Oh, how we hate and deny suffering. God is love. God doesn’t want us to suffer. We don’t do suffering anymore. And what kind of God will reward us in some uncertain and metaphorical future for suffering now? And yet we confess the Cross, or do we? Without the Cross can there be a Resurrection? Isn’t that what Scripture and the doctrine of the Church teaches? Is the avoidance of suffering why modern Christians rush to social justice action? Not for the love of Jesus, but for something to do to fix the world, take control, banish suffering by force? Or even doing something to get brownie points from God? Our motives for acts of faith and generosity are complex and often hidden.
Over the past months in the readings, St. Paul brings up suffering in this world in his letters over and over again, perhaps because his church was new and strange and opposed by governments, both Jewish and Gentile. Paul spends a lot of time, beaten up and thrown in prison. So he knows a lot about suffering.
In 1 Peter 1:6-7 the author says, “even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Is not our faith more precious than gold, but perishable through doubts and uncertainties, the unknowns and anxieties of our lives, being tested by fire? What we are now experiencing from the long, long lockdown, are the realities that we can’t just snap our fingers, hop in the car, and toilet paper and bags of flour will appear. And the realities that little by little the prayer list Zoomed into our homes is longer with the names of the sick and the dead each week. And this will test our faith for good or ill.
1 Peter says, “Although you have not seen [Jesus], you love him,” and “for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Pet 1: 8-9).” Our very salvation is promised, and our faith is uplifted by the Spirit which Jesus gave us. But it is sometimes hard. And we are suffering, and it is not over. We can’t gloss it over, hide it with funny memes. This suffering is our Easter gift, our test of faith, of love for each other. This is what being a Christian is all about. It certainly isn’t about forced collegiality in the pews. I think I have felt and seen more unabashed love on Zoom services than I ever saw at coffee hour during what we foolishly called normal times.
The Gospel reading, John 14:1-17, is part of Jesus’ farewell address to his closest disciples, Philip asks to be shown the Father. Jesus chides him, suggesting when they see Jesus they do see the Father because of the intimate relationship between Jesus and the Father. The question posed by the author of 1 Peter, how do we know him whom we love without seeing him, is in many ways the same question.
The answer is that in faith we know and love Jesus, But we suffer. We preach that we know and love Jesus by seeing him in each other, and that is true. Without a doubt, the more we live in Christ, and more incarnate he becomes by our witness and that of those around us, as we build up the Body of Christ in the world. Yet there is more, as John’s Gospel reveals. Jesus is not just beloved by God, but bound in a mysterious way to his Father, a way we now confess as the Trinity, completed when the Advocate is known. We know Jesus by faith, which the Father holds for us as an imperishable gift, a salvific gift. A gift to each of us when we pray. But does that end all suffering?
Yes and no. We will suffer. This is a vale of tears. Browse through the Psalter. Lots of praise. And lots of suffering. Enemies, foreign and domestic. Verses of hope that the Lord God will shield us from plague and pestilence. Such words are not set down because there are no enemies, no plagues. Warnings always point to something that was real and dangerous. To the extent that we have turned a blind eye to wet (bush meat) markets, global warming, intrusion of human activity into wild lands, yes, we are being punished, by our fault, our most grievous fault. But now that this plague is here, now what?
We must pray, not only for those affected, those workers on the front line, the souls of the dead who, by and large, died alone because they were too contagious for pastoral care. We must pray in faith because Jesus told us that his Father hears us. But mostly we must pray for ourselves, in community, but also, and more importantly, when we are alone. What prayer does for us is opens our hearts to the presence of God in his Spirit, comforting us. That is the suffering being rewarded, or, more accurately, eased, because when this happens we are open to the love of God. Living or dying, in calm or torn into pieces in sorrow, that blessing is our balm, our reward. There is something about the economy of Salvation that makes this so. God’s love is not some sentimental saccharine cure-all. In pain or in joy, God’s presence is his gift of faith, which when, we return it in renewed faith, heals us, no matter what the real world throws at us. Injustice, plague, evil. We are healed.
So when we suffer, be glad. As is true when a loved one dies, we certainly can mourn, feel loss, care deeply. But we are not asked to hate or wallow in resentment. We are saved, loved, and sometimes life sucks. Jesus knew that. Jesus had to duck stones, disappear before he was thrown off a cliff in his own hometown, put up with false witnesses. Jesus was spat on and whipped half to death, and executed in one of the worst possible ways. Jesus didn’t make the world rainbows and unicorns. He promised that if we hung on, and understood that suffering destroys his Father’s kingdom, we would be rewarded with his Father’s transformative love. Nor did the sin, yes, sin, confusion, complexity, carelessness, evil compromise this healing. He would banish it all in mercy and forgiveness and give us eternal life, a new world, and an uncorrupted body. Not yet, but in the fullness of time. We still had to struggle, learn, ask for forgiveness, accept God’s will and the vicissitudes of a complex society.
Let us learn to embrace those words we chose to throw away. Suffering. Sin. The Evil One. And at the same time let us learn to embrace those prettified words for their true meanings, their hard and real meanings. Faith. Obedience. Love. Healed. Because without walking through the shadow of death, can there be the support, love, and gifts of our Shepherd?
We are suffering. Perhaps by loss of work? By loss of being in our churches. Perhaps by a brush with death, or the immediacy of death in our homes and parishes. And yet in faith, with faith tested and proven true, we will emerge, better and more faithful than we went in.
Remember, Easter is fifty days long.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.