When we are in the place that Jesus is – Psalm 51:10-17 and John 11:32-7

This week we started a short sermon series at St. Peter’s Yateley on the values of ‘being church’, the first of which focused on being ‘Broken Hearted’. It came at what is a time of hugely mixed emotions among our congregations, with news of an amazing healing and of difficult bereavements among our fellowship this week. 

When a broken soldier reached the place where Jesus was, he found Jesus in the guise of a Mothers’ Union Family Holiday team, some of whom are here this morning. One of the most successful snipers in the British Army, Neil looks back at the summer of 2005 and recognises himself (and I use his own words here) as “a murderous, lying, thieving, cheating scum, on the verge of alcohol dependency” and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It was the weight of a stone placed in Neil’s hands, space to think about the words of Matthew 11 “Come ye who are heavily laden and I will give you rest”, and the prayers of at least one person here, that enabled Jesus to break through into the life of that soldier’s hardened heart and emotions. He became ashamed of what he had become, both in action and in attitude, and as he started to believe in Jesus and in God, Neil says he started to change from the inside to the outside. (His full testimony is here – something I’ve also been working on publicising this week, which is probably why it sprang to mind!)

There is a close relationship between repentance and compassion. For Neil to recognise and repent of those things that were wrong with the person he had become, he had to experience of the compassion of Jesus through those that offered his family that holiday experience, the chaplain who gave him that stone, and the prayers of those who though shocked by what he told them, talked and prayed for him and his family.

Neil and his wife Tina at the renewal of their marriage vows on the MU AFIA Family Holiday in 2011

For Neil to become the person he is now, himself a member of the Family Holiday Team, and training to be a Reader whilst still serving in the Army, the only sacrifice he had to make was that of a broken and contrite heart before God, as we heard in the words of Psalm 51. His joy, and that of his family, has been restored through an awareness of his own faults. His heart-shattered life has been re-made, ready to reach out with Christ’s love for others.

Neil received the love of Christ, enabling him to find repentance, and so turn the wheel of Christ’s compassion for a broken world onwards toward other’s who come broken-hearted to the place where Jesus is.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was in our Gospel reading this morning, she too was broken-hearted. But hers was not the burden of those things that she had done wrong, but the ultimate reality of bereavement that we are all confronted by when a loved one dies. The miracles of healing and life, like that of the blind man whose eyes were opened by Jesus, and those experienced this week by others in our congregation this week, are often overshadowed by the length of suffering we see in the lives of our friends, and the pain of parting that some we of know have also experienced this week.

Like many people since, as Mary fell questioning and crying at Christ’s feet, she was in darkness; wishing not that he would take away the grief she felt, but that he had made it so the pain had never happened at all.

It’s tough to say it, and tougher still to live through it, but Christ is not fully come into his Kingdom, and so death is still a fact of life. Mary’s sister Martha has in the earlier part of this story (that we haven’t read), come to some understanding that Jesus is the Son of God, and the resurrection of the dead is part of the sequence of events that will reveal his coming in glory. Yet neither of the sisters are aware that Jesus’ actions in the next hour and in the coming days in Jerusalem, will inaugurate that time though not bring it to completion.

Yet Mary kneels in the street, covered in her tears and the dirt of daily life, having turned to the one person she feels can make a difference in her grief. Like her sister, she is not content to sit at home, as tradition would have dictated, and wait for the Jesus to come to make his mourning visit.

Christ on the verge of entering into his coming Kingdom, is the only hope that Mary feels able to reach out to, seeking some sort of compassion that will really make a difference to the emotions which fill her to overflowing. That unwitting action on her part, helps to set the stage for hope and healing to be revealed to the broken-hearted of her time, and of our own.

The Jews who followed Mary to the place where Jesus was, had been startled into curiosity by her sudden departure from the house after Martha had spoken quietly of Jesus’ approach.

Their’s was a time and place where emotions and compassion for the broken hearted had perhaps become ritualised. They would have expected the sisters to remain seated at home, receiving visitors who would then wait upon their needs, bringing them food and keeping the house in order during seven days of mourning.

Running out of the house to fall at the feet of this man who was not even family, may fit our stereotyped image of the wailing of mourning in some Eastern cultures, but would not have sat well with Jewish tradition.

Today in what we call the post-Christian western world, it seems we are beginning to leave an era when mourning had become over-ritualised. Though there are certain appropriate formalities, things are becoming a little more relaxed as people take more time to celebrate the reality of the life of a loved one, however short that life is cut. But still, many people have a tendency to suffer the “stiff-upper-lip” approach, trying not to allow grief and their emotions to be visible to others, and seeking to do everything, that they think others expect of them.

Perhaps the Jews are not so far wrong, by giving others the strength and companionship of not having to focus on the basic chores of life, releasing people to focus on their grief and love for someone.

The same is perhaps true for those of us who at times come alongside our friends and neighbours at times of grief, or other times of distress and trouble, some of them quite long-term. I have at times wished I was more prone to the visible emotion of tears, thinking that by showing compassion for anothers’ grief in such a way, they would feel permitted to release the stopper they are keeping on their own emotions, and thus find some measure of healing and peace.

I say this because when Mary reaches him, Jesus has come to a place where the burdens he is carrying for his friends Mary and Martha and for his future, well to the surface. Jesus weeps.

Painting of the Crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) “Draw me out of the net they have spread for me, for you are my refuge; to your own hands I commit my spirit, by you have I been redeemed.” (Psalm 31:4-5)

Jesus showed his humanity. The Word made flesh, the creator of the world, wept for his friends, the living and the dead. There is no triumphalism of one who knows that he will shortly raise Lazarus from the dead, in an act that will contribute to his own crucifixion and resurrection. Instead he bears the griefs and carries the sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) of all that he shares and is about to do, to the point of tears.

Yet, Jesus’ tears are also those of a deep anger – at least that is what the language of the original gospel of John suggests. The Word of God, our creator, is exhibiting his utter frustration that the world he brought into being, is so broken that death, and the sin of the world exhibited in our lack of understanding of his love for us and our need to love each other, still has the power to cause suffering, or at the very least ignore our ability to alleviate it. That is what is propelling him to Jerusalem and to the cross. That is the strength of love that was shed in the tears of Christ.

We are called to be a people who have come to the place where Jesus is. We are an Easter people, those who believe in the resurrection of not just Lazarus, but of our Christ, the Word made flesh. If we understand that Christ died to inaugurate the coming of God’s Kingdom, we must know too that we have the responsibility of not simply knowing God’s compassion for a broken world, visible in Christ’s crucifixion, but working to bring about a greater understanding of what he did through exhibiting that compassion ourselves.

We rightly think that many people in St Peter’s have a willing spirit, and often spend their time coming alongside those who suffer in body, mind or spirit. We need to celebrate, and encourage those that dare to enter and come alongside the empty people of the world, people who come to us as a place where Jesus is, the living Word. We are called to be a people who weep with Christ in the broken places of people’s lives.

Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” Isaiah 52:7

As we come as those broken by life, or by death, to the place where Jesus is, we need to trust that it is a place where we can be honest about the state of our own lives, our emotions, and our ability (or lack of ability) to carry on as we are. We should not feel constrained by tradition or culture to kneel before our crucified Christ in any other way than that which has integrity with our anger at our own or another’s suffering.

Our compassion should include our frustration at the state of God’s broken world, and if necessary our broken lives. That is where it truly follows the example of the tears that Jesus wept.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, as Christ’s Easter people, everyone can

“Turn to Christ for comfort, hope and healing. In receiving it, we are marked by the cross, which requires us to expend our own lives sacrificially in offering and gift. [In this way] the Church is, in a real sense, a communion; the Body of Christ.”

The place where Jesus is.

[The final quote I used is by Revd Canon Prof Martin Percy, Principle of Ripon College Cuddesdon in Reflections for Daily Prayer 2011-2 on Fri 4 May Exodus 35:20-36:7. The images of paintings by Brother Benedict are used with permission of the Abbot of Alton Abbey.]

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