Second Sunday before Advent, 16 November 2014, St Mary, evening

Readings  Psalm 89: 19-37, 1 Kings 1: 1-40, Revelation 1: 4-18

Preacher  Revd David Gardiner

 

Introduction

One of the great theological problems is that of suffering and how that experience squares with a God who loves us. It may surprise you to know that, although the question has been asked to some extent throughout history, it’s only in the last hundred years that it’s really been wrestled with. The great body of work on the problem of God and suffering really begins with Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Out of his thinking and writing, many more popular and now better known theologians such as Moltmann and Desmond Tutu have sprung, but they all owe much to this priest, prophet and king.

Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican priest in the Catholic liturgical tradition, one of those priests of the late 19th and early 20th Century who felt called to celebrate the sacraments and minister to people in the most poverty-stricken parts of Britain, who were known collectively as ‘slum priests.’ As such, he cared deeply about the people of his parish, and was more concerned with meeting them and understanding them and ministering to them in their context, than in preaching a simple doctrine of salvation. He believe passionately in the sacraments, but also that their purpose was to equip us to leave the churches. The work of the Christian, for Studdert Kennedy, involved “getting Christ out of the safe confines of churches and taking him where he was most needed: to sweat-shops and factories that exploit workers, mansions where the privileged indulge in conspicuous consumption, political chamber where oppressive laws are written, and, most of all, on battlefields to stand between opposing armies and say No![1]

Though liturgically Anglo-Catholic, then, Studdert Kennedy was effectively evangelical in that his faith demanded outward and constant expression and witness. It was this lived faith, combined with a strong sense of patriotic duty, that led him to leave parish ministry and join the Armed Forces as a chaplain. It was a time that shook the world, and an experience that changed him forever.

In September 1914, Kennedy wrote in his parish magazine: “I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. Here ought to be no shirking of that duty”[2]

Before long, after experiencing the First World War, he had radically changed his opinion:

“Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,

Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,

Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,

Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,

Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,

Waste of Youth’s most precious years,

Waste of ways the Saints have trod,

Waste of glory, Waste of God, –

War!”[3]

What then of the question of suffering and God? The oldest problem we have surrounds the question of whether a God who loves us can allow suffering. But Studdert Kennedy, while wrestling with this important question, asks another, potentially even more difficult one: the notion of a God who suffers. Can God suffer? Is God touchable by the tragedy and pain of loss, with the grief, anger and emptiness that it instils in us.

We are told we are made in God’s image and we are able to experience those things, but is that a divinely reflective aspect of our nature, or one that owes its existence to the world we live in, and the way we live in it?

Jesus, both completely human and completely divine, was tortured and crucified. Did he suffer, or did he portray suffering because a divinely untouchable nature would have been unacceptable to his followers? If he did suffer, was that suffering limited to his human nature, or did the divinity of Jesus suffer too?

Did the Father and the Holy Spirit suffer in empathy or sympathy as Jesus hung there on that tree?

If, as we are told, the Holy Trinity is indivisible in its nature, and if Christ’s divine nature suffered on the cross, did the whole of the Trinity share in that suffering, not merely in emotion but in experience?

There are two important God stories to be told from all these questions: God as the untouchable Hero/Champion, and God as the ultimate human, who saves us by experiencing the worst of what we can experience. Which is true? Can just one be true? Is a theological, academic truth enough when we face the reality of pastoral situation, as Studdert Kennedy did?

In the early Christian Church, the Jesus who was known and recognised was very much the triumphant Lord. Crucifixion was a tortuous death, yet there was more concern with the shame and degradation of the cross: a traitors’ death, a murderers’ death. The injustice of Christ’s crucifixion and the victory of his triumph over it, reigning in power over a form of death that was design to rob the sufferer of power has more mileage in the New Testament than references to his pain and suffering. Indeed, although Paul talks of our baptism being a sharing in Christ’s death, early church liturgy seems to focus on what Christ achieved after his death, with a particular focus on the harrowing of hell, where Christ redeems the historic dead and brings them to heaven. For the early church, then, even in death Christ retains divine power; ultimately showing this in his resurrection. One of our Eucharistic Prayers (I think it’s F) picks this up too, referring to Christ’s resurrection as “his bursting from the tomb”.

The relationship between death and divinity experienced by Studdert and the soldiers he served as chaplain was rather different.

Body

Psalm 89 vv 19-37

God is faithful and unchanging – so is this the same as impassable? Philosophy holds that the only thing that are eternal are those that do not change – change is the mark of things that are subject to time and decay and cannot last forever.

1 Kings 1: 15-40

David reflects God’s promises by holding to his own promises. Yet David is shown as ageing and changing. He is shown as the difference between a faithful but temporal human, to show the difference of the unchanging eternal God.

Revelation 1: 4-18

God speaks to us and interacts with us and loves us – passable? Especially shown through Jesus, who John affirms to be God through references to Alpha & Omega and eternity. Yet that very eternity is what theologians and philosophers refer to say God is impassable and unchanging.

Conclusion

The suffering Christ experiences on the cross has been seen as sacrificial and purposeful, but the suffering Studdert Kennedy saw and shared in in the First World War was wasteful, and caused him to change his view on it. He had no problem with growing, changing theology: he wrote that “it changes with every generation”. So when faced with a growing sense that suffering is experienced by God and humanity both, he came to equate suffering simply as a facet of evil. “The first and last enemy of God the Creator, is Death – nothingness, non-existence. That is what the essence of evil is in its essence – nothingness. Evil is self-destructive and tends to death; it is based on a lie and ends nowhere… Calvary is the revelation in human terms of what Creation is… It is the struggle of Life with Death. Christ is life and the Cross is Death. … That is what Christ can and does give, not by what He did, not by what He was, but by what he does, and by what He is now – the same yesterday, today, and forever. … It is not by the sufferings of Christ that you are saved, but by his Life-force; it is not the Cross that you are called upon to worship, but the Christ, who is the Life of the World.”[4]

Studdert Kennedy faces suffering head-on. He believes in a God who suffers in response to our suffering, yet is also unchanging and unchangeable. He sees suffering from what it is, never noble and always the enemy of God, and sees God as undaunted and undefeated by it. Though Jesus hung and died on the cross, experiencing the ultimate expression of the evil we all experience, yet he overcame it and triumphed, and through his triumph and ongoing unassailable life, brings us life. Though the blood and mud of battle make it hard to glimpse God, yet Woodbine Willie is able to write:

“One solace there is for me, sweet but faint… / … And in Me shall the dead arise.”[5]

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1]Walters, Kerry (Ed), 2008 After War, is Faith Possible? Lutterworth Press: London, xi

[2] Quoted in W E Purcell, Woodbine Willie: A Biography, Hodder & Stoughton: London. 1952, p77

[3] Kennedy’s poem “Waste”, Quoted in Purcell, Woodbine Willie, p92

[4] Studdert Kennedy quote in Walters, Kerry (Ed), 2008 After War, is Faith Possible? Lutterworth Press: London, p106

[5] Studdert Kenney, Easter, in The Unutterable Beauty, 1930, Hodderr & Stoughton:1930

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