Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 16:16-24,32-33

5th Sunday of Lent

St Barbara’s 17.03.2024

Rev Tulo Raistrick

There are some subjects I don’t feel overly qualified to talk about, so its with a little bit of trepidation that I begin this sermon, where one of the main images that Jesus uses in our gospel reading is that of child birth. Yes, I was present at the birth of all three of our children, and yes, I ended up delivering two of them on our bathroom floor, but can I say I understand child-birth – no.

I understood so little when our first child was born that I almost didn’t get my wife to the hospital in time, thinking that by far the more important priority was to make sandwiches for the many hours we would be spent there, during which I would undoubtedly feel a little hungry.

My understanding wasn’t much better second time round, when I had to ask my wife, in the middle of sudden labour at home, where we kept the towels (admittedly she had moved them the week before, but I accept its not much of a defence).

At least I didn’t make the mistake of a good friend who also almost failed to get his wife to the hospital in time because he took more notice of the app on his phone telling him that there were still hours of contractions to go than of his wife who was telling him in no uncertain times a somewhat different story.

So I’m not claiming to be any kind of authority on the subject. But over the years I have heard a lot of women speak of their labour and birth stories. Its the nature of our Prayers and Bears service and of baptism visits that these stories tend to get told. And there has been a consistent theme throughout these stories. I have rarely, if ever, heard a mother say, “I wish my child hadn’t been born. I wish I hadn’t gone through that.” I’ve heard sadness, regret, that childbirth hadn’t been as they had planned; regret that it was a traumatic experience; sadness maybe at the way it happened, but not sadness or regret that it happened. Almost without exception, mothers have told me that the new life they have brought into the world was worth all the pain they endured.

That’s the analogy Jesus uses to prepare his disciples for what is to happen. We are coming to the end of his last words to the disciples – next week we will hear how he prays for them – and so he wants to leave them with something that will prepare them for the hard time that is to come and give them the hope and strength to get through it.

For Christ is quite clear. There will be a time of real pain and suffering ahead, for him and for them. He does not sugar-coat this message. He does not pretend it is not going to happen. He faces what is going to happen over the next few hours full on, and accepts it. John in his gospel, as indeed all the gospel writers do, makes it clear that for Jesus the cross was no accident. Its not that the crowds or the religious authorities have suddenly seized the agenda and taken him down a path he didn’t want to go. The cross is no accident, no loss of control. It is part of God’s plan. And Christ accepts it.

He is also clear that the next few hours and days will be ones of unbearable grief for the disciples too. “In a little while you will see me no more… you will weep and mourn… you will grieve…” The grief will be all the harder because they have not understood that his death will not be the end. It is only in retrospect that they will come to properly understand. Jesus is like the experienced midwife telling the expectant mother, there will be some pain ahead.

But these words of warning and preparation are for us too. We should be incapable of looking at the cross and remaining unmoved. For the cross shows us just how far we have fallen, just how much we are in need of forgiveness. For if the atrocities in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan or the Congo, or the starvation of millions in a world where food abounds, or the willingness to continue at break-neck speed towards environmental disaster is not evidence enough of our falleness, the cross is the ultimate sign of it. We have put to death the Son of God himself. We could not fall any lower.

The cross is also the sign of how much forgiveness costs. The news has been full this week of whether saying sorry is enough to move on from comments made in the past. Is the apology from Frank Hester about his words about the MP Diane Abbot, for example, enough for forgiveness, or is more required? The grief for us as we look to the cross is that we see how much true forgiveness costs – it costs the Son of God his life. The cross confronts us with the extent and depth of human sin – our inhumanity to one another – and confronts us with how much it costs to put that right.

And the cross confronts us with the cost of our own calling. Throughout Lent, in our liturgy, we have committed ourselves to “take up our cross and follow Christ”. Just as mothers do with childbirth, we have to accept that hardship, pain, is an inevitable component of the process, that to follow Christ takes us into places we would rather not go, standing up for what is right, loving the loveless, going the extra mile.

These next two weeks of Passiontide, give us a unique opportunity in the church’s year to face the cross once more, to acknowledge there is pain and grief as part of our journey. And the pictures and meditations around the church may be a really helpful way to engage with that.

But crucially, Jesus does not leave it there. Grief and sadness are part of the journey, but they are not the end of it. There is a destination ahead whose joy is greater than even the joy of a mother at the birth of her child.

For Jesus, that joy is the joy of returning to his Father in heaven, the joy of equipping and empowering his disciples with the Holy Spirit, the joy of overcoming death and bringing the hope of new life to the world.

For the disciples, the joy that awaits and that will soon be realised is the joy of meeting the risen Christ.

And for us there is wonderful and amazing joy too. For us, living this side of Christ’s resurrection, we can rejoice in a God who overcomes sin and offers us the gift of forgiveness; a God who overcomes evil and injustice and establishes the beginnings of a better world; a God who overcomes death and promises the gift of eternal life.

I am in danger of getting ahead of myself, of jumping to Easter Sunday two weeks early, but Jesus wanted to give his disciples hope in his final words to them. He wanted to give them a light to hold onto in the midst of the darkness they would encounter ahead. Out of the pain would emerge life beyond anything they could ever have anticipated.

Before our first child, was born I worried would I be able to love him enough. Before our second child was born, I worried would I have enough love to go round. By the time our third child was born, I had begun to realise. There are no limits on love, no restrictions on joy. Love and joy abound where there is new life.

Jesus doesn’t promise the disciples that following his resurrection life would be easy. “In this world you will have trouble,” he tells them. And that, no doubt, chimes with our own experience. We live in an in-between time between Christ’s resurrection and that of our own. We are all too aware at times of the wrongs we or others commit, wrongs that required Christ to go to the cross to put right. We are all too aware, too, of the challenge to take up our own cross and work for his justice and love in the world.

But in the midst of that Christ gives us hope. That a time is coming and indeed has begun when joy and love and peace will abound. We see just glimpses now – miracles of grace, acts of love, abundant gifts of kindness – happening all around us, if we have but the eyes to see it, foretastes of the kingdom that is to come. May God open our eyes to see how Christ’s resurrection is transforming the whole of life.

And so Jesus’ final words to his disciples at the end of his final meal with them before his death are these: “Take heart! I have overcome the world”.

There is hardship ahead, but peace and joy will triumph.