Sermon for Holy Communion on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 9th August 2015

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Just as I don’t see God in terms of His being a benign old gentleman living at 45,000 feet with a white, flowing beard, so equally I’ve been rather sceptical about His hornèd counterpart, the Devil.

In St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he is going through all the things that a good Christian convert ought to do – and ought not to do – he talks about anger, in a context where he is saying, if you are angry, for whatever reason, you mustn’t let your anger drag on too long. Delightfully he says, ‘Don’t let the sun go down’ on your anger. Never be angry for more than one day at a time.

But also St Paul says, ‘Don’t be angry so that it becomes a sin: that it exposes you to the Devil. Don’t make space for the Devil.’

You will have read that the Church of England is now offering new words for the baptism service, which no longer require the parents and godparents to say that they turn away from sin and the Devil. (Of course, if parents would like to keep the traditional words, then they are still available to be used).

‘If you are angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin. Do not let sunset still find you nursing it. Leave no loophole for the Devil.’ [Eph. 4:26, NEB]

This week, rather mischievously, that wonderful programme on BBC Radio 4, The Moral Maze, celebrated its 666th edition. 666 in the Book of Revelation (13:18) is said to be ‘the number of the beast’, the Devil’s number. The programme was dedicated to finding out more about the nature of evil. Evil personified, I suppose, is what the Devil is.

What does it mean when we talk about the Devil? Are we doing anything more than just using a picturesque metaphor for badness, evil: is there a force for evil – the other side of a force for good?

The problem, which philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for centuries, is this. If God is omnipotent, He can do anything; and if He is goodness personified, pure good, why does He not prevent bad things, evil things, from happening? Why does God not prevent disasters, terrible crimes, illness and injustice from taking place?

Surely, if God were all-powerful, and at the same time perfectly good, then these bad things would not happen. He would prevent them from happening. Put it another way. If there is such a thing as evil – perhaps even personified in the Devil – so there is a force for evil, and God is the creator and sustainer of everything there is, then God must have created and sustained evil as well as good. But if that’s the case, then God can’t be perfectly good.

There are a number of possible ways to look at this problem. The first is, that perhaps it shows that there is in fact no such thing as evil, as a thing: rather, there are only evil deeds. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a force for evil, or a Devil, but it does make sense to talk about somebody having done something evil.

The Catholic Church has always been influenced by a saying of St Augustine (Letter 211, c424AD), cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly as ‘with love for mankind and hatred of sins’. More recently this idea has been re-expressed as ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. So in Catholic moral theology there is always the possibility of redemption for a penitent sinner, however awful the sin itself.
But although that seems to be perfectly aligned with Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness, it doesn’t really solve the problem. Even if the sinner can escape blame, God must still have created the sin.

Another way round relies on the idea of free will. This goes back to the Garden of Eden. We were all made to be good; we were created in the image of God, even. But we, the human race, took it on ourselves to do bad things. That decision didn’t involve God, as it was the humans taking control for themselves. On this view, evil doesn’t in fact originate with God, but just with mankind. The problem with free will as a way round the Problem of Evil is that, although the evil act may come from inside us, where did we get it from? To put it another way, if we attribute moral responsibility to people, are they really completely free to decide what they will do? Or are they in some sense determined, pre-programmed – and if so, by God?

On The Moral Maze, Canon Dr Giles Fraser suggested a third way. This was that, as he understands God, in Jesus Christ, God is not in fact omnipotent. Indeed, God, in the form of Jesus Christ on the cross, is weak, very weak. Giles Fraser said, ‘The God that I believe in, in Jesus, is not omnipotent. He died on the cross in a way that is powerless’. Jesus in his divine nature is mighty, mighty and strong. But as a man, He is weak: He isn’t able to fix all our problems – Jesus, as being fully human, is limited in power, as we all are.

None of those three possible explanations relies on the Devil. There is certainly a sense in which evil can be personified as a kind of ‘gothic presence,’ influencing people, tempting them to do evil things. But it is really difficult to see how this can be more than a colourful idea, a metaphor. If there really were an actual being, The Devil, then God would certainly not be like the God that we now believe in, the God who manifested Himself in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to contemplate our doing bad deeds, evil acts. It is one way of understanding what ‘sin’ is. Sin is what separates us from the love of God. So indeed, if we do things that a loving God would not want us to do – perhaps by breaking one of the Ten Commandments – then we have sinned, we have put a barrier between ourselves and God.

That brings us back to what St Paul was writing to the Ephesians. In Christ God has reconciled us to Himself: we must not drive a wedge between us. We really must follow the Commandments of love, if we are to avoid falling into sin, which is separation from God. But to believe in the Devil is strictly optional.

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