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Preacher: Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader
Date: 7th August 2022 Evensong
Readings: Isaiah 11:10–12:6; 2 Corinthians 1: 1-22
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
I expect most of us recall what our childhood comfort blanket or soft toy was. Some of us still have them. I have a small and very well chewed bear. I think I am the only person who looking at him knows what he once was. Many years on we have probably each developed different ways of finding comfort when we feel overwhelmed and in need of comfort. For some it may be a stiff drink, for some it is comfort-eating; for some getting stuck into a book or magazine, for others distracting themselves with TV or a movie. None of which are probably as effective as the childhood comfort item.
Even as I talk about comfort you may be thinking about the last time you experienced a need for comfort? It may have been a bereavement, a piece of bad news, a hard time at work or still struggling with after-effects of mental illness, or the long recovery we are all making from Covid. What helped you? Where did you get comfort – in many case is was probably someone who came alongside and had some understanding of what you were in the midst of.
The apostle Paul in his letter of which we read the opening part this evening, speaks of his need for comfort. He had really gone through the mill. We don’t know what it was. But he speaks about affliction, about something that had happened in Asia where he was utterly and unbearably crushed to the extent that he despaired of life itself, he speaks about whatever had happened feeling like a sentence of death and he speaks of being in deadly peril.
We can speculate about what it might have been. Many have done. It might have been physical illness. Whatever it was it had certainly affected his mental health and his general sense of wellbeing. It may have been physical assault and injury. He may have been faced with criminal charges and prosecution, and perhaps experience of imprisonment. We do know that when he was in Ephesus, such was the impact of the gospel on people as they turned from the worship of the local goddess – Diana –the local tradesmen began to suffer, Paul was arrested and in deep trouble. Prof Tom Wright suggests that it may be that Luke downplays what actually happened to him so as to keep the lid on things.
Whatever it was, it was very real and it had a profound effect on Paul in the ways that he describes, particularly he admits that it affected his mental wellbeing.
The Paul who writes this letter to the Corinthian church seems a very different persona from the author of the first letter to that same church. The first letter as you know is full of confidence and clear instructions. That wonderful passage in Chapter 15 where he speaks about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and all that that means for us seems some little distance from Paul’s feelings as he pens this letter.
However, he tells us not only of his great need for comfort or consolation but where and how he found it.
10 times in 5 verses he uses the word for comfort which is translated in different ways in our various translations. The NRSV which was read this afternoon speaks of consolation; the KJV – speaks of comfort but also consolation; the NIV –uses comfort; and the Msge – uses a quite different phrase – coming alongside us.
You will know that in some places in the NT the word for comfort implies strength, or strengthening.
But the word Paul uses here has at its root that idea of coming alongside – it is the word from which we get the word paraclete – which you may know is used about the Holy Spirit as the one who comes alongside us, speaks for us and represents us.
But is more than just coming alongside. Tom Wright says “…. there is the sense of making a strong appeal to someone, … The idea is of someone being alongside another person, speaking words which bring about a change in their mood and their situation, giving courage, hope, direction, making a difference, altering the way someone feels about whatever they are facing.”
So that is what has happened for Paul. He has had that kind of comfort, and consolation. He is now in a different place. God has done it. But how?
The answer is found in what he calls the sufferings of Christ.
The ultimate suffering Christ experienced was on the cross. But he suffered much more than that. Paul speaks about the abundance of his sufferings. In another place in the NT we read that Jesus was tempted in every way like us. There is no temptation I now face that Jesus did not face in some shape or form. So we learn here that there is no suffering I suffer which he has not suffered already.
We know from the gospel accounts about his experience of suffering.
He was misunderstood
At times he was anxious
He knew loneliness and isolation
He was misunderstood by his family and sensed that he was separated from them at times
He knew also about rejection
Physical pain and suffering
The fear of facing death
Death itself, and an agonizing one at that
So we have that abundance of Christ’s sufferings. And just as he died for us, so he bore all that suffering in abundance for us.
So now I can come to him as the one who suffered, and know that I am in the presence of one who has suffered like me and more so.
And that gives me comfort and consolation and it can bring change.
We know this – that just as he died for us, he also rose for us. And as he rose for us, he has now ascended into heaven and is at his father’s right hand waiting to welcome us home.
Paul writes to another young church and speaks about knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and sharing the fellowship of his sufferings – Phil 3 – and we are able now to look at suffering through the lens of the resurrection
Just as all of that is able to change us, so we are able to offer that life changing possibility to others. Contact with changed people brings change.
We are people who have been much affected in the last two and a half years through the covid pandemic. All around us are people who in addition to whatever else they were suffering have almost certainly had that amplified by the pandemic and probably had additional suffering as well.
The Message version says – “he comes alongside us as we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”
So there is good news for us this afternoon – whatever we are going through, however we are suffering, if we come close to Jesus in his word, in the sacrament and in prayer we will find the one who has suffered like us and for us and who will be with us sharing our suffering.
And as we come to him as always we find he has come to us
And this will change us.
But the good news for the world this afternoon is that as we move among people – our family, our friends, our neighbours, and colleagues, we can be instruments of change for them too.
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