The way to freedom: suffering

John 21:15-19
2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Today is Passion Sunday – nothing to do with sex as the council officials in Oxford mistakenly thought a few years ago when attempting to licence as passion play – but the point in Lent when we turn from the more general themes, to thinking more directly about the cross. And so our theme this week is suffering, from Jesus suffering on the cross to suffering in our own lives. During Passiontide we think of how Jesus on the way to Jerusalem repeatedly told his disciples that he too was going to be ‘given up into the hands of men.’ I think this represents a loss of power and capability.

It will, no doubt, seem rather strange that we read from the one of the stories after Jesus’ resurrection, but it will make sense! In this reading from John’s gospel, the risen Jesus renews his fellowship with Simon Peter and commands him to tend his ‘flock’, the Church, as Jesus’ under-shepherd. But this leadership role given to Peter does not remove from him any of the demands of being a disciple. The final command is the simple, stark call which has always been first in the Gospel story: ‘Follow me’.

The significance of this comes in verse 18: ‘. . . when you were younger. . .But when you grow old . . .’ As so often in John’s Gospel what can be read as a simple matter-of-fact statement can also carry a deeper significance. Jesus may be simply contrasting the freedom of the younger man to dress as he pleases and go where he wills, with the constricting problems of old age. But the reference to Peter’s hands being stretched out, and to being bound and taken where he does not wish to go, can also be a description of the kind of death – crucifixion – that is in store for Peter. Either way, it’s a death that is the culmination of weakness and helplessness, of being at the mercy of others, and as such (verse 19) it is the kind of death by which he will glorify God. So, Jesus tells Peter that he’ll one day suffer, and perhaps that’s a reminder to us that one day we might find ourselves suffering – indeed, many of us know that all too well without any reminder necessary, thank you very much.

And then we hear this message from Paul to the church at Corinth. It seems that the issue at the moment is about power, prestige, and authority. Some other leaders have appeared on the scene, evidently also claiming to be apostles and even boasting that they have better credentials than Paul himself. Some of the Corinthian Christians are going along with them. Paul is being subjected to unfavourable comparisons with these ‘apostles’: he’s not capable of performing such miraculous signs and wonders, not as powerful and eloquent in speech, exhibits not such great strength of personality, is not so impressive a ‘presence’ and so on. Shock, horror! Whoever heard of churches comparing one Minister critically against a previous one, or a neighbouring one?

Paul’s response is almost jocular: ‘OK, if it’s boasting that we’re into, here goes’ and proceeds to tell (as if it were somebody else) of his own extraordinary supernormal experience when he was ‘caught up to the third heaven’. What Paul learns through this is that: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’. We may well feel that the notion of ‘power made perfect in weakness’ obviously contradicts a lot of what goes on in the world.

We all know that Jesus suffered on the cross, and we all know suffering in our own lives, in various ways. Our Bible readings seem to be suggesting to us that suffering might be how Peter and Paul both find some freedom. Yet, this seem to stand at odds with much of our own experience, when suffering is totally unpleasant and unwelcome. People ask, naturally, why does God allow suffering? Why does God allow bad things to happen? Why do disasters happen and what is God’s part in it? Why does God let people suffer? Make people suffer? Allow suffering at all?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one real answer to that question, and that Christians keep on asking the question because they don’t like the answer but it is the only one that exists.

In our Bible readings today, Peter knew his relationship with God, and so did Paul. It wasn’t that this stopped them suffering, but it did enable them to live in such a way that they were at peace in their lives. It wasn’t that it stopped death, in the end, but it bring life.

Is the message of Peter and Paul that it’s good for us to turn ourselves around, good for us to change, good for us to put things right, life enhancing to take stock – to stop, to work out where we are going, and to turn towards God?

It won’t make bad things stop happening, although it might make us stop doing bad things. Part of having faith surely means is accepting that this is just the way life is; being alive means knowing suffering, and also knowing that it doesn’t seem to come fairly or equally. There’s a randomness to life that we can’t fathom and it won’t make sense even if we project it onto God and talk as though it’s God who afflicts us.

God never afflicts us. God loves us. Bad things happen, but not from God. God still loves us. Terrible things happen unfairly to some rather than others, and God goes on loving us even as we rage about how unfair life is.

I’d like to use an analogy from gardening, to try and put some perspective on what I’m saying. Gardeners know that plants grow best when the manure is piling up around them. God loves you when the crap is piling up around, just as much as anywhere. You grow nearer to God when you just can’t seem to shake off the dung. God loves you whether you smell of heaven or the “earth” from which you were made. And every gardener knows, plants grow most when they are deep in the shit.

I end with some words written by Donald Hilton:

How is it, Lord?
The television screen beams out its light –
I see the hungry eyes of people far away;
the swollen bellies, and the fly-infected eyes.
I do not know them, and I never will,
and yet I feel their pain as though it were my own.

How is it, Lord?
The newsprint chronicles a further crime –
a victim’s helplessness is there in black and white;
and pain swirls out in family agony.
I do not know them, and I never will,
and yet their pain bites deep as though it were my own.

How is it, Lord?
A casual conversation speaks of family accident and pain:
a mother bowed in grief, children distressed, a father’s anguish
The family is not mine, we’ll never meet,
and yet I feel the agony as though it were my own.

How is it, Lord?
Is it that humankind is really one;
life interlocked, emotions joined, our sinewed nerves combined?
And have I touched the secret of the Cross
where pain of all is carried by just one,
lifts us all?

If so, then let it be,
and I will bear the pain,
and walk the way of Christ.

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