Living well

Abstract image with a flower in foreground, chair in background.

Reflecting on our own death can enable us to live more fully in the here and now.

We’ve created sermon starters, Bible studies, meditations and a prayer walk on the themes of loving, letting go, seeing, growing, belonging and hoping. The resources can be used on their own or in any combination to encourage us to live well in the light of mortality.

Prayer walk

Reflecting upon our mortality can enable us to flourish. This prayer walk is on six themes related to death and dying which can help us to live well in that light. The prayer walk comprises six stations (stops) designed as a walk to and from Emmaus (Luke 24 v 13-35) - you'll find details of each station below. The story represents human life, death and resurrection in a single narrative and can help us discover what’s really important in life.
 

Setting up a prayer walk
  • Set up the walk inside or outside, in a church, school, or other community space.
  • Set up the stations as a journey that moves spiritually inwards to Station 3 and begins to turn spiritually outwards at Station 4. (Recall that the two on the road to Emmaus turned round and went back). You might want to do this as a horseshoe but the precise way you do this will depend on the space you have available.
  • Mark the route with footprints if you wish.
  • Use the walk either with the sermon starters, Bible studies or meditations on the same six living well themes or just on its own.
  • It may be particularly fitting to do this at Eastertide or at Remembrance tide.
  • You will need to provide instructions for each participant and the Bible passage. 
  • At each station you will need the materials and paper with the theme, the focus, the action and the prayer on.
  • You might also want to provide copies of the prayer that participants can take away.


Resources

Loving

Life and death are bound up with love relationships. We are loved into being and we were bought for a price. True love puts the wellbeing of the other first, and so is sacrificial. The Christian calling is to love throughout life and to love most fully at the point of death.

Sermon starter

1 Corinthians 13

The God of love and the love of God

This being a popular passage for wedding services, there is a familiar sermon that replaces the word 'love' between verses 4-8 with the name of Jesus. Look, says the preacher to the congregation, and see how Jesus is the supreme example of all of these qualities. Look at how Jesus and love are interchangeable. Today love is exalted as a virtue to be worshipped, but really it’s Jesus who should receive that honour. And then they turn to face the couple and proclaim: if you invite Jesus into your marriage, your love will be stronger as a result. Don’t rely on love; rely on Jesus.

It has always struck me, however, that the better description of Jesus comes in the first three verses. And frankly, whilst the Jesus I know is certainly kind, I’m not sure that I can read the Gospels without discovering the character of someone who both insists on his own way and is more than irritable at the injustices of the world. Jesus speaks both in the language of heaven and earth. Jesus stands in, and echoes, and completes the prophetic line of those who have spoken God’s word so that we may better hear it. Jesus astounded the temple as a young boy with his insight and his knowledge. And, perhaps definitively, Jesus does give away what little he possessed, and finally hands over his body. Naked Jesus enters this world. Naked he departs from it.

Now where does love fit? Are Christ and the virtue of love simply the same thing? If we say that God is love (1 John 4:8), must we also say that love is God? Not so. For Jesus’ actions do not occur in a relational vacuum: had he done these virtuous and lovely acts without the driving, unceasing, eternal force of God’s desperate love for God’s creation, his life and death would have only resounded as a tuneless cymbal. Yes, Jesus loves, but more than that he shows us that God’s very nature is a dance of love, a dance which is undeniably shaped towards us and which desires more than anything to include us.

Love, we discover, does not make any sense on its own. It is not an aspect of an individual’s personality or character. It emerges, is discovered, cherished, and valued only within relationships. What does it mean to be kind if there is no-one to be kind towards? What virtue is there in not insisting on one’s own way if no other way is offered? The true nature of these qualities that love describes (vv4-6) is that they are inherently sacrificial, laying aside the human condition of selfishness for love of another. Greater love has no-one than this: that they lay down their life for their friend. Love is not God, but it does tell us why God does what he did in Christ. To love is to be prepared to sacrifice everything just to be in a relationship with the one you love.

We’re reminded of this in the farewell discourse of John’s Gospel. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”.[1]

Here we sense juxtaposed, the completeness of a life nearly over, and an expression of a love which will exist beyond death. As he comes to the realisation that time left with his friends is short, it is love that preoccupies Jesus. It is the motivation for the obedience he will show, and it will make the cross the definitive symbol of the sacrificial nature of God’s love.

The final section from verse 9 onwards points towards the power that mutual love can have within a community. It is the movement from partiality to completeness; from youth to maturity. When we are in relationships which are formed by the security of love and trust, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and intimate. The more one is loved the more one prepared to be known, and the more one becomes known.

Mark Oakley has written that “Faith intensifies rather than satisfies our longing for God”.[2] And so it is with love; becoming known deepens our desire to share more of ourselves. Catching a glimpse in the dim mirror heightens our yearning finally to see face to face. It is one of the great paradoxes of human existence that we want so very much to be loved for who we are, and yet we spend so much of our time shielding ourselves from being exposed to others. Those communities where we discover the love that allows us to be ourselves are the ones where we gain a foretaste of the completeness with which this passage ends.

[1] John 13:1

[2] Mark Oakley, The splash of words, xxiii.

Bible study

1 Corinthians 13:1-8a

Living as a community of love

The themes to be explored in this study are the way that living as a community of love involves sacrifice and a dying to self. Love is a concept which all of us are familiar with and happy to use, but which also has so a vast variety of meanings and applications that it can sometimes seem a bland or vacuous concept. The love of God is explored throughout the Bible in a number of ways, and exploring these themes may help tie down what is unique and important about what Christians have to say on the subject.

Before reading the Bible passage(s) your group may find it helpful to look at this painting by Agnolo Bronzino, called The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth, which dates from 1540.

Notes on the painting
  • This is a late Renaissance work, probably painted at the Medici court in Florence.
  • John is usually depicted carrying a reed cross (a reference to Matthew 11v7), but in this picture Jesus has playfully snatched it from him. In doing this he points forward to his own sacrificial death.
  • But the artist has positioned the cross (which also looks like a sword) carefully; it points downwards towards Mary’s heart. Thus it foreshadows the pain she will experience as her son is taken from her (Luke 2v35), and is a mark of her own sacrificial love.
  • The picture is full of maternal care and intimacy. Three of the characters seem to be smiling, but Mary’s appears to be pondering, perhaps on the fact that grief is the price we pay for love.
  • The garland of flowers playfully carried by one of the children is a symbol of that city, and is one of several symbols in the painting.
  • The young woman is Mary and the child on her lap with the garland is the infant Jesus.
  • The child leaning against her is the infant John the Baptist; he is wearing a cloak of animal skins and carries a baptismal bowl.
  • The older woman may be his mother, Elizabeth or possibly St. Anne (Mary’s mother according to tradition.)

Opening questions

  • Can you identify the characters in the painting?
  • What do the directions of gaze of the different characters communicate to you?
  • Does this painting have something to say about the love between generations?

Bible passage

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Questions

  • Paul defines love both by what it is and what it isn’t. Could anything be added to his list of either? How is the example of God’s love in Jesus expressed positively and / or negatively?
  • How do we identify love when we listen to others? What helps us to distinguish the tongues of angels from a clanging cymbal?
  • Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. How does loving affect our experience of bearing, believing, hoping, or enduring?
  • 1 Corinthians is written to a community, and this expression of love is to be taken immediately in the context of what comes before it, where Paul describes the body of Christ as having many parts. Is it easier to offer the love described here, or to be a recipient of it?
  • How does love relate to the different forms of power we encounter here?

Wider questions

  • What part does love have to play when we near the end of our lives?
  • The passage later concludes with these words “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Why might the greatest be love? How does love make sense of faith and hope?
  • How does a Christian account of love differ from a secular one?

Additional passages

Here are four passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.
  • Psalm 23
  • John 13:1-17, 31-35 & John 15:12-13
  • Song of songs 8:1-7
  • 1 John 4:7-21
Meditation

These meditations use images from the natural world. Although they refers to the Bible and Christian tradition, this is in a fairly open way. It can be used with people who are sympathetic to Christianity, at least at a cultural level, but might not describe themselves as Christian.

You might use the reflection as a way into a period of silence or use it right at the end of an otherwise lively session for young people to calm things down. It’s flexible and designed to feel light touch but with the capacity to go deep.

Music
*Translation of Ubi Caritas et Amor

Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.

Art
Poetry

Read the transcript.

Prayer station
Focus
Jesus himself came near to them… they stood still looking sad.
Action
Pick up a holding cross and move your hand over the rosemary. Smell the living rosemary, recall your loss and gaze upon Jesus. Take time, ask Jesus to come near, to listen, to understand and guide you.
Pray
Lord, grief is the price we pay for love. Help me to trust that in my sadness you draw near. Amen.

Letting go

To die well is to let go graciously the very things we treasure and want to hold on to, trusting that something better awaits us. This is also in a smaller way our task throughout life.

Sermon starter

John 21:1-19

Making a good ending

This meeting between Jesus and his disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee forms the final act of John’s Gospel. Here Jesus says both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to his followers, and we, as the readers of the Gospel, realise that we too have reached the end of the story. We have read just enough to ‘come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing…may have life in his name.’ (20v31).

Jesus stands on the lake-shore; we can imagine him waving to the fishermen just as he did once before when, according to the synoptic tradition, he called them from their nets. There is bread and fish baking on the fire (v9), and Jesus takes it and gives it to the disciples (v11), just as he had done on a previous memorable occasion (6v11). In his saying goodbye Jesus is returning and re-telling the story of their life together, drawing the threads into a coherent whole full of resonances and interconnections.

The focal point for this going back is the charcoal fire, setting the stage for a reprise of Peter’s threefold betrayal in the courtyard of the High Priest, where, as his hands were being warmed his heart turned cold with fear (18v17-27). We might describe Jesus’ conversation with Peter over the fire with its threefold questioning as a process of reconciliation, followed by Peter’s rehabilitation and re-commissioning. We might also be tempted to use the word ‘forgiveness’. Is Jesus forgiving Peter?

The word forgiveness occurs only once in John’s Gospel (20v23); it’s clearly not a natural part of the writer’s vocabulary. But it is a word that should give us pause for thought, because the Greek aphi�"mi, usually translated ‘forgive’, literally means to ‘let [it] go’. In going back to his past betrayal and re-working it through words of love Jesus is offering Peter the chance to let go of it once and for all.

The past is let go of well; it will not return to haunt Peter. It must be so if Peter is to move forward into the next stage of his life and ministry. But we are then shown (v18) that the letting go is not to end here but is to continue into the future. Jesus reminds Peter that when he was young he could essentially do as he liked. He was nobody’s slave (contrary to the popular stereotype of the uneducated impoverished fisherman, he was probably the head of a highly prosperous business); he had strength and vigour. He thus had both liberty (the freedom to do what he wished) and agency (the ability to do it).

Jesus lays out a future in which Peter will have to say goodbye to his liberty. He will end up somewhere he does not wish to go, and what’s more he will not walk there under his own steam as a free and independent human being, but will be taken there like a pet dog on a lead. He will have lost his liberty.

It’s been traditional, and the text invites us to read this as an allusion to Peter’s eventual imprisonment and execution in Rome. But it actually reads more naturally as a broader reflection on old age. Just think, for example, about what it feels like to give up driving and become dependent on public transport, taxis, or lifts from friends. Or to move out of your own place into residential care, even the best appointed sort of residential care. One often hears phrases like, ‘We had to move Mum nearer to us as she wasn’t coping any more.’ or ‘The children moved us to be with them.’ Or – most poignantly, ‘Don’t put me in a home!’ In all of these sentences the older person is the object or potential object of, often well-intentioned, actions of others. One older person remarked to me, ‘I feel like a parcel waiting to be transported by Royal Mail.’

In these examples the loss of liberty that comes with ageing is connected with a perceived loss of agency (the ability to be the captain of one’s life), something that is referred to as ‘capacity’ in legal terms. And this, of course, affects other groups in addition to the elderly, such as those living with chronic health conditions, disabilities, or terminal illness.

All of these people are facing the process of letting go – of moving from doing to being, from knowing to unknowing, from deciding to waiting, from giving to receiving; and most of them are facing it reluctantly and with regret.

Yet, to return to the Gospel, Peter’s calling is to a loss of liberty and agency that mirrors that of his Master’s undergoing of his passion. His calling is to continue to serve and imitate his Lord right up to the end of his earthly life, even in the midst of its rigours and hardships as well as its joys. This is the life-long calling of all Christians. You don’t retire from the life of faith; you keep on, even when what is intrinsic to keeping on is letting go.

This following Christ in letting go is ultimately and paradoxically what brings life from death and invests that life with meaning. John’s Gospel begins with a search for meaning by the disciples (and it assumes a search for meaning on the part of the reader); it ends with an invitation to make meaning by letting go. For Jesus’ first words are ‘What are you looking for?’ (1v38) and his last words are ‘Follow me!’ (21v22). Between these utterances hang heaven and earth.

Bible study

John 21:1-19

Sit lightly to things

The theme to be explored in this study is the Biblical call to sit lightly to things that we might naturally wish to grasp in an attempt to give ourselves a sense of stability and security, or legacy and immortality. This requires us to get our priorities straight and, in the light of Christ and his kingdom, to focus on what is essential at any one time.

Before reading the Bible passage(s) your group may find it helpful to look at a painting by William Turner, called The 'Fighting Temeraire' Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, which dates from 1838.

Notes on the painting
  • Turner painted this in the midst of what may have been depression or a very long and complicated bereavement reaction following the death of his father, his main close confidant, in 1829.
  • Its subject is a 98-gun naval warship that had been launched in 1798 and went on to play a key role in the Battle of Trafalgar, going into action astern of HMS Victory. She went into retirement in Plymouth in 1812, had an afterlife as a prison ship, but was eventually broken up in 1838.
  • The painting depicts a steam-powered tug towing the magnificent but now elderly and rather ghostly looking ship to her final destination. The ship that had once been part of a sailing fleet that ruled the waves is now obsolete in a new age of steam power and industrialisation, already fading in memory as she is in the picture.
  • She is being led ‘where you do not wish to go’ (John 21v18)

Opening questions

  • Is this sunrise or sunset?
  • What is the mood of the painting?
  • How does it make you feel?

Bible passage

1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." 6He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." 16A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." 17He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."

Questions

  • What is behind Peter’s decision to go fishing (v3)?
  • The whole story points back to earlier events. How many can you identify?
  • Why do you think John draws out these earlier connections?
  • What is Peter being asked to let go of here? What is driving him forward (see John 6v66-69)?
  • Jesus himself is letting go here. What does he have to say goodbye to and how does he do this?
  • What can this passage tell us about making good endings?

Wider questions

  • How do we help people make transitions, especially those that involve laying down a responsibility in our churches? Should we challenge the idea of ‘jobs for life’ in the culture of many congregations?
  • How do we make a good transition from old ways of doing things to ways that are more suitable for our time without doing violence to the wisdom and beauty of the past?
  • How can we challenge the instinct that retirement is simply the prelude (however extended) to a final journey to be broken up?

Additional passages

Here are four passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.
  • Philippians 2:5-8
  • Mark 1:16-20 & 8:34-37
  • John 14:16-19 & 16:5-12
  • Luke 12:16-23
Meditation

These meditations use images from the natural world. Although they refers to the Bible and Christian tradition, this is in a fairly open way. It can be used with people who are sympathetic to Christianity, at least at a cultural level, but might not describe themselves as Christian.

You might use the reflection as a way into a period of silence or use it right at the end of an otherwise lively session for young people to calm things down. It’s flexible and designed to feel light touch but with the capacity to go deep.

Music
*Translation of Ich Habe Genug

I have enough,
I have taken the saviour, the hope of the righteous,
in my eager arms;
I have enough!
I have caught sight of him,
my faith has pressed Jesus to my heart;
now I wish this very day joyfully
to depart from here.
I have enough!

Art
  • He Qi: Calling Disciples
  • William Turner: The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to the Last Berth to be Broken Up
Poetry

Read the transcript.

Prayer station
Focus

But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel… Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.

Action
Think about a loss, a disappointment or an unfulfilled dream. Use a pen and write your loss on a stone. Place it in the basket.
Pray
Lord, be with me as I mourn my ‘might have beens’. Help me to leave them in your hands. Amen.

Seeing

Death is about seeing beyond the veil, of dwelling in a greater, higher vision. In life we only catch glimpses of it, but these glimpses can expand our imagination, inspire us, and give us hope and a truer vision for this world.

Sermon starter

Luke 24:13-36

The road to Emmaus as a ‘thin place’

A number of writers, drawing on the Celtic tradition of the ‘thin place’ (a point where heaven and earth seem to come near to each other (v.15), have suggested that these places are to be found not simply at sacred geographical sites or natural phenomena, but at points of human suffering, disability, and disorientation, including advanced ageing and dementia.[1][2]

There is no doubt (though it is under-recognised) that the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus are suffering, fleeing a place of trauma and continuing perceived danger, and deeply disoriented (vv. 17, 21). A child once advanced the theory that Mary Magdalene did not recognise the risen Christ because her eyes were too full of tears to see properly. Perhaps this is also relevant to this story.

In the Bible thin places are often marked by the presence of angels. Luke’s Gospel actually opens with an encounter with an angel in a thin place – the Temple (interestingly by a male priest who is unable to tell what he has seen) and it ends with an encounter with angels in a thin place – the tomb (by women who do tell what they have seen but are not believed by men). Both texts use the word optasia (vision) for these encounters.

The two disciples have all the perceptual building blocks in place but cannot form a percept – see what is front of their eyes - until they enter their own thin place, or more correctly as Jesus draws near and makes it a thin place. The text tells us that the two are ‘held’ or ‘kept’ from recognising Jesus perhaps, as already suggested, by their grief; perhaps by their attempts to cope with it by talking it through; perhaps by the obvious fact that Jesus is dead so he is the last person you would expect to see.

But Jesus is also presented as an ordinary stranger who is only recognisable in hindsight by the impact that his joining up of Scripture with their recent experience had on their burning hearts. There is an opportunity here to explore end of life as providing the wisdom of hindsight. The extract a Holy Week address below describes this process:

This fitting of things together to make sense is something we do increasingly as we approach the end of our lives. Indeed, some things only make sense with the hindsight of years. In the last week of his life an elderly friend told me a story. When he was engaged to be married he and his fiancée searched in vain for somewhere to live. It was just after World War II and, like today, there was a shortage of affordable rental accommodation. It looked very much as if they were going to have to begin their married life living with his parents. Then, a few days before the wedding, a large flat became available at a reasonable rent. Over the years my friend and his wife had often said to each other that this had been like a wonderful miracle. But in his last days he returned to this part of his life and he remembered something odd; he had a flashbulb memory of his aunt whispering conspiratorially to his mother-in-law shortly before the flat became available. This aunt was wealthy and had contacts in the property business. Over sixty years after the original incident he realised that she must have slipped someone a financial sweetener to secure the flat for him. He had always thought this aunt rather cold and aloof; in his last days he was filled with gratitude at her love and care for him and his new bride. He felt compelled to tell me the story ‘in remembrance of her.’[3]

There is here a kind of unlocking of the imagination that enables the consideration of previously unthought of possibilities – possibilities to do with this earthly life (the insight that there is more to people and situations than meets the eye) and of God’s glory that is both profoundly different from and far greater than we could have hoped or imagined. This unlocking of the imagination is a mark of the resurrection life; when we ‘get it’ we are –as it were – raised with Christ.

Our encounters in thin places are transitory, yet we have a desire to hold on to them. The disciples here urge the stranger to stay longer and, just when they realise who he is, he has gone. Something similar happens at the transfiguration – another ‘vision’ – where Peter tries to build ‘dwelling places’ for Jesus. Moses, and Elijah (Matthew 17:4).  Notice here the link to ‘Moses and all the prophets’ in the Emmaus story (v. 27). Notice also what it is that Jesus draws out of Scripture – that his suffering was the threshold to his glory, his own ‘thin place’.

Even though the encounter with Jesus is so fleeting these disciples are able to live in its light. They turn around and re-attach themselves to the emerging church and they offer a ‘bottom-up theology’ based on their own first-hand experience that at once supports, complements, and subverts the top-down pronouncements of the proto-magisterium on the lips of Peter.

This passage ends at an unusual point (v.36) with the words ‘Peace be with you.’ For this is our ultimate desired destination; a place of deep peace and security in the presence of Jesus.

[1] Gomes, P. (2002). The Good Book: Reading the Bible with mind and heart. New York: Harper.

[2] Sorrell, J. (2006). Listening in thin places: Ethics in the care of persons with Alzheimer's Disease. Advances in Nursing Science, 29, 152-60.

[3] Mark 14:9

Bible study

Luke 24:28-31

The veiling and unveiling of reality

The theme to be explored in this study is the veiling and unveiling of reality. Catching glimpses of a heavenly perspective in epiphany moments is something that can happen at any time in the Christian journey, but it seems to be especially intense at life-and-death events such as childbirth or as earthly life draws to its close.

Before reading the Bible passage(s) your group may find it helpful to look at this painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, called The Supper at Emmaus, which dates from 1601. The painting captures a particular moment in the Road to Emmaus story from Luke 24 – the moment of recognition.

Notes on the painting
  • The picture was painted in 1601.
  • Caravaggio (unlike his followers) never shows his light source. The light source is to the left and fore of the frame. This cleverly throws the shadow of the innkeeper behind Jesus, perhaps suggesting that Jesus is the true host (even though he is a guest at the inn presumably paid for by the disciples).
  • The innkeeper keeps his hat on in the presence of Jesus and does not share the astonishment of the disciples. This seems to indicate that he doesn’t share in their epiphany.
  • Jesus is depicted with a face that was unconventional for depictions of Christ the time and drew some criticism. Is Caravaggio trying to emphasise that Jesus is a stranger who goes unrecognised?
  • The bowl of fruit in the foreground may symbolise the fruit of the Spirit, specifically the pomegranate may represent the church. But also note that the shadow it casts is that of a fish. This may also represent the church or it may point to later in the story when Jesus eats a piece of grilled fish in the presence of his disciples (Luke 24: 41-43), which itself refers back to the feeding of the multitudes.
  • The cockle shell worn by one of the men indicates that he stands for all Christ’s pilgrim people, each on his/her own journey.
  • The posture of the disciples communicate the suddenness of the revelation, and the way perspective is used both makes them appear to come out of the canvas and to draw us in.

Opening questions

  • How would you describe the mood of the painting?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • Caravaggio has depicted the events in his own time and culture. What might it look like in our locality today?

Bible passage

28As they came near the village to which they were going, [Jesus] walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight.

Questions

  • The epiphany happens at the end of the day. Does this have something to say about insights achieved towards the end of life?
  • An ordinary act in an ordinary setting is transfigured. Have you ever experienced ‘heaven in ordinary’?
  • The opening of the disciples’ eyes is a kind of remembering – a recognition. It’s a joining up of the present with the past. Is this true of your moments of insight? Does it mean that later life is a time when such insights are likely to be more frequent and intense?

Wider questions

  • Our glimpses of heaven in this life are infused with mystery but also sometimes of intimacy. How can we speak of them? Is it easier to communicate them through creative media such as poetry, visual art or music? Dare we speak of such things or are we too embarrassed?
  • How do we receive heavenly visions from ‘implausible’ witnesses, for example children, people with dementia, people with mental health conditions, people who are dying? (Look at Acts 2v17).

Additional passages

Here are four passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.
  • John 1:45-51
  • Matthew 16:13-23
  • Colossians 3:1-2
  • 1 Corinthians 13:9-12
Meditation

These meditations use images from the natural world. Although they refers to the Bible and Christian tradition, this is in a fairly open way. It can be used with people who are sympathetic to Christianity, at least at a cultural level, but might not describe themselves as Christian.

You might use the reflection as a way into a period of silence or use it right at the end of an otherwise lively session for young people to calm things down. It’s flexible and designed to feel light touch but with the capacity to go deep.

Music
*Translation of Après un Rêve

In a sleep which your image charmed
I dreamed of happiness, ardent mirage;
your eyes were sweeter, your voice pure and ringing,
you shone like a sky lit up by the dawn.

You were calling me and I was leaving the earth
to flee with you towards the light;
the skies parted their clouds for us,
unknown splendours, divine half-seen gleams…

Alas! Alas! Sad awakening from dreams!
I call on you, o night, give me back your deceits;
come back, come back resplendent,
come back, o mysterious night!
© Christopher Goldsack

Art
Poetry

 

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Bloomsbury,2014)

It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall: his body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backwards through the ragged veil hanging from the arch.

Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his god-father’s wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in a high wind, then fell back into place (p 741-2).

(See p794 for more ‘veil talk’)

 

Read the transcript.

Prayer station
Focus
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened.
Action
Tear off a piece of bread. Break it and look carefully at as you pray and then eat it.
Pray
Lord, you are the one who feeds me. Open my eyes and help me to see more than meets the eye. Amen.

Growing

Death is about life-giving transformation, in which we are raised to our full stature in Christ. This is the end of a life-long process of transformation where we find that the most intense periods of growth may be in times of adversity.

Sermon starter

1 Corinthians 15:35-58

Transformation of the body

In a sermon on growth, it seems strange that the key text appears to be about dying. Jesus’ words in John 12 24, 25 go to the heart of the matter.  ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.  Death is the pathway to life; spiritual growth comes not through insisting on living, but on embracing dying: then is the way open for there to be much fruit. Similarly I Corinthians 15v35-58 seems wholly taken up with arguments about life after death and what that will look like: how does it speak to us whilst we are still living?

In order to understand that, I think we need to step back a little and consider the way of discipleship.  Douglas Davies, in his study on The Theology of Death points out that Christianity is the most death focused of all religions[1].   At our baptisms, we go down into the deep waters of death; at the Eucharist we are invited to remember and participate in the death of Christ.   The most pressing call that Jesus makes on his disciples as he bids them come to follow him is to take up their cross  - the only reason to do that is to be nailed to it and die.  And of course, through Christ’s death and resurrection, comes our life.

Death in other words, within the Christian tradition, is not simply the event that takes place at the end of our lives: it is the gateway to fullness of life which takes place at our baptisms and as disciples we are invited constantly to take the path of death in order to know life and growth. In that light, those words of Jesus in John 12 take on a different hue: they speak not just of his own forthcoming death, but point us to the way of discipleship.

The gospels are full of imagery of seeds being buried and growing.   There are passages like Mark 4v32-34 where Jesus talks about a mustard seed as a tiny seed which is sown in the ground and becomes a great tree.  Although we interpret Jesus’ words in John 12 in an individual sense – they are about the individual death as the way of discipleship – Mark 4 has been used in a more corporate sense.  Thus, the mustard seed is like the church which can grow and make a difference.  However, Mark 4 also challenges our individual discipleship: if we want to show growth in our lives, will we be prepared to be like a seed that falls into the ground and dies before growth can come?

It is in this context that we can understand Paul’s words in I Corinthians 15.  It is a passionate discussion about what sort of life we have beyond the grave, but it makes no sense unless we can see that it is part of a continuum that includes our Christian discipleship before the grave.   That is why Paul writes in the present tense in his second letter to the Corinthians that ‘all of us are being transformed… from one degree of glory to another’.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is at his most argumentative with those to whom he is writing.  There are people in Corinth who say that truly spiritual people – the pneumatikos person has put aside the body and such things are not important.  They have scoffed at Paul’s teaching that the body will be raised at the last day and caricatured it by painting pictures of resuscitated corpses.  Bodies are only good for decay, they say: what matters is the disembodied soul which will live for ever.

Paul argues strongly in this passage that the bodies we get at the Resurrection are not disembodied souls, but neither are they revived corpses.  He too uses the analogy of a seed that is planted in the ground in verse 37, but then the seed is clothed with a new body by God at the resurrection.  The point that he makes is that what grows from the ground looks as different from the original seed as our resurrection bodies look to our earthly bodies but they are completely connected to one another.   In verses 43 and 44, he highlights the differences between them but stresses the link too: ‘it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power’.

I think these words have particular power for us as we get older.  Young people’s bodies are still considered beautiful and glorious and the ideal to try and keep.  It is noticeable that a recent BBC series about old people was entitled ‘How to stay young’ rather than ‘How to be old well’.  Old age is seen as a problem; youth a gift.  Most of this is because of our attitudes to old age are negative because our physical bodies are in a time of decline.

So when Paul talks about our earthly bodies being perishable and weak, those of us who are older or living with a chronic health condition or disability know exactly what he means because we are living it out!  However, we need not fear the decline of our bodies because transformation of our whole selves is also taking place.  Just as there are inevitable physical losses to old age – and they will be different for different people – so we all have the potential for gain in other parts of our life.  We have the potential for greater wisdom, we will have greater experience, many older people are far more accepting of social change than those many years younger.  There is growth that comes with age as well as decline.  Madeleine le Sueur, the American author who lived to be 96 said towards the end of her life ‘I have become luminous with age’.

This is why Paul ends with v 58 which seem slightly out of place in the rest of his argument: ‘Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain’.  We excel in the Lord’s work when we follow the path of discipleship, which leads to growth and transformation.

In Christian theology, the daily death that we are called upon to accept in order to know daily transformation will ultimately result in physical death in order to know ultimate transformation.   That is why the cross can be seen as the tree of life for us all.

[1] See Douglas Davies The Theology of Death London: T & T Clark, 2008 especially Chapter 3

Bible study

1 Corinthians 15:35-58

Old age and dying as a time of growth

The theme to be explored in this study is that of old age and dying as a time of growth towards our ultimate reality which we know finally after death. In every day life, we know that it is the things that could tear us down – our disappointments, the sufferings we endure – that can have the opposite effect and make us stronger. At the heart of the Christian faith is that it's what appears to be ultimate defeat and failure in death which is the pathway to the ultimate growth and life. It seems nonsensical to say that the journey towards death is about growing. Our instincts tell us it's more about diminishment. Yet there is much in the Bible that turns our traditional wisdom on its head and reminds us that God’s way of looking at the world is completely different to our own.

Before reading the Bible passage(s) your group may find it helpful to look at this artwork by Edward Burne-Jones, called Tree of Life, which dates from 1888.

Notes on the painting
  • This is a mosaic ceiling from the American Episcopal Church in Rome, St Paul-within-the-walls.
  • It shows not Mary and John standing at the cross, but Adam and Eve by the tree of life.
  • There are sheaves of corn growing abundantly in place of the curse that God gives Adam in Genesis 3v19 where Adam is forced to bring forth bread by the sweat of his brow.  Brier thorns may still be drawn on Eve’s side to represent her state of sin, but the eye is drawn much more to the lilies, the symbol of purity.
  •  Cain and Abel are represented not as murderous brother and victim, but as two babies, shown in innocence with the opportunity for growth.
  • The Latin inscription means: 'You shall have affliction in the world, but have faith, for I have overcome the world'.

Opening questions

  • Does it speak to you of life or of death?
  • Do you find it threatening or welcoming? Why?
  • What symbols and figures stand out to you? Why are they there?

Bible passage

35 But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is[a]from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will[b] also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters,[c] is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die,[d] but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ 55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved,[e] be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.

Questions

  • Paul confronts the question of what will our existence be like after our deaths. How do you imagine it to be?   What is Paul’s answer to the Corinthians?
  • How does Paul use imagery from nature to explain what happens to us at death? Do you find this helpful?
  • What is the difference between a physical body and a spiritual body?
  • What links and connections does Paul make between our bodies now and our bodies after death?
  • Paul finishes his passage with a great cry of victory over death. How do you feel about dying?  Take time to think through your own attitude to dying – either in silence, or you may feel able to share with the group how you feel.  What are those things that scare or concern you?  What is it that holds no fear at all?

Wider questions

  • Why does Jesus use so many parables from nature and about growing in his teaching?
  • How has your attitude to nature changed through your life? Since your childhood?  Since you were a younger adult?
  • Where do you see God in nature? Or do you find it easier to see him at work outside of nature?
  • How do we fit into nature’s plan of living and growing?

Additional passages

Here are four passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.
  • John 12:20-28
  • John 15:1-8; Mark 4:30-32
  • 2 Corinthians 3:17-18
  • John 20:24-29
Meditation

These meditations use images from the natural world. Although they refers to the Bible and Christian tradition, this is in a fairly open way. It can be used with people who are sympathetic to Christianity, at least at a cultural level, but might not describe themselves as Christian.

You might use the reflection as a way into a period of silence or use it right at the end of an otherwise lively session for young people to calm things down. It’s flexible and designed to feel light touch but with the capacity to go deep.

Music
Art
Poetry

Read the transcript.

Prayer station
Focus
‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?’ That same hour they got up…Then they told what had happened.
Action
Light a candle and look in the mirror. See yourself as God sees you at this moment, full of potential.
Pray
Lord, thank you that I am precious and loved by you. Help me to grow through the dark times as I journey on. Strengthen me to own and tell my story, safe in the knowledge you have called me by name – I am yours. Amen.

Belonging

A deep paradox of death is that it is undergone alone but we are in company. This mirrors a paradox in life that our worth is determined both by our uniqueness as individuals and by our place as part of something bigger.

Sermon starter

Matthew 6:25-29 and Matthew 10:28-31

Maslow turned upside down

These two short extracts from Matthew’s Gospel are part of the teaching material that is also found in Luke but not in Mark (or John). There are a variety of views on the origin of this material but it is agreed that much of it is in the form of Jewish wisdom teaching.  The reference to lilies (krina) in 6:28 conjures up strong associations with the Song of Songs (where they are mentioned six times) and, if this weren’t enough, immediately afterwards there is an explicit reference to Solomon, the archetypal wise man. All this alerts us to the fact that Jesus is talking about wisdom. The first passage is about life wisdom and the second passage is about death wisdom.

This is about growing up to be who we were meant to be. Scholars argue about whether the word translated ‘hour’ (v.27) is actually a unit of length. But the ambiguity holds an important truth. Jesus is telling his listeners that they need to come to full maturity (Matthew 5:48), and this means both being riper in years and taller in stature.

What does this look like in practice? Fundamentally, it seems to involve getting one’s priorities right. It’s not that food and clothing are not good (this is made clear in v32) but that there is something even more important. This kind of wisdom inverts Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy, which assumes that basic needs (for physiological sustenance and physical safety) have to be met before one is in a position to engage with higher needs for belonging and self-worth, which in their turn must be met before one has a chance to achieve self-actualisation. [1]

Jesus seems to be telling his hearers exactly the opposite: to go for the ultimate values embodied in the programme he calls the Kingdom of God; if we do this we will find that these other needs will also be met. This is subversive wisdom.

Subversive wisdom makes us anxious because it goes against conventional norms; and anxiety means that we cannot pay full attention to what is really important. That is why Jesus warns against worry and fear. Interestingly, his argument is centred on one of Maslow’s needs: self-worth. We do not need to be afraid because we are worth something; we matter. This doesn’t depend on anything that we do. We matter because everything in creation matters to God and is under his sovereign authority; even little birds that you can buy two-a-penny; even ephemeral wild flowers. God is seen to have taken great trouble in creating these things (another theme from the Hebrew wisdom literature), endowing them with beauty and providing them with sustenance as part of the natural order. This is equally true of humanity, the crown of creation, but even more so because we have been bought at great cost (1 Corinthians 6v20). God thought we were worth that.

The reference to the hairs of our heads in 6v30 seems to indicate that God is focused on the individual. He has created each flower, each bird, each person, each hair. He has made us each unique (Psalm 139v13-16), and that seems to be part of the reason that we are so precious to him. Yet Jesus talks about lilies and birds in the plural, and all the ‘you’s in these passages are Greek plurals. Just as each flower has its place in the ecosystem that is the meadow, and each bird has its place in the flock, so we each have our unique place as a worker for the Kingdom of God, our unique place as a member of the body of Christ, our unique place in the cosmos. And here we are back with Maslow, who identifies ‘belonging’ as a major human need, closely related to love. God shows his love for us by coming to pitch his tent among us and redeeming us through his death; but he also shows it by drawing us into a community whose members are enough like us to gives us a sense of solidarity, yet different enough from us that we can find our unique place, and with it, dignity.

This message of the Kingdom as an inverted Maslow’s triangle is important for all people, but it is a particularly powerful message for those who are in situations of poverty, chronic sickness, political oppression, exploitation, and persecution without hope of human intervention (Jesus’ original audience). It tells us that we can still grow up into self-actualisation – a life full of dignity and meaning – even if many of our basic needs have not been met. And of course this is the story of so many of the great saints, creative geniuses, and political reformers of history: we can triumph over our circumstances and be liberated from them. This is perhaps what Jesus is emphasising in 6v28; if others deprive us of food, clothing, safety, love, belonging, and self-worth, we need not despair because we belong to Christ, who gives us all.

And if we are fortunate enough to have most of these material and social blessings, like many in the developed west, we do not need to be afraid of losing them. We are freed from lives dominated by anxiety for the future and, above all, by the threat of death. Once we grasp this deep truth about the kingdom we no longer live under death’s dominion. Living out this reality means that we cannot be forced to do anything because the ultimate sanction – fear - has been removed. We are no longer slaves but we give of ourselves freely (Matthew 5v39-41; John 10v18), and we do this not on our own but as salt and yeast in company with other kingdom people. Here the economy of the kingdom flies in the face of conventional logic; these free acts of self-giving don’t, as we might expect, serve to perpetuate the unjust structures of this world, but – as Mary proclaims in the Magnificat - to challenge, break down, and ultimately transform them.

[1] A. Maslow (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Bible study

Matthew 6:25-29 and Matthew 10:28-31

Our attachment to people and places
The theme to be explored in this study is the way our need for attachment to significant people and places seems to be connected with our need for self-worth; how death calls up terror in us because it seems to threaten both of these fundamental needs; and how the Bible deals with this head-on.

Before reading the Bible passage(s) your group may find it helpful to look at this painting by Stanley Spencer, called Consider the Lilies, which dates from 1939.

Notes on the painting
  • The picture was painted at a time in Spencer’s life when he was alone and disillusioned after a disastrous relationship had come to an end.
  • He was trying to reconnect with his Christian faith. It's part of series of eight paintings and 16 drawings entitled Christ in the Wilderness. The wilderness perhaps refers more to Spencer than to Christ because the pictures are not all about Jesus’ temptation in the desert.
  • The series explores Christ's deep connection with nature. The recurring theme is that Jesus is alone, cut off from other human beings, but intimately connected with the natural world. Most of the paintings are about Jesus and animals (foxes, a hen, a scorpion, eagles), but this one is about flowers.
  • Perhaps its most striking feature of the series is Jesus’ size; he nearly fills the canvas. This may be an allusion to the fact that ‘he fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1:23). In comparison to his bulk, the lilies of the field are small.
  • The lilies are actually daisies and larger than life. Spencer has located the Galilean lilies of the field in an English meadow.

Opening questions

  • What is Spencer up to here?
  • What is Jesus up to here?
  • Does this depiction of Jesus feel familiar or strange to you?

Bible passage

25"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. [30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.] 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Questions

  • Jesus talks about life in the first passage and about death in the second passage. In both he emphasises to his listeners that we have a high worth. He also talks about worry and fear. Psychologists have found fear of death to be closely linked to worry about self-worth. Why do you think this might be?
  • What do sowing and reaping and toiling and spinning have to do with self-worth? (Note that the first two were the conventional tasks of men and the second two the conventional tasks of women in Jesus’ culture – he is addressing a mixed group.) What place does hard work have in a life well lived?
  • Jesus seems to be emphasising the power and authority of God as creator and sustainer of the natural living world right down to its smallest parts, but also as the one who has authority to judge all at the end of time. How might answering to this ‘higher authority’ affect the way we live our lives?
  • Although it isn’t that obvious at first, this passage is actually about being part of a family. Jesus isn’t just using the birds and the flowers as a convenient metaphor; he is reminding his listeners that we are part of the natural order – we belong. On top of that he uses the phrases ‘Your (plural) heavenly Father’ in the first passage and ‘your (plural) Father’ in the second. Why do you think this is an important part of his argument?

Wider questions

  • How might a sense of belonging help us to live and die well?
  • People in residential care homes and hospitals who are nearing the end of life are also often cut off from nature. Yet we have seen that a connection with the natural world is part of what makes us feel human and less isolated. What can be done about this?
  • How might the ideas explored in these studies inform the epidemic of loneliness in our society?

Additional passages

Here are four passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.
  • 1 Corinthians 12
  • 2 Corinthians 5
  • 1 Thessalonians 4
  • Revelation 5
Meditation

These meditations use images from the natural world. Although they refers to the Bible and Christian tradition, this is in a fairly open way. It can be used with people who are sympathetic to Christianity, at least at a cultural level, but might not describe themselves as Christian.

You might use the reflection as a way into a period of silence or use it right at the end of an otherwise lively session for young people to calm things down. It’s flexible and designed to feel light touch but with the capacity to go deep.

Music
Art
Poetry
  • Mary Oliver: Daisies (In Why I Wake Early, Beacon Press)
  • Mary Oliver: When Death Comes (In New and Selected  Poems, Beacon Press)
  • Robert Herrick: To Daffodils

Read the transcript.

Prayer station
Focus
They returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.
Action
Write your name along with any you want to remember and add them to the prayer tree. We become ourselves in the company of others.
Pray
Lord, thank you for all who have loved me and those I have loved. Bring us all to that place where there is no more sorrow or sighing, where the joys and pains of humanity are held in your eternal arms of love and peace. Amen.

Hoping

Death is not the end. We are called to live our lives in this light.

Sermon starter

Romans 8:22-39

Dwelling in suffering, yearning, and hope

It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that the context of our lives deeply affects the ways in which we encounter Scripture. Sometimes familiar bits of Scripture accompany us though rites of passage or moments of significance, providing a continuity and a clarity to our journey with God. On other occasions, a particular experience may give us fresh eyes or a new encounter with God through the Bible, lending new insight into the familiar or drawing the less familiar into clearer view.

Liturgical time can make a difference too, and this part of Romans 8 will find astonishingly different resonances with different liturgical seasons. Read it in Advent, and the focus of the passage is immediately drawn to the “eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v21), as we await the coming of the Christ-child and our Lord’s return. Read it again at Christmas, and the “groaning in labour pains” (v22) of creation makes connections with Mary’s own groaning as her body delivers the glory of God incarnate. Read the passage in Lent and Passiontide, however, and it’s verse 18 which really sets the tone for the season, as present suffering is placed in the context of future glory. If we read in Easter, then the declaration that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (v28) is understood as a hope which is based on the resurrection, rather than a vague reassurance sometime in the future. Reading the passage in that long stretch of Sundays after Trinity, and there our solidarity with the renewal and redemption of all creation might be what catches our eye.

As it happens, we encounter this section (split up) twice in the Sunday lectionary readings, and both times on or in the season of Pentecost. It’s natural at this point to focus on the wider context of the first two thirds of the chapter, which describe in detail the work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers and in the whole created order, and culminating in this outpouring of hope.

Having said all that, there is one day in the year when I think the whole momentum of this passage takes a very significant meaning. That day is Holy Saturday, the time between crucifixion and resurrection. It may be one day in the calendar, but it’s always worth remembering that for anyone in our care facing a terminal diagnosis, a family member slipping further into the clutches of dementia, the time between a death and a funeral, or proximity to an anniversary of a loved one’s passing, Holy Saturday may be any day in the year. It’s the day when Jesus is out of sight and out of reach, when darkness still covers the Earth, and faced with despair, all we can do is wait. It’s a day which perhaps more than any other demands our deep theological exploration and pastoral sensitivity in equal measure.

On Holy Saturday we are acutely aware that Christ has shared in our suffering, and that following a call which demands we take up our own crosses will inevitably and inexorably lead us to the same place. In this context, we might see in verses 18-25 four sentences which set out the three themes that Paul weaves together: suffering, yearning, and hoping; a mirror of the Triduum. Just as Christ shows solidarity in our pain, so we are bound up with the suffering and the redemption of the whole creation.

There is no denial of the impact of suffering here. Paul’s own life was spent first inflicting on others the suffering entailed in Christian discipleship, and then taking that same suffering upon himself. He knew first-hand what the consequences of this way of life would be. Looking ahead in the chapter (v35), Paul explicitly names the suffering he has experienced for the sake of the Gospel. So when he considers the “sufferings of this present time” (v18), and the whole creation’s “bondage to decay” (v21), these are not trivial difficulties, but matters of life and death.

Perhaps because giving birth to new life is a dangerous and life-threatening act, Paul uses birth as an analogy for the suffering and the renewal of creation. I wonder if there is a more succinct description of labour than this: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (v18)? And v19 also picks up on the anticipation of creation holding its breath with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, much like those final stages of a pregnancy. It’s language that has deliberate echoes of the original moments of creation; before there was anything else, there was simply God. And so, womblike, God has to make space within Godself for the creation simply to have a space to exist. As life is brought into existence, it is through the breaking of waters that chaos gradually transforms itself into order, and all is declared good.

That the total goodness does not last is a human legacy. “Cursed is the ground because of you” hear Eve and Adam. [1]

All creation is damaged by the carelessness of humankind, as it continues to be. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will” (v20) is how Paul puts it. Creation waits to “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v21), but in the meantime this is a painful and not a passive waiting. It’s tempting when we encounter this suffering in the text to want to skip over it and get straight to the reassurance. But it would be a mistake not to dwell a little longer in this time before everything is made a new creation.

The language of labour pains is then used to describe the groaning that both creation and those who have received the Spirit endure as they are simultaneously made anew and adopted. This is the moment that suffering changes to yearning. Much like labour, this is a purposeful groaning which aches and strains for the first glimpses of new life. Our own yearning for all to be made well is taken up by the Spirit on our behalf (v23; 26-8). To remain with the birthing image, it acts like a doula (birth partner)  – reminding us that whatever our pain and whatever our longing, we are not alone. Even in the most difficult and trying of places, God is still somehow with us. Not for nothing has there been a tradition that this is the day in the calendar when Jesus descends to harrow hell. In the one place that God should not be, the work of redemption is already beginning.

“Everything will all be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.” So says the somewhat unlikely theologian Sonny Kapoor in the 2011 film The best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Just as suffering is transformed to yearning, so is yearning transformed into hoping. “For in hope we were saved” (v24) writes Paul. This is not the end of the story. Easter Sunday will bring about the renewal of all things, but we are not quite there yet. Indeed “we hope for what we do not see” (v25). It may take a while to get there, and we may need to spend time alongside those who are experiencing suffering and yearning, but we do not lose sight of the hope that Paul reaches – “All things work together for good for those who love God” (v28). We who witness to this hope are the first-fruits of this promise.

There is an awkward addendum that must be addressed at the end of this densely packed outpouring. The final question we’re left with from this passage is this – is this hope is for everyone? At first glance, the appearance of the word “predestined” in the final couple of verses might indicate otherwise. I find Tom Wright’s thoughts on v30, and the language of predestined, called, justified, and glorified, a helpful clarification here.

“That is a sharp, close-up, compressed telling of Israel as the chosen people, whose identity and destiny is then brought into sharp focus on Jesus (and in a sense Jesus is the one chosen one)… That identity is then shared with all those who are in Christ.”[2]

The answer to the question then is that hope is for everyone who is in Christ. Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s story, and the means by which we come to share in their calling as God’s people. Through him we are justified, and by joining with him as people of the resurrection we are glorified.

Let us not forget the pastoral importance here. Holy Saturday requires us wait for the transforming that God will bring through the resurrection of Jesus. But it also requires us be entirely present in the moment of the pain of absence – not always knowing how to pray and relying on the Spirit to groan deeply on our behalf. Good Friday feels like the day when we have abandoned God; Holy Saturday feels like the day when God has abandoned us. Even in this moment though, the Spirit still intercedes for us, and we are called to painful, patient, purposeful hope.

Finally then, this passage reminds us that hope is what sustains all of creation within God’s story. The great hope of Easter transforms our perspective on the spoiling of creation, the waywardness of a people, the violence of a crucifixion, and the suffering of the present time. It reminds us that God always finds a way to bring beauty out of brokenness, closeness out of abandonment, joy out of despair, until the creation once again reveals the full glory of its creator.

[1] Genesis 3:17

[2] N.T. Wright: Predestination

Bible study

Romans 8:22-39

Perseverance in the light of present pain and future hope
The themes to be explored in this study are endurance and perseverance in the light of present pain and future hope. Hope is often discovered and strengthened in adversity, with the ultimate hope of eternal companionship with God the final answer to those parts of life we find troubling of which induce anxiety. Rather than fixing problems, hope offers a perspective on how problems are experienced.

Before looking at the Bible passage your group may find it helpful to look at this Russian icon depicting the deposition of Jesus in the tomb, which dates from the fifteenth century.

Notes on the painting
  • The deposition of the body of Christ became a popular subject for religious art in the East and West in mediaeval times. There seems to have been a shift from celebrating the victory of Christ on the cross to focusing on his suffering and the anguish of those who lost him.
  • This documentation of human grief and lament offers the bereaved viewer a compelling way of connecting with the story of Jesus, but there are also indications of hope.
  • The inclusion of angels and a heavenly backdrop tells us that there is more to this story than meets the eye, that there is another perspective to be had, and a better ending to be anticipated.
  • The tender maternal embrace of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes about to be laid to rest hammers home the connections between birth and death, their liminal and mysterious nature, and the fact that one infuses the other with hope.

Opening questions

  • What do the positions of the characters’ hands convey to you?
  • What are the angels doing?
  • Why are the angels there at all?

Bible passage

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Questions

  • What is Paul hoping for?
  • How is hope connected with waiting?
  • What are the grounds for Paul’s hope?
  • What is Paul doing as he weaves together words like ‘groan’, ‘weakness’, ‘we are being killed’, with ‘glorified’, ‘know’, ‘convinced’? How does this mix connect with your experience of life?

Wider questions

  • What is the relationship between optimism, realism, and hope?
  • What gives you hope in your daily life?
  • Hopelessness is one of the defining features of depression, which affects one in five people at some point in their life and can end in suicide for a small minority. It can also be an aspect of bereavement. How can we communicate a gospel of hope without trivialising such experiences?

Additional passages

Here are four passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.
  • John 3:3-6 & 16:21-22
  • Romans 5:1-5
  • Philippians 3:1-14
  • Revelation 7:14, 17 & 21:1-4
Meditation

These meditations use images from the natural world. Although they refers to the Bible and Christian tradition, this is in a fairly open way. It can be used with people who are sympathetic to Christianity, at least at a cultural level, but might not describe themselves as Christian.

You might use the reflection as a way into a period of silence or use it right at the end of an otherwise lively session for young people to calm things down. It’s flexible and designed to feel light touch but with the capacity to go deep.

Music
*Translation of Ave Maria

Hail Mary,
Full of Grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of our death.

**Lord Let Me Know My End (Psalm 39v4-7)

Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.
(New Revised Standard Version)

*** Translation of St Matthew Passion

We sit down in tears
And call to thee in the tomb:
Rest softly, softly rest!
Rest, ye exhausted limbs!
Your grave and tombstone
Shall for the unquiet conscience
Be a comfortable pillow
And the soul’s resting place.
In utmost bliss the eyes slumber there.

Art
Poetry
  • Author unknown:

    I believe in the sun
    even when it isn’t shining.
    I believe in love
    even when I am alone.
    I believe in God
    even when he is silent.

  • Horatio Spafford: It is Well With My Soul (Read the story behind this famous hymn)

 

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin), translated by Clifton Wolters

In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.

 

 

Prayer station
Focus
Jesus stood among them and said to them ‘Peace be with you.’
Action
Smell the flower and, as you do so, enjoy the peace and memories of your loved ones. Run your fingers through the lavender plant. Let it calm you. Offer your cares to God and ask him to give you his peace.
Pray
Lord, help me to trust that death is not the end. Keep me fixed on the hope that we will one day meet face to face and give me the peace that passes all understanding.


Page last updated: 4th April 2022 11:09 AM