Morning Service conducted by Revd. Jennifer Millington
This sermon is taken from John 31, verses 31-34
Walking the Way: Fellow Pilgrims
“I don’t want this life.”
“I don’t like what I do.”
“I don’t want to feel this way.”
“I don’t like the person I have become.”
Most of us at some time will have reached that point in our lives when we say, “I do not like where I am right now. I do not like what is happening to me. I hate my life.”
Sometimes this is all down to bad things that are happening to us. Sometimes it is just about us: how we are dealing with life and the people in it. But Jesus’ strong words about “hating your life” can actually resonate with us, can’t they? Because he is not talking about some kind of death wish but about when we have to face the fact that our life is not the life we want.
He goes on to say that those who hate their life will find it and keep it for eternal life. “Eternal life” is not life after death. It is not the same thing as “everlasting life.” It is about a deeper quality in our living that nothing can destroy. Generally we discover what we really do want in life through eliminating all those things we thought we wanted and found we did not. Face up to what you hate about your life, says Jesus, and you will discover what truly matters and what really lasts.
Jesus himself is obviously coming to a crisis point in his ministry. He is talking a lot about “the hour” that is coming, suggesting a moment in time when he will finally achieve what it is that he came into the world to do. He is also talking a lot about his “glorification” and by this he does not mean a moment at which he will be seated on a great throne with a crown upon his head and everyone bowing down to him. In John’s Gospel, the “glory” of God is another word for the presence of God. “We saw his glory” in Jesus Christ, wrote St John at the start of the Gospel. We saw what God was really like. When Jesus speaks of his ultimate “glorification” he is talking about that moment in his ministry when people will see God most clearly. For some reason the coming of these Greeks- we don’t know who they were but they were clearly non-Jews, foreigners- and they asked to see him. For Jesus this was a sign that his “hour” was near when his “glorification” would be complete.
His friends never quite understood what this was all about. For them, the pinnacle of Jesus’ ministry would be when he stood in Caesar’s place, crowned with Caesar’s crown, lifted up as Emperor of the world for all to worship. But as the story unfolds they, and we, are dismayed to learn that what Jesus is actually talking about is the cross. It is through suffering, humiliation, rejection and death that Jesus will show the fullness of God and be in a position to draw all people to him.
It sounds crazy. Totally crazy. In the Christian year, this Sunday is called “Passion Sunday” when we start looking ahead to the “passion,” that is, the suffering and death of Christ. And we ask why? Why did it have to be this way? For it did have to be this way. In John’s Gospel, more than once, Jesus uses a very strong Greek verb to indicate that he must, absolutely must do things this way. Why?
It occurs to me that the one thing just about all human beings have common is suffering. No-one has a pain-free life. Some people suffer far more than others. Some will look as though they deserve their pain and others will look like innocent victims. Some will suffer physically, some mentally, some emotionally, some spiritually, some all four. But in the course of our lives we all experience pain, loss, rejection, fear, injustice. The one thing we all have in common is suffering.
Which means, then, that the one opportunity we all have in common is to find our redemption through suffering. Countless men and women have pointed to times of suffering in their lives as moments when they were able to see things differently; moments when they discovered strength within them they never knew they had; moments when they forged bonds with other people that would never be broken; moments when they discarded what was worthless and discovered what was real; moments when they knew what they had been put on this earth to do and did it. The suffering that could so easily have destroyed them became instead a source of new and yes “eternal,” indestructible life.
So, if the one thing all humanity has in common is suffering, does it not make sense that the God who loves us will most clearly be seen as He is betrayed, rejected, beaten, humiliated and crucified? How could any other kind of God be worth knowing? And if, in the figure of Christ on the cross we see God himself, does this not give us hope beyond all hope that even in suffering we may find redemption; that we may be set free from the life we hate and the person we wish we were not because here, in the darkest places of our existence we see God.
“I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to me,” said Jesus. No high and lofty Emperor, raised far above the struggles of ordinary people could command our love and our trust as the crucified Christ does.
Corrie ten Boom was brought up within a loving family in Holland. When the country was occupied by the Nazis her family gave shelter to Jews. For this, she and her sister, Betsi, ended up in a concentration camp. Despite the pain, the hunger, the fear, the deprivation, the anger that people could do this to them, both women found their faith in God growing deeper and stronger day by day.
Betsi said to Corrie that it would be their mission to share this faith with the world. “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. They will listen to us Corrie, because we have been here.”
Nobody quite trusts the preachers who claim solidarity with God because they are rich or politically powerful or personally charismatic. There is a complacency about them, an aloofness and you cannot help but suspect that there is some personal agenda of gain going on somewhere. But when you hear ordinary women forced to undergo extraordinary levels of pain claim that, “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still,” you are far more inclined at least to listen to their message.
A few years ago we spent quite a lot of money on a new Noticeboard outside the church. And quite rightly. Churches need good, clear and regularly updated Noticeboards. But not long afterwards some people who lived locally asked me, “Do you have a church service here every Sunday? Can anyone come?”
That new and expensively produced Noticeboard had displayed on it in large letters :
Church Service every Sunday at 10:30am. All are Welcome.
I could have wept……what was it about those words they did not understand?
But we know, don’t we, that although a significant number of our neighbours join us at certain times because they have seen the Noticeboard, picked up the cards we deliver, looked on the website, there are still many more who never look at the Noticeboard; don’t even open the Easter, Christmas and Harvest Cards we give them. But a lot of them know us. They talk to us. They see what we do. They hear what we say. I think it was J.John who said that “the majority of people in church today are there because they have known a Christian.” ‘But a lot of the people who are not in church are not there because they have known a Christian…..” Oh dear.
When people who were themselves in pain saw Jesus hanging on the cross, their first reaction was total despair. Jesus had failed. His love had been beaten by hatred. His divinity had been overcome by evil. There was no hope for any of us. But when those same people saw Jesus return from death still bearing the scars of his suffering but making the forgiving grace of God available to all, hope was reborn. There might still be suffering but now there was hope of redemption through suffering because this redemption came by the power of God.
And it was this hope that the people around them witnessed in the years to come. What they saw were ordinary men and women living as they lived, experiencing the same pain and complex issues that they experienced. But these followers of Christ lived in hope and believed in redemption. This made such a difference in the way they spoke, the way they lived, the decisions they made, the relationships they formed, the suffering they endured with courage, that their faith began to make sense and people from all different backgrounds and cultures and religions were able to take the Christian faith on board. It was centuries before anything “official” was written down and we know from Paul’s letters that local Christian congregations were diverse in the extreme. There was no set pattern of worship or practice. It was all about communities shaped by hope- we can worship God, we can trust in Jesus, we can love each other, we can never give up on the world because Christ has died, Christ is risen and in Christ shall all be made alive.
People of all kinds saw the reality of God in Jesus. People then saw the reality of Jesus in the lives of those who followed him. The “glory of God” can be in us and will be seen in all its fullness as we -in the strength of Christ- live out our lives day by day, including the pain, the rejection, the injustice. As we show our solidarity with others, so they will learn God’s solidarity with them.
“They will listen to us, because of where we have been.”
Let me tell you another story about Corrie ten Boom. Her beloved sister Betsi died in the Concentration Camp but Corrie survived and returned home, where she set up residential care for victims of war, no matter what their nationality or background. Despite her own suffering and the loss of her sister, she travelled widely, preaching the necessity of forgiveness if the world was to recover from the horrors of war. It was not easy, especially when she came face to face with one of the former guards from the camp. All Corrie could think of as she looked at him, was her sister’s suffering. The man thanked her for her message and for the Christian promise and hope that even sins so great as his could be forgiven. He held out his hand but Corrie could not take it.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. Again and again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.
“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on Christ’s. When Christ tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Walking the Way: living the life of Jesus today inevitably means walking with fellow pilgrims. This is not a way we take alone. Sometimes we are surprised to look round and see who is actually walking much the same way as we are. They can be the last people we expected or wished to see. Walking the Way means walking with people who stand in just as much need of hope and forgiveness and healing and strength as we do. It means trusting Christ at every turn to give us the power we need to walk his way. It means praying constantly for the glory of God to be seen in the way we live, 24/7. It means living in the hope that even when we walk through the darkest places of our lives we shall know God and we shall make God known.
“I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to me.”
“They will listen to us, because of where we have been.”
May God give us grace to walk with Christ into the days of his passion and by so doing, may we let go of all that we hate about our lives and gain the quality of life which is eternal.