"Death and Suffering"
A sermon preached at the Mint Methodist Church Exeter
by the Minister, Rev Andrew Sails,
at 10.30 am on Passion Sunday, 25 March 2012
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John12:24)
Jesus talking of his suffering and death.
How do we approach ours?
With the bleak grief of despair or the glorious chords of the requiem?
Here are some thoughts
1. Don’t expect to have all the answers
American Pastor William Sloane Coffin preached a sermon following the death of his son, who drowned when the car he was driving swerved into Boston Harbour.
He talked about his own grief, and how - for all his faith -
the scriptures did not immediately make everything OK
“While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal.
The reality of grief is the absence of God — "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The reality of grief is the solitude of pain,
the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind's a blank…”
So he said what helped most were not detailed theological treatises, but just people holding his hand - and of all the words, the most important, a card simply signed "Your broken-hearted sister." 1
If tragedy strikes and it doesn’t make sense, don’t feel a failure if you can’t understand or rationalize or immediately rise above it.
God kept faith with Job and the Psalmist - he will keep faith with you when you have quite lost your faith in him.
2. God suffers with us.
There is a strange doctrine which was held which was held as orthodox for much of Christian history called the doctrine of divine impassibility. This said that God was perfect and all powerful and could not therefore suffer.
This is not the God many of believe in today, and I don’t believe it is the God of the cross.
The whole point of the cross is God suffering alongside us.
Crucifixion was not uncommon in the Roman empire - when the slave rebellion of Spartacus was crushed, the Roman general Crassus had six thousand of the slave prisoners crucified along a stretch of the Appian Way, the main road leading into Rome 2
Jesus’ cross is saying - I am there alongside those who suffer -
and not just alongside the victims of Roman brutality but also alongside every victim of the Nazi death camps,
the disappeared of South America and the Gulag,
through to today’s innocents gunned down in Homs.
The cross is God’s act of solidarity with every victim
In Moltmann’s words, “In surrendering himself to a Godforsaken death, Christ brought God to the Godforsaken” 3
When his son died, Sloane Coffin said that some people tried to reassure him it was God’s will - No he said - my God does not will the violent deaths of young men - he doesn’t go round the world “with his finger on triggers, his fist round knives, his hands on steering wheels” that isn’t the root of my hope - rather, he said,
“My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” 4
So Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing from his Gestapo cell in 1944 says
“Only the suffering God can help” 5
When the sculptor Rodin was dying, he asked for a huge crucifix to be brought to his room - it was 18 feet high, and his room was only 12 feet high. So he had holes cut in the floor and ceiling so that the cross should be erected at the foot of his bed - and there it stayed until he drew his last breath - “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies…” 6
So when you suffer, when you face your death or the death of others - do not worry if it does not all make sense - but know that Christ is there with you in the senselessness and misery of it all.
Whether you know it or not, you are always at the foot of the cross, and that cross is greater than your suffering will ever be.
3. We need to learn to offer our suffering back to God
Edward King was the saintly bishop of Lincoln in the late 19th Century. He wrote many letters to the clergy of his diocese.
In one of these he writes to a young man
who is finding his calling a heart-breaking affair.
We sense the young man is tempted to abandon his vocation altogether.
King writes saying that by breaking his heart
he may actually bring love into his situation -
He writes “be miserable, but don t stop loving them. ….
You will never regret all the misery you go through;
and it is not lost, no, not one bit of it.
Not one drop of heart s blood that falls from a love-broken heart
ever gets lost; angels look after it if men don t, and it bears its fruit.”
As the grain of wheat dies, it bears much fruit.
Christ holds our hand in our suffering and death - but he also bids us offer that suffering back - to take up our cross and follow.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Oscar Romero -
one of the towering saints of the late 20th Century.
Romero was appointed as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 -
He became an outspoken advocate of the poor and critic of the brutal fascist dictatorship.
He provoked the enmity of the powers that be,
and finally on 24 March 1980,
he was gunned down whilst saying mass at the altar -
As he said in one of his last sermons
"I rejoice that our church is persecuted
precisely for its preferential option for the poor ...
How sad it would be
in a country where such horrible murders are being committed
if there were no priests among the victims".
As the grain of wheat dies, it bears much fruit.
For as Tertullion says,
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”
4. All will be well.
We don’t yet understand fully - we still see only a mirror dimly. But we will.
Sonny, the ever optimistic manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - when faced with apparent setbacks - has a wonderful line, oft repeated in the film - He says, “All will be well in the end.
And if it is not well, then it is not the end yet.”
At a deeper level, that is what we say as followers of Christ
as we await the Kingdom of God.
The artist William Turner would often submit a painting to the Royal Academy show which seemed meaningless and formless - “a mere dab of several colours”.. Then - during the day before the exhibition opened, he would work feverishly on the painting, until by the time the doors opened, it all made sense.
And sometimes we don’t see the world - with all its suffering grief and complexity - as anything more than mindless chaos - yet even in our darkest hour, we hang on to the hope that it will make sense, that there is sense and purpose and light and hope and victory in the apparent chaos of creation. It is not yet the end, and so we continue in hope. At the end we shall see it for what it really is.
God weaves creation using the dark as well as the light threads
and we see but a corner of the underside of the fabric.
Oh for the day when we will finally see from the other side the richness of the completed canvas - in which even the darkest strands have been incorporated into the rich harmony of the whole.
So there are no easy answers -
only a suffering God to hold on to.
Let us offer our suffering to him,
and dare to believe that in the end
all will indeed be well.
1. William Sloane Coffin Jr - www.pbs.org/now/printable/transcript_eulogy_print.html
2 Martin Hengel Crucifixion, p 55
3 Moltmann, In the End the Beginning p. 70
4 William Sloane Coffin, op cit
5. Bonhoeffer, Letter and Papers from Prison, 16 July 1944
6. Maurice Hassan, Suffering and Glory p.92