2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Paul’s Thanksgiving after Affliction
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we may be able to comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Last week I spoke about a very difficult passage concerning the sheep and the goats, and how Jesus used their similarities and differences to describe the last judgement. We noted that although 1st century middle eastern sheep and goats looked very similar, their behaviour was markedly different, and that goats are destructive.
From that we thought about how the chief difference between them was the focus of their lives. Although both called Jesus ‘Lord’, the sheep were concerned about the needs of others and lived their lives in the shadow of compassion. The goats, on the other hand were inward facing. Their focus was entirely on themselves. The contrast was between love for others versus selfish love for one’s own needs.
Today is Mothering Sunday, and when we turn to motherhood we can see one important place where selfless love can begin. Selfless love is a capability we all share, both male and female, yet mothers, by virtue of the gift of bearing new life into the world, seem to have a head start. Mothers, you know, more than any of us, what it is to give freely of your own resources for the sake of another.
From the moment of conception the developing child, through what it does in the womb, changes the biological emphasis of its mother. Her body begins freely to give of its own resources for the sake of the life it now carries. That’s what’s going on biologically, and of course what happens biologically will affect your psychology. Many times I have heard stories of women who would give up everything for the sake of her child.
My mother told me of how, in the height of the fear of invasion in the last world war, her mother would keep something large, heavy and metal to hand to defend her children with. She had no thought for her own safety. Without question, her first instinct was the safety of her children. You can see in this what I mean by that head-start in behaving like one f the sheep in the parable. It’s then down what we do with it next.
When we turn to the 2 Corinthians reading, there is an interesting twist in the middle of it. Blink and we miss it. Let me read it to you again. ‘If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort...’ St. Paul is bringing together two truths here which are vitally important. Firstly, whatever happens to himself and his co-workers, his focus is on the needs of those he serves.
This is love in action; sheep love, not goat love; the love that looks out for the needs of others. And secondly, it seems to St. Paul that if bad things happen, they can be used for the good of others, and if good things happen, that can also be for the good of others. Whatever happens to he and his co-workers can be of value in bringing comfort to others.
What we find here is a real challenge about what we do with the experiences of our lives. You see in good mothering we see the archetype of self-giving, the kind of starting place for us all to experience or observe and learn from, but here St. Paul is going another stage forward and saying that whatever experiences we go through can be used for the benefit of others.
Now this is a dangerous statement to make. It is quite likely that there are some sitting here, or reading this later, who could feel deeply troubled at this. Some of us have doubtless been through huge pain and we wonder at how we got through it, and we remain angry at God for what happened, and how dare St. Paul tell us that whatever we went through can be used for good.
I can only comment that St. Paul was perpetually being beaten up, arrested, locked up and ultimately killed for what he believed in. He saw friends turn away from him when the going became too difficult, and on one occasion wrote to his young friend Timothy asking that when he come he bring Paul’s cloak and try and get there before winter.
Paul was in Rome, cold and deserted by all but Luke, yet still doing all he could for others before being beheaded for what he believed. It’s likely that Paul was actually in Rome because he had gone to minister to a church that was being persistently persecuted under Nero. He had run into danger for the sake of the spiritual needs of others.
So when he writes that whatever we go through can be used for the comfort of others, he is not writing empty words of theology, he is writing from the perspective of a man who has lived through hell on earth, and indeed has deliberately put himself in the kind of places none of us would want to go because he saw the desperate sufferings of a church and wanted to go there and help them.
He gave and gave of himself, and through that was able to say that it was his experience that showed him that all of his experiences, both in suffering and in being comforted, could be used for the comfort and aid of others. So these weren’t empty words, but they were signs of a deep mothering instinct in the way St. Paul was looking after the churches in his care.
I have a good friend who I have known maybe twenty one years. I won’t embarrass him by naming him because he may well read this on-line later. He went through a very tough time as a teenager, and he draws from that well an important gift that he gives me over and over again, which is his compassion, forged in the heat of his own suffering.
There have been occasions when he and his wife have been staying when I’ve been upset about something, and he’s just quietly come alongside and been there in a way that understands what suffering means. ‘Come here mate’, he says before enfolding me in a big manly mothering bear-hug.
Maybe you know people like this. They go through some kind of trauma, and rather than being defeated by it, they incorporate the experience into the depths of their very being, and from that they give out to those in need.
This is perhaps one of the miracles of being human in the image of God. We suffer, we all do and we all will, but that is not the last word in the sentence. If we want to, if we choose to, we can turn our experiences outwards and use them, give of them, to help others.
I see people in all stages of life and in all kinds of different states, and I never cease to be amazed at the grace that simply pours out of some of them. I am also amazed at how others become so self-centred as a result of their experiences. I don’t know what it is that makes a sheep into a sheep, and a goat into a goat, but nearly identical experiences produces different outcomes.
When we suffer, almost all of us begin by being concerned with what has happened to us. Some of us remain in that place forever, and it’s a mystery as to why, whereas others turn away from what they have been through and somehow use that experience to pour out love, grace and comfort into the lives of others.
We saw that in the cross too. While Jesus hung there, his concern was for his mother and his closest friend, rather than for himself. Out of his suffering he brought grace and togetherness for others.
Mothers, perhaps you have a head-start in may ways because your gender so often instills in you the starting point of giving of yourselves through the gift of bearing children. Yet what you have is not unique to you. Being able to comfort others is a capability within all of us, and that’s why the church calls today Mothering Sunday, rather than simply Mother’s Day.
Whilst we give thanks for the role that our mothers, or those who have been like true mothers to us, play in our lives, we are also challenged by the words of St. Paul that whatever we go through can be used for the needs of others, to bring comfort to them. The choice remains ours. Will we give of ourselves to others, like the sheep in the parable last week, or will we focus just on ourselves, like the goats? We have a choice. Amen.