Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | May 29, 2017

Glory and Suffering

Text of a homily presented in the midst of the congregation of

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on May 28, 2017, the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday After the Ascension). The assigned readings from scripture that day were Acts 1:6-14, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, and John 17:1-11.

It is not always easy to determine the reason why particular biblical passages have been combined for a particular liturgical occasion. Like other sacramental churches (such as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists), Episcopalians employ a lectionary system for the selection of scripture to be used in worship. The intention is that the readings will thereby be closely tied to the liturgical celebration in which they are embedded.

Christians inherited the lectionary from our Jewish forebears. There is an ancient, pious tradition among the Jewish people that even Moses had a lectionary. That may be doubtful, but we know that by the third century or so our Jewish ancestors were using lectionaries. In other words, they had certain passages of scripture chosen in advance, intended to be read publicly on particular days. The practice has been with us every since, for Jews and for Christians.

Currently, the practice of the Episcopal Church is to utilize a three-year cycle of readings for Sunday. “Cycle A” is founded upon the gospel of Matthew, “Cycle B” on Mark, and “Cycle C” upon Luke. There are exceptions, of course. John’s gospel is utilized in all of these cycles, predominantly during Holy Week and in the season of Easter. There are other exceptions as well that can be easily grasped by a quick study of the list of readings in each cycle. That list can be found in The Book of Common Prayer (US edition), beginning on page 889.

While it may be difficult at times to ascertain the connection between the scriptures assigned to liturgy, such difficulty does not present itself today. There appear to be two dominant threads that run through the passages from Acts, 1 Peter, and John. I like to think of these two themes as musical chords, or combinations of notes. One chord includes notes of exaltation and triumph, the coming of God’s kingdom, the lifting of Christ in glory, expectation for his eventual return, and the joy that appropriately accompanies all of these hopes. The other chord is dissonant. It includes notes of fiery ordeals, suffering, ignorance and fear concerning the future, a feeling of abandonment, and the loss that accompanies the departure of a loved one who is no longer near.

The two “chords” are much more than simple literary themes found in these biblical passages. They are poles on the continuum of human experience. They represent the shifts that are constantly at work in our lives. At one moment we are elated and joyful, celebrating a birth, an accomplishment, or an anniversary. In the next moment we are downtrodden by pain due to the departure of a loved one, a divorce or other extreme loss, or an undeserved wrong committed against us. There is beauty, goodness, and selflessness in the world. But there is also evil, suffering, death and war. This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day by remembering those who have died for our freedoms. Wouldn’t it be a blessing if we never had to add another name to the list of those who have died for their country?

Evil and suffering are especially difficult to bear when they are perpetrated against the most innocent among us. I am thinking especially of Saffie Roussos, a lovely young girl of 8 who just wanted to attend a concert in Manchester a few days ago. She was killed by a terrorist’s explosion. I’m also remembering a darling 6-year-old boy named Kingston Frazier. While he waited in his mother’s car recently in Jackson, Mississippi, that car was stolen; the thieves brutally beat and murdered him. Literally, I have wept for them both.

These two “chords” of human experience, one joyful and one painful, come together in today’s gospel in a divine melody that is as comforting as it is challenging. Undoubtedly, the author of John’s gospel struggled with the same issues that confront us. In offering an explanation of the unjust suffering thrust upon Jesus of Nazareth, that author explains that Jesus’ death is his glory. The very beginning of today’s gospel makes this explicit as Jesus lifts his voice in prayer: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son so that your son may glorify you” (John 17:1).

But wait! Why are we talking about the death of Jesus at this point in our liturgical calendar? Isn’t it the season of Easter? Isn’t the message of this season the message of resurrection and triumph?

Yes, it is. But the church gives us today’s gospel reading as a reminder that there is no life without death. There is no glory without suffering. We cannot appreciate light without the experience of darkness.

As the Christians of the early church struggled with evil committed against the innocent and the other difficulties of human suffering, so we struggle as well. If God is just, if God is loving, and if God truly is good, then why does this suffering and evil continue? This may be the greatest ethical dilemma of all time. It is so challenging that I have known some who have given up on God entirely because of this question. To show you how complicated a question it truly is, even the Bible gives us more than one answer to the challenge.

There are those who propose that suffering is a form of divine punishment. I’m not very comfortable with this notion, and Jesus appears to have challenged it (see Luke 13:1-5). Some like to think of suffering as a test, while others say that suffering is intended to strengthen us. There are even those among us who simply shrug their shoulders and say that “this is just how things are.” To be honest, it seems that we have partial explanations only. The complete answer eludes us.

But let me propose something else. For Christians, the answer to the troubling question of evil is not a comprehensive explanation at all. It’s a person. For us, the answer to suffering is the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus doesn’t fix our problems. He doesn’t take away all the evil and suffering of the world. Instead, he puts those things into a new context. He empowers us by his presence to all of human experience. It wasn’t enough for God to create us and invite us to relationship. God saw the suffering and troubles that are heaped upon us in this life and God wanted to be present to us in that suffering.  In Jesus, God has embraced our helplessness and weakness. God has become one of us in all things but sin.

It’s not that Jesus accepted evil, suffering, and death. He did not acquiesce to these realities. Instead, he conquered them through faithfulness and he refused the temptation of hopelessness. Take note of the context for today’s gospel reading. It’s the end of the Last Supper. Jesus is about to be betrayed, arrested, tortured, killed. And what does he do? He prays for those who believe in him, and all who will believe in him. It is called the Priestly Prayer of Christ, and in it Jesus expresses his continuing hope in God–and his continuing hope in us!

Allow me to sum up his prayer with a paraphrase:

“Father, they [we!] belong to you; you gave them to me.
I have given them the truth: by living and teaching,
and now by suffering and dying.
In them I am glorified.
I return them to you, Father, that you may protect them from hopelessness
even as you protected me from hopelessness.
And I give them to each other.”

Take special note of that last part. The actual words of the gospel say it like this: “that they may be one as we are one.”

Do you see what Jesus has just done in this prayer? He has given us to each other. That’s what Christian unity is all about, being gifted one to another. It means that in joy we celebrate together and in suffering we hold each other.

This changes everything.

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