The movement from feeling chaotic and unable to act, to being at peace with God and
seeing a clear direction
Sermon by the Rev. John Bottomley in the JDCSI Cathedral on 16 th September 2018
Scripture Lessons: Romans 5: 1-5; John 16: 16-33
Tuesday this week was remembered around the world as International Suicide Prevention Day.
The day had a special sadness for me as I remembered a brother-in-law and a young woman I
knew well, Sarah, who had both committed suicide. Sarah’s death was a source of great grief
to me, to her family and especially her mother, Jenny.
When Jenny asked me to conduct the funeral for Sarah, I agreed. But it was difficult beyond
words. The difficulty I experienced was feeling overwhelmed by so many conflicting thoughts
and feelings. I felt sorrow, confusion and anger – anger at Sarah for taking her own life, anger
at the psychiatrist who had sexually violated her, and anger at all the people who had let her
down, perhaps including myself.
Then I spoke with a good friend about my grief and confusion. I later sat quietly with God in
prayer. As I meditated I felt again my anger and guilt, my emptiness and despair. In the silence
I began to wonder if this was how Sarah had felt when she had taken her life. Perhaps she had
felt anger at the injustice in her life, and guilt about decisions she had made. Perhaps she felt
empty and despairing about her life and all of these things contributed to her suicide. As I
reflected on these feelings Sarah may have also endured, my heart was opened and I sensed a
connection with Sarah’s anguish before she died. My heart was touched by a deep sense of
compassion for this vulnerable and anguished young woman.
As my compassion for Sarah grew, I became aware of God’s presence with me and God’s
acceptance of my grieving spirit. I became aware of God’s love for me in the midst of being
overwhelmed by my painful feelings sparked by Sarah’s suicide. This awareness of God’s love
for me strengthened me as my eyes and heart were opened to receive the truth that God’s love
was what I needed to be a pastor to Jenny and her family. If my terrible feelings of grief and
anger and despair were all acceptable to a loving God, they could form a foundation of truth to
speak at Sarah’s funeral.
The movement from feeling chaotic and unable to act, to being at peace with God and seeing a
clear direction, is what Paul witnesses to when he says ‘since we are justified by faith, we have
peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this
grace in which we stand; and we boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God ‘. (5 1-2 ) Being
justified is Paul’s way of describing how God restores us to a right relationship with God.
Everything between you and God can be made right again, even when you are feeling crushed
and overwhelmed. The sin and evil that distorts and destroys our lives is lifted away, and your
life is put straight with God. The result of being justified by God’s love is you will be at peace.
Paul explains that the peace Christ brings is through God’s deep acceptance of who you are as
a person, even when you cannot accept your feelings of failure and guilt. The peace God’s
generous acceptance gives is a gift you are given through Christ’s love for you. When I
received this peace is brought to me an inner strength which allowed me to stand straight in the
face of Sarah’s traumatic death. Knowing Christ’s peace gave me confidence to face my fears
and the distress I felt caused by Sarah’s suicide. It gave me hope that I could bring the peace
Christ had given to me to what I said and did at the funeral. All I could do was be fully present
at the funeral as a witness to the hope I have in Christ. My hope was that I had access to God’s
grace through Christ who knew my fears and confusion, and to lead the funeral supported by
But Paul moves on quickly from his affirmation of the benefits of Christ’s peace to remind me
that the peace I experienced was not in any way a reward for my efforts. You may rejoice when
you have shared in the glory of God’s love, but it is an experience that calls you to fuller service.
You may rejoice in receiving Christ’s love, ‘and not only that,’ Paul says, ‘but we also boast in
our sufferings, knowing that the suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces
character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love
has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (5 3-5 ). This
path Paul traces from the depth of human suffering ends up with his testimony to our hope,
which has its powerfirmly based in God’s love poured into our hearts.
Five days after Sarah’s funeral, Jenny asked me to conduct a small service at her home for her
work colleagues. Over 20 people from the university where Jenny worked gathered for a service
of remembrance, for many of them also felt the same overwhelming despair that had first hit
me. Later Jenny described the impact this service had when she returned to work a month after
Sarah died. It was as if Jenny’s welcome of her work colleagues into a sacred space in her own
home to share her deep grief at her only daughter’s suicide unlocked a steady stream of
compassionate understanding towards her. Her work colleagues welcomed her back to work
with sensitivity and love. And this love which reached out to Jenny has lifted her heart with
Over long months when Jenny rarely felt like going to work, she discovered within herself a
spirit that has endured suffering, and from her endurance she believes she is changing –
becoming more aware of herself and the people around her. One day, Jenny said to me, ‘John,
I am going to survive this’. From out of the depth of her suffering and endurance, Jenny gave
voice to her hope – a hope that began in the gift of love poured into her heart by the
compassion of those she works with. This is a fulfilment of Paul’s promise. The Holy Spirit may
pour out God’s love in those whose broken hearts are open to receive Christ’s healing grace.
John’s gospel puts clearly the reality of Christ’s promise to lift the burden of our suffering in an
unjust worldfrom our broken hearts. Jesus says: ‘So you have pain now; but I will see you
again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.’ (Jn. 16: 22 ). A
Christian life is not free from pain and suffering. Indeed Jesus teaches us that ‘in the world you
face persecution’ (16: 33 ). Sarah suffered the injustice of her psychiatrist sexually abusing his
position of trust and the violation shattered her vulnerable sense of worth. International Suicide
Prevention day reminds us not to forget the injustice people like Sarah suffered. It reminds us
to remember her pain, and to know the truth that unjust pain will harm and kill people.
This remembrance can be at the heart of our Holy Communion today, for when you remember
Jesus’ suffering and death at our Lord’s Table, remember the truth that Christ’s unjust suffering
at the hands of his enemiesled him to the cross and robbed him of life. He was killed by
powerful people in the same way that Sarah was robbed of life by a man exercising what is a
noble and prestigious profession in psychiatry that he perverted for his own selfish needs.
But Jesus’ words call us to see past the ugliness of the world that too often surrounds us, and
point us to the life-giving power of God’s love, that can bring life out of chaos as Jenny learned,
and that can bring peace when we take into our hearts and bodies the suffering love of Jesus
Christ. This is the great gift we receive at our Lord’s Table. You receive the love of God for
you, as you are today, even when you are broken-hearted and overwhelmed as I was by the
injustice of Sarah’s death. You receive the solidarity of Christ’s presence who shares our
suffering. And through Christ’s presence, you may receive the gift of peace, of knowing that by
Christ’s generous love you have been put right with God. This is a joy that no-one can take