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The Ascension and human suffering1 month ago
In this weeks’ Blog Kevin Roberts applies the themes of Jesus’ ascension to he and Anne’s current journey with cancer and chemotherapy into an uncertain future, following Anne’s recent diagnosis and the start of treatment this week. He speaks honestly about his own situation and brings a message of hope for all those going through a time of trial.
Life took an unexpected and unwanted change of direction for my wife and I at the start of Holy Week this year as Anne began to show symptoms of what has since been diagnosed as advanced stage ovarian cancer. She starts her first round of chemotherapy this week in the hope that surgery might be possible at some point, though we have been told that the treatment can only be palliative and that the cancer will return in one form or another.
It has all come as a shock, and we have wept and talked and prayed our way through the last few weeks, as I guess we will again over the months to come. I suspect there may be a few more Blogs on the subject too as we process all that happens and as we take the journey ahead of us with God at our side.
What the ascension of Jesus does, as we mark that on Ascension Day this Thursday, is to remind us of God’s resolute and unchanging goodness and tender love towards us, whatever life might throw at us. I guess that’s what I need to know first and foremost.
Familiar with Suffering
The ascension of Jesus tells us that on the throne of the universe, within the godhead itself, in the place of all authority in heaven and on earth[i], is One who has lived our life, experienced our death, is “familiar with suffering and acquainted with grief”[ii] and carries in his hands and feet and side the marks of the cross[iii] as continual, eternal, reminders of human suffering and desolation. And from that place is able to “feel sympathy for all our weaknesses”[iv].
It is hard to get our finite minds around it, that Jesus has carried all of that, all of us, into the life of the trinity itself, so that human flesh and human pain and human experience is taken into the life of God and into the inner reaches of the community of divine love, the love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is at the heart of all things. The ascension tells us that the divine love is Jesus-shaped, and that the love that Jesus demonstrated in His life and in His death is the shape and substance of the love that God pours into the world and into our fragile human lives as he ushers in the new creation.
So how does this help us on our cancer journey and what has it got to say to all of us when suffering comes our way?
Well, firstly it makes me resolve not to succumb to any thought that the reality of suffering means that God has withdrawn His love from us, or is being less than loving in not removing suffering or lessening its impact, as He is fully capable of doing. It is so easy to let that corrosive thought begin to settle in our minds and hearts, and we begin to blame God or lose a confidence in the depth of His love for us.
No, if the One who embodied divine love in His life and death is on the throne then, a priori, God IS love, and all that happens to us is ‘held’ within purposes for our lives which are consistent with that love. He is never ‘not love’, and I resolve to believe that and to live under the truth of God’s unchanging goodness whatever life might throw at us.
Signs of Grace
And part of the evidence for that will be in God’s presence with us on the road of suffering, as so many of us can testify. In the shock of those first few days during Holy Week one of our daughters in law reminded us of just this point, and told us to keep our eyes open for “signs of grace”, signals of God’s deep love for us, in the journey ahead. I can’t begin to tell you how true this has been even in six short weeks.
So many signs of grace! Our three children pitching up on our doorstep, one from Bangkok, one from Bournemouth and, very soon, one from Cuba. Innumerable messages and tokens of love tumbling across the ether or through our letterbox. So many people telling us that they are praying for us. And sometimes a measure of peace that is so surprising and deep that it can only be the gift of the Prince of Peace[v].
The ascended Jesus, with the Father, poured out His Spirit at Pentecost to be with us and in us[vi]; so that the love that is in the heart of God, such love, might be in our hearts, so close, whatever suffering comes our way, as comforter, counsellor and friend.
An eternal glory!
There’s so much more to say, and to discover, but the evidence of God’s unshakeable love for us is not only in His tender presence with us in our suffering, but in the wide, eternal canvas upon which the Bible tells us that God is working. As Paul puts it, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all”[vii]. Our lives in Christ are set on a much larger and longer and deeper, and much more glorious canvas than our three score years and ten, or a few more.
It is not just, as we often too-simply tell the story, that we are heaven-bound. No, we are new creations in Christ right now [viii], our eternal life has already begun[ix], our destiny is a new heaven and a new earth[x], in new bodies raised in glory[xi], and all because God loves us!
I don’t want to begin to minimise what human suffering can entail (we only need to watch the news to catch regular sight of the measure and scale of what people have to bear) but in the bigger picture our sufferings are “light and momentary” ahead of a glory that will dazzle and bedazzle us! And the ascended Jesus has gone ahead to prepare a place for us[xii] at the table of that great Feast[xiii]!
The Future in the Present
And if I’m allowed a final thought, in God’s love for us, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, this life of the future-age breaks into the present-age. The ‘then’ comes into the ‘now’ and the life of the age to come breaks into our lives in the present. Bits of heaven fall to earth. The ascended Jesus does now what He did in His earthly life and what He will do when we see Him face to face.
Which is why, along with everything else I have spoken about, we will pray for God to heal Anne, by whatever means He chooses, as a sign of grace, a bit of heaven on earth, just one dimension, one more sign of God’s resolute goodness and tender love towards us, in all the circumstances of our lives.
[i] Matthew 28:18
[ii] Isaiah 53:3
[iii] John 20:27
[iv] Hebrews 4:1
[v] John 14:27
[vi] John 14:17
[vii] 2 Corinthians 4:17
[viii] 2 Corinthians 5:17
[ix] 1 John 5:11-12
[x] Revelation 21
[xi] 1 Corinthians 15:43
[xii] John 14:2
[xiii] Luke 14:15ff etc