St Agnes Kennington 16 March 1997

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Hebrews 5: 7-9 John 12: 20-23


For many centuries this Sunday in the year, the 5th in Lent has been called "Passion Sunday"

"Passion" here means "suffering", so another name for it might be "Suffering Sunday".

It's an opportunity to look at some of the questions which suffering raises: principally of course, the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ during the final week leading up to Good Friday and Easter; but alongside this we need to consider the sufferings, our own and other people's, which so often bring forth the plaintive cry "Why should this have happened to me?"

Such a question is asked in the aftermath of some personal tragedy - someone in the family has died young or been badly injured in an accident; a child has been run over or accidentally swallowed something poisonous; or a person has been diagnosed as having a terminal illness.

The difficulty about looking at such sufferings (or "passions") is that everyone is very far from feeling dispassionate enough about them to think clearly; they want to be comforted, reassured, and supported and are in no condition, for the most part, to look at things in the way we shall do this morning. For this reason Passion Sunday offers us an opportunity of looking objectively at this puzzling but far from unrewarding subject.

Let us start by looking at something which happened many years ago: long enough for us to be certain that nobody alive today had any involvement in it, yet recent enough for it to have been thoroughly documented. So we can look at this event without causing anyone here this morning personal distress or embarrassment.

The date of the event is Saturday, 1st November; the year is 1755. The time is about 9:30 in the morning. Does anyone know what earth-shaking event took place at that hour?

Well, you've just had a clue. The place was Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, "Britain's oldest ally"; and the event was the earthquake which destroyed a large part of one of the richest and most prosperous cities the world had ever seen.

The facts are few and simple. About 9:30 there was a tremor, not much more than a rumbling sound which people at the time described as being like "exceptionally heavy traffic in a neighbouring street". There was a brief pause. And then a devastating shock lasting over two minutes which brought down roofs, walls, facades and the towers of houses, churches and palaces alike in one dreadful and deafening roar of destruction.

Shortly afterwards came a third tremor, less severe than the second it would seem, and then a dark cloud of choking dust settled, blotting out the daylight of a bright autumn day and turning it into the darkness of night. Innumerable fires broke out all over the city engulfing one building after another in their flames. During the morning there followed a number of smaller tremors which did little damage in themselves though one of them killed many people by bringing down the Church of St Caterina and another the east wall of St Paul's where people had fled to take refuge. The wreck of one of these churches may still be seen today standing in ruinous isolation on top of a hill.

Finally, about an hour after the first tremor, the waters of the river Tagus rocked and rose menacingly and then poured in three mighty waves, a hundred or more feet high over the whole of the part of the city between the Alcantara Docks and the Terreiro do Paco.

The final death toll seems to have been about 10,000: small by comparison with the 100,000 or more killed in Japan in 1923 by the earthquake which almost destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama. But the Lisbon earthquake shook the whole of Europe to its roots. Literally shook it because the tremors were felt as far away as Switzerland and Normandy and some accounts say even in Derbyshire; but of much more importance was the fact that it shook the hearts and minds of everyone who heard about it or experienced it. 

For nothing of the kind had ever happened to them before, and for many, living as they were in an age of unparalleled confidence, enlightenment, prosperity, comfort and complacency, such an earthquake was the very last thing they expected to happen to them or to anyone else like them. Earthquakes were things that happened in deserts or "far away places of which we know practically nothing".

Everyone asked "Why has this happened?". Predictably, the answers were of several different kinds.

There were the Natural Scientists who, with their very limited knowledge and understanding of geology and knowing nothing at all about seismology or tectonic plates or the like, exchanged theories about underground fires and subterranean lakes of brimstone and inflammable gas.

Secondly there were the spiritual leaders who saw in the earthquake the dreadful judgement of God on a city which, by any standards, was staggeringly rich, and seriously immoral, though in the latter respect was no worse than many of its contemporaries. So for them the big question was not "Why?" but "Why Lisbon?"

Thirdly there were the Practical People who saw that it was vital to get things working again, before ever they could enjoy the luxury of such speculations. The injured needed caring for, the fires must be extinguished, the rubble cleared away, vital services reinstated and the work of rebuilding started.

In this respect Lisbon was fortunate in having as its Secretary of State and exceptionally able man, Jose de Cavalhoe Mello, a wise and active minister, pretty much of a dictator - but then you really need something of a dictator at times like those. He was later to be given the title of the Marquis de Pombal, by which he is usually known today. With the co-operation of his colleagues and with aid and resources from many countries, including I am proud to say an exceptionally generous donation from people in England, the work of rebuilding took place giving rise to the beautiful city of Lisbon as we know it today.

Now if we ask "which of these three responses, Practical, Spiritual and Scientific is the right one for Christians?" when tragedy suffering and disaster are staring us in the face, then the answer has to be, of course, "all three". But each one needs to be put in the proper order.

Faced with suffering or passion the first Christian response must surely be "COM-passion". The Good Samaritan was commended by Jesus not for his theories about road safety, or the crime statistics, nor for his theological views on the nature and purpose of suffering, but for his giving practical first aid to the wounded Jews. It was the priest and the levite whose minds were set on other, more abstract matters like ritual purity in the presence of dead bodies, who "passed by on the other side".

Thus in every human tragedy it is those who can give practical help whose ministry is needed first by the distressed sufferer. It's the person who takes over looking after the children for the day, the person who makes a cup of tea, the person who does some shopping, the person who is willing to get in touch with the undertaker and the Registrar whose services are most urgently needed. Let us call this the "Ministry to the Body". This minister can be, and often is, in these matters someone who has no religious beliefs at all, or ones which differ significantly from those of the erstwhile victim. No matter. Samaritans can minister to Jews, Jews to Gentiles, poor to rich and vice versa. Whatever else it does, suffering can be a great leveller and breaker down of barriers.

The second ministry let us call the "Ministry to the Mind". It is the one which makes use of our Knowledge or Science. 

People need to be told, for instance why, physically, such things happen and what they really are. They need reassuring that the tragedy that has hit them has a cause and an explanation and is not something entirely without reason. Scientists need to determine how likely such things are to happen again, and whether there is any preventative steps which can be taken in the meanwhile.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster people are in no way receptive to such Knowledge. However, when so to speak, the dust has begun to settle a little, and things are getting back to normal (thanks to the Ministry to the Body) people do want such reassurance. They want to be told (if it is true) that the tragedy is not their fault, or if it is, what they have done wrong; they want to know, even if it is their fault, what sensible action they can take to restore what has been shattered and prevent the same thing from happening again.

However, in the background all the time runs the need and desire for the ministry of the third sort "The Ministry to the Spirit". There is a deep-seated desire that many people have to "make sense of it all" not least in theological and spiritual terms. 

That is why so many people turn to God, however temporarily, almost instinctively when trouble comes. Even in 1755, in profligate London, hundreds of miles away from Lisbon, where few if any people went to church out of conviction, the news of the earthquake drove people to their knees in large numbers and caused them to flock into churches many for the first time in their lives. The Wesley brothers services were greatly in demand at this time.

However, God does not give us an easy "answer" to suffering. The truth is that he does something far more dramatic and far-reaching than that: he actually becomes one of us and shares our sufferings, taking upon himself all those experiences, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

He says to us "My grace is sufficient for thee for my strength is made perfect in weakness". He shows this by giving himself up into the hands of men who nail him to the cross on a Friday in the full heat of the Middle Eastern noonday sun; he was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends; he was rejected by the Church of Israel to whom his heavenly Father had revealed himself as to no other nation upon earth before or since; he was given a trial by the Roman governor which flagrantly violated every principle of justice, every rule of law for which the Roman Empire was so justly famous; he made his grave with the wicked and the transgressors; he was cut off from the land of the living.

"Behold and see was ever there sorrow like unto his sorrow? Despised and rejected of men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief"

No doubt you will recognize those words from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah which we shall be looking at more closely on Good Friday. Now there is only time to remind you of how that passage in Isaiah goes on:

"He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and with his stripes we are healed... the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.. he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied... it was the will of the Lord to bruise him... he shall bear their iniquities... he bore the sin of many and was numbered with the transgressors.

Let us always remember that passage when we are trying to give the Ministry of the Spirit to those whose lives have been crossed by suffering and tragedy.

For behind the deepest, darkest tragedy the world has ever known, when the God who came to save his people was judicially murdered by them with the full connivance of the church of that day, lay the fact that here were men putting-out of the light of the world without having the first idea what they were actually doing but who decided to do it all the same for the simple reason that it suited their books. They were men enveloped in a cloud of ignorance no less choking and black than the one which engulfed Lisbon on All Saints Day 1755.

But in the midst of that dark cloud the forces of light were prevailing against the forces of darkness and, as St John says at the beginning of his gospel "The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.

But that is another story, and we shall be coming to that next week.

Return to Sermon Salad

Return to Trushare Home Page