Tony van Vuuren
18th April 2014
Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
Suffering, pain and grief are things that we have a natural inclination to run away from and in one way our inclination is right: these unpleasant experiences weren’t part of God’s original plan for the human race. Unfortunately, however, we live in a world that isn’t the way God planned it.The suffering and injustice that is inescapable in a fallen world can be on a large scale or it can be on a small scale. It takes all kinds of forms, as we know: – poverty or war on the large scale, mental anguish, loneliness, cruelty at the personal level. For most of us, our own lives haven’t been, and aren’t, totally free of these things. For us as believers and followers of Christ our journey through life is always, sooner or later, a cross-bearing journey. The cross isn’t a matter of choice. It’s an unavoidable part of the journey, part of the commitment we make when we answer Christ’s invitation to become his disciples.
The way that the cross appears in each of our lives is different. What’s important isn’t that it’s burdensome or unpleasant. The important thing is that it faces us with a decision: the decision whether or not to co-operate with God’s grace, and the choice of whether or not to react in a way that brings out depths of faith and love and understanding which we might not have believed we were capable of.
Of course we might not react in that way. We might refuse the cross. For some of us an experience of suffering or pain destroys any faith we might have had in God and destroys our trust in other people. Ultimately that kind of reaction has to be left to God’s judgment.
But others of us might have a different experience and a different reaction to suffering. We could say, perhaps, that we didn’t draw particularly close to God in the first stages of our conversion to him, when faith seemed to bring us a sense of contentment and peace and everything seemed to fall into place.
As that conversion grew stronger though we might relate how the anger and bitterness we felt in the throes of suffering gave way later to a deeper faith in God, a surrender of pride and self-sufficiency and a deeper sensitivity to others.
In short many Christians who do not turn away angrily from God when suffering comes their way will often say that they actually only got to know God more deeply when things started to go wrong, when things fell apart in some way. Then they were forced to leave behind the comforts and superficialities of a feel-good religion to find the real God. And the real God, of course, is the God of Jesus Christ: the crucified God.
Usually in our lives the cross that each of us has to carry isn’t something we’re able to know in advance. It’s not something we can anticipate. That’s part of the burden. Suffering is a mystery in every sense.
If we knew what painful experiences we were going to face in the course of our lives they might be easier to cope with: we could prepare ourselves somehow. But usually our real cross is something we’re not able to anticipate, and what’s more, it’s likely to be something that feels at the time to be more than we can cope with. It’s something we would never have chosen for ourselves.
Perhaps if we cling to some cross of our own choosing we could be avoiding our real cross: the sacrifice or the trial of some kind that helps us to genuinely convert, to turn to God, to become the person that he wants us to be.
So suffering, in itself, doesn’t have anything redemptive about it. Often it crushes people and diminishes them. Nor are we entitled to cite Jesus’ Passion as an excuse for being involved in, or even causing, the suffering of others.
But if we’re able to persist through the mystery of our suffering, turning to God and trusting in him, it expands our capacity for him, very often in ways we don’t realise.
It brings us into communion with him; it joins our will to his will; and that’s what’s important: not what we do or what we achieve, but how close we come to God. Let’s try to concentrate on that as we commemorate Christ’s own passion and death for our sake, as we come up to venerate and kiss the Cross; the symbol of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. But of course, as with the Eucharist – as we heard last night – the challenge to us isn’t just to believe in Christ, in our minds. The challenge to us is to put our belief into practice.
It’s the stance that we take up in relation to suffering – our own, and other people’s – that shows how far we’ve understood the meaning of the Cross. Our ritual of venerating the Cross once a year on Good Friday is only a symbol or a gesture that serves to remind us of that meaning. So as we make that gesture let us be confident, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, in approaching the throne
of grace, to receive mercy and favour and to find God’s grace when we are in need of help.