Through the Storm and the Night

Jesus is not a pain-killer, but a life-giver; he is with us in all our suffering. A sermon for Proper 7b.

Proper 7b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

There is an old saying that two things are certain: death and taxes. To that wry and cynical observation I think it would be safe to add pain and suffering. The reality is that all of us enter the world through the painful reality of childbirth — a stressful and difficult thing for mother and child alike. As the wise man Solomon said, “When I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; and my first sound was a cry, as is true of all.” And at the end of life, many if not most of us will suffer some pain and discomfort, and all of us will suffer the mortality of the flesh, the flesh that fails us in the end.

Down through the centuries many different religions and philosophies have tried to address these painful realities, and offer explanations to the timeless questions, “Why do people suffer pain?” and “What should people do in the face of this reality?”

The Greeks blamed it all on Pandora: she was the first woman, and she received a jar from the gods that she couldn’t resist opening — and when she did out came all the plagues and suffering that would afflict the world. A number of different philosophers offered solutions to this woe: from the hedonists who simply sought to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, to the stoics who counseled bearing with it all as part of the human condition, in the knowledge that true virtue would render misfortune irrelevant.

The Buddhists counseled that pain and suffering were an inevitable part of existing as a conscious being; or rather a not-fully-conscious being, suffering as most beings do under the illusion of separation from the world — and the solution is to come to full enlightened consciousness and see through that illusion to the point where the knife stabbing your body is no different from your body. (Good luck with that.)

Our tradition, of course, laid all of these problems at the bare feet of Eve and Adam, and their choice to engage in the first consciousness-raising workshop. Taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge gave them knowledge all right, but it cost them their innocence.

Our Jewish forbears offered a number of answers to this dilemma of pain and suffering. One of them, inspired by the book of Deuteronomy, recorded the sad stories of the unfaithful kings of Israel and Judah, and took the encouraging view that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that suffering is a result of wrong-doing.

Others, such as the author of the book of Job, took a more mature view of things, recognizing that bad things do happen to good people, and that suffering is not necessarily a sign that one has erred or strayed from God’s ways, because even the righteous suffer. The important thing, the book of Job reminds us, is that God is with us in this suffering, present at the heart of reality — the only reality there is.

The answer to human suffering provided in the book of Job is very close to that provided by the first Christians — who also knew suffering and pain first hand, even as they knew that they were living in pursuit of righteousness. Look at that litany of pain that Saint Paul recounts to the Corinthians, and note how in each painful circumstance there is still the affirmation of the power and the presence of God. Though there are afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger — there are also purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth and most importantly the power of God.

So it is that the Christian is defended but not anesthetized. There is pain and suffering for those who believe, but there is also hope for deliverance, and the presence of Christ with you. As Christians we pass through the pain in the knowledge that God is with us, bearing us up, holding our hand.

So it is that the Christian may be treated as an imposter even while being true to Jesus; as unknown to the world and yet well known to God; as punished, yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet rejoicing; as poor and having nothing, yet rich with the treasure of the Spirit; as dying — yet behold we are alive.

This is the same message Jesus delivers to his disciples in that boat on a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. Through the storm and the night, he is there with them, but they lack the courage to trust in his sleeping presence — they even think he doesn’t care! Doesn’t care? This is Jesus we are talking about here; and when we, too, clamor in our own anguish, rocking our boat in anxiety and suffering, his words to us are the same as to those suffering and fearful disciples: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

Jesus does not offer us a pain-killer, a panacea — a cure-all or a quick fix to what ails us — the religion of Jesus is most definitely not what Marx called it, “the opiate of the people.” Jesus offers us not a pain killer, but a life-giver; he offers us himself as the savior of the world, the healer of all the harms ever done on this good earth, even in the knowledge that sometimes healing hurts.

He does not offer us a stoical grin-and-bear it, keep a stiff-upper-lip kind of virtue — but he offers us his tears at the grave of Lazarus his friend, to remind us that he shares our grief at our losses. He does not counsel us to see pain as an illusion or suffering as a merely philosophical distinction — but he sweats drops as heavy as blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he sheds his own real blood on the cross. He does this not to take away or end our pain, but to share it, to join with us in it. Jesus is joined to us in every grief we suffer, every pain that mortal flesh inherits from the fall of Adam and Eve on to the present day, and on until the last day when he comes again finally to wipe away all tears from our eyes, and remove the shroud of death that is cast over the nations.

For Jesus even joins us in that painful sense of abandonment, that horrible moment of feeling all alone and forsaken — his cry from the cross itself, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” echoes the cry of the disciples’ there in the boat that stormy night, “Do you not care that we are perishing.” Jesus joins us even in that pain of desolation — a sure and certain sign that he is with us through it all.

Through the storm and the night, our precious Lord takes us by the hand. He does not make our suffering go away, but he joins us in it — all of it, like a good parent holding the hand of a suffering child, feeling the pain almost more than the child does. Jesus is with us in that boat on the stormy sea, and when sorrows like sea-billows roll, he has taught us what to say, those words not of escape from pain but of the knowledge of his presence with us in our pain. He has taught us what words to say. Will you sing those words with me? It is well with my soul it is well, it is well with my soul.+

What's Missing?

SJF • Proper 11c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

This morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians includes one of the more difficult passages in Scripture. Paul declares that he himself is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” It sounds as if Paul is saying that Christ’s sufferings were somehow insufficient — as if his death on the cross was somehow not a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice of himself once offered, for us and for our salvation. Could it possibly be that Paul, the great defender of salvation through Christ alone, the great champion of the saving cross of Christ, could be suggesting that Christ’s sufferings were themselves “lacking”?

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In several of my sermons over the years I have used the image of a gift: a birthday or Christmas or some other present. Usually such gifts are beautifully wrapped. Often they come with a card. But as I have asked once before, would any of you receive such a present, such a beautifully wrapped gift, but leave it wrapped and unopened? If you did so, you might say that you have the gift even if you haven’t opened the package and don’t even know what the gift is. But in truth you don’t really have the gift until both of these things are accomplished: until that wrapping comes off, the box is opened, and you see what the gift is. Unless you are one of those who believe you can “have your cake and eat it too” — I think you will agree that there is more to really having a gift than just holding it in your hands.

Or think of it this way: there were once two good friends, Jim and Tom, who were always engaging in little friendly wagers with each other. Jim normally won the bets, so often so that on one occasion when Tom bet Jim ten dollars on whose memory of a baseball score was right, and won — Tom proudly said he would frame the ten dollar bill and never spend it. Whereupon Jim said, “In that case, can I write you a check?”

We all know that an uncashed check is something like an unopened gift. You may wave the check in the air and say that you’ve got the $10; but until you cash that check, or deposit it in your own account and wait for it to clear, that $10 is still really resting in someone else’s account — and if you never cash he check or deposit it, that’s where it will stay, in someone else’s bank. A check isn’t money, but a promise of money. And if there is nothing to back up that promise, it is worthless. It’s no good saying, “My account can’t be overdrawn; I still have checks left!” If you don’t have money in the bank, in your account, any check you write will be just a piece of paper, with nothing to back it up. For a check really to be of any value you need to have something on deposit in your account.

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The crucial word in all of this is that simple little two-letter word in. What Paul is saying is that the package has been presented and is being unwrapped — the mystery that had been hidden throughout the ages and generations — the contents of the package, what’s in it — is in the process of being revealed — but not only in the death of Christ on the cross, but also in the flesh of believers, his flesh, Paul’s that is, and the flesh of the people of Colossae, Corinth, Ephesus and wherever the church has spread the Gospel. And what that mystery is — the contents of the package, — is the mystery of the Church itself, the body of Christ: the whole company of all the faithful who are in Christ as Christ is in them. As Paul says, the mystery of God is “Christ in you.”

Thus, when the church suffers, Christ suffers. When the church suffers, Christ’s sufferings are added to. And this isn’t just a crazy idea that Paul came up with on his own. He learned it from personal experience from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. For when Paul, or as he was known in those days, Saul, was himself busily persecuting the church, rounding up Christians, members of the Body of Christ, and sending them off to prison or punishment or torture or death — when the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus what did he say? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Persecute me!” That’s what Jesus said to Saul the persecutor of the church. Jesus was saying to Saul, “When you persecute and hurt the church, you persecute and hurt me.” For the church is the body of Christ, it is his body, that Paul, or Saul, was persecuting. This was a hard lesson for Saul to learn, but learn it he did: The suffering of the church is the suffering of Christ himself.

Now, there is nothing new in this — after all, Jesus had said, in his preaching on the end days, in that powerful passage from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you have done to the least of these who believe in me you have done it to me.” Whenever and wherever the church is persecuted, perhaps most especially when one part of the church persecutes another — member against member, one part of the body against another part of the body — whenever the church suffers, Christ suffers, for the church is his body and each of us are individually members of it. As Paul also reminds us, when one member suffers all suffer — we are truly all in this together, and how we treat each other is how we treat Jesus — for he is in us as we are in him.

Which is why the sufferings of Christ are not yet complete. The package has not been completely unwrapped — the check has been deposited but it has not yet cleared. Until the last great day when all is swallowed up in that final victory, suffering continues: our suffering for and with each other, our suffering due to our own failings and sins and the sins of the world, and the suffering that we inflict on others in our ignorance and imperfection: all of this will continue to contribute to the suffering of Christ in his body the church. And all of this suffering is taken up by Christ not as a surplus added to what took place on Calvary, but rather as a working out in us of what was accomplished once for all by him — the full revelation of his gift to all of us, which is the gift of the cross that was presented for all the world on that spring afternoon during Passover-time in Jerusalem of old — but whose impact is felt in each of us as we take up our own cross day by day. This is nothing less than the full negotiation of that promissory note — the fulfillment of salvation — a check that will not clear for good and all until the last great day. It continues as long as this earthly life shall last — for there are many who yet will be saved who have not yet even been born!

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As each of us suffers, our sufferings are taken up by Christ. Paul suffers with Christ “in his flesh” — as he also said to the Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ living in me; and the life I live in the flesh is the life of faith in the son of God.” As each of us, too, takes up our cross day by day, we participate in the sufferings of Christ.

For Christ’s work is finished but not ended — there are still many in the world who hold him in contempt, or who are ignorant of his good will and purpose for them. And as I said before, there are many yet who will come to believe who have not even been born. The mystery of the kingdom of God is in some ways like those gift boxes that you open only to find another smaller box inside, and then another inside that, and then another. We will only come to the end, an end to all suffering — both Christ’s and our own — when he comes in power and great glory to rule the world. And what a day that will be! And so we pray, Come Lord Jesus, come. +