Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so our comfort overflows through Christ. If we suffer, it is for your comfort … 2 Corinthians 1.3-6.
In the Bayeux tapestry (which depicts the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066), Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s brother, is depicted prodding forward with a large spear the knights that he himself had led into battle. The Latin inscription says, “This is Bishop Odo comforting his troops” and that gives me some insight into the meaning of the word paraklesis that is translated “comfort” in this morning’s reading. The English word “comfort” is from the Latin con fortis — “with strength” — just as “encouragement” — the other English word that is a good translation of paraklesis — means, quite literally, that which puts courage into someone. Paraklesis is what someone whom you have called to stand alongside you in your adversity (that’s the root meaning of paraklesis — “to call alongside”) imparts to you so that you are able you to keep going through the trial or the suffering or the difficulty that might otherwise cause you to give up.
That “someone” standing alongside every Christian in his or her afflictions is, says Paul, “God”; and he is the God of “all comfort”. He is the supreme Comforter! We tend to think of that title as belonging only to the Holy Spirit — “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter [parakletos], that he may abide with you for ever; the Spirit of truth (John 14.16-17 KJV) — but no, the Holy Spirit is another Comforter: Jesus himself and the Father are Comforters too. The entire godhead is the source from which all encouragement flows; the source of everything that keeps me going, whether it be a gentle word, an arm round the shoulder, or a prodding spear! But the clear teaching here is that Father, Son and Holy Spirit channel their comfort to me through others who have been through similar trials, and then do the same thing to others through me. Indeed, Paul seems to be saying, in the words with which this morning’s passage ends, that the comfort of others is one of the reasons why Christians are allowed to suffer. In suffering they experience God’s comfort and are then (and only then?) in a position where they can pass on real comfort … comfort that goes way beyond mere insubstantial and ineffectual expressions of sympathy.
Robert and Dawn Critchley wrote the lovely song “What a Faithful God” which has this as its final verse …
Lord, all sovereign,
granting peace from heaven,
let me comfort those who suffer
with the comfort You have given.
I will tell of Your great love
for as long as I live,
singing what a faithful God have I.
What a lot of people who sing those words do not know is that they were written in the days of heartbreak that followed after their newborn son, Gideon John, had died in their arms. Their song is a deliberate echo of Paul’s words in this morning’s reading.