Easter 5


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Acts 7.55-60
1 Peter 2.2-10
John 14.1-14


Jn 14.6 Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

‘Those who suffer love.’ No, that is not a quote from the bible – unless there is a new translation that I haven’t seen yet. ‘Those who suffer love’ is a title, not just of one piece of art, but of a diverse range of artworks and a whole exhibition by the contemporary British artist, Tracey Emin. The fact that she has used the same title for some very varied creations suggests to me that ‘Those who suffer love’ is meant not as a conclusion but as the beginning of an exploration, and indeed it sounds like the first half of an unfinished sentence. Given Tracey Emin’s experiences of abuse as a child, her title carries both poignancy and pain – the suffering is real, and so too is the love. 

One piece with the title is an embroidered canvas, mounted in a free standing display so it can be viewed from both sides. The stitching is in lines, and as you look, you begin to decipher some writing. Line one makes perfect sense. Line two looks like letters, but the words are not clear – is it Arabic? Line three is easy to read, line four not – and so on. Then you go round to the other side. Now line one is obscure, but line two is legible, and so on. I imagined two people facing each other trying to communicate. My words, the odd numbered lines, are clear to me; but your words, the evens, are backwards, as in a mirror; and what seems pretty self evident to you, to me looks like gibberish. If I want to understand you, I have to move round, come over to your side and see life from your angle, and if you want to understand me, please stand by me. Those who suffer love; those who love suffer because they are moved, moved by compassion to leave their familiar place to be alongside the other.

Now Tracey Emin is a Professor and a Fellow of the Royal Academy. She did not invent mirror writing. For instance, as I am sure she knows, in the former monastery of St Mark in Florence there is a fresco painted by Fra Angelico around the year 1450. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus, with the two robbers one on either side. A speech banner shows Jesus’ words to the penitent thief: Today you will be with me in paradise. But they are written so the thief can read them. To the viewer they are in mirror writing. The thief has, by his repentance, come round to Jesus’ side, he can understand the words of Jesus clearly. As I look at the fresco, Jesus’ words are back to front. I am invited to repent and stand with the thief so that I too can hear the words of grace. Those who suffer love. 

The idea of love and suffering being so closely related is revealed in a word which is very familiar to us as Christians, it is the word ‘passion’. Passion in one sense conveys the overwhelming attraction between two lovers. Passion also refers to the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, which for Christians reveals the extent of God’s love. But Jesus’ disciples found this hard to grasp. Remember what Peter says when Jesus predicts his passion – No, this must not happen to you! To which Jesus replies, of course, get behind me Satan. Jesus devoted a lot of time and trouble trying to get his disciples to see things from his side, to see the connection between love and suffering. 

At his last meal with them before his passion, he begins to demonstrate his boundless love. First he washes their feet. Then he tells them they must wash each other’s feet. Then he gives them a new commandment, to love one another, just as he loves them. And in the middle of all this, Judas, his betrayer, leaves the room, moves away from Jesus’ side. Then Jesus starts his teaching about his passion, the way he must go, the way they must follow. How do we know which way? says Thomas. And Jesus replies ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ The way to know the truth and to have life in abundance is they way Jesus himself has walked, the way of self-sacrificial love. Christians are called to come round to Jesus’ side, to walk his way, to be willing to suffer and to love. 

This year the whole world has been subjected to huge suffering: millions of people sick, thousands have died and been bereaved. The poor and those in war zones have had fear and misery multiplied beyond imagining. The cost is enormous, incalculable. And amid all the suffering, so much love. The self-sacrificing devotion of people in health and care work, emergency services, food production, retail, post and delivery, vital services, volunteers - millions have put others before themselves. This does not explain suffering, much less make suffering right or of no consequence. But to me it suggests that there is something more powerful than suffering, and that is the love of God who is here in the midst of it. So my prayer is that all those who suffer love may also find hope, and that the sentence will remain unfinished, because the boundless love of God has no end; the way of Jesus is the way that leads to eternal life, to endless love.

Page last updated: 4th May 2020 2:10 PM
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