Suffering and Love

Sermon preached by the Revd Hilary Fife
on Friday 19th April 2019 (Good Friday)
Isaiah 52.13–53.12; Psalm 22.1–11; Hebrews 4.14–16, 5.7–9; John 18.1—19.42

The little room at the front of our house, that I call my study, looks out over the garden to the road and the green beyond.  As I work, I can see a variety of birds visiting the feeders in the cherry tree, a squirrel tidying up the mess they make and people passing by.  A couple of weeks ago I noticed one couple walking a powerful looking bulldog.  Suddenly the dog, dragging its female owner helplessly behind it, shot into the road.  Her companion dashed out to help and together they dragged the dog back to the pavement and continued onwards.  I was mildly amused but then a movement caught my eye – a twitching.  In the road lay a visiting squirrel, the dog’s victim.  She was dead by the time I got to her – still warm as I picked her up carefully….  I remembered a passage in Helen Waddell’s novel about Peter Abelard.  Walking with his friend Thibault in the woods they come across a rabbit in a trap.  Peter releases it but nestled in his arms it snuggles trustfully down and dies.  He is heartbroken “do you think there is a God?  My suffering I have earned but what did this one do?”  After a pause, his friend replies “I think God is in it” – God shares our suffering.  “Do you mean Calvary?” says Peter and the reply is “That was only a piece of it.  The piece we saw in time….”.

Today we are invited to stand at the foot of the Cross, to watch in awed and horrified silence as Jesus opens wide his arms for us and dies, a painful public death, a death organised by an occupying power that, like so many human organisations, had become expert at carrying out executions and maximizing suffering  Most of Jesus’ friends were too scared to be there – frightened for their own safety and perhaps afraid of witnessing his pain.  A few of the women – and his mother and closest friend… but at times he feels utterly alone and in his agonized cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me….?”  It seems he feels utterly abandoned even by God – his father, who at the start of all this, three short years ago, had ripped the heavens open to thunder forth words of love and affirmation “This is my Son, my beloved” – a love that had been the foundation of all Jesus knew himself to be, for everything he had done.  But now “it is finished”.

Why did Jesus have to die?  Why?  The question that must have been in the minds of all those who followed him, who loved him, is a question countless people have asked in the light of their own suffering or that of those they love.  Why me?  Why him or her?  Where are you, God?  Across the centuries, a vast quantity of ink has been spilled as theologians have attempted to define why Jesus had to die – what it means for us…  There are a variety of theories or models of the Atonement on offer.  If you want to explore them as ideas, a manageable way to begin would be a little book by Jane Williams (the author whose book “The Merciful Humility of God” you have been looking at for Lent).  It’s simply called “Why did Jesus have to die?”  Wisely she reminds us that none of our human theories answer that question fully.  Discussing theories of the Atonement was not something I’d expected to be doing as I sat by the bedside of my oldest and closest friend four years ago.  After a courageous struggle of some three years, she now knew death was inevitable and approaching fast.  My head was full of questions “Why?” “Where are you, God?”  My heart full of grief and anger… and she said “I don’t say ‘why me’ because why not me?”  And later “You know I don’t buy the substitutional theory of the Atonement (or words to that effect) – it was all about love” which is the conclusion Jane WiIliams comes to…  The Cross we kneel before today, the Cross on which Jesus died is the heart of the merciful humility of God, it is the shape of God’s love.  God, in Jesus, takes to himself all the violence, the helplessness, the evil, the suffering and the pain, the selfishness, the fear, that disfigure our world.  HE deals with it in a way we could never have imagined nor accomplished.  Jesus never returns like for like – he just absorbs it all and quietly, humbly, resolutely carries it away with him into death.  The cost of that is beyond our imagining – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me – but “because Jesus and his father are ripped apart, nothing can now separate us from the love of God, God is in our dislocation from God as in our disconnectedness” (Jane Williams).  That cry means there is nowhere God is not, however dark the place in which we find ourselves, God is there too, sharing that pain.  On the Cross we see him take God’s love into the darkness that is death – so that even death can no longer separate us from God or from each other.

Today we need to stay here, at the foot of the Cross, we must not rush on to Easter resurrection for the only way there is through the Cross, the way of God’s humility.

So let us watch and wait
It’s out of our hands
It is out of Jesus’ hands
It is abandoned into the hands of God

I end with a short piece by Ann Lewis:


We’ve been here before, Lord
You and I.  A situation
Not of your will, and
Certainly not of my choice.
I can’t believe that you send
Suffering, and I don’t want it.
We look at each other
And feel the pain
That this is how it is.

I do not acquiesce without complaint;
And yet the words die on my lips,
For in response you come
With wounded hands
And cradle me in love

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