Why would anyone want to ‘come to terms’ with tragedy?

Jonathan Rowe, 19 February 2023

2 Peter 1: 16–21; Matthew 17: 1–9

I expect that many of us here this morning are still assimilating the news of Peter Seal’s death. Only a few months ago he was ministering here, hugely loved and respected in the churches, the wider parish and beyond.

With Peter’s death, something of us dies, too. For, in the words of John Donne, ‘No man [or woman] is an island’ … ‘send not to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee’. How loudly the bells clang for many of you, who knew Peter, Julia and the family for years, who drank deeply from his wisdom and experienced his love and care.

The dreadful news of his unexpected death came like a bolt from the blue. When we are ‘knocked sideways’, discombobulated, we can react unpredictably. That’s exactly what we see in our gospel reading this morning, where we will find help and wisdom for our own sense of disorientation.

Like us, the disciples experienced the unexpected. They reacted in a strange way, proposing to build three dwellings for the people they saw through sleepy eyes. Matthew doesn’t comment on whether this was a good idea or not. But in Luke’s account, the gospel writer thinks this is bizarre. He comments, ‘They didn’t know what they were saying’.

Then things get worse: God shows up. And they are terrified, overcome with fear. Terror is not something that many of us experience often. And for that we can be thankful. Studies show that there are three typical reactions to frightening situations: fight, flight or freeze. It seems that the disciples reacted by freezing. They didn’t run. Nor fight. Instead, they kept quiet.

I wonder, how have we have reacted to Peter’s death? Perhaps we are cross, angry with God, fighting. Or perhaps we want to distract ourselves with something else, run away. Maybe we are just quiet.

None of these are right or wrong. Just be aware that our reaction may be different to that of others.

One thing I do want to encourage you to avoid, though, is coming to terms with Peter’s sudden death. ‘Coming to terms’ has become a journalistic cliché, lazily intoned whenever tragedy strikes. ‘The community is coming to terms with’ … whatever it is, pronounces the reporter, live in situ, often just a few minutes after the event has occurred.

But why would anyone want to ‘come to terms’ with tragedy? Why on earth would anyone want to reconcile themselves to a life bespoiled, or cut short? We should rail against these things, not accept them.

Coming to terms with something wrong … is not right. Better is to consider something that we might actually find helpful: we should re-situate the wrong, get a fuller perspective, a wider view.

That is what the gospel’s account of the Transfiguration does for us this morning. As Jesus meets God in prayer, his true, glorious character is revealed. We know, in the way that the disciples did not, that Jesus’ shining face and dazzling white clothes anticipate his final, resurrection glory. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, though, will not be glorious, but involve the shameful and scandalous: death upon a cross.

We see here a truth that is not universally acknowledged. Too often, we seek clarity: black or white. But life as we experience it involves both good and bad simultaneously; not only in the world, but within ourselves. Good and bad, right and wrong, are marbled together. There are streaks of suffering in God’s good world. It means we can’t opt for either one or the other; we must live with both together.

Good and bad, right and wrong, are marbled together – not only in the world, but within ourselves.

My father died unexpectedly, aged 60. His life was cut short. Initially, we could only see the lost years. In time, we were grateful for the years he did have, including the months of semi-retirement.

Loss and gain don’t outweigh each other. The good and the bad are marbled together. But in all our lives, there is good, and for that we are grateful.

Peter’s death is a terrible shock. I will leave it to others to enumerate the blessings he experienced and gave. But blessings there were, not least in the decades he spent fulfilling his vocation here in Winchester.

I think that our experience of lives which combine blessing and disappointment is like walking south on a winter’s day: the weak sun warms one’s front, but one’s back remains cold. The life of faith involves walking towards the sun while still chilled by woe.

Our experience of lives which combine blessing and disappointment is like walking south on a winter’s day … the life of faith involves walking towards the sun while still chilled by woe.

So we don’t deny suffering. But we are confident that is not the ultimate reference point: while death may be the final enemy, the resurrection is the final word. This is what we see when we look at our Resurrection Cross. The cut-out shape of Jesus highlights that he is not there: the cross is empty, he is risen. And the gilt on the back panel points to his glory – the glory that was once revealed to the disciples and will dazzle our eyes, too.

That’s why we are able to look beyond suffering, to know that while our back is cold, our front is warm, heated by the golden glow of Christ in glory. We journey, as Peter did, with this assurance. And so may we, with Peter and all the saints, rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory. Amen.