Praying through Pain to Love

Prayer by Ninac26 (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Easter 6
Rev. Doug Floyd
John 15:9-17

Born to a wealthy and influential business man, Toyohiko Kagawa was orphaned by the age of four. His mother was a concubine of the businessman and his wife adopted Toyohiko as the sole heir of the father. He grew up in a wealthy Japanese home in the early 1900s, but he was alone and unloved, so he pretended he was not there. At age 11, he was sent to boarding school though he was much younger than the other students. He still spent most of his days alone. One day, he wandered into a tent where people were singing hymns and discovered a Vacation Bible School.

Two missionaries, Dr. C. A. Logan and Dr. H.W. Myers welcomed Toyohiko and even offered to teach him English. Later in his life he would credit the love of these two families as pivotal in his conversion. He writes, ”It is not the Bible alone which has taught me what Christianity means but the love of these two homes. When tired of the battle and with no place to go, these two homes were open to me and a welcome always awaited me. These people brought me up as one of their own children.”[i]These families eventually helped send him to seminary, but while there he contracted pulmonary pneumonia and almost died.

After staying in a hospital for several months, he went to live alone in a fishing hut. He spent his days alone because he was so contagious. At one point, Dr. Myers came and lived with him in the cottage to help care for him. Toyohiko said, ”Aren’t you afraid of me, I am contagious.” Dr. Myers replied, ”Your disease is contagious but love is more contagious.”

Toyohiko writes, “At that moment I realized more truly than ever what love really means: that love can have no fear; that love can have no limits; that love encompasses everything — the people sick like me, and the people sick in spirit and mind. I thought I must love everybody too — even the horrible people in the slums. I decided I must not be sick anymore. I told God that if He would let me live I would serve His children in the slums. Pretty soon I began to get well again.”[ii]

He was caught up in the love of Christ and it shaped the direction of the rest of his life. In today’s Gospel, the disciples have been caught up in the love of Christ and that love will eventually compel them to travel across the empire with the Good News. Even as we hear the Gospel readings, we are being caught up in Christ and His love. He addresses us as a people and each of us as persons who stand before him and he compels with His Word of Life.

Last week, I reflected on how we grow up into a love-shaped obedience and in some sense, we return to this theme again today. The disciples have been living with Jesus, traveling with Jesus, listening to Jesus, serving Jesus. They have been called into a community. Jesus breaks bread with them, comforts them, and now turns to look at each one them, saying, “You are no longer servants, you are friends.” Here we see the beginnings of the church as a community of friends: friends of Jesus, friends of one another. Even as he prepares to go to the cross, he calls them to love one another as He has loved them. Each of them are called to step into the place of sacrificial love that he has and will model. By His Spirit, they will be a people, a community, a family known for love.

This is the love we heard in Toyohiko’s story this morning. It is the love we’ve heard that played a key role in the conversion of the Roman empire. It is the love we hear in the sermons of Ambrose and Augustine and in the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.

It is the love we see modeled between Jesus and His Father. The Father loves the Son. The Son does only what He sees the Father doing. The Father speaks the word of blessing and delight  over the Jesus at his baptism, and at the Transfiguration. We see this same communion of love between Jesus and the disciples. They learn to follow his pattern and direction. Jesus speaks this word of blessing and delight over them. By His Spirit, He will show them what to do and what to say. Their life together will characterized by love.

The disciples must grow up into this love. This love will be made perfect or complete in their lives. Last week we reflected on how we are growing up into this love in our various relationships of parents and children, siblings and peers, and husbands and wives. This week, I want to reflect on how we grow up into this love by facing struggle, challenges, and even disappointments. This process of perfection or conversion or completion will be clearer if we think of Jesus life in light of Hebrews 5:7-10. Jesus is sinless. Jesus is holy. But Hebrews 5 suggests that he is made perfect through suffering.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (ESV)

Jesus enters into the human experience of pain and temptation and suffering. In this place of anguish, He cries out to the Father. Hebrews 5:7 says that he was heard because of his reverence or fear of God. The Amplified translates godly fear as “he shrank from the horror of offending the Father.” The communion of Son and Father is deeper and richer than any joy or sorrow in this life. It is in this communion with His Father that Jesus finds refuge in the midst of the very real human suffering and temptation that he experiences.

Life is filled with disappointments, difficulties, and suffering. Every human being that lives in this world will experience something of the anguish of life and hopefully something of the joy of life. From childhood to life’s final years, there is plenty of pain and struggle.

We all face troubles, but how do we respond to pain, difficulty, betrayal, suffering? We can turn it inward and seek wall ourselves off from the world outside and eventually experience some form of dis-integration in life. We may focus our energy on blaming the source of the pain on other people and other situations. Blaming siblings, parents, co-workers, employers or other people for our problems can be a never-ending game of finger-pointing. We live in an age of blame shifting. Someone else is responsible for my unhappiness. I can look at people like Richard Wurmbrand who was tortured for fifteen years. Instead of blaming, he moved more deeply into the love of God in Christ.

We can give ourselves over to complaint, taking every chance to let others know about how unfair life is or how someone else has treated us wrongly. This is like the woman in CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who grumbles and grumbles and eventually loses herself and becomes only a grumble.[iii]This constant complaint is dangerous for the soul. Hebrews 12 says, ”See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ”root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled…”(Hebrews 12:15)

The writer of Hebrews talks extensively about responding to suffering and disappointment and difficulty. In chapters 4 and 5, he points to Jesus who has been tempted like us and suffered like us but was without sin. Jesus sympathizes with our anguish and invites us to cry out him. ”Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). In like manner, Jesus cried out to the Father in his anguish and was made perfect or complete in love. As a human, he grew in wisdom and stature but he was also made perfect or complete by learning obedience through what he suffered.

Now, that could be puzzling. He was made perfect in his suffering, but the idea, once again, is no that he was somehow less than holy. It was that he became the perfect human. He entered fully into the human experience, fully into human temptation, fully into human suffering, but he became the perfect expression of humanity. He lived perfectly into that by not avoiding suffering, but by crying out to the Father. He poured out his heart to the Father. He experienced real pain and real suffering.

The church fathers would say, that at the point, let’s see, how did they put it, “Jesus identifies with humanity and it is in that identification with humanity that we are redeemed, but if he has not identified with our suffering, he has not redeemed our suffering.” He is, they say he’s identified with every aspect of what it means to be a human. Temptation, suffering, birth, death, he’s experienced it all and he has redeemed every aspect of the human life. He’s become, as the writer of Hebrews says, ”The source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”

What does the writer of Hebrews tell us? “Let us then, with confidence, draw near to the throne of grace where we will may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

We turn to the very one who has entered in fully to our human experience and we find grace and mercy, but Hebrews also points to those who’ve lived before us who have suffered, whose lives have been incomplete, so much so in Hebrews 11, it says, “Their lives are incomplete without us.” Somehow we perfect them. We complete them. We are drawn all through the New Testament to the people of God surrounding us.

I cry out to God, but I’m also drawn into the community of God. It is the people of God where I actually experience the tangible love of God. The disciples learn the love of God in the communion of one another, the exchange of one another. It is in that little community that they are changed so that they begin to experience real comfort and real encouragement.

Jesus Christ is leading us into this love by His Spirit. He is comforting us and inviting us to bring our pain and anguish to him that we may learn of His yoke and His comforting grace, that we might grow perfect in love and become a people who willingly lay down our lives one for another.

We can see this all through the book of Second Corinthians. I won’t take time to go in there this morning, but that whole book is also about suffering and pain. Paul begins the book by saying, “At the point of my own affliction and suffering, I experience the comfort of God that I might comfort you and you yourselves now can comfort those in affliction.”

The whole body of Christ becomes this living expression of encouragement. This is where we grow up into the cross-shaped love, the people who can actually pour out their lives. It’s not simply a decision. It is actually in my weakness, in my vulnerability, I learn, and I have to learn, not just with my head by reading or hearing teaching, I have to physically learn it that God is absolutely faithful, that he’s trustworthy, that I can completely trust him and let go of my life into his hands. Therefore, I’m free to love without restraint. I don’t have to worry about anyone serving my ego needs. God will comfort me and encourage me and give me the blessing through his people and his timing and I can rest in that. That allows me then, to enter fully into the cross-shaped life. It is something that takes time. In a sense, it’s our whole life we are growing into that.

As I was meditating on this this morning and thinking about it, this, I was thinking, Kelly always wants me to tell the story. I’m very private, so I don’t usually like to tell my own stories. I usually try to find other people’s stories, but I was, I shared a little last week about walking out of the church and I was disillusioned with the church, the lack of love inside the church. When I went back to graduate school, I rediscovered the church and the love of God and God’s people. I really focused on community. How do you build community? How do you make this love tangible within the church?

When I graduated in the early 90s and came back out, I felt like I was the expert on community. I’d read everything, almost everyone that had written anything at the time on community. I’d studied it throughout the history of the church.

We came back home to intentionally to be near family because to live out community and relation with family, Eventually, we started doing retreats and house church. I was going to make community happen. In fact, so much so that when we did retreats, I paid for them. If people gave money, that’s fine, but nobody had to pay anything. I would just charge it. I was building up credit, debt. I was sustaining a lot of it through my own job. I decided when I came back, “I’m going to work bi-vocationally. I’m never going to trust the people of God to support me again. I’ll work. I’ll make it work. I’ll make this community thing happen.” We had meals at our house. Back then, I provided most of the food. I’d be like, ”I’ll make sure we’ll have food. I’m going to go. Whatever it takes.”

Then, in the early 2004, 2005, I’d had lifelong kidney disease, which most people never knew because I would never share it, but suddenly my kidney not functioning as well. I had bruises up and down my arms from anemia. I could barely walk, I was so dizzy all the time. I was obviously sick and weak.

Some of you know this story, but I finally had to be vulnerable. I could no longer sustain any kind of community. I had to be weak. I had to be weak before Kelly. Kelly had to take care of me and make many decisions. We decided when I went on dialysis that we would put a dialysis room in our basement. Right after we decide that, I think it’s like literally within a week, somebody knocks on our door that we do not know. This older guy. He says, “I’m here to work on the basement.” We’re like, ”Who is he?” It turns out he is, goes to my dad’s Sunday school.

My dad shows up. Kelly’s dad shows up. All these people begin to show up and work on our basement. Some of whom we know, some of whom we don’t know. Every day of the week, there are people coming in and out of our basement working. Some of them are people in the community, like contractors, coming in, doing work for free to build this dialysis room. I’m really too weak to do anything. I don’t play one role in that because I’m working part-time, but on days I have dialysis I didn’t have the energy to do anything usually.

As you know the story of my friend Isaac, he gave me a kidney. He found out that he could give me one of his kidneys. Right when the room was ready to use, we never used it because I got a kidney transplant. Then, that room became used for God’s people. It just became a community gathering place, which is what it’s been ever since. That was one of several things of God bringing me to absolute weakness, where I realized that growing up into love is not simply one who says, “I’m going to do it all.” It is being one who can pour their life out with loud cries, both to the Father and to God’s people to be vulnerable and learn how to be weak in God’s presence and in the presence of God’s people. I learn to rest in His surrounding grace.

I experienced this community of love of many people I didn’t even know, but of God’s people from all around the community. This is part of the way we grow up into love. We see this pattern in the Gospels, certainly in the book of Acts. We see it throughout history. We see it in the life of the Toyohiko. He’s immersed into the womb of love, then he himself, over time, becomes the very expression of love.

This, to me, is what it looks like to be a people who grow up into the depths of God’s love. We become a people over time who learn to lay down our lives for one another, which more than ever, this is what our darkened world needs, is people who have been changed by the holy fire of love, that wherever we go, we are pouring out our lives in love.

Father, thank You for Your mercy and grace that we have been called into a community of love, into the body of Christ and out of his body we go forth and bearers of Your love, as bearers of the fire of Your love for a world desperately in need of care and comfort. Have mercy on us even today and let us grow up into the fullness of Your love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Endnotes

 


[i]Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories (p. 200). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[ii]Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories (p. 206). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[iii]Lewis, C. S.. The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 77). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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