Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Time was when August was the media’s ‘silly season’, when the news was less serious and more trivial, quirky or bizarre, because everyone was on holiday, so real news was in short supply. But not this August. There has been no silly season for Syria, or Gaza, or Israel, or Iraq, or Ukraine, or, as we now know, for Rotherham. Usually, as September beckons, holidays end and life returns to normal. But for some people, what was once considered normal has changed beyond recognition this summer. We also face complex shifts in our understanding of what is normal as a society. The economy, despite some hopeful signs, remains precarious. The terrorist threat is intensified again. Is the very make-up of the UK about to change? Just how endemic is child and adult abuse? In recent years, many of our key institutions – Parliament, the banking industry, the media, the police, local authorities and the church – have been shaken to the core and found to be wanting. The things we regarded as fixed, which we assumed we could depend on and which provided the norms to our life, have themselves been regularly subject to unreliability and failure.
‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ So writes Paul to the Christians in Rome. His message was directed at a church that in its short existence had already faced cruel persecution, martyrdoms, and, for its Jewish members, exile. So, ‘Be patient in suffering, do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit,’ were rather tall orders for Paul’s readers, given what the Romans had endured. But Paul went on relentlessly with demanding words that describe Jesus’s example to us: ‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with one another. . .’ It is worth noting that Paul said ‘if it is possible, so far as it depends on you’: sometimes, it is not possible, and it does not completely depend on us. Then we face hard decisions about how to respond to evil.
Then, going back to the prophet Jeremiah for a moment. He says God has deceived him, despite the fact he had been utterly faithful, had truly delighted in God’s word, and was glad to be called by God’s name. That being the case, it was reasonable for the prophet to ask why his pain was unceasing and his wound was incurable, like a running sore that would not heal. Jeremiah was extraordinarily bold in his challenge to God, but God took his lament seriously, responding with profound promises: ‘I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.’
Jeremiah’s situation leaps across the centuries. People still struggle to be staunch in their commitment to God through the most dreadful situations, and many Christians are supporting people through unfair and unmitigated suffering. As we commemorate the Great War, and as we hear dreadful reports of the continuing slaughter of innocent people today, of serious abuse of children, of there being more refugees now than at any time since the Second World War, these readings confront us with a sharp, contemporary force.
Few of us personally face such absolutely desperate situations, but we all encounter times when it is hard to take Paul’s advice to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. Paul made extraordinary demands of his readers, given their circumstances: contributing to the needs of the saints was one thing, but feeding their merciless enemies was another. Radically counter-cultural, and on the face of it undoable, it could spring only from an attitude that ‘take[s] thought for what is noble in the sight of all’.
Then to today’s Gospel. While Peter wanted Jesus to bypass suffering, Jesus was having none of it. He regarded his life and his forthcoming death in a different perspective, and faced suffering head-on. Paul’s final words sum up the Jesus approach: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ When Jesus announces that his future involves facing both suffering and death, it produces a very strong reaction in Peter: ‘God forbid it, Lord! That can’t happen to you.’ But Jesus’s response to Peter is harsh. The man who had only just been lauded for recognising Jesus as the Messiah, the one just appointed as the rock on which the church would be built, is suddenly seen as a stumbling block. I feel sorry for Peter: his response, as ever, is fundamentally human and well-intentioned, but he had to learn that following Jesus wouldn’t be all sunshine. It meant squaring up to life’s darker side, its alienation and its pain.
I think the vitality of the Anglican Catholic tradition holds valuable resources for facing up to the demanding realities of life in the world, partly because it is a very grounded theology and also because it views life through the lens of the sacramental encounter with Jesus. He didn’t run away from life’s messiness. He encountered public hostility, and eventually suffered a violent death at the hands of those who turned their faces against all he stood for. Peter’s outburst in today’s Gospel is a reality check on the human response to such a ministry. Jesus tells Peter that he is a stumbling block to him because he is setting his mind not on what Jesus terms ‘divine things’ – the things of God – but on human things instead. For Jesus, it is the divine things which compel us to engage with the human things. Crucifixion is an expression of that engagement, because that is where extremes of violence come face-to-face with self-giving love. Outside the city wall of Jerusalem we certainly encounter brutality, and there is an understandable desire to want to blame someone for it. In Jesus’ response, though, we encounter a type of loving that is hard, yet which is also compassionate and selfless, and through which forgiveness – in spite of everything – must always remain a possibility. Reacting in plain and basic human terms to recent events can lead to simplistic, knee-jerk and, sometimes, clumsy talk and a natural urge to blame someone – anyone – jihadists, the military, particular ethnic or religious communities, police, politicians or parents. But today’s scripture readings also direct us to the fundamental area in which engagement with the messy stuff of life — symbolised by the cross — has to be worked out, and that is in human hearts and minds.
‘Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good’ can sound like soft soap. But here is the basis of the agenda for the Christian ministry of creating community, even – especially – when those communities are racked by despair, devastation and hopelessness. That doesn’t, of course, mean that violence towards, or degradation of, other human beings can ever be acceptable or excusable, that we should let it go unpunished, or that personal responsibility doesn’t matter, but it does have much to say about how we respond both to events and to people – both perpetrators and victims. Paul encourages the Christian community in Rome to live according to the Spirit, bound to one another, and doing that with an energy and a passion marked by love and by giving ourselves entirely. Today’s Gospel call to all of us is to carry the cross, whatever that may mean in our context. It will be hard sometimes. We should expect it to be hard. In purely human terms, it can often look like defeat. But we also know that the cross – where tragedy, sorrow, despair and chaos seemed to have the upper hand – was not the end of the Jesus story. No matter how awful things can sometimes seem, it doesn’t have to be the end of our human story either, for the resurrection means that transformation is always possible, for individuals and for communities. Evil really can be overcome with good, but no one ever said it would be easy and, frankly, only we can make it happen.