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'Unless a grain of wheat ...'

'Unless a grain of wheat ...'
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In her autobiography the legendary writer of crime fiction, Agatha Christie, described a moment of life-changing significance for her, dating back to her school days.  And it happened in the most unexpected of contexts - namely, during the course of a maths lesson.  (Actually, I should probably apologise to the mathematicians amongst you for expressing surprise that a maths lesson could form the setting for a moment of life-changing revelation - but, moving swiftly on ...).

Agatha Christie described the incident like this (and I quote):


I can picture [the] teacher - I can't recall her name.  She was short and spare, and I remember her eager jutting chin.  Quite unexpectedly one day (in the middle, I think, of an arithmetic lesson) she suddenly launched forth on a speech [about] life and religion.

'All of you,' she said, 'every one of you - will pass through a time when you face despair.  If you never face despair, you will never have faced, or become, a Christian, or known a Christian life.  To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived; you must enjoy things as he enjoyed things; be as happy as he was at the marriage at Cana, know the peace and happiness that it means to be in harmony with God and with God's will.  But you must also know, as he did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, to feel that all your friends have forsaken you, that those you love and trust have turned away from you, and that God himself has forsaken you.    Hold on then to the belief that that is not the end.  If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life.'  

[The teacher] then returned to the problems of compound interest with her usual vigour, but it is odd that those few words, more than any sermon I have ever heard, remained with me, and years later they were to come back to me and give me hope at a time when despair had me in its grip.  She was a dynamic figure, and also, I think, a fine teacher.  I wish I could have been taught by her for longer.

'If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life.'  

The whole business of trying to live a Christian life can be such a weird and perplexing thing sometimes.  It can be so easy to fall into the trap, as so many Christians unfortunately do, of regarding faith as basically a kind of celestial insurance policy against bad things happening in your life.  That is the kind of view that maintains that whenever something awful is looming on the horizon of your life, essentially all you have to do is have enough faith, and pray often enough, and fervently enough, and - bingo! - disaster will be miraculously averted and it won't happen after all.  And if it does happen, then presumably that must be because you didn't have enough faith, or didn't pray often enough or fervently enough for God to be bothered to take the time to listen to you.  

I have to say, I have huge problems with that kind of understanding of how Christianity works - not only because of what it suggests about the nature of faith, but also, just as importantly, because of what it implies about the nature of God.  

And at the risk of stating the obvious, it can't be right in any case - you only have to look at the history of the early Church to see that.  Far from being protected from bad things happening, the precise opposite was the case, not only for Jesus himself, but for his disciples and huge numbers of Christians during those early centuries.  They were persecuted mercilessly and brutally for their faith, dying the most barbaric and appalling deaths, many of them in the arenas of the Roman Empire.  Far from presenting itself as an insurance policy against bad things happening in life, in those days taking the decision to follow Christ was to commit oneself to an assured life of trauma and persecution.  To do so was a pretty good guarantee that terrible things would indeed follow.

So - point number one - faith does not prevent bad things from happening to you.   Terrible things happen to good and faithful and committed Christian people all the time.  It goes with being a member of the human race.  More on this in a moment.

But one also has to avoid the opposite extreme, which is the rather perverse and masochistic idea that Christians must go in active quest of suffering.  

There was a huge cult of martyrdom in the early Church - and yet the Church Fathers were absolutely clear that, although Christians should be unafraid of death and martyrs were to be honoured, under no circumstances should a Christian actively seek martyrdom.  Because to try and engineer the premature ending of one's own life was sinful, and it was perverse to seek it.  Which probably helps to explain why Islam has its suicide bombers, and Christianity does not.

So the Christian faith is not about the avoidance of suffering; nor is it about actively seeking it out.  It is actually about something much more profound and far less selfish and self-centred than either of those two extremes.  Because the Christian faith is ultimately about love.  And because, as Agatha Christie's maths teacher put it so extraordinarily well, If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life.'  

Suffering is an inescapable part of human life.  It is also an essential part of human loving; for the simple reason that the greater our capacity to feel love, the greater our capacity to feel pain.  What matters is how we deal with it when it presents itself.  And the Christian faith teaches us that sometimes the way to deal with suffering, when it confronts us, is not to run away from it, but to embrace it.  Because sometimes you have to enter the darkened room in order to discover where the light switch is.  And you may have to enter that room not only uncertain whether you will find the light switch, or whether it will work when you find it, but uncertain whether there is a light switch there at all.  But you will only find out by conquering your fears and going into that dark place.

In the same way, for real healing to be possible, sometimes it is necessary for old wounds to be opened up, so that the source of the pain can be dealt with properly and radically.  And that, too, can take courage.  And sometimes there has to be a death before you can experience a resurrection.  As our gospel reading puts it: 'unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.

If the God whom we serve is ultimately a God of love - real love, powerful love, costly love - then ours is a God who will occasionally call us to go into difficult places - places where perhaps we would rather not go; whether that means risking the difficult meeting or conversation; or returning to a place that holds great fears for us; or being brave enough to endure pain, that healing might ensue.  After all, the Christ whom we call Lord was prepared, in the name of that love, to go to the darkest place of all, and to go there for us.

'If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life.'  

The French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote: 'The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use of it.'

But I shall leave you with the words of another Christian mystic: this time the sixteenth century Spanish priest and poet, St John of the Cross, who said quite simply: 'Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.'

Amen.

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