Sunday, 2 February 2014

Struggles with Suffering

Presentation (2014) Year A RCL Principal

A Sword Will Pierce your Own Heart also

God is here!

You’ve already heard that phrase a few times this morning.  That bold proclamation which is the foundation of today’s Gospel reading – when Anna and Simeon encounter the baby Jesus and proclaim ‘God is here’ – both in word and in action.  Simeon through the words we have come to know as the Nunc Dimitus, Anna with words of praise and speaking of all that the child would accomplish.

These proclamations, which are – Luke is keen to point out – fully the work of the Holy Spirit (a theme that will crop up again and again in Luke’s Gospel)  burst in on the activity of Joseph and Mary as they seek to fulfil the holy law and offer the sacrifice due.  God is here.  God is here in this child, in this place, in this activity, in the promise of who Jesus is, in the embracing of those outside of the expectations of the day (notably the gentiles), in this act of taking, blessing and sharing.

Just as an aside, these are the formal actions of the Eucharist – that the bread and wine is ‘taken’, ‘blessed’ and ‘shared’ – and in my understanding of this sacrament, and one I believe is the common Anglican understanding, it is in the sharing, the communion, that this sacrament is made efficacious, in which the moment of grace is present.  It is not in what the presider does, not in the words we say, but in the sharing.

So Simeon takes Jesus into his arms, says words of blessing, and then shares the truth of who Jesus is with all who are there and gives Jesus to his parents who in turn will share him with the world. 

But the words Simeon says are not easy words, not just about how amazing Jesus was, they are words of departing ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.’ And they are words which discern the end of Jesus’ ministry, the inevitable consequence of confronting this world with the reality of God, as Simeon says to Mary words which have resonated with me for years, but particularly since considering these verses for this week “so that the hearts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul also’ – or indeed in some translations of verse 35 of chapter 2, your heart will be pierced (though the Greek word psyche, which is used in this verse, is most commonly translated soul it means essence, the seat of who we are, our very being, the heart of things)
This time of amazement and wonder – there was a lot of amazement and wonder going on in these passage and in the preceding passages in Luke, was also a time which presaged pain and suffering, of struggle and even (for those of us who know the end of the story) despair and death.

One of the hardest conversations any Christian can have, and it’s one I (and I am sure we all) have repeatedly, is about suffering.  The questions ‘why does God allow suffering?’ or even worse ‘is God testing me’ or the really difficult one ‘what is the meaning of this suffering?’ crop up again and again.

The reason I put them in that order is because I think that as we move from one of those to another we betray a certain vision of God which I suspect most of us would not, indeed could not, buy into. So I am not going to answer them in any logical order but to say something about suffering, meaning, testing, the will of God and all that in a kind of messy blob – because that is what this is, messy, difficult, heart breaking, heart piercing.

There is some stuff that I feel I can say boldly.  I suspect some interpreters would disagree with me, but I am going to say these with absolute conviction.  These things are:
God does not cause suffering nor direct it at us. But nor does God stop suffering.
God does not want us to suffer.
God did not want Jesus to suffer in order to take his anger at sin out on someone.
God does not cause us to suffer (or avoid suffering) due to our behaviour, good or bad.
God does not have a plan for you and I that includes trying us through suffering, leading us through pain and teaching us by making us suffer.

Oh boy, this is a big subject, perhaps I should have allowed a few more weeks for this.  All I can do is offer some of my own understanding, using the scriptures from today and the wider picture I feel comes from Scripture, the tradition of the Church, the reason and heart that we have as Christ followers, and indeed Christ bearers.

We see in both the Luke and Hebrews readings for today a lot of reference to things which are uncomfortable for us to consider and which on first look might jar with our understanding of a loving, gracious God.  Or at least that point us towards theologies that might jar!

First of all we have in Hebrews a theology of sacrifice which uses this word ‘atonement’. Now when linked with the word ‘substitutionary’ atonement it comes to mean that Jesus suffered in our place.  Some would even go so far as to say that God demanded punishment for the sin in the world and that Jesus stepped in to assuage God’s anger and suffered for our sins in order to deflect God’s wrath from us.  That is a vast oversimplification of the understanding of penal substitution, but it’s not an unfair one.  Sin causes God anger, God cannot live with sin, sin must be paid for, and Jesus paid the price.

No.  Just no.  It’s a theology that seems to suggest that God can’t forgive without someone getting it in the neck.  That mercy can only happen if a certain set of circumstances are fulfilled.  That somehow suffering is necessary for God to love us. 

It’s a theology that can’t cope with the idea that things happen just because they happen.  One of the hardest things that Christians seem to struggle with getting to grips with is that God might not control everything that happens.  Perhaps stuff happens because things happen.  On a philosophical level, if we truly believe that God gives us freedom, then the concept of God guiding every act and consequence contradicts that idea completely. 

In my youth there were a series of movies based on the mythology of ancient Greece – Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, that kind of thing – they often had the groundbreaking work of Ray Harryhausen and his stop motion animation – but that’s my inner nerd showing… Anyway, one of the most striking images that repeatedly appeared in these movies was that of the Gods playing chess with the lives of Perseus, or Jason or whoever – moving him and his companions around on a chessboard on a whim, controlling and manipulating every move.

That is not the teaching of the Christian Church. 

It’s a view that absolves us from responsibility – an immature view that prevents us from being truly adult and taking credit and blame for our own lives.  I think it was CS Lewis who once wrote ‘God and the Devil get a lot of credit for things they have nothing to do with.’

And it’s hard to let go of the idea that a God who is all-powerful, infinite, all knowing and all loving – that understanding of God rooted deep in Christian tradition and philosophy – it is hard to let go of the idea of control, that everything happens ‘for a reason’.  As if God uses suffering and pain to teach us – like an angry parent standing over us saying ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson’. 

Well that’s a deeply inadequate view of God.
It’s much harder to get to the point where we join with the writer of Ecclesiastes and say ‘meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’ – or as another translation says ‘useless, useless’.  Sometimes all we can do is look at suffering and say it is meaningless, there is no reason, God is NOT trying to teach us something through it.  God is not getting us to fit into a plan, God is not causing suffering to teach us something.  God does not say that so and so gets ill and so and so gets rich either because of their wickedness or their righteousness, or in order that they might grow, spiritually, through the experience.

BUT – and this is the witness I find in Scripture – God is with us in all things, in joy and in suffering.  Alongside us, suffering with us, heartbroken, soulpierced.  The God who chooses to act through and in us, is the same God who is with us and in us in good and bad. 

This God was alongside Christ in all he went through, but did not make it happen in order to satisfy some kind of heavenly bank account against which there was a debt.  When we hear that Christ is a Sacrifice there is an aspect of self-offering, of self-giving that was the result of Jesus absolute commitment to the values of God and the life of what we call the reign of God.  Jesus’ dying was a result of his dedication to the outcast and the unloved, to the truth of God in all things and the calling to justice and the removal of those things which drew people away from God.  He spoke out against injustice and intolerance, and the misuse of power for personal, political or religious ends.  This was why he was executed, not to satisfy an angry God who needed appeasing.

That was why a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. Because this commitment to the truth would bring Jesus to death and suffering.

It reminds us too that as Christians we are not exempt from suffering, we don’t – as this community knows – get an easy ride because we are people of faith.  In fact if we are committed to the values of Christ then we too find ourselves in danger of suffering, even to the point of vilification and pain. 

Even within the discipline of opening ourselves up the God we will find things that might cause us pain – facing up to the things which turn us inwards to the exclusion of others, of God and of that which is best for us.  I believe that is the judgement which Malachi talks of, not the kind of judgement often held of God looking at humankind and saying ‘you are bad and need punishing’ but a judgement which says ‘you are graced, come to me that I may give you life’. In the adversarial view of justice which our contemporary society holds we see the judge as adjudicating between right and wrong, in the view which seems more consistent with scripture the Holy Spirit is described as an advocate, speaking for us, encouraging, enlivening, bringing hope and affirmation.  In an adversarial judicial system someone must be punished, in an advocate system, reconciliation and healing is the mark of true justice.

So, we come back to the opening of my thoughts, and of the introduction to this day.  I believe that these readings, with their talk of suffering and pain, of atonement and judgement, hold a very positive message behind them – the one I began with. God is here!

God is here alongside the one who is broken by suffering. 

God is here alongside the one called to stand up for what is good and right, no matter what the cost.

God is here with those whose path of faith is a struggle.  And with those whose path is a joy.

God is here, even when suffering is meaningless, when there is no reason for bad things happening.

God is here as we share, and support and love and care and speak and struggle, and pray and hope and cling to faith. 

God is here. 


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