Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
St Andrews Jerusalem, Sunday 7th of October 2018
The suffering journey of faith.
[Suffering Faith Sermon] Job 1 1 & 2 1-10. Hebrews 1 1-4 & 2 5-12 Year B,
20 after Pentecost, 27 in ordinary time.
Hebrews 2 the second half of verse 10 – Jesus “author of their salvation, made perfect through suffering.”
Why do people suffer? Believing as we do in a God of love, why does suffering feature so clearly in the world God created?
The book of Job was written almost 3,000 years ago asking that question. Its answer is essentially that God is wiser than us and we need to trust that God in his infinite purposes knows why. Many of us today find that a somewhat unsatisfactory answer but as the book of Job presents its ideas, there is a lot for us to learn. Many of the ideas presented by Job’s comforters are fundamentally the same as people suggest today – and are no more satisfactory today than they were in Job’s time. It’s a book I am very fond of.
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the “author of their salvation” (made) “perfect in suffering.” There is a great deal in this simple sentence. The word translated “author” is the Greek word “archegos”. It has a very rich meaning and is one of the great words used by the apostles to describe Jesus. It means an “originator”, and in that sense “author” is a reasonable translation for it, but is typically used as the originator of a family or a nation. It is also used in the sense of one who takes an action which when followed by others facilitated their progress. A trail blazer. Say a ship is shipwrecked and one person swims ashore with a rope so that others then follow ashore using it, then the first person was an “archegos”. The writer to the Hebrews is saying that Jesus was like that for us in the way of our faith.
But more is said still that links the two passages together, that we would do well to note. The question is addressed of “how was it that Jesus got to be a trailblazer, an “archegos”?” The answer that Hebrews gives, is through suffering. He says “it was fitting that God should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” All through his life the hallmark of Jesus’ existence seems to have been suffering. Soon after birth he flees as a refugee to Egypt. Joseph dies when Jesus is young. He is rejected by his own family, rejected by his own people. He is the one who has “nowhere to lay his head,” he is arrested and crucified. He lives in a time of great suffering. He faces that suffering personally, all this despite his nature being love, – God made flesh.
The presence of suffering in the world is always a mystery for us. Yet one of the features of suffering perhaps gives some meaning to it. It is often in the presence of great suffering that the greatest qualities of human beings are made clear, or are even formed. It is often during great suffering that the greatest love is seen.
Over the years I have had the privilege to meet some remarkable people, some of them here in this country of conflict. Others I have met elsewhere. I have known Samuel Kayamarga now for almost twenty years. He is the leader of the Methodist Church in Rwanda. Though a Tutsi, he is a survivor of the 1994 Genocide. How he survived is a story worthy of a Hollywood movie, being hidden by friends, swimming miles to an island in Lake Kivu, returning find out what has happened to his wife and child whom he had tried, and as it turned out succeeded in getting onto a boat for the Congo. He lost his mother and father in the Genocide, a child, sister, cousins, uncles of his all died. Today he is a man of vision who works with other Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi to rebuild the country after its almost total destruction. His leadership of the Methodist Church is not respected by everyone, but his commitment to reconciliation and peace – is undeniable. I have worked with him for many years and know him well. I recognise in him a person of great character – formed through almost unimaginable suffering. His capacity to love has somehow grown out of his experience of suffering.
Saint Matthew’s Gospel tells us of the flight of the young holy family to Egypt. God in man born of Mary becomes the refugee, fleeing for his life. It is the hallmark of the life he will lead, it is what Isaiah saw as the “Suffering Servant.” But suffering has its effect upon the one who suffers and the infant, grown to a man, knows from intimate experience the effect of suffering. That is a part of what incarnation means.
Of course many today face suffering in all sorts of ways, amongst them are the refugees across the world who like the infant Jesus flee for their lives. Others suffer through illness or domestic violence, or through the impact of the occupation. Suffering does in some situations do as the writer to the Hebrews recognizes it has done to the baby Jesus, it produces human qualities of wonderful dimensions. Jesus the “archegos” has gone before us, has blazed the trail. In as much as it’s in our hands, learn from our suffering to be more Jesus like. Of course it’s always right to try to reduce suffering, for example it is up to all of us to welcome the stranger, Refugee or other – our first reaction on meeting another human being should be to see them as a child of God, …. For as we receive these, with them we receive Christ himself. Not all who suffer learn more of love through it – some become bitter and self centred. What causes one to grow and another to diminish is a mystery, but it must in part relate to how they embrace or are alienated by their suffering, whether they can forgive or hold a grievance over what they have faced. That means that how others around them respond effects their response. That challenges each of us to be catalysts for love through our faith in God even in the face of suffering.
Suffering is never justified by its results. We must never leave people to suffer “because it is good for them.” Yet somehow amidst the mystery of God and the world he has created there is somehow a connection between suffering born and love learned. It lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel and challenges each of us to grow in life even from those things we dread and fear.
Lord give us the grace to learn through life as by grace you draw us on into the future.