A Sermon from Sherborne

Patior, pati, passus

A sermon for the Passion Sunday Eucharist, preached at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 7 April 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Passion Sunday, from the Latin patior, pati, passus – to suffer. Passion Sunday invites us to turn our thoughts to the suffering and the crucifixion of our Lord. It is a sudden change of gear in Lent; we begin today to get caught up in the events leading to Jesus’ arrest and trial and death. It is the day on which we begin to look towards and walk towards the Cross.

The problem with Passion Sunday is that we live in a society which is frightened of pain and prefers not to think about suffering. Ours is an anaesthetic age which has a pill for every problem and a hundred cosmetic names for illness and death. Politicians of every party tell us that when they are in power things will not be as bad as they seem, and the good times are just around the corner – and we no longer believe them. People are vaguely aware of an emptiness, a meaninglessness, in their lives, but instead of confronting that honestly, they are conned into filling the emptiness with things, with acquisition, or with drink or drugs or other temporary escapes from the real world.

The greatest tragedy of all is when the Christian Church is taken in by this conspiracy to anaesthetise us against reality. We have become so squeamish about the realities of suffering and of death. It was in 1969 that Pope Paul VI formally abolished Passion Sunday, removing the distinction between Passiontide and the general season of Lent. So in most modern prayer books and liturgical calendars today is simply known as the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It is as though the Church is saying, ‘If we really must think on these unpleasant things, let us at least not spend too long about it.’

But here, in this little corner of Christendom, today is still Passion Sunday because, like it or not, the suffering and the death of Christ are still at the heart of the Gospel. There are no short cuts to Easter. We can reach the empty tomb only by way of the nightmare events of Passiontide, of Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem to meet his destiny, of the entry into the city on that first Palm Sunday, of the Last Supper, the agony in the garden, the betrayal by Peter, the farce of a trial, the taunts of the crowd, the mocking and the scourging of the soldiers, the painful carrying of the cross to Calvary, the excruciating pain of crucifixion.

And we cannot wish it any other way. The Bible not only fails to spare our tender feelings with its accounts of the harsh realities of that first Passiontide. It dares to call them Good News. For Christianity, true Christianity, refuses to inoculate us against suffering, or to provide a spiritual pill against pain. Instead it speaks of God’s only-begotten Son, who suffered and died for us, who shared in all the suffering of the world, for us. And in page after page of the New Testament we are told that, in so far as we share in Christ’s sufferings, we share too in his resurrection.

This message is not easy, and it is not cheap. But it is real. So often in our own pain and anguish, as suffering comes to us or to those we love, we cry out ‘Why?’ Why do these things happen? Why do they happen to those who mean so much to us? Why do they happen to me?

Yet to be protected from suffering is to be protected from living. Lose your ability to suffer physical pain, to feel physical hurt, and you can be burned or scalded or horribly injured – without realising what is happening to you. A lady called Jo Cameron has been much in the news of late, because she has a rare genetic mutation which means she cannot feel pain. Scientists are hoping to learn valuable lessons from her DNA. I hope they are careful. You need to be able to feel pain to snatch your hand away from the hotplate or your foot from scalding bathwater. In the same way, if you try to protect yourself from emotional hurt, by giving your heart to no-one, then your heart will simply become cold, and hard, and eventually it will die. Love is about vulnerability, about taking risks. Love anyone, and you make yourself vulnerable, and your heart will be wrung and sometimes it will be broken. But you will be alive.

And so it is that the Son of God chooses to identify himself with us at the centre of our vulnerability, at the place of passion and of pain. He clasps the suffering world to himself, and the place of his death becomes the place of our hope and of our salvation. It is at the foot of the Cross that we discover the height and the depth and the breadth of God’s love for us – that he loves us so much that he will even die for us.

It is because of the Passion of Christ that I can presume to sit with those who mourn and those who are very ill – or anxious, or lonely, or afraid – and say, not ‘I understand your pain and I can explain your suffering’ – I cannot – but ‘God is somehow in all this with you. Where you are now, he has been before. He shares and he understands.’ He is involved with the entirety of human experience, and he is involved in what you are going through now.

You know that the rings of a tree are patterned through its whole length, from the bottom to the top of its trunk. But you only actually see them when the tree is cut down, when it dies. And there, at the cross-section, are those rings which stretch the length of the tree. In the same way, the love of God is patterned through the length of human history, which means through your story and my story. But so often we simply don’t have the eyes to see it, which is one of the reasons, I think, why there was no alternative but for Jesus to suffer and to die, so that at the cross-section, at the Cross, we might see that love, that utter self-giving, which is for you and is for me.

On Passion Sunday we take a deep breath before the events of Holy Week unfold. We see how God is not far-off, detached and remote from the heartbreak of the world, heedless of our suffering and our pain. On Passion Sunday we begin to understand that God is utterly involved in the mystery and the immensity of human suffering, and how by offering himself in love for us he identifies with that suffering and redeems it.

But in the end, Passion Sunday is not God’s final word about these things, and nor is Good Friday. In two weeks’ time we will be celebrating Easter, Christ’s victory over suffering, his triumph over death, his opening-up the way of resurrection and new life for us. But the point is that forgiveness and resurrection and new life are not more things to be acquired, more escapes from harsh reality. They are about being fully alive, about becoming what God always wanted us to be, about being the sons and the daughters of God. They are about empowering us really to care about the suffering of others, and to be passionate in our opposition to all the abuse and cruelty and exploitation and injustice which human beings inflict upon one another and the whole created order.

And all of this is God’s free gift to us. Free to us, that is, but not to God. They cost him everything. They cost him the Cross. And we receive these gifts when at last we put everything else aside, and come empty-handed, just as we are, to kneel at the foot of the Cross. For only by way of the Cross will we discover the joy of the empty tomb.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 07/04/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne