A sermon on 2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33 and John 6: 35, 41-51 by Alison Sampson
“O my son Absalom!
My son, my son Absalom!
If only I could have died instead of you!
O Absalom, my son, my son!
Too many of you know David’s gut-wrenching cry. O Rachel, my daughter Rachel! O Elijah, my son! O Charlotte, O Ezekiel, O Alice, O Sarah! O children of ours, named and unnamed, some known and held, others little more than a whisper of awareness – but O my children, if only we could have died instead of you!
To a suffering soul, to a suffering family, to a suffering community, there are times when the words of Jesus can sound like mockery. “I am the bread of life,” he says, “Whoever believes has eternal life…” And many of us have heard these words used as a weapon, as we are told to wipe away our tears and mourn no more, because our loved ones are safe in his arms.
Of course our loved ones are safe, and remembering this is indeed a consolation to some. But for many of us, this isn’t the issue. It is not our loved ones who are suffering. It is us, and these words don’t even begin to be enough. There are times when we are living deep in the Psalms of lament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest…” (Psalm 22). “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak…” (Psalm 6) “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me…” (Psalm 55). When we are living these Psalms, wiping away our tears and getting on with things is not really an option.
Yet there is a delusion among many Christians that we should not suffer. And because people are so desperate to avoid suffering, preachers can become very rich and very successful proclaiming health, wealth and happiness to those who follow the rules and place their trust in a domesticated good-luck talisman that they call Jesus.
Many of us have experienced this delusion, in our families, in our communities, in our churches, and in ourselves. At times of loss or trauma, people run away from the reality. We are tempted to push it down, and push down our responses, and just get on with things. Our culture is no good with grief; it’s terrible at grief; and our suffering is often compounded by the responses of the people around us. They want us to pretend it isn’t happening, because it’s too difficult for them. They want us to put on a happy face; and sometimes, when we can’t, they don’t want to see us anymore. When my own mother died, I lost several friends who did not know what to say, and so did not say anything to me, ever again.
We can all put the lid on our grief; we can refuse to experience it. And many of us do. We skate along the surface, trying to ignore the aching hole in our guts, and with time and practice, that ache becomes nothing more than a dull emptiness. And this emptiness can be temporarily filled with food, and alcohol, and entertainment, and sex, and any number of things.
But we are still hungry, deeply hungry. We are not satisfied. For that, we need something more. And here, the words of Jesus have something to say. He does not mock or ignore our pain; he does not tell us to stuff it down and pretend it isn’t happening. Instead, he says, “Follow me.”
How do we do that? Well, in the oldest gospel, after the death of Jesus, his followers are told to go back to the beginning. And at the beginning, we find baptism. Following Jesus, living his way, means treading the path that he trod, and so it begins with baptism. After baptism, did Jesus have a great big party and get a big fat cheque? Well, no! Straightaway, we are told, he was driven into the wilderness to be tested. Then he rocketed around the countryside, making disciples, healing and teaching, crossing back and forth between Jewish and Gentile territory, heading closer and closer to the cross.
Because the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. It is the way that throws us into the desert, where we are lonely and afraid and surrounded by wild beasts. It is the way that brings us into relationship with other people who are hungry and poor and wounded and suffering, and asks us to sit at the table and eat with them. It is the way that leads into the garden of Gethsemane, and from there into the jaws of death.
So suffering is not a sign of failure in the life of a Christian. Suffering is part of life in Christ. You cannot follow Christ if you will not engage with suffering, both your own and other people’s. Narratives on the life of faith are inextricably linked with suffering. Jesus, the early disciples, the martyrs, the saints: they all suffered. We all suffer. And we do not transform suffering by side- stepping or avoiding it. We need only look to the pattern of the life of Jesus. Because he did not transform suffering by side-stepping or avoiding it. He transformed suffering by entering into it. In his ministry, when he witnessed suffering, he didn’t push it away. The gospels tell us that his guts wrenched. His compassion was so deep it drew a physical response. When he was tortured and killed, he didn’t push it away. He suffered. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried. These were no pretty words; this was not a pretend death. This was a violent, suffering death. Because Christ conquered death not by sidestepping or avoiding it. He conquered death by entering into it, by suffering on the cross, and by dying.
When we respond to the call to model our lives on his life, the life of the One who has seen the Father, then, like him, we must not sidestep or avoid suffering. We must not sidestep or avoid death. And we must not sidestep or avoid our terrible gut-wrenching grief, and the fear and the guilt and the anger that come with it. Instead, we must enter into it, all of it, and offer it up to God.
This is not an easy way. It’s not sexy; it doesn’t not promise health, or wealth, or a blithe and easily achieved happiness. And if you live the way of the cross, the way of suffering, you will be challenged. You will be asked not to speak of your suffering. You will be pressured to put on a happy face, and just keep on keeping on. But you know that this is not real living. This is not the life without limit, the life of abundance, that you have been promised. This would be a grey life, a stifled life, limited to conversations about shoes and weather and where to get a good coffee – and such a life is not enough.
For you are gathered here tonight because you are hungry. You are ravenous for fullness of life, a life of integrity and wholeness, a life of meaning, a life of redemption. You are ravenous to know God, and to be known by God. You are ravenous for love.
So hear now, once again, the words of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever puts their trust in me will never be thirsty.” “Follow me,” he says. Go back to the beginning. Be thrown into the wilderness. Walk the long hard dusty road which leads through Gethsemane and to the cross. But take heart. “For behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” I am with you, you have companions. You have feasts and meals aplenty. And to all who place their trust in me, and feed upon me, I promise you this: abundant life. A life overflowing with goodness and mercy, a life infused with joy, a life of wholeness, and freedom, and love. Ω