Lectionary – Ephesians 6:10-20 & John 6:56-69.
For the last eighteen months people have been wishing that we could get back to normal. The news this week, no longer dominated by Covid, helps me remember that normal wasn’t really all that great, especially on a global scale.
The swift and total collapse of the Afghan government, admittedly no saints, to the Taliban the moment the US withdrew was, I think unexpected only in its rapidity. Many will observe that it is always the fate of foreign intervention in Afghanistan to fail, but that should not allow us to shut our eyes and ears to the humanitarian catastrophe that is almost certainly brewing in that impoverished country.
On the other side of the world, the earthquake in Haiti was a terrible disaster, but what is even more terrible is how the disaster is then amplified by the total collapse of the Haitian state.
The problem of suffering and evil in a world governed by an all-loving and all-powerful God is something men and women have struggled to answer for millennia. I doubt I will find an answer in the next ten minutes. But its insolubility does not mean it should be unexamined.
The extract we have heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians articulates one opinion on the problem.
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
For Paul, the rulers and the authorities are not enemies of blood and flesh, but are part of these cosmic powers of evil that he knows he is battling against.
The counter to this though is to ask why God created evil in the first place. Why did a benevolent God create an imperfect world. Doesn’t Genesis tell us that God looked upon his creation, and it was good?
The Boethian view of evil, after the writings of Boethius in the sixth century, views evil as internal rather than external. Evil comes from us, from our willingness to do wrong and sin. If God has given us free will, then he must necessarily give us the capacity to sin and do wrong. If we could not, then we would not truly have free will.
Paul, indeed, goes further than saying that we have the capacity to sin – for Paul, sin is inevitable. There is no way that we can ever live up to the perfection of God, and our only hope is in Christ’s faith, rather than our own efforts. Maybe this is veering too far in the other direction – do we truly have free will if there is no possibility of us making the right choices either? Or is that we are doomed to sin because of Adam’s sin? Have we all inherited a sinfulness from that first sin, as Augustine would argue?
For Paul, evil appears to be both internal and external – it is a result both of our own inability to resist, but is also urged upon us by external powers that seek to destroy us.
What do our present disasters show us on this?
Are they caused by the spiritual powers in the heavenly places?
Earthquakes and similar disasters are often referred to as acts of God. It is a lazy shorthand to say that we can’t blame any particular person for the disaster, but creates the implication that somehow God must be responsible. Why do we have earthquakes? They are a consequence of living on a tectonically active world, with a molten core of iron that generates the magnetic field that protects us from the ionising radiation of the life-giving sun. Earthquakes are, in a way, a requirement for life to exist on this planet at all. The ecological lesson of the last century is that we live in an ecosystem whose complexity we are only starting to understand – changing any part of it has unexpected consequences on the rest of the system.
No, in both cases, it seems to me, the true magnitude of the problem lies with us.
Not necessarily directly us, in this church here in Northwood today, but us in the sense of humanity in general. And therefore, yes, us in this church today, because we are all part of this humanity.
We were all created alike in God’s image. To all of us was given the stewardship of God’s creation. In the faithfulness of God through Christ we are all adopted into one family.
And, as this week’s news makes it abundantly clear, we are all fallen from the hope that God had in us.
Paul talks of the struggle being against the rulers and authorities, who are not of flesh and blood.
For us, this may seem strange or hyperbolic. We may dislike Tony Blair or Boris Johnson, but few would say that they were not flesh and blood, or seriously describe them as part of the cosmic powers of evil in the world.
But Paul was dealing with the Romans. The supposedly divine Emperor did view himself as a cosmic power, and for Paul, he was one of the spiritual forces of evil. Not to say that Paul accepted that the emperor was divine, but he saw him as a puppet or a manifestation of those eternal forces of evil. The emperor was a force of evil both by word, in his false claim to be ruler of the world, rather than Christ, and by deed, in the atrocities that the Romans perpetuated in the name of peace. Brutality, violence, corruption were the hallmarks of the Roman empire. This behaviour was ingrained – even a emperor who tried to do good was entrapped in a system that compelled evil. It was beyond mere individual conscience.
For those that are suffering most in the world, their rulers and authorities must seem similar to the Romans.
The Afghan state might not have crumbled quite so rapidly if it were not so corrupt, and riven by factionalism. Which is in no way to excuse the Taliban, who have deployed terror and violence to intimidate any who would dare to even try and stand against them.
Haiti as well, is suffering from not just an earthquake, but an earthquake exacerbated by the indifference, violence and corruption of those who have held power over the decades.
These are not acts of God, but acts of man. We cannot blame God for the horrors that we inflict upon each other. We chose to behave like this, and to try and blame God for it is just to continue to shirk our responsibility.
But God does not abandon us, even in the worst depths of our sin.
As Jesus says in our passage from John ‘Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father’ God, in his love, sent us his son, for us to beat and kill, and in his death to take upon himself the deserved punishment for the sins of all of us. This was an act of God.
Places like Afghanistan and Haiti show us why sin has consequences. God loves all and can forgive all, but to forgive sin without consequence is to perpetuate it. How can God look into the eyes of those who are dying in Haiti because of lack of food or water, because those in authority have stolen the aid given for them, and tell them that those in authority are forgiven and bear no consequence for their actions, when the consequence of their actions is plain to see?
To do would be to deny the pain of suffering of the victims, and God’s love for the victims is just as great as it is for the perpetrators – no more and no less. Sin requires judgement and punishment not because God is vindictive, but because God is loving.
And because God is loving, he takes this judgement and punishment upon himself, to stop our endless cycles of violence and retribution. On the cross, God is saying ‘if you must curse and hate and demand justice’ then do it to me. God is asking us to blame him, to stop us blaming each other.
This is how Jesus has conquered, and will continue to conquer death and sin. In his death, he can give us life – renewed life, free from the burdens of sin and punishment.
Paul knows this – that the battle has been won and that Christ has prevailed. Tom Wright imagines it brilliantly when he compares Paul to a junior officer on a foggy battlefield. He knows that the battle is won overall, but he can’t see the bigger picture and from where he is, it still seems to be going on. The enemy are still fighting and so he needs to keep fighting back.
It is the same for us. We are saved, and yet the fight goes on. There is still evil and suffering in the world. Despite Paul’s image of armour and weapons though, this is not a physical fight. As Paul says, we are proclaiming a Gospel of peace.
That is scant consolation for those being oppressed, tortured or murdered by the Taliban, I suspect. Or those dying of hunger or disease in Haiti watching aid being embezzled by the powerful.
But we are not called to compel others into the way of peace and justice. We are not commanded to convert the world at the point of a sword. We cannot force others into our faith in God.
Paul knows this. He talks of armour and weapons to strengthen ourselves, not to defeat others. Indeed, we cannot ultimately defeat the powers of evil, because they are already defeated. Paul, in Ephesus, as elsewhere, is building a community of the righteous. Not the self-righteous, not the holier than though. But a community of those who are dedicating themselves to a Gospel of peace. Those who, in the Spirit are attempting to make the right choices. To be a beacon and to show people that there is a better way to live. Not perfect, by any means. But people who are trying to live in a better way. A Christian community is not a matter of quantity, but quality. We hear a lot about numerical growth of the church, or lack of it these days, but in our Gospel reading we see Jesus unconcerned about his disciples leaving him. It almost feels like he is encouraging it. It is about having the right people around him, not as many people as possible.
We cannot solve problems like Haiti or Afghanistan. Not directly. To even try is to enmesh ourselves in that cycle of power and abuse. What we can do best is to show the world that there is a better way of living – a way not of mastery, but of servanthood, not of taking but of giving, not of hating, but of loving.
The metaphor is apt for this passage in Ephesians, but we should not be distracted by the military metaphor. Paul himself says that we are to proclaim the gospel of peace, despite our warlike apparel.
The gospel of peace is not an easy idea, especially for those who are suffering.
Jesus’s disciples did not find his teachings easy. They were looking for physical freedom now, a kingdom of their own, the oppressors to be overthrown and brought low. That is not what Jesus was offering them, not because the Romans could not be overthrown, but because that wouldn’t solve the problem of sin. Israel had been free before. It had been a nation under God’s rule, but had rebelled against that freedom – using it to indulge in idolatry. Freedom had bred pride and rebellion, rather than justice and peace. The prophets had warned them, but they had rushed headlong into destruction and exile. The freedom of choice given to Adam and to Israel had had the same consequences.