Reflection 10th May, 2020
Come now, disturbing Spirit of our God,
Breathe gently on the bodiliness of your beloved creation, and make us one body in Christ, united in justice and joy, in peace and love.
Open our graves, unbind our eyes,
And name us here;
Touch and heal all that has been buried in us,
That we need not cling to our pain,
But may go forth with power
To release resurrection in the world. Amen.
Good morning, again,
You want to end-up at the right destination, and not have an unfortunate experience whilst travelling, so the obvious question is, ‘What’s the best way?’.
I’ve learned to ask the SATNAV.
My next learning curve was to do as I’m told by it.
I don’t know if this has happened to you, but, the other day, having told the SATNAV where I wanted to go, it said to me, ‘Turn around’. For once, I did as I was told.
But now I can’t see where I’m driving! Aghh!
Perhaps not …
What is ‘the right way’?
Our Gospel reading, from John 14, when it’s understood within the context of the whole of John’s Gospel, makes clear to us that ‘the way’ of Jesus is that of suffering love. God’s glory is fully revealed in John’s Gospel in no abstract proposition, but, rather, in a fully embodied way, by the dying body of a man hanging on a cross. That is the way of love, John’s Gospel tells us.
In case we don’t ‘get it’, our first reading has Luke giving the same message in Acts chapter 7. Here, ‘the way’ for Stephen, one of Jesus’ first followers, is that of suffering and violent death. Stephen speaks about Jesus as the Messiah long promised by the prophets, and it was just too much for those listening to him, ‘they covered their ears, and yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him.’
Okay – so we know from our scriptures that authentic love is always going to involve an element of suffering.
But how does that connect with us at the moment, when – loving or unloving – millions are suffering and dying throughout the world? – a few thoughts:
Lyman Stone, an adviser at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, wrote a recent article entitled: ‘Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years’. He suggests three points of historical comparison. I want to say that each one shows costly love in action.:
First, Lyman Stone looks at the Antonine Plague of the 2ndcentury AD. This was so widespread that it possibly killed a quarter of the Roman Empire. Now – this dreadful plague actually led to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world. That’s not what you’d expect. -Why? Well, it was because Christians became so well known for caring for the sick – and they didn’t blame the plague on God – they just rolled up their sleeves lovingly.
Secondly, in the 3rd century, only 100 years later, there was a more famous epidemic, probably related to Ebola, which historians have called ‘the plague of Cyprian’. Now, Cyprian didn’t start it, but it took his name because, as a bishop, he gave a colourful account of it in his sermons which have survived. He also told Christians not to grieve unduly for plague victims (because they now live with God in heaven). Instead, he told them they should redouble their efforts to care for the living. They did. This triggored an explosive growth for Christianity at the time. A fellow bishop, Dionysius, described how Christians, ‘Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick – any sick people – attending to their every need.’
Thirdly, Lyman Stone jumps chronologically to 1527, when the bubonic plague hit the German city of Wittenberg. The Augustinian friar and great reformer, Martin Luther, refused advice that he should flee from the town and protect himself. Instead, he stayed and ministered to the sick. It was not an easy call. Luther wrote: ‘We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties. It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.’
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Lyman Stone is making the point, from those three historical examples, that Christians are inexorably drawn to sacrificial service – to go ‘the extra mile’. And that, in itself, attracts others into being how God has wired us all up to be.
I’m certainly not saying that we should ignore the rules and mutual safety expectations currently in place to slow down the infection. No. We should not put ourselves and others at unnecessary risk.
Rather, John’s Gospel points us towards joining-in with the costly suffering love of God, looking particularly to the many very needy people in our wider community. And there is a considerable ongoing challenge – but we’ve made a good start with some local partnerships based around care.
And one last point; it is hope that needy and suffering people desperately need. So, whilst working in costly ways to bring hope now, we also should not hold back from talking about our hope of the joyfulness of heaven. CS Lewis, around the demanding times of the 2nd world war, wrote:
“We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about ‘pie in the sky when you die’ … but either there is ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced …”
St Paul, writing to the Romans (8: 18, 38-39), was not embarrassed to mention his convictions and his confidence regarding the future:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us. … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
These are words to strengthen us, and for us to be unembarrassed about sharing with each other, in this time of massive uncertainty.
Faced in lockdown with these uncertainties, this hope is worth clinging onto and sharing. It is echoed, where we began, in today’s Gospel reading. John records Jesus as saying: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled – and do not be afraid.”
And John tells us, in his account of the ‘Revelation’ he was given, that ultimately Jesus will bring nothing less than a new creation:
(Rev. 21: 1, 3-4) “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … and God himself will be with his people and He will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
May it be so. Amen.
Let us pray:
You have searched the depths we cannot know,
And touched what we cannot bear to name;
May we so wait,
Enclosed in your darkness,
That we are ready to encounter
The terror of the dawn,
With Jesus Christ. Amen.
May the God who shakes heaven and earth,
Whom death could not contain,
Who lives to disturb and heal us,
Bless you with power to go forth
And live the Gospel in joy and gentleness, and the blessing … +