(A sermon I won’t be there to preach, ironically because I am “suffering” from shingles. But my love and prayers are with the parish of Epiphany this morning, and I’m so glad to be in a relationship with them.)
I know that it’s Trinity Sunday. Maybe you are itching for a theological treatise on the traditional, reformed and emergent doctrinal debates about the nature of our Triune God. Well, to be honest, that’s not a sermon I’m dying to preach. As we discussed in a conversation earlier this week, my clergy colleagues and I, this is not the Feast Day of a doctrine of the church; it is a celebration of God, of the wonder and mystery that is the Holy Trinity; it is a day set aside among all of the days in which we praise the name of our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
So that being said, what difference does it make that we have a relationship with a God that is all about relationship, that consists in relationship, that subsists in mutuality and love?
According to St Paul, it means that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. It means that we are filled with peace, with grace, with love.
Lovely stuff: then he goes and spoils it by talking yet again about suffering, and about how it produces endurance and character, like a gruff school master out of a black and white movie who insists that anything you don’t like and don’t want to do is, in fact, character-building and therefore desirable.
The problem with the gruff and grumpy approach to Paul’s invitation to boast in suffering is that it becomes a badge of pride in itself, something to be sought after. We should suffer, we begin to think, so as to find opportunities to boast in it. We saw something of this in the early martyrs of the church: Ignatius of Antioch, for example, was delighted, overjoyed, ecstatic at the prospect of being eaten by lions!
He wrote to friends in Rome in the year 110, worried that they would try to save him from his martyrdom:
What a thrill I shall have from the wild beasts that are ready for me! I hope they will make short work of me. I shall coax them on to eat me up at once and not to hold off, as sometimes happens, through fear. And if they are reluctant, I shall force them to it. Forgive me – I know what is good for me. Now is the moment I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil – only let me get to Jesus Christ!
Now, Ignatius may be a justly revered Christian saint, but honestly, this all seems a little twisted to me, and after the suffering we have seen even just this week, just this month, just this year, in Oklahoma, in Boston, in Newtown, on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland, the idea that we are supposed to celebrate suffering is quite obscene.
And I think that when we do that, we are in fact pushing Paul’s words further than they can really go on their own. What Paul writes, if we read it faithfully, is not, “Boast about your suffering,” nor even “Boast of your suffering,” but “We boast even in our suffering.”
The people whom we memorialize this weekend did not go out in order to suffer, but to overcome. Theirs was a courage born of necessity, not the excess of all kinds of extremists.
It’s a very different message.
Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
Jesus used the same word – take up – to the man lowered through the roof by his friends in order to be healed: “Take up your bed and walk.” Take up your cross; take up your bed. It is the same action, one not of hardship only but of healing, one which finds its way through suffering to the reward to come, one which bears as its fruit not despair, but hope.
Jesus did not tell any of them to seek out suffering, although he warned them that it would find them. He did not seek himself to suffer, but he did not turn aside when the true course, the path to freedom led him through those dark valleys. His instruction was not one of cruelty but of mercy, of healing. He told his disciples, he told us that when we stub our toes on the hard wood of the cross, when we stumble, even when it feels as though we have fallen through the floor, we are to pick up and carry on, and Jesus will be right there beside us.
To be human is to be vulnerable to suffering; to be in relationship, to feel love for another, for God and the children of God, for special relationships, partners, children, friends, is to open ourselves up not to the possibility but to the inevitability of suffering.
To be human is also to be vulnerable to the most profound joy, and love, and hope; only in relationship can we be open not only to the possibility but the inevitability of reciprocal love and mutual enjoyment.
To be made in the image of a God whose essence is love, who exists eternally in relationship, who cannot be confined but must always be sharing, intimate and discrete, three in one, one in three – to be made in this image is to be made for relationship, for love and mercy, for hope and kindness.
So Paul can say, even out of the suffering of his own life, that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Thus we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God; not by an effort of our own will but by the grace and gift of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, one God, love shared but undivided, bound together in relationship and reaching out in love to us; and we need not be afraid that any kind of suffering, or shame, or doubt can come between us and the love of God poured out in the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
 “From Early Christian Fathers, edited and translated by Cyril C. Richardson (Volume I: The Library of Christian Classics), pages 104-105. First published in MCMLIII vy the SCM Press Ltd., London, and The Westminster Press, Philadelphia. Used by permission of the publishers.” William C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 1: From its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation (Westminster Press, 1988), pages 17-18