Saturday, 21 May 2011
Joy as understanding
Sermon on John 16: 16-22, St Matthew’s, 15th May 2011
Today my sermon is about the joy that comes from understanding what we didn’t or couldn’t understand before. Of course joy doesn’t just come from understanding but for me understanding is a big part of joy. This is partly because I am a scientist and we scientists spend quite a lot of our lives trying to understand the way things are, and we find joy in making sense of things.
For me my faith helps me to make sense of the things that science and scientific methods cannot – if they are based purely on analysing the data from our senses together with logic. My faith helps me answer questions of why am I here, why is there so much suffering around, what is going to happen to me after I die? And the answers give me joy.
I also find joy in other things besides answers to questions: in the glory of a sunset, in winning competitions, in talking with a friend. But I wonder however whether there is a distinction to be drawn between these temporary ‘pleasures’ and the more lasting joy we get from answered questions. The sun goes down and the sunset remains only in our memory. The answer to a question remains with us in a way that is more permanent.
Our gospel reading today is part of John’s account of what Jesus said to his disciples at the last supper in order to help them understand what was going to happen. Jesus begins this part of his farewell discourse with, ‘In a little while you will not see me any more, and then again in a little while you will see me’. Here Jesus, rather obliquely to be sure, seems to be telling his disciples that in a little while he will die so the disciples will not be able to see him, but a little while after that he will rise from the dead and appear to them so that they will be able to see him again.
This will he says give them both joy and understanding. Verses 22: after his mini-parable about a woman going into labour – ‘So it is with you too – you are sad now; but I shall see you again and your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you.’ And the beginning of verse 23: ‘And on that day you will have no more questions to put to me’. However it is a bit difficult to see how all this all encompassing joy and understanding was to be accomplished by the resurrection appearances.
Firstly when Jesus appeared to the disciples were they completely over-joyed to see him? Surely their joy was also tinged with guilt at deserting him and in Peter’s case of denying that he knew him. Did Peter really want to see Jesus again after what he had said in the high priest’s courtyard? Might the disciples not have even felt angry that Jesus had apparently deserted them? Most bereavement is associated with anger. It is very common to be angry with the person who has died. Would this anger just have disappeared when the disciples saw Jesus again? Would they not have felt some residual anger that all the grief had apparently been for nothing.
Similarly when Jesus reappeared did it all instantly make sense? Surely his reappearance raises more questions than it answers? Jesus has a lot of explaining to do after his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus he expounds upon the scriptures to show how his death and resurrection fit into world history, in the upper room he tells the disciples about the forgiveness of sins in the light of his death and resurrection, on the mountain in of Galilee Jesus tells them about what they need to do next now he has been raised from the dead. Was there ever a time when there were no more questions left?
The verses that I just read, ‘[When I] see you again…your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you. And on that day you will have no more questions to put to me’ look difficult to believe, if ‘when I see you again’ and ‘on that day’ refer to the resurrection appearances. Some people – St Augustine amongst them - have thought that Jesus is not talking here about the resurrection appearances but his coming again – his second coming. And indeed if we are to apply these verses to ourselves it seems clear that – even knowing what we know – we surely do not rejoice with a joy than no one can take from us, we still do have questions we would like to put to Jesus. These verses are surely a promise that has yet to be fully realised.
And yet the promises are set in the context of, ‘In a little while you will not see me any more and then again in a little while you will see me’. As I have said before but its’ worth repeating: the resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Both in the way things actually are and the way they appear to be.
John of course understands this and so perhaps, when reporting Jesus words, isn’t worrying too much about time. After all, the nature of time and the way we see it are also changed by Jesus’ resurrection. So Jesus’ promise of joy and understanding are both realised by the crucifixion and resurrection – if we could just but see it – but also a promise of things to come. A parallel verse to, ‘In a little while you will not see me any more, and then again in a little while you will see me’ can be found earlier verse in Jesus’ farewell discourse. There he says: ‘In just a little while the world will not see me any more but you will see me because I have life and you will have life’ (John 14: 9). Here Jesus is clearly talking about more than the resurrection appearances but something much more longer lasting, a new sort of life that will outlast the resurrection appearances.
But back to joy that comes from understanding. Firstly there is of course an obvious connection between seeing and understanding. To see is sometimes even used as a synonym of ‘to understand’ as when someone says ‘I see’ when told of something happening. That person does not mean merely that they can recreate what has happened in their mind’s eye but that they can understand it in some way. They understand why it happened.
It was important for the disciples to see the risen Jesus for them to actually believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was more important for some than others. And the story of Thomas having to see Jesus’ actual wounds before he believed speaks of that. But it was much more important for the disciples to understand why Jesus had risen from the dead not just to see that he had.
At the last supper the disciples are clearly confused about what was going to happen and why. ‘What does this mean?’ they say to one another. ‘What is this little while of which he speaks. We don’t understand what he is talking about.’ Jesus knows what they are thinking but he does not really explain what he has just said, perhaps even he doesn’t know himself what precisely is going to happen or fully why. Only when he and they have seen will they understand.
In answer to their questions Jesus tells them a parable. Parables are rare in John’s gospel (at least in the form we find in the other gospels) but here is one. It’s just a verse. ‘When a woman is in labour she is sad that her hour has come. But once the baby is born her joy makes her forget the suffering because a child has been born into the world!’
There is in child birth a clear connection here between suffering and joy. I know this even though I am not a woman but I was there when both my daughters were born. It seems fairly obvious that what Jesus is saying here is that the disciples ’joy when they see him again will ‘make them forget the suffering’ of the crucifixion. That the suffering of the crucifixion will then be understandable in the light of the resurrection.
So far so good but because this little story is a parable it is odd and even shocking, like many of Jesus other parables. It’s odd firstly because of its opening premise: ‘When a women is in labour she is sad (lype) that her hour has come’. Lype is the word that Jesus has just used to predict how the disciples will feel at his leaving them: ‘You will be sad (lype).’
But is a woman actually sad that her labour has started? This opening premise surely just doesn’t make sense. Surely sad is the wrong word here? A woman might be apprehensive, even fearful but surely not sad? Perhaps lype doesn’t mean sad? It can, in fact, be translated as ‘apprehensive’ but then why would the disciples be apprehensive at Jesus leaving them or even dying. Surely their over-riding emotion is going to be grief not apprehension. The feelings of the woman and the disciples don’t really match up.
Secondly in the parable it is the woman whose sadness/apprehension is turned to joy. Her friends and family aren’t in the picture. If the story is supposed to be a sort of prediction of what is going to happen then Jesus is saying, ‘I am like a pregnant woman whose hour has come. I am going to suffer but my sadness/apprehension is going to be transformed somehow into joy’. But remember Jesus is talking about the disciples sadness not his own. ’You will be sad but your sadness will be turned into joy’ it says in the verse immediately preceding the parable’. Who then is the woman supposed to represent: Jesus or his disciples? There seems to be a disconnect, a jump in the logic.
Perhaps then the parable is also saying that turning sadness into joy through suffering isn’t in the end logical. Nevertheless that sadness was turned into joy because of Jesus death and resurrection is the clear message of the gospel. And moreover it is clear that only through resurrection that suffering – not just Jesus’ suffering on the cross but all suffering - becomes understandable. Not perhaps in any logical, scientific way, but understandable nevertheless. There is in the end, I think, no real difference between joy and understanding and that these two gifts of the Holy Spirit are not really distinct. For joy flows from the fact that we can come to know and understand Jesus.