Sermon for Lent 2 (Year B) (St John’s 4th March 2012))
My intuition and my experience tell me that people find one thing difficult above all about the Christian belief in a loving God – and that is the fact of innocent suffering.
I would go so far as to say that the existence of suffering and natural evil is the one decent argument that atheists have in their locker. Otherwise their locker is actually pretty empty.
Christians have their theories and some of them may be quite plausible in an abstract kind of way. But, when all’s said and done, I don’t think anyone really knows why evil and suffering happen – least of all me.
A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by some remarks I read in a book review in the Church Times. The book’s subtitle was Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith. The sentences in the review that caught my eye ran as follows: ‘God cannot stop evil, not because he doesn’t have the power nor because he doesn’t choose to, but because in doing so he would not be true to his nature. If he did seek to strike out evil, which human could survive?’
It was that final question that really struck me: ‘If he did seek to strike out evil, which human could survive?’ If God were to annihilate evil, he would have to annihilate us. We are part of the problem. We only need to look around to see that. We are not, in ourselves, fit for heaven.
God could indeed solve the human part of the problem simply by annihilating us. That would objectively be a very neat solution. But we’re not talking about cold objectivity. We are talking about love. God can’t do that because he loves us and that’s why it would not be true to his nature.
But neither can he simply let us stew in our own juice. That’s not true to his nature either. The Christian contention is that God has it in mind to rescue us from ourselves despite ourselves.
His solution is Jesus and faith in him. As St Paul says: ‘Our faith will be reckoned to us as righteousness’. Faith will make us fit for heaven. If we were saved solely by the things we did, we could not be saved at all. And it’s not just the things we do. Even more it’s the things we don’t do.
So the grace of God intervenes and offers us a way out – faith. Which begs the question of what is meant by this word ‘faith’. It can’t just mean the acceptance of certain credal propositions like those in the Nicene Creed which we’ll be saying in a few moments, wonderful though they are. ‘Even the demons believe – and tremble’, as the letter of James tells us. Even they may be word-perfect when it comes to the Nicene Creed. Faith is more than just belief, crucial though that is.
Our readings today give us a clue as to what that faith might be that is more than just belief.
Primarily, there is trust. Despite the improbable nature of the promises that God makes to him, Abraham trusts that they will happen. The belief that God exists is taken for granted, it’s Abraham’s trust that makes the difference.
Trust isn’t easy. But at some point we just have to let go of our distrust.
Ultimately we have to let go of our lives and that’s not easy because we’ve never done it before. When it happens to us, it will always be our first time. We have no prior experience to help us, except that, if we’ve learnt to trust God in smaller things throughout our lives, maybe that will help us when we come to that ultimate experience that is our dying.
Our Gospel reading encourages us not to cling on to our lives at all costs. And that too is ultimately a question of trust.
‘Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’. Do we really believe that?
Last month the Church celebrated the life of Janani Luwum. He died because he dared to stand up against Idi Amin in Uganda. Later this month the Church celebrates Oscar Romero. He dared to side with the poor in El Salvador and was killed because of it.
We remember them because they were prominent churchmen. And that’s fair enough – both were archbishops. But the fact is, thousands of people, most of them completely unknown to the world at large, put their lives on the line every day for what they believe in.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. For some people, like Janani Luwum and Oscar Romero, that has meant death,
Of course, Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about our physical death, though doubtless that wasn’t a thousand miles from his mind. For most of us it will mean something apparently more modest.
Primarily, he’s talking about all those habits of mind and body that we accumulate over time and that are actually detrimental to our relationship with God.
It may be that we are too attached to money or status or possessions. In fact it could be an attachment to almost anything. There’s nothing good that can’t be turned to bad in the hands of a human being, if we become too attached to it. And these things can become what we imagine our real interests to be. But they take us away from our real lives. Real life is our relationship with ultimate reality – what we call God.
Jesus went up to Jerusalem out of love for humanity. If we are to carry our own cross, as we are bidden to do, we too will travel our own unique way of love to our own Jerusalem. That’s where we find real life. Jerusalem is a place of death, it is also a place of Resurrection.
How often do we do something unwillingly or without relishing the prospect and yet, when we’ve done it, we know it was the right thing to have done.
It may be something as simple as giving more generously than we like to think we can afford.
It may be giving generously of our time to a person or a cause, when we‘d like to be at home reading a book.
It can be a small thing or a big thing, but it’s where the road to what we thought was a cross becomes the road to life.