Sermon 3 Easter, Yr C

3 Easter Yr C, 22/04/2007

Acts 9:15-16 & Jn 21:15-19

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Following Jesus in redemptive suffering”

 

In both our first lesson and gospel today, the risen Christ calls Paul and Peter to follow him by a ministry of redemptive suffering. These two stories of Christ’s leading apostles are really our stories too—Jesus calls each one of us into a ministry of redemptive suffering. His words to Ananias concerning Paul’s future were: “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” And to Peter, Christ says: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” So too the crucified, risen Christ speaks to us, telling us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

The following modern-day story as told by Russian writer and Christian, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of how when we are called upon to suffer that our suffering can be redemptive not only for ourselves, but for others as well and can draw us closer to Christ.

Following an operation I (i.e. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium—and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out—so it will not hurt my eyes. He and I—and there is no one else in the ward.

Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. This conversion was accomplished by an educated, cultivated person, one of his cellmates, some good-natured old fellow like Platon Karatayev. I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardour of his words.

We know each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings.

It is already late. All the hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is ending up his story thus: “And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”

These were the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went out into the night-time corridor and into one of the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep. Everyone slept. And there was no one with whom he could speak even one word. And I went off to sleep myself.

And I was wakened in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the orderlies were carrying Kornfeld’s body to the operating room. He had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer’s mallet while he still slept.

And so it happened that Kornfeld’s prophetic words were his last words on earth. And, directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance.

The innocent are those who get punished most zealously of all. And what would one then have to say about our so evident torturers: Why does not fate punish them? Why do they prosper?

And the only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but…in the development of soul. From that point of view punishment is inflicted on those whose development…holds out hope.

When was it that I completely/Scattered the good seeds, one and all?/For after all I spent my boyhood/In the bright singing of Thy temples./Bookish subtleties sparkled brightly,/Piercing my arrogant brain,/The secrets of the world were…in my grasp,/Life’s destiny…as pliable as wax./Blood seethed—and every swirl/Gleamed iridescently before me,/Without a rumble the building of my faith/Quietly crumbled within my heart./But passing here between being and nothingness,/Stumbling and clutching at the edge,/I look behind me with a grateful tremor/Upon the life that I have lived./Not with good judgment nor with desire/Are its twists and turns illumined./But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning/Which became apparent to me only later on./And now with measuring cup returned to me,/Scooping up the living water,/God of the Universe!/I believe again!/Though I renounced You, You were with me!

Looking back, (says Solzhenitsyn) I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings. What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me. But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off (her) his feet and keep tossing (her) him back onto the shore, so also I was painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune. And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel.1

That path for Solzhenitsyn, as for Paul and Peter, was one of redemptive suffering. As we now know, Solzhenitsyn would go on to become a Nobel prize winning author and most likely has inspired thousands of people by writing about his own redemptive suffering as well as that of his people under the tyrannical Russian communist regime.

Coming back now to our passages from today’s first lesson and gospel, it is certainly true that the sufferings of Paul for the sake of Christ’s name were redemptive sufferings. Paul’s redemptive suffering, as he engaged in his missionary work, resulted in the founding of many Gentile churches. Peter, according to one tradition, ended up being martyred by Nero at Rome sometime around A.D. 64-68.

I know from personal experience too that the words of Jesus spoken to Peter in our gospel are true concerning going to places that we do not wish to go. In the past, I have been guilty of coveting certain calls, thinking that I’d be happy in such and such a place serving in such and such a church. However, I did not receive such calls to those places. Rather, I was called to places that I never really thought of going, nor were they my first choice of places where I’d like to be. Yet, that is where I ended up, and sometimes even though the circumstances were difficult and involved some suffering; I’ve come to realise later looking back on those calls, that through them the suffering there has been redemptive for me because I’ve learned important things from this that I’d never have learned otherwise. I also hope and pray that Christ has been able to somehow work through that suffering of those churches to bring redemption for them too.

Suffering is redemptive. Malcolm Muggeridge, reflecting on his life, also speaks in a similar way of how suffering is redemptive: Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.2 In other words, suffering is often our greatest teacher.

As we consider our calls and ministry, and realise how Christ is able to work redemption and new life in and through us and our sufferings, may the following prayer, found at Ravensbruck concentration camp on a piece of torn wrapping paper written by an unknown prisoner there be a source of inspiration to us: “O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of illwill. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.” Amen!

1 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Two 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation III-IV (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1975), pp. 612-615.

2 Malcolm Muggeridge, in Homemade, July, 1990.

 

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About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

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