On ‘Low Sunday’ (23 April 2017), the second Sunday of Easter, Rev. Geoff McKee’s sermon is based on 1 Peter 1:3-9, a passage which refers to both joy and suffering. He explains how joy and suffering come together to form a genuine faith in Christ; how joy is sown in tears – as the Easter story illustrates. The Scripture is immediately below and then the sermon. If you like, you can download a pdf version of the sermon, which contains references for the various quotations included within the sermon.
1 Peter 1:3-9 (New International Version)
Praise to God for a Living Hope
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
By the time she was 21, Gerda Weissman Klein had spent six years living under Nazi rule — three of them in concentration camps.
- Her parents and brother had been taken away.
- Her best friend had died in her arms, during a 350-mile death march.
- And she weighed only 68 pounds, when she was found by American forces in an abandoned bicycle factory.
But Gerda survived.
She married the soldier who rescued her. And ever since — as an author, a historian and a crusader for tolerance — she has taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love.
At the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, there is a small quotation from Gerda Weissmann Klein, inscribed on a wall. It refers to that best friend of hers who did not survive. It reads:
“Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
What an inheritance that is: to receive something so simple, yet so precious and significant.
Yet, where is that raspberry today? It is long gone in the dust and the dirt of a horrible place that also is no more.
Only words of testimony remain to describe that raspberry and its enormous significance to two deeply traumatised children.
At the beginning of 1 Peter we are told that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead has given us an inheritance.
It is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading. This inheritance is the sum of all the good and all the love that this world could muster and so much more. It is the gift of God’s Son and the price was his life.
This Sunday is known as ‘Low Sunday’ because it is the final day in the series of eight days that follows Easter Sunday, inclusive. It is the low end of the sequence if you like.
But this Sunday also has a certain heaviness about it. Easter day is past – with all of the tension and busyness leading up to it -and now it is over and we may feel a bit deflated.
Only about five hundred or so people ever saw the risen Christ, according to the apostle Paul.
That’s not a lot of people. You could almost fit them all into this church!
Our faith depends on the witness of these people.
On the surface that appears to be tenuous. We would want an awful lot more people to have seen him; the more the better. But the right number did see him and – through their lives of joyful service and suffering – their faith was proved.
Do you have Low Sunday blues this morning? Well, if you do, take comfort from the witness of those who saw him. And take comfort from the description of the life of faith that we find here.
Joy and suffering come together to form a genuine faith.
We might warm to the joy bit, but might not be too keen on seeing the suffering bit there too – for none of us take well to suffering.
I was intrigued by a quotation from Malcolm Muggeridge that I read recently. He wrote:
“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.”
That’s quite a remarkable assertion, isn’t it? Of course, we don’t see any of that at the time. We’re struggling just to get through from one day to the next and there is no good in our suffering.
Somerset Maugham, the English writer, once wrote a story about a janitor at St Peter’s Church in London.
One day, a young vicar discovered that the janitor was illiterate and fired him.
Jobless, the man invested his meagre savings in a tiny tobacco shop, where he prospered, bought another, expanded, and ended up with a chain of tobacco shops worth several hundred thousand pounds.
One day the man’s banker said, “You’ve done well for an illiterate, but just think where you’d be if you could read and write?”
“Well,” replied the man, “I’d be janitor of St. Peter’s Church in Neville Square.”
Joy is sown in tears.
That’s the Easter model. That’s what the Easter story brings to us. There would be no resurrection without death.
There would have been no death without the tears of the one who knew he had to go to the darkest place to save. But what joy there is for him now!
It is difficult for us to learn to understand that suffering is not a symptom of a life gone wrong.
Instead, it is a profound mystery that remains at the heart of God’s immense love for his creation.
Last week, I reminded you that it is impossible to prise apart the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and expect them to make sense in their own right. It is only when taken together that the way of Christ can influence our own way in life.
When Jewish psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, was arrested by the Nazis in World War II, he was stripped of everything.
They took his property, family, and his possessions.
He had spent years researching and writing a book on the importance of finding meaning in life – concepts that later would be known as logotherapy.
When he arrived in Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, even his manuscript, which he had hidden in the lining of his coat, was taken away.
“I had to undergo and overcome the loss of my spiritual child, ” Frankl wrote. “Now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own! I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning.”
He was still wrestling with that question a few days later when the Nazis forced the prisoners to give up their clothes.
“I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber,” said Frankl. “Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the main Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.)
“How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?”
Later, as Frankl reflected on his ordeal, he wrote in his book ‘Man’s search for Meaning’, “There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life . . .’He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.’”
Our quest for meaning this morning, on this the Low Sunday of the Easter season, brings our experiences of suffering and joy before the glorious inheritance that is before us and – instead of holding these as contradictions – we are led to receive them as the way of Christ: the best way for us all.