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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Confusion & childbirth

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

I’m going to talk about confusion and childbirth. Neither are easy topics for a sermon as we prefer to talk about certainty rather than confusion when it comes to faith and when men talk about childbirth it is always on the basis of a lack lived experience, even when you were present at the birth of both your children.

Let’s start with confusion, which for all our focus on certainty in the Christian faith, is actually an encouraging topic to address because it shows the realism and honesty of the Gospels. The Gospels could have been written as a hagiography of Jesus’ disciples but instead is a warts and all account. The disciples were fallible human beings, just as we are, yet were mightly used by God; and that is hugely encouraging for us, as it says that we can experience the same.

The confusion that the disciples experience here is in relation to Jesus’ teaching (John 16. 16 - 22). He says, ‘You won’t see me then you will.’ ‘You will grieve and be in pain and then you will rejoice.’ ‘I am going to the Father and then the Advocate will come to you.’ These were the messages Jesus was giving to his disciples just before the events of his Passion. With hindsight we understand what he was saying but we can understand, too, that at the time it was confusing and, as is clear from our Gospel reading, they didn’t really understand.

Jesus was trying to prepare them for his crucifixion – when they would no longer see them as he would have died and been buried – and for his resurrection – when joyfully and miraculously they would see him again. But these events were so far outside their frame of reference that they struggled to understand.

With hindsight we can see that Jesus was talking to them about his death and resurrection. Although we can see that in a way that the disciples could not at that time, there is still much that we don’t understand about the work of God in the world – questions, for example, about suffering, free will and our human propensity to evil – which mean that we will often feel as confused as the disciples felt at that time.

Later, they were able to see that Jesus knew what he was talking about and what he was doing, so they learnt to trust the work of God in the world even when they didn’t always understand what was going on. We need to learn to do the same and trust that, although we often don’t understand how, God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. In addition, Jesus wants us to understand that the pattern of his death and resurrection is also our natural and normal experience as human beings which we should expect to see worked out in our lives too. This is partly why he equates his experience of death and resurrection with childbirth.

He says to his disciples, ‘You are going to go through an experience that is very like that of childbirth. There will be a time when I am no longer with you and you will grieve and be in pain. That time will be like the pain that is experienced in labour. Then I will return to you through the resurrection and you will feel immense joy, the kind of joy that a mother feels when she first receives her new born baby in her arms; the kind of joy that overwhelms and over shadows the pain that was felt earlier.

Because he equates his unusual personal mission with an experience that is natural and normative for large numbers of the population in every generation, Jesus is suggesting to us that this pattern of death and resurrection, pain before birth, grief and joy, is one that will characterise our experience as Christians, so that whenever we are in a place of pain, grief or have the sense that death is occurring in some way in our lives, we should not despair because we can trust that resurrection, rebirth or new life is actually just around the corner and will be our experience in the future.

When we are in the midst of confusion, pain or grief, it is, of course, very hard to believe this and to trust that change will come. That is why Jesus wants to prepare us, as he tried to prepare his disciples, and wants us to understand that this will be our experience throughout our lives; that we will all move through periods of pain and grief before then experiencing new life and resurrection. His crucifixion and resurrection provide us with an understanding that the disciples did not possess before his Passion. The question is whether we will use that greater knowledge and understanding to prepare ourselves for the cycles of death and rebirth that remain to be experienced in the remainder of our time here on earth.         


Déodat de Séverac -Tantum Ergo.

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