Archives for posts with tag: free will

Sermon for Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 11th November 2018

Isaiah 10:22-11:9, John 14:1-29

Drawing Hands (1948) lithograph by M.C. Escher

This is Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity. That is the rather esoteric description which you find in the church calendar. It is also a very special Remembrance Sunday, the 11th day of the 11th month of the hundredth year since the end of the First World War. That conflict was so terrible, and the human consequences so great, that many people lost their faith in God. How could a good and loving God allow such terrible things to happen?

To some extent that is a question, or was a question, that didn’t really touch individuals. It was really about the great affairs of state. To what extent could God guide the great leaders of the nations? How could a good God for instance countenance the use of poison gas? Theologians have wrestled with those difficult questions ever since, and the answers reached have tended to argue that there is evidence of God’s benign activity in the world as well as all the awful things; that the bad things are not God’s fault, as we have been created with a degree of autonomy, free will. God has not created us as robots; there would be no meaning to the ideas of the right and the good if it were not possible also to have evil, and that, in their relations with the Almighty, people can either be faithful, doing what God wants, or they can be sinful, which means separated from God.

But that was this morning, that was all about Remembrance Sunday, the hundredth Remembrance Sunday. But what about tonight? Tonight we are looking at two visions, Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Messiah and the effect of it – ‘they shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’ – and all these wonderful new friendships, animals that usually eat each other becoming friends at peace with each other: the wolf and the lamb, and the little child leading them.

And then in St John’s Gospel we have this great passage in chapter 14, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’. I think that ‘mansions’ is far better than the bathos of ‘In my father’s house are many rooms’ – or ‘dwelling-places’, which is the way some modern translations of the Bible put it. In Greek, ‘mansions’ is translated from μοναι, from μενω, I remain – the ‘… -main’ bit in ‘remain’. It turns into ‘maneo’ in Latin, from which there is a noun ‘mansio’, a ‘staying-place’: a mansion. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century, largely by Jerome, which the Roman Catholic Church used till 1979, has ‘in domo Patris mansiones multae sunt’. William Tyndale’s translation in 1525, on which the King James Bible is based, just transliterated the same word, from ‘mansiones’ to ‘mansions’. Obviously the meaning of ‘mansion’ in English has evolved since the early 16th and 17th century, certainly since1611, when the Authorised Version came out. But it’s much more memorable than ‘rooms’, I feel – and it leads to a theological reflection.

Leaving aside the etymology, I have always loved the puzzle of contemplating how a house can itself contain mansions. It is almost as though the two up-two down cottage, in which I originally lived in Anyards Road when I first came to this area in 1990, somehow contained three or four of Eaton Park Road’s finest footballers’ palaces. If the kingdom of God is like that, a house with many mansions, I’ve thought, surely there is a strong message there, that the kingdom of God is literally beyond human comprehension, beyond the bounds of our logic!

If that was all there was in this Gospel, I think we would tend to give up on it. We would just throw up our hands in horror and say, ‘It’s all beyond me’. No one knows; and what no one knows no one tends to bother about. And that is, perhaps, Doubting Thomas’ point. ‘Lord, how can we know the way?’ What is it? Jesus answers, ‘I am: I am the way, the truth and the life’.

We can’t fully understand the workings of God. The world we live in is not one of these impossible pictures by MC Escher. Not a staircase that you climb, only to find that you are at the bottom of the same staircase. Not a hand holding a pencil, drawing a picture of a hand holding a pencil, drawing a hand… and so on. Nightmarish perfection, in which there is no beginning and no end.

We believe that Jesus was God – is God, in that he is beyond time. But crucially, he was, for a while, placed in space and time. He came to Palestine and he spent 33 years, living as a human being. He had a human family, a mother, a father, brothers and sisters. For three momentous years he went around with his 12 disciples lecturing to enormous crowds of people. If he had been around today, he would have become an Internet sensation, with millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter.

We believe that he was both God and man, because of the evidence that he went beyond what a mere man could do, most crucially, in coming back from the dead. But also, in all the other various miracles which Jesus did, he demonstrated his divine nature.

That may be a controversial proposition. If you don’t believe that Jesus was more than just human, then St John chapter 14 is not going to mean very much to you. Jesus is asserting that if you know him, then you know God.

There is another ‘dimension’ to God, if you like, which Jesus describes as being his Father, or ‘heaven’, even; it is beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless, real. I am the way, the truth and the life. If you follow me, you will get into one of those mansions, those mansions which look impossible but which are, really, to be found, on the holy mountain where the wolf lies down with the lamb.

So what does all this have to do with remembrance? In a sense, of course, remembrance is just as impossible for us as making sense of MC Escher. How can we remember, when we were not there? It isn’t so much remembrance as history, but that doesn’t make it any less real, and moreover, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, as George Santayana wrote. We could also say that history need not repeat itself, because if we know what is coming, we can avoid it.

If we look at the industrialised slaughter of the First World War and indeed the way in which the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, we might think that these great affairs of state, those great seismic movements in history, are outside the scope of what any of us as little individuals can possibly influence; but we can reflect that, just as the greatness of God is ineffable, immeasurable, unknowable, still God has come down as one human being on God’s holy Mountain, the kingdom of heaven, where ‘they shall not hurt or destroy’. The lion will lie down with the lamb and be friends. There are no nationalities in the kingdom of heaven. But there is love.

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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.