Sunday 15 June 2008

God suffers with us in Jesus!

1. Sickness brings patience, patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope.

If you’ve ever been to the Galway Clinic, you’ve most likely seen these words, written on the wall in the reception area close to the chapel, and attributed to St Paul. When I first saw them, I thought what a strange thing to write on the wall of a hospital. If I were sick - in pain, frightened, suffering – I think I would rather resent the suggestion that I should display the virtues of patience, perseverance and hope. I would much rather someone just made my suffering go away!

These words are of course a variant translation of Paul’s words in his Epistle to the Romans, which we have just heard. ‘But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

Now we all know about suffering – to some degree or another it is a part of our common experience as human beings. And surely suffering is a bad thing, a manifestation of evil within the world. I don’t mean pain. Pain can be a good thing, when for instance it teaches us as children not to put our hands in the fire. And a little pain can even be pleasurable, like the slight ache I get when I’ve done a couple of hours hard digging in the garden. Suffering is more a psychological torment that comes from feeling bereft, out of control, in danger, unloved, hopeless, only sometimes from unremitting pain. Suffering drives us to forget everything and everybody else around us in our rage to be rid of it. Suffering is evil.

So how can Paul possibly ask us to ‘boast in our sufferings’? Doesn’t that sound a bit like glorying in something evil? Today I want to try and tease out some thoughts about suffering.

2. First let’s think about the causes of suffering.

Much of the suffering that we see about us and experience ourselves is caused directly or indirectly by you and by me, and by other human beings. The wholesale suffering caused by war, oppression and famine is driven by human greed and thoughtlessness. What you might call retail suffering, from hurtful words to a loved one up the scale to violence, rape and murder, are caused by individual people like us not living up to God’s loving message, expressed by Jesus when he summarised the Law - ‘You shall love the Lord your God, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. This suffering is the result of human sin. We are moral beings, souls, who know the difference between right and wrong. Yet we know too how we seem to be drawn to do what we know to be wrong or not to do what we know is right. We seem to be born that way - theologians call it original sin. We are all sinners, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus assures us that our loving-father God will forgive us if we truly repent.

But there’s an awful lot of suffering in this world which we really can’t trace back in this way to human sin. I’m thinking for instance of the suffering caused recently by the cyclone in Myanmar/Burma, and the earthquakes in Szechwan in China. I’m thinking of the suffering caused by illness and disease, for instance by viruses and cancers. And I’m thinking about the suffering caused by the fact of death – each one of us must face up to the fact that in the long run death will separate us from all that we know and love. All of this suffering seems to be due to the working out of the natural laws of physics, chemistry, biology, in the universe created by almighty God.

3. As Christians we believe our God is both almighty and loving.

But surely if God were really both, he would not allow such a burden of suffering to exist. He would not have made us humans subject to original sin, we would always be perfectly good, and we would never cause others to suffer. He would have created a universe in which natural disasters and disease were absent, and where we would be immortal. Therefore, some say, if God exists he can’t be both: if God is almighty he can’t always be loving, and if God is always loving he can’t be almighty.

This is known as the Problem of Suffering, or the Problem of Evil, and it has been debated by philosophers and theologians since time immemorial. I think the apparent paradox at the heart of it is something that prevents many thoughtful, caring people from accepting our Christian view of God. So how can we as Christians resolve it?

Many Christians, using an argument first made by St Irenaeus in the C2nd, suggest that God made us with free will, and therefore capable of sin which causes suffering, because only that way could we be souls, moral beings made in his image, capable of freely choosing good.

More recently others have extended the argument to suggest that it may be logically necessary for God to establish the universe with the natural laws it has, in order that beings like us can emerge who are free to choose to love. And surely a universe without freely given love but without suffering would be worse than one with both. One such is the eminent physicist John Polkinghorne, who is also an Anglican priest.

These are only speculations, and there are many others, which you can accept or not. But for myself, I think that I must accept as a Christian, with all humility, that I just do not know why God has made both human-kind and the universe such that suffering exists. I believe God is both almighty and loving, so I must also believe that he had sufficient reason to do so. But what that reason is is hidden from me. There is so much that is hidden from us, at least for now!

4. The Romans would have understood Paul’s reference to ‘our sufferings’ to mean their persecution.

Scholars say the letter was probably written by Paul around AD55. The Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome in AD49, ‘because the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus’, a likely misspelling of Christus, Christ. No doubt the authorities continued to make life difficult for the early Christians, and we know that in AD64 Nero was able to scapegoat them for starting the great fire during which he fiddled.

The way human psychology works, groups who are persecuted tend to be strengthened by it. No doubt these persecuted early Christians were proud of the endurance, character and hope they showed under persecution. I don’t think we should take the word ‘boast’ too seriously. No doubt Paul skilfully drew on their pride to get them to listen to his difficult theological message. But I don’t think in the context we can accuse Paul of glorying in something evil.

Rather I think what is important is to see what we can learn from Paul’s message.

5. What St Paul is teaching us, I think, is that God suffers with us in the person of Jesus.

As he puts it, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. Jesus, with perfect obedience to his loving father God, suffered a cruel death on the cross in order to show us all how to deal with the suffering and death which every one of us will know.

‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, Paul says, just as Jesus promised us. It is this love which gives us the character to endure suffering, and never lose hope.

Our Christian hope is that by God’s grace our faith will justify us – that is our faith will put us in the right relationship with God – and so bring us ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

God sent us his son, Jesus, to ‘proclaim() the good news of the kingdom’, as Matthew’s Gospel has it, and to show us his way of eternal life. He is always full of compassion for those who suffer.

How amazing it is that almighty God should make such a gesture of loving solidarity toward sinful people like you and me!

How comforting we find that solidarity when we ourselves suffer!

Let us thank God for expressing his solidarity with us in the life and mission, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday 8 June 2008

Grace & Faith

1. Born in Africa, Munster by the grace of God!

This was the slogan on the T-shirt worn by a young Ghanaian Munster supporter in Cardiff when they played and beat Toulouse in the Heineken cup there recently. It made me laugh, but it also got me thinking about the grace of God.

In today’s epistle reading (Romans 4:13-25), St Paul argues that God’s promise to human beings, that we will be justified through Jesus’s death and resurrection, depends only on God’s grace and the faith in God it evokes in us, and not on our vain human attempts to follow God’s law, in other words our trying to be good. And to make his point Paul uses the old familiar Israelite story of how God blessed Abraham and his wife Sarah (Genesis 12:1-9), promising to them ‘I will make of you a great nation’.

It is rather difficult stuff; at least I find it so. And Christians have often bitterly disputed the relationship between God’s grace, God’s law and our faith in God. It was a central theme of the Reformation, and still causes disputes to this day. So I think it might be useful to try and tease out Paul’s argument about grace, law and faith.

2. First let us refresh our memories about the story of Abraham and Sarah

It is indeed a very old story. It is really the foundation myth of the people of Israel. Most cultures have foundation myths of some kind. We do too: the ancient Irish claimed descent from Milesius King of Spain as the mythical founder of Celtic Ireland through his sons who invaded and dispossessed the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through an O’Brien ancestor I can claim descent from Milesius through Brian Boru. Most of you probably can too, however dodgy the genealogy is!

In the small part of the story we heard today, God tells Abraham ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.’ Abraham obeys, and when he gets to the land of Canaan, God tells him ‘To your offspring I will give this land.

You may have noticed that in the passage Abraham was called Abram and his wife Sarah, Sarai – God renamed them later on, when he made a covenant with Abraham, renewing his promise and establishing male circumcision of Abraham and his descendents as a sign of it.

Later on we learn that Sarah, who was Abraham’s half-sister by a different mother, couldn’t conceive. Perhaps their consanguinity had something to do with it. So how is Abraham to have children and fulfil God’s promise? Sarah sees a way: she persuades Abraham to take her slave-girl Hagar as a surrogate mother, and Hagar gives birth to a boy called Ishmael, when Abraham is 86 – Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arab people in both Jewish and Islamic tradition.

But, we are told, this is not how God intended to keep his promise to Abraham. God tells Abraham that the promise will be kept through Sarah. Through all this long saga - there’s much more of it than I’ve covered, it’s well worth going back to Genesis and reading the whole story – Abraham never gives up his faith that God will fulfil his promises, and at long last Sarah conceives and gives birth, when he is 99 and she is 90. Sarah expresses her delight in beautiful words, saying ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’ Her son Isaac is the father of Jacob, also called Israel, and the ancestor of the Jewish people.

Now I can’t for one minute believe that Sarah was really 90 when she gave birth to Isaac. But then I don’t think we should treat the story as if it were history: we have to accept it for what it is, a myth. Myths usually contain a nugget of truth. The nugget of truth within the myth is surely that the Israelites looked back to founders who were not particularly good people, but who cultivated a strong relationship with a God who promised them so much, and who believed whole heartedly that God’s promises would be kept.

3. Now let us examine Paul’s argument

Firstly Paul argues that the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendents the Jews in the old story can have had absolutely nothing to do with obeying God’s law – the Jewish law. After all, the law was given to the Israelites by Moses, long after Abraham’s time. For Abraham there was no law, so there could be no violation of the law, and no wrath, no punishment for breaking it.

Religious Jews were asking then, as religious people still do, How can we enter into the right relationship with God in order to inherit God’s promise? Their answer was that we can do this by earning merit in the sight of God by obeying God’s law, in other words by being good people, by doing good works. It is all up to us – God will only fulfil his promise if we merit it. Paul saw with great clarity that this could not be true: no one could fully keep the law, so if God’s promise depends on keeping the law, the promise can never be fulfilled.

So on what did the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham depend? Paul’s answer is that it depended on Abraham’s faith, on his unshakeable belief and trust that God would fulfil his promise. Abraham continued to believe in God’s promise, even when he grew old, and even when Sarah was clearly unable to have children. His faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’; that is it was his faith that put him in a right relationship with God.

There are two Greek words for a promise. Huposcheisis is a promise on condition: if you do this, I will do that. Paul uses the other, Epaggelia, which is an unconditional promise out of the goodness of ones heart, such as a father or mother might use when promising to love their children no matter what they do. Fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham was not earned by his good works, it was given freely by God’s grace, it was unmerited. All Abraham had to do was believe it.

And finally Paul argues that this applies to us as Christians, in just the same way as it did for Abraham. If we only have faith in the God who raises Jesus from the dead, he will reckon us to be righteous. We will be justified by God’s grace through Jesus’s death and resurrection. We will find ourselves in a right relationship with God, and we too will experience God fulfilling his promise, just as Abraham did.

That is what the grace of God means: it is the favour that God has showered on all of us human kind without our doing anything to earn it – the wonder of creation, our loving relationships, our capacity for happiness, our very lives – and our salvation, in the sense that God has shown us how to recover from our innate propensity to sin, to receive forgiveness. The Greek word translated as grace is charis (χαρις), which literally means "that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness".

4. Another way to look at all this perhaps is through the prism of psychology.

When I was a child, I was just as naughty as every other little boy. I was wilful, I often did not do as I was told, and could be quite nasty, particularly to my baby brother when he annoyed me. But rather than expecting more of me than I was capable of, and punishing me unmercifully when I did not live up to their hopes, my parents always cherished me. They let me know they were sad when I was bad, but they also let me know that I could rely on their loving me whatever I did. Their unconditional love showed me how to love back, and as I grew up, I learned from their example how to distinguish right from wrong.

Perhaps this is the way that God works with us. God does not expect more of us than we are capable of. He does not punish us unmercifully when we break his law and do not behave as we should. Rather he promises us unconditional love, which we experience as God’s grace. And when we respond in faith, and learn from his example, we become more like the people he wants us to be. God’s kingdom comes that little bit closer.

5. So let us pray that we may respond in faith to God’s grace, let us pray that we may receive the fullness of his promise, and let us pray that we may be led by it to understand and obey his loving law.

And if you’re a Munster supporter, and their victory affords you joy, pleasure and delight, you can reckon it as yet another manifestation of God’s overwhelming grace!