Suffering

A sermon preached at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, 21 August 1988.

“He who eats me, shall live because of me.” (John 6:57)

It’s good to be back with you in St. Peter’s. Last week, I was helping out with services at St. Matthias—the old Saint Barnabas. I like visiting other churches, because each one of them has some special little thing that makes it unique. At St. Matthias, I noticed that children are admitted to Communion at a very early age, and it was a wonderful thing to give the bread into the hands of children of two or three years old, a visible sign that they, too, are full members of the church family.

This was not always allowed. At the first General Synod I ever attended, I remember a discussion on the subject of admitting children to communion—at that time, too daring a thing even to think about. One of the speakers, no doubt with tongue in cheek, described what when on in his church. “We have all the children in the church for the first part of the service,” he said, “and we finish that part of the service with some children’s hymn, perhaps:

‘When mothers of Salem their children brought to Jesus
The stern disciples drove them back, and bade them depart …’

After that, the children go out to Sunday School, and we go on to Communion without them!”

I don’t know whether it was that speech that persuaded the House of Bishops shortly afterwards to issue their ‘guidelines’, clearly establishing the right of children, under proper supervision, to take Communion before confirmation. At any rate, we have, in past years, seen children come to Communion at an earlier and earlier age. Some people wonder if they should, since they perhaps do not have a full intellectual appreciation of the meaning of the Holy Communion. (I wonder who does!) My own justification for allowing this comes from an incident at our supper table, several years ago now, at which our youngest, Janet, then aged 3, learned for the first time that the meat she was eating had once been a living animal. Her face dropped, she pushed away her place, and said very quietly “I don’t think I want any meat!”

It is this same revulsion from the enormity of what Jesus was saying in our gospel passage today, that caused many in the crowds to fall away from Him. It is from passages like this, after all, that Christians in the early Roman Empire were accused of cannibalism at their Eucharists. It would be much nicer if we could stay at arm’s length from Jesus, have an ice cream cone together, perhaps, but nothing so close and personal: nothing that involved such suffering to Our Saviour, as for us to eat His body so that it would become part of our body. After all, we are what we eat! Too much eating Jesus, and we might start turning into people who do the same thing for others, and it’s obviously a painful thing to do!

You will recall that I was speaking to you three Sundays ago—and what an eternity it seems!—on the subject of suffering. I spoke about the suffering that we bring upon ourselves through our sins. I also spoke of the suffering that we bring to other innocent people through our sins, in the story of David, and the first child of his illicit union with Bathsheba. But because it was not the main topic of my sermon, I skipped a part of my notes, and only indirectly alluded to a third category of suffering, the category of Job or St. Paul, which I classified simply as ‘none of the above’. It is to this third category that I want to turn today.

A little further on from today’s reading in John’s gospel, in Chapter 9, we see Jesus being asked a question about a man born blind:

“Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered,

“Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

From this short interchange, we can see quite clearly that, in Jesus’s mind, here is a category of suffering that is quite removed from sin. We might perhaps call it “suffering to reveal the glory of God.” We see it in this blind man, now delivered by Jesus from his darkness. We see it in the Old Testament story of Job, where unmerited suffering led him in the end to a fuller, deeper perception and acceptance of God. We see it in St. Paul, who fervently prayed that some bodily ailment—‘a thorn in the flesh’—would depart from him. God’s reply was brief and to the point,

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Again, the glory of God is revealed in human weakness—a theme that St. Paul comes back to again and again in his letters. Jesus himself prayed fervently in Gethsemane to be spared his hour of trial: the end of it all was not deliverance, but acceptance of the suffering of the Cross. The same petition—“lead us not into temptation,” or in the modern version “save us from the time of trial”—is prayed by millions every day in obedience to Our Lord’s command—yet millions every day still suffer their times of trial and testing.

“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

As we look at these cases, and indeed at the world outside, where disease and natural disasters can cause suffering quite the equal of any caused by human sin and cruelty, we are forced to recognize that trials and suffering, at least in some cases, are part of God’s training of our characters. It applies to ourselves, just as it applied to Jesus Christ, who, according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews,

“..though he were a Son, yet learned the obedience by the things which he suffered, and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation to all them that obey him.”

The character of Jesus, apparently, was not complete until he had passed through the test of suffering. We, who aim to become ‘children of our Father who is in heaven,’ have to accept this discipline of obedience also.

This suffering is necessary, in the end, because it is the only way in which we can be taught what the character of God really is. Of course, from the earliest days of the Church, we have acknowledged that character to have been displayed in Jesus Christ: the suffering servant, the Master who washed his disciples’ feet. We often enough accept this in a kind of grudging faith. What we find almost impossible to accept, and especially so since the time when Constantine made Christianity an ‘official’ religion, is that this Jesus, suffering on the Cross and raised from the dead, is indeed the image of God the Father also. The church would much prefer to think of God the Father as a kind of glorified Roman emperor, ruling by His whim, and casting some souls into heaven, and some into hell, giving pain to some, and an easy passage to his special favourites. This might be nice, if it were true, but it is not. Look at Jesus on the Cross. The roughest treatment of all was reserved for God’s only son!

The picture of God much nearer the truth is one that Jesus gives over and over again in his parables: the ruler betrayed by an unfaithful steward; the father agonizing over the rebellion of his son; David, deposed from the throne by his son Absalom, yet still praying that Absalom’s life be spared, and inconsolable in his grief on learning of his death. The secret of the character of God that this kind of suffering teaches, is that our heavenly Father is a sufferer too. It is through God’s self-giving that Creation exists at all. Such is God’s love that mankind has been given the unfettered privilege of ruining it all if he so desires. It is man’s compassion for the suffering of others that this would cause that is the chief motive that prevents mankind from doing just that. It is to those who are specially devoted to Him that He reveals this final secret of His character. They are given the strange privilege of sharing in some way in these sufferings—which are the birth pangs of His new creation. They are privileged to share the fierce joy of paying the price of suffering, as the cost of participating in the redemption of the world. They are the ones privileged to share at the marriage feast thrown by the King of Heaven—and the menu at that banquet is lamb.

“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me shall live because of me.” So says Jesus, explaining the source of the life giving power that welled up from within him. It would not be right for me to leave this topic, however, without one last word of explanation. We are used to physical food that comes from animals that have been killed: the animal dies, we live, and that is all. Christ’s food is the spiritual food of Love, and the more that kind of food is consumed, the more there is:

“Love is nothing till you give it away…
And you end up having more”

as the popular song says. To experience the love of Christ, we must draw on it deeply, for the more we receive, the more there is to receive. And the same love within us must be passed on, to humanize a grasping and sinful world, by our giving and forgiving our fellow human beings. No matter what the cost to ourselves in the suffering we may be called on to bear—all is as nothing for the surpassing worth of knowing God through Jesus Christ, who, for the joy that was set before Him, gave His life for mankind in suffering on the Cross.

– Text of a sermon delivered on August 21, 1988
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