2 Corinthians 12.5b & 7b-10
This Lent, as you know, we have been following the themes of the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Lent Course. The same themes have been used on Sunday mornings in the Radio 4 service at 8 o’clock and they can be found on the CTBI website.
As the weeks have gone by so the theme each week has got gradually darker. This is surely appropriate. Mark makes a point of saying that Good Friday was a day when darkness fell over the the whole land even though it was the middle of the day. Jesus’ death was, he says, like a total eclipse of the sun, a moment when ordinary life was challenged and put on hold, an unnatural moment when goodness and godliness appeared to be vanquished by evil, when God’s plans for the whole course of universal history seemed to be under permanent threat. And yet, just like an eclipse, it was followed by the restoration of the light. ‘The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to extinguish it.’ So, although the theme of our Lent course each week has grown more sombre, there has always been light still at the end of the tunnel.
In prison, and now awaiting trial for his part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the theologian and teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote this verse about the Crucifixion:
Wondrous transformation! Your hands, strong and active, are fettered.
Powerless, alone, you see that an end is put to your action.
Yet now you breathe a sigh of relief and lay what is righteous
Calmly and fearlessly into a mightier hand, contented.
Just for one blissful moment you could feel the sweet touch of freedom,
Then you gave it to God, that God might perfect it in glory.
‘Just for one blissful moment you could feel the sweet touch of freedom.’ Bonhoeffer, himself powerless and imprisoned, reminds himself how Jesus was fastened to a cross, powerless now to save himself, incapable - indeed - of any independent action, the victim of events. And yet, in this moment of apparent defeat perhaps - thinks Bonhoeffer - Jesus was actually able to breathe a sigh of relief that his work was finished, that there was nothing more he could do or be asked to do, that now he must entrust his purpose to others and - ultimately - to God. Perhaps he was even able to feel that his mission, his God-given task, had finally been accomplished, that he had achieved everything he set out to do. That’s certainly how John interprets Jesus’ cry from the cross. But Mark is more enigmatic. He leaves it for us to decide whether it was a cry of dereliction or a shout of triumph, or even a mixture of the two.
Bonhoeffer certainly felt that mixture of emotions. On the one hand he was frustrated by his own powerlessness and anxious about his loved ones. On the other hand he was calm and fearless, and a source of great moral strength to his fellow prisoners.
We reflected in the Lent group that lots of people have to go through times when they feel powerless or disempowered and when they lose the power to control what happens to them. It might be someone who always led a very active life but who is now confined to a wheelchair and can only go out for a walk when someone else pushes them. It might be someone who has to care for a close relative or friend and therefore finds themselves having to put other choices - about their career, or their other interests, or other relationships - into cold storage. It might even be something as fleeting as being unable to go on a planned journey because there isn’t any petrol at the pumps.
Is there a sense in which this kind of experience can, in a strange way, set us free from life’s usual anxieties and preoccupations? Can the emptiness that such a loss of control creates be filled with an unexpected tranquility and a feeling of quiet acceptance?
I guess all of us know people whose dignity and courage in the face of suffering and death has been an inspiration and an encouragement to us, just as Jesus’ death inspired the Centurion. At the Lent Course we spoke of members of our own congregation whose attitude to dying had been a source of strength and inspiration to those who spoke to them or visited them.
As we’ve noted before, it would be invidious to pick out any single example from our church, so once again I will limit myself to speaking about my mother. When she was dying in hospital Helen - who was at her own mother’s bedside at the time - sent her a message to say how much she had always admired the way my mother put up with her suffering with quiet courage and without ever complaining. My mother reflected for a moment, and then she said, ‘Well, I’m complaining now!’
In the Lent group some of us thought that there were some experiences of suffering, or loss and disempowerment which might simply drive us mad and make us feel utterly derelict and entirely negative about our situation. But, of course, we can only know how we shall really feel if, and when, it happens.
Perhaps, like the man I once visited on his deathbed in hospital, when our time comes we shall just keep repeating to ourselves over and over, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And if we do, we can still be assured that Jesus understands how we feel.
Or perhaps, we shall be like the children I used to visit when I was a hospital chaplain, whose bodies were stunted by the high doses of cortisone they needed to keep arthritis at bay but whose joints were nonetheless twisted and full of pain. They seemed to have nothing to celebrate and little to look forward to, and yet I never met a single one who wasn’t unfailingly cheerful and full of hope.
Or perhaps, like Bonhoeffer, we shall be able to glimpse - even through the dark days of our suffering - a redeeming glimmer of freedom, a feeling that at least we have accomplished our life’s work and can hand on the baton to others, a sense of being set free from worry about the future. And, if we do, we can be assured that Jesus has been there, too. Jesus gave his life, and its end, to God who then perfected it in glory. Even the centurion who was guarding his cross was heard to say, ‘This man must have been a Son of God.’
No one really knows how Dietrich Bonhoeffer died. The people who were there didn’t want to tell the truth about it and can’t be relied upon as witnesses. But on the Sunday after Easter, the day before he died, Bonhoeffer celebrated a short service for some of his fellow prisoners. He had just finished praying when two plain clothes policemen came to take him away. To one of the other prisoners, a British secret service man called Payne Best who had been captured by the Germans, he said, ‘This is the end. For me it is the beginning of life.’ They were his last recorded words and invest his dying with a quiet dignity which nothing that his captors might try to do could take away.
Best, who had got to know Bonhoeffer well during the final weeks of the War, said of him that Bonhoeffer was always full of happiness, and took joy in every small event in life, grateful ‘for the mere fact of being alive’. Then, like the centurion at the Cross, he spoke of how Bonhoeffer’s example had given glory to God. Despite - or maybe because of - the fact that they had only met in prison and under threat of death, Best says that Bonhoeffer ‘was one of the very few people that I have ever met to whom his God was real and close to him.’
What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? He tells us earlier in the same part of his letter about a wonderful visionary experience he had of being snatched up to heaven, and some commentators have lamely suggested that his thorn in the flesh, was the mere fact of having to come back down to earth again. But that hardly seems likely. For one thing, it wouldn’t be a real thorn in the flesh, but a spiritual torment. And, for another, we know that Paul had problems with his eyesight and may have had mental health problems too. One of these is more likely to be the actual thorn he is talking about.
Some of Paul’s detractors - and there were many - said that if he had real faith in God, God would take this cup of suffering away from him. Others said that a truly good person wouldn’t have been given a thorn to contend with in the first place. But Paul makes a virtue out of his suffering. He says that God’s power at work within him is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he is happy to boast about his disability.’ Whenever I am weak,’ he says, ‘Then I am strong.’
It’s an amazing assertion. But is it true? For some people suffering undermines their faith and confidence in God. They find themselves uttering the same cries of dereliction and abandonment that some people heard Jesus shouting from the Cross. But for others their faith is made stronger in weakness, and they find that sense of freedom and completion of which we have already been thinking and which other people also heard Jesus articulate from the Cross. So there’s no easy answer to the question about whether suffering can make us stronger or perfect us in spite of our weakness.
Yet, what Paul is saying surely does describe what God is accomplishing on the cross. However Jesus may have experienced it, on the Cross God’s power was certainly made perfect in weakness, and Jesus’ personal experience of weakness is what ultimately made him strong enough to overcome death for us.
Thinking again about the Cross, Bonhoeffer wrote:
Everything we may with some good reason expect or beg of God is to be found in Jesus Christ. But what we imagine a God could or should do – the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with at all.
What is certain is that we may always live aware that God is near and present with us ...and that danger and urgent need can only drive us closer to God. What is certain is that we have no claim on anything but may ask for everything; what is certain is that in suffering lies hidden the source of our joy, in dying the source of our life; what is certain is that in all this we stand within a community that carries us. To all this God has said Yes and Amen in Jesus.