Sermon for Eucharist

3 October 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Eucharist, 3 October 2004, Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend David Hutt, Sub Dean

“ The Apostles said to the Lord: ‘Increase our Faith’” Luke 17 5

In my experience people of faith or indeed of no faith constantly come up against the fundamental questions “Why, apparently, does God allow evil to exist? Why is there so much suffering in the world?

As far back as the book Job, the question has been asked “How can God be good when there is so much evil, suffering and injustice?” However the question has been framed it has troubled men and women of every age, culture and faith …

Those of us who enjoy singing Charles Wesley’s well-known hymn “Love divine, all loves excelling” experience a particular difficulty. For there, in the very first verse is the unequivocal statement “Jesu, thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art …” Not only are we confronted with a God who, by His very nature is good, but also the disclosure of Himself as love incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s usual for the problem to be posed as a dilemma – if God is all-powerful and hence in ultimate control of the world, He cannot be good and loving. If He is good and loving, He cannot be all-powerful and hence in control of a world where there is palpable evidence that all is far from well.

When so expressed the answer is obvious: either God is notall-powerful or else He is notlove. If, however, we are to continue to believe in His supreme goodness, then we must do so in the face of undeniable evidence with which we are all too familiar. The result is that our belief in Him as a God of Love remains constantly under threat.

And now we’re confronted with the idea that God is some kind of omnipotent dictator who is the one and only power in the realm. Once termed ‘the master of the Marionettes’, a puppeteer who controls and manipulates what he has created and made.

But have we analysed the situation correctly and expressed the dilemma accurately? I believe we should stay with that question and pursue it to its logical conclusion because there’s no religious reason to assume that God is omnipotent in the sense that He’s completely in control and is the ultimate and final cause for everything that exists.

It may well be the case that God is the chiefbut not the only cause: that the created order has about it a freedom which enables it to make choices that are contrary to God’s will or purpose. Perhaps God Himself, as the personification of love, is engaged in a struggle against the unlovely, ugly and destructive results of those choices? Does He invite us to join Him in the struggle, which is as much a cause of grief to Him as it is to us?

I find no grounds for assuming that God is unaffected by what happens in the world; nor do I find any sense in the assumption that He could have played His part in creating a world – a world which is evolving – which is, at every stage subject to His immediate and responsible control.

Why should there not be risk, haphazardness and openness in a world with which God, as well as humankind, has to engage?

Such assertions lead us to questions about the appropriate “shape” for God. How best may we think of Him and after what analogy are we to speak of Him? For the Christian, God must surely not be some kind of self-sufficient entity whose relationship with His creation is such that it depends completely on Him while He is in no sense dependent upon it. In terms of humankind, made, we are told in His likeness and image, this creator God Has to be completely open, vulnerable, capable of being affected by them, suffering with them, perplexed like them - but also rejoicing with them, participating fully in their experience, identified with them in every respect.

Now if “love” has any association or meaning then surely it is described in such a relationship. Only by an impossible stretch of the imagination could a self-existent and self-sufficient God be conceived as genuinely loving. Quite to the contrary, He would be the antithesis of love since we have come to learn from experience that love is relationship, sharing and mutuality.

The faith of the Christian is centred on a Man who was so much “the man for others” that he gave of himself to the point of total emptying. He was profoundly affected by the lives with which he came into contact, never coercive but always working persuasively, by love, solicitation and invitation. This man has been described as “a window into God” and so, from the evidence, it’s clear that we must banish from our minds thoughts of God as a kind of ruthless moral governor – a perverse manipulator of human destiny.

God is not omnipotent in the conventional sense, not independent of His world and not in complete control of everything that happens. He can only work in accordance with His nature, that is to say, in love and through love. He chooses to suffer with His world as “one who understands” and if we, His creation, are called to share in His on-going work then we are, in some sense, ‘co-creators’ with Him. Love, then, is the only really powerful thing to be reckoned with.

But what about evil in all its manifold forms? The answer is that such evil is a given condition of a world which is “in the making”. God knows it and suffers it with an anguish deeper and more terrible than anyone of us could conceive or possibly experience. This evil, in all its horror, He uses to bring about new opportunities for more love in more places and in more ways.

The Christian faith points to Calvary, the stage in the story where defeat and dereliction are total. And yet its consequence, Easter and the Resurrection is not the denial or negation of that sacrifice but its vindication and validation, as if God were saying: “ Thisis how I have to work in the world – there is no other way …”

Our faithproclaims that God shares fully in our troubles, in all times and in all places, in the beginning and in the ending.

The whole world contributes to God’s life in love – through joy and through pain. In faithand in trust we’re called to recognise and accept that all the evil in the world, however inexplicable and grim, can be and is, transmuted by God to serve the cause of love. God does not will it but He does transfigure it, turning it to a positive purpose.

Such a faith doesn’t make life any easier or more comfortable, nor does it spare us from pain and suffering. But it does enable those who live in the world to have confidence, to bear-up bravely, to persevere, knowing that God is with them, no matter what the occasion or the circumstance.


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