflection and answer the questions.
Further Reflection and Questions
We see unwelcome pain in both Jesus’ story and Rocky’s. We see injury and physical abuse as Jesus is nailed to the cross and as Rocky is pummeled by Thunderlips and Clubber Lang. We see empathic pain as the women wail on Christ’s behalf and as Adrian and Mickey wince when Rocky is punched. Mickey even has a heart attack and dies in empathetic anguish.
We see welcome pain in these stories as well. Jesus tells the women that they will one day cry out for mountains to fall on them to escape pain. Christ walks willingly up Golgotha’s hill. He is crucified by his own design on our behalf to save us from our sin, and he does not blame his executioners. He forgives them. Rocky works out. He punches and runs and lifts and jumps to get stronger, so he has a chance to win his fight against Clubber. Rocky forgoes the pleasures of wealth and success for the pain of true competition, for the chance to really live again.
In the movie, it’s easy to see that all the pain Rocky and his loved ones endure is for a greater purpose. All the pain accomplishes something. It’s for charity, to get stronger, to motivate Rocky to be better, to win back a championship, and to gain self-respect. Because a movie is a complete story, it grants us the ability to see both the pain and the purpose that pain serves for the characters.
Pain in real life isn’t as easy to understand. We can’t see the entire story we are living to know what purpose the pain we endure will serve. Often in life, we must endure pain patiently, trust that it will one day end, either in this life or the next, and that it is being worked for our good.
Jesus has that all-encompassing view on history, though. It is perhaps this knowledge that enables him to comfort the mourning women, to walk steadfastly up Golgotha, and to forgive his executioners. Christ knows that his pain serves a purpose, that it is for the salvation of the entire world. Christ knows that though he will die, he will be resurrected. He knows that same resurrection will spread over all creation until in the New Creation, there will be no more pain. He knows that one day, “death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things [will have] passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
In the mean time, we are supposed to reckon pain as discipline, like Rocky training for a fight. It makes us strong in our faith even when it wastes away our bodies. We ought not make little of either ours or another’s experience of pain. It can be very terrible. Instead, we ought to reckon it fully and honestly and then say, “Even this I can endure with Christ,” and trust the finisher of our faith to give purpose to our pain.
When have you been in pain? When was it pain you welcomed? When was it pain you didn’t? Did God use that physical pain for good? If not, do you believe that pain can be redeemed?
To close, pray together for any in your community who are in pain. Pray for strength. Pray for hope. Ask God to work good from you pain.