Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. Paul Claudel
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that lead the faithful pilgrim into the experience of the Real Presence of God. And I am not speaking of somehow feeling God in the way that we feel the cold or heat, feel the pressure of another body against our own, or feel anything sensibly or tangibly. I am speaking of a kind of spiritual feeling, whose power and strength assure the mind, fortify conviction, and infuse man’s inner being with the stable and unchanging determination of God’s power. I am talking about an inward and spiritual perception and sensation of God’s presence that halts and governs the uncertain and changing here and now of earthly existence, only to carry it progressively into the permanent realm of truth, beauty, and goodness. More specifically in relation to today’s Lections, I am trying to describe the belief that opens itself up to the power of God’s love in Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the kind of faith that finds His suffering and death to be the model and pattern for the man who would find everlasting life.
So let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We find ourselves in the city of Nain. Nain is a desolate place emptied of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place, sits the ruined village of Endor or Nain. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) The place is about eight miles south of Nazareth and has a population of about 1,600 Muslims, who descend from those who defeated and expelled the last of the Latin Christians who dwelt in that place. A Franciscan Church, renovated in the 19th century, sits silently waiting for the great Christian revival that is brewing even now. Both the village and its church are rooted and grounded in a kind of death that awaits Resurrection from without. Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) We read that a widow woman’s tears have been brought on by the recent death of her only son. Her neighbors are silent, fearing, no doubt, that their words would only stand to add to her pain. Her agony is acute because her nearest and dearest both are gone. Surely she felt incomprehension as God’s allowed for the death of her only son to follow that of his father. But she says nothing. Loss is loss and grief must be allowed to run their course. For now there seems to be no consolation, relief, or hope. With the psalmist this morning, she cries inwardly and spiritually, the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3)
It is into this pain and agony of soul that Christ comes. And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And He came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And He said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) When Jesus approaches, all are still. He says with St. Paul this morning, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) Christ comes into this situation as one who will bear the sorrow and shoulder the relief. He will offer a kind of compassion that neither she nor the mourners have ever experienced. His words will be few but their power swift and efficacious. His pity will upturn death and make new life. God’s Word, through Whom all things are made, acts upon the inner, spiritual man. The body dies, but the soul lives on and must be awakened. God is ever with the soul and is now about to command its reanimation of the decaying corpse. The Word is spoken and the same Love that gave the Mother joy when her man-child was born into the world now vanquishes death in the wake of new life. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. With the psalmist he sings, The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, and mirrors the thoughts of his mother’s heart. He has new life; so too does she. The Word made Flesh has given him words -words of new life, words emerging from spiritual and physical rejuvenation, words that will commence the spiritual awakening of the young man for a higher life, through which, indeed, alone the joy of the mother could become true and abiding (Trench, Miracles) as Archbishop Trench remarks. Only then do the others respond. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level details of an historical event. Historical experiences must find their respective meaning in the truth that the Spirit brings. Think about the widow of Nain. She is confronted with a spiritual problem; on the one hand she can mourn, despair, and give up on life because the last and final source of her comfort, peace, and joy has been removed. With the cause of her life’s joy now gone, she is left with little but her own death. Perhaps she has forgotten the power of God in human life. Perhaps nothing short of a dramatic surge of this power in her son’s resuscitation would pry her out of the jaws of his death, a death that even now is threatening to fill her soul with despair. One thing is clear, Jesus will use today’s miracle to draw both her and us away from earthly sorrow and despair so that we might learn to lean solely on His power of salvation and deliverance.
God in Jesus Christ is all-powerful. Yet, this power is not to be sought out chiefly in the remedy for human illness or the denial of death. Sometimes God surprises us as He has in this morning’s Gospel Miracle. We do well to remember that the Widow of Nain did not approach Jesus. Jesus sought her out. He, the Lord of Life, encountered a train of earthly death and reversed its course. He gives the woman and her son another chance to follow Him into a far more profound kind of death that leads to true life. He does this at all times throughout history. Doctors often come up with cures for earthly disease. Wouldn’t it be a miracle if more men and women used the extended time in the healing of their bodies for the salvation of their souls?
Earthly suffering and death will visit us all. Sometimes it happens sooner and sometimes later. When it happens sooner, we call it an untimely tragedy. When it happens later, these days at any rate, we tend to sue. Evidently, death isn’t supposed to happen. The adolescent age we inhabit kicks and screams in vain at its inevitability. Not content to twist and contort the natural life into perverse and profane uses for which it was never intended, our age seems bent madly on finding a way to have it last forever. But since they cannot eliminate death, they pretend, again in vain, that we all ought to be ushered into a comfortable kind of nirvana.
Of course the interesting thing about death is that we are powerless over it. No matter how hard we try, in the end, we cannot resist it. The best we can do is to try to delay its immanent arrival. But to what use? Today’s Gospel leads us into a far more difficult truth. Christ is Lord of life and death. And if this is the case, hadn’t we better start getting right with Him? He who called the son of the Widow of Nain out of death is calling us out of death here and now. Of course He calls us out of spiritual death. If we are alive to the world, the flesh, and the devil, in the eyes of God we are as good as dead already. This means that we have not, as yet, arranged to get ourselves right with God. Oh, you protest, but I am a good person. Indeed. I can assure you that Hell is full of good and respectable people. Yes, that’s right, good and respectable earthly citizens of the City of Man go to Hell because they have never needed Heaven’s God or shared His Goodness.
So we ought to ask ourselves this day if we are spiritually alive or dead. Of course, I don’t mean if we are physically alive. You all are breathing even if you’re not up to much more. But are we spiritually alive or spiritually dead? Maybe we are spiritually alive on Sunday morning for all or part of the service. Maybe we are spiritually dead when it comes time for giving to God first both prayerfully and materially. To be spiritually alive we must allow Christ to fill our suffering with His presence. Suffering hurts. Maybe we need to hurt some before His death kicks into our lives. Maybe we need to hurt truly and spiritually in order to pass on His Resurrection to others.
Again, today St. Paul says this to the Church at Ephesus: Faint not at my tribulation for you, which is your glory. (Eph. iii. 13) St. Paul is suffering his own death so that Christ may live in Him and so that he might share the Lord’s life with others.Oswald Chambers says this about our spiritual suffering and death.
No one experiences complete sanctification without going through a “white funeral” — the burial of the old life. If there has never been this crucial moment of change through death, sanctification will never be more than an elusive dream. There must be a “white funeral,” a death with only one resurrection— a resurrection into the life of Jesus Christ. (My Utmost…Jan. 15)
Have you been to your own white funeral yet? Let us suffer it to come to pass. Let us allow Him to fill [our suffering] with His presence. If we allow it, His presence willcleanse and defend us…keep [us] in safety…and preserve [us] evermore by that help and goodness that will ensure our salvation.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: