Monday, 30 May 2011

Resurrection: the transformation of sadness into joy and fear into peace

Sermon on John 16: 23- end, St Matthew’s, 29th May 2011: a correction to my sermon a fortnight ago.

Today, since I am preaching at the 10.30 service today I thought I would just correct something I said when I last preached at this service two weeks ago. You may have noticed that the Gospel readings for the last three weeks at this 8.30 service have all been from Chapter 16 of John’s gospel. First –two weeks ago we had John Chapter 16 verses 16-22. Then last week we went backwards in that chapter to its beginning: verses 5-15 and just now, today, we have had verses 23 – 33. So the Gospel reading for today is actually a continuation of the reading we had two weeks ago and actually I think makes more sense if the two passages are read together.

You’ll remember that the context is the Last Supper and Jesus is telling his disciples what is going to happen to him and to them. In fact Jesus is drawing to a close and today’s reading brings to an end his explanations. After this he stops explaining and begins praying for his disciples.

The disciples have been confused at what he has to say to them and not a little disturbed. After all he tells that in a little while he is going to leave them and that they will see him no more. ‘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.’

Two weeks ago I said that Jesus’ answer, at that point, was to tell them a parable, a short parable, in fact just one 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!’

I said that this parable was confusing because it didn’t make sense but I have been thinking about it and perhaps it does make more sense than it first appears. Though I still think it is a bit mysterious and like all Jesus’ parables intriguing.

In today’s reading there seems to a clear reference back to parables like the parable of the woman in labour when Jesus says ‘I have said this to you in figures of speech. An hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but shall tell you about the Father in plain words’ And the disciples, a little later , say – and remember Jesus is coming to the end of what he has to explain to them – ‘There, at last you are speaking plainly without figures of speech’. Perhaps the disciples, like John, also found the parable of the woman in labour initially confusing but on thinking about it found it helpful and remembered it.

So I wanted to say a little more about the parable. There is, I said a fortnight ago, an obvious connection between the suffering and joy of childbirth and the suffering and joy in the crucifixion and resurrection respectively. As we all know, even if we had no direct experience of it, a lot of suffering involved in giving birth to a baby. But when the baby is born this is generally the occasion for much joy, not just on the part of the woman who has given birth, but for the father and their family and friends. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the disciples are about to suffer but that their suffering will turn into joy, just as woman has to suffer for a child to be born.

But this is all a bit odd firstly because surely it’s not the disciples who are going to be doing most of the suffering in the immediate future: it’s Jesus himself. It’s he who is going to have to suffer on the cross to bring about the joy of the disciples at the resurrection. But remember here he is talking about their future suffering not his own: ‘You will weep and go into mourning, while the world will rejoice, you will be sad.’ Not ‘I will weep…I will be sad’

And secondly it’s odd because of how Jesus starts the parable ‘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?

And yet this parable does begin to make sense if you begin to think about it.

Firstly in relation to the question of who the woman represents: the disciples or Jesus. Now Jesus in his final words to his disciples constantly talks about how, in the future, he will dwell within the disciples and they in him . For instance in Chapter 17 he will pray ‘that [the disciples] may be all be one, just as you, Father, in me and I in you, that they also may be [one] in us’ and ‘that they may be one just as we are one, I in them and you in me.’

And in another parable Jesus gives the disciples at the Last Supper – the parable of the true vine – Jesus says ‘I am the vine and you are the branches. He that remains in me and I in him is the one who bears much fruit’

Perhaps it is not then surprising that the woman in the parable of the woman in labour could represent Jesus or she could represent the disciples. Since Jesus is saying that the time is coming when he will dwell within the disciples, and that they in turn will somehow live within him, his suffering will be their suffering, their suffering will be his suffering. And moreover his joy will be their joy, their joy will be his joy.

Secondly in relation to the odd choice of the word sad or ‘lype’. Lype does mean sad and is frequently translated as sad. When Jesus predicts that the disciples will be lype when he leaves them, the most obvious way of translating lype is sad. But lype also means more than sad. It also means ‘apprehensive’ or even ‘fearful’ as a woman in labour might well be. Childbirth is a risky business even today. It’s risky for both the child and the mother.

Of course the over-riding emotion of the disciples when Jesus was killed was grief or sadness. But Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is not primarily sad he is bloody terrified. He sweats blood in his fear at what he thinks is going to happen to him. When Jesus is arrested the disciples must have been apprehensive and fearful and in fact mostly all run away. Peter follows Jesus but denies that he knows him not out of sadness but out of fear. Even after the crucifixion the disciples were fearful. For instance the doors of the room where they were gathered on the first Easter Sunday evening was locked for’ fear of the Jew’s.

Perhaps then lype is a good word for Jesus to use.

I said two weeks ago that, since the parable of the woman in labour is supposed to be about turning the disciples’ sadness into joy, it isn’t entirely logical. I am now not so sure. If you look more closely at the parable, what Jesus seems to be saying is that fear and anguish, not just sadness, is turned into joy through his death and resurrection?

And of course it’s not just joy that the resurrection will bring but other things as well. Whereas the opposite of sadness is joy, the opposite of anguish is peace. When we think of the birth of a baby we don’t automatically think of that as bringing peace. But there is a sense in which the birth of a baby brings to end the anguish of labour and ushers in sort of peace, at least for a while.

In today’s reading Jesus ends by saying, ‘Tthe hour is coming – indeed has already come – for you to be scattered each on his own, leaving me alone.’ Jesus here is talking about their and his future fear. But after this he says ‘I have said this to you so that in me you may find peace’. He has already – at earlier points in his last words to the disciples at the Last Supper - promised that his going away will eventually bring them peace. For example in Chapter 14 he tells them ‘Peace is my farewell to you. My peace is my gift to you’. And you’ll remember that the first words he says to the disciples gathered together in the ‘upper room’ when he first appears to them is ‘Peace be with you’.

So as we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection in the bread and wine of this communion let us think about what those events signified: the transformation of both fear and anguish into peace, the transformation of grief and sadness into joy. Everything was changed, everything was altered if we just begin to think about it.

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