The Consolation of the Cross

March 31, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using 2 Cor.3-7 at Sung Eucharist on Mothering Sunday, 31st March 2019, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

It’s hazardous at the moment to pass the House of Commons, even more so when wearing a dog collar. ‘What does God think of Brexit?’ someone shouted at me, as I rushed by. All I could muster was a pained expression and a hand gesture – a polite one, I hasten to add – to indicate that the question was just too big to answer quickly. Unfortunately for you, I now have the time to answer it.

This isn’t going to be a political sermon but a theological one, so relax. I’ll avoid the mistake of a pensioner in Parliament Square whose placard read: ‘Brexit: Only God’s providence makes a nation prosperous, not its leagues and alliances. Therefore, Britain needs a total break from the EU, along with repentance from sin and a return to faith in Christ.

Where do you start with that jaunty slogan? Perhaps by apologising for leaving Northern Ireland out of God’s plans (which is rather what the DUP fear is the Government’s theology.)

Anyway, what does God think of anything – this opinionated God ready to sound off about the latest matters of state? God doesn’t have opinions like this because he is not in this sort of relationship with the world. Was God on the Brexit March or the Anti-Brexit March? Neither, but he stood by every marcher. He did not stand for their fear or fury; he did not share their limited and partial views; he stands for reconciliation and peace; he stands for responsibility and listening.

The story of God in relation to nationhood is a fascinating one. God promised Abraham that he would make him and his offspring a great nation. He gave this emerging nation judges, kings, sages and prophets, to direct its life and make it a sign of his righteousness throughout the world.

But Israel failed to live up to its calling and its people were conquered, exiled, dispersed, only then given passage back to their land.

The New Testament negotiates the ancient theme of nationhood in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Territory becomes less important and Christ himself comes to be seen as the place where blessing and peace can be found.

Christ’s imminent return limited the earthly aspirations of the nation succeeding Israel, namely, the Church, the people of God. Christians had no abiding city; they were citizens of heaven, and yet they were still called to be salt and light in the world, to be leaven in the lump of society. They were in the world, but not of the world.

And the short passage of blessing that we heard, at the start of Paul’s Second Letter to The Corinthians, shows how different things seem from this Christian perspective.

Firstly, everything flows from the gift of God. That’s why we are here at Eucharist, to receive and give thanks for his gift, coming into the world, making everything new. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I have had about the Inner Close lawn – it’s a parable of the deep-down freshness of the approaching spring, which gives us all such joy. Everything arising is gift.

To bless God is to give thanks for his gift, but also to receive it gratefully. Paul’s key word in this blessing is consolation. He names God as ‘the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation’. And Paul knows this because God is the Father of Jesus Christ. In Christ we see God’s consolation transparently at work. Christ suffers and we benefit; Christ dies and we live. The consolation we receive is given to us in and through the Passion of Jesus Christ.

Paul in his ministry lived out an absolute trust in the mystery of Christ crucified and risen. He is confident that his suffering brings real benefit to the Church at Corinth. He is glad to suffer for them because he knows that his suffering is not in vain.

We’ve all watched as parents have found consolation that their child’s tragic death has resulted in life for other children through organ transplants. They say, ‘At least her death was not in vain’. If only we could believe that our sufferings were held in a bigger dynamic which is ultimately fruitful. Sorrow and suffering are not good in themselves, but neither are they shameful or disastrous. In God’s hands there can be consolation.

I commend a book called: The Making of Us, subtitled ‘who we can become when life doesn’t go as planned’. It’s by an Australian called Sheridan Voysey, who made a pilgrimage from Lindisfarne to Durham to come to terms with the impact of infertility. He reflects that when he started speaking publicly about it to others, their own secrets tumbled out:

“We were missionaries in Africa,” a woman confided afterwards. “Then our daughter got depressed. That led to drug use, then to self-harm. Then she took her life. Missionaries had to look ‘successful’ back then, and losing a child to suicide wasn’t a mark of spiritual success, so I couldn’t tell anyone what happened. Even now few people know.” (p 107)

In the life of the body of Christ crucified and risen there is a real exchange of gifts. God consoles us in our sufferings, so that we can know his consolation and be a consolation to others. As the modern hymn puts it:

Brother, sister, let me serve you,

Let me be as Christ to you.

Pray that I would have the grace

To let you be my servant to.

 

But in Christ’s fellowship there is not only mutual consolation but hope. Paul ends his blessing with the words: ‘Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation’.

In this service, as I’ve said, we come together to praise God for all his blessings. But we come not only to praise him for the fresh grass and sunshine, but for the blessing of Christ’s cup. We remember that Christ gave himself to suffering for love’s sake, so that his people might live.

As we drink from the cup of Christ and share in his blood, we are committing ourselves to him, that all our lives, including all that we suffer, might be made a blessing in and through him.

You see why it might be better to keep stumm about a topic which has caused many to think mainly in terms of self-interest or, at best, the national interest, when God’s universal and personal economy encourages self-offering and trust in a coming kingdom which is not from this world.

No wonder that Christ managed to infuriate the Jewish leaders and exasperate the Roman authorities at the very same time. He stood for, and died for, a kingdom not of this world, which over centuries has survived many different forms of government, crossed the barriers of states and nations and which can’t be defined by any particular political perspective.

God’s view of the world is not to take sides when her children fight. It is a mother’s view – generous, loving, accepting, longsuffering, merciful, kind. She wants above all to draw her human family together, in ways which allow each member to flourish in relationship, and she realises that she will never have control, only the passionate resilience of love and the capacity to embrace and forgive.

What a weak God, who will not tell us what to do, who would rather suffer than assert her own rights, who would gladly suffer knowing that these wounds will bring consolation to others. But Paul shared her heart and drank from her cup: ‘If we are being afflicted it is for your consolation and salvation’: that is my joy.

That is what mothers do.