Sunday, 8 February 2015

A sermon in response to Stephen Fry

A sermon given at St Matthew's Church, Oxford, 8th February 2015

Readings: Psalm 34,  Peter 3:13 – 4:6, 

I wonder whether you heard the interview between Stephen Fry and the veteran Irish TV presenter Gay Byrn on RTE television’s The Meaning of Life last Sunday.   It’s created one of those media storms with over 5 million hits on YouTube at last count[1]   I thought I’d play a clip this morning but I guess some people here might find it offensive so I won’t.  Here, though, is what Stephen Fry says when asked what he would say to God if he found himself standing at the gates of Heaven:  

"I think I would say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?  How dare you.  How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that's not our fault?  It’s not right.  It's utterly, utterly evil.  Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?’  That’s what I’d say.”

This interview created some consternation in some Christian quarters.   Perhaps the best reaction came from Giles Fraser who said, ‘I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn't believe in either.’

What Stephen Fry says is of course relevant to what I will be talking about in today’s sermon: the problem of suffering and the question of why our loving, just and powerful God allows suffering – and in particular allows suffering amongst his followers.   This is a question over which more ink has been probably been spilt than any other religious question and I hesitate to suggest an answer.   Peter tackles the question in his epistle and in particular in the reading we heard just now and in the reading we will be thinking about next week.   His answer is that Jesus suffered.   I am fairly sure that Stephen Fry wouldn't find that a satisfactory answer but I think it is an answer that should satisfy us and in this sermon I’ll try and explain why.

But back to Stephen Fry for a moment.   Note that, in answer to the question from Gay Byrn, Stephen Fry is able to imagine speaking to God.   It’s almost that he believes in God for a moment and speaks to him out of his desire to tell him what he thinks about the world and in particular the suffering he sees around him, particularly unjustified suffering such as bone cancer in children.   Stephen fry is angry with God for creating such a world - and anger with God - particularly about suffering - is something that authors of the Psalms – also do quite a lot.

We have, in effect, in the Book of Psalms, 156 recorded prayers.   In these prayers we can find petitions - requests for help, healing from ill-health and disease, rescue in the face of persecution from others, etc.  There is also quite a bit of thanking – thanking God for his help in healing, rescue, etc.   But often the Psalmist just tells God what he or she thinks of him.   There is a lot of praising of God for who he is - his goodness, his justice and his love -  but there is also a lot of complaining about what he is doing and in particular his allowing of suffering.

Take Psalm 44, for example.  After praising God for doing what he did to help his people in the past – reminding him that he saved them from their foes and put to confusion those who hated them - the Psalmist – let’s assume it’s a man - complains that now (verses 9 -12):
You have rejected us and abased us, have not gone out with our armies.  You have made us turn back from the foe; and our enemies have taken spoil for themselves. You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations. You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.

The language may be more antiquated but the sentiment behind these verses is the same as Stephen Fry’s.  The Psalmist is angry with God.

But note also, as well as the anger, the puzzlement on the part of the author of Psalm 44 and Stephen Fry.   The Psalmist is asking God why, when he went out with our armies in the past, does he not do so now;  why when they, his people, ‘have not forgotten him’ he seems to have forgotten them.    Stephen Fry similarly wants to know from God, why he created a world with suffering in it.   People do want to know.

But our first reading today wasn't from Psalm 44 it was from Psalm 34.   The reason why I chose Psalm 34 is that a quote from it – verses 12-16 – comes just before our reading from 1 Peter.   And 1 Peter Chapter 3 verse 13 to the end of Chapter 14 can be seen as an expository sermon on Psalm 34.   Peter is, if you like, taking as his text for today, Psalm 34 and elaborating upon it, just as I am seeking to do with his text.  

So let’s take a look at Psalm 34.  This psalm, unlike Psalm 44, is a rather upbeat psalm.  Let’s assume that the psalmist is a woman this time.   She starts with the very un-angry and un-puzzled words, ‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be in my mouth’.   This psalmist, like the author of Psalm 44, then proceeds to remind God what he has done for her in the past before moving back to the present.  Verse 4:  ‘[In the past] I sought the Lord, and he delivered me from all my fears.’  Verse 6: ‘This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.’ And now to the present.  Verse 8: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those that take refuge in him’.   And verse 17, coming just after the verses Pete quotes : ‘When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
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At this point you might be tempted to say to the Psalmist as I am. " ‘When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.’  Oh come on?   Is this really your experience?    The Lord might listen and let’s hope he does ‘when the righteous cry for help’ but does he always rescue them from their troubles?   Surely not?" We know that the righteous suffer as much as the unrighteous, and sometimes even more. 

Actually the author of Psalm 34 is caught in a bit of a logical bind.   She acknowledges – verse 19 – that, ‘Many are the afflictions of the righteous’ in which case God clearly hasn't, at least yet, rescued them so when she says, ‘When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles’ she must mean that Lord will, at some point in the future, rescue them.   Or at least she hopes so.  

So now to 1 Peter and Peter’s exposition of Psalm 34.  It might be a favourite psalm of his as he quotes it elsewhere in his epistle.   Now it is clear that Peter is writing to Christians who are suffering in some way – so much of it is devoted to the subject for a start.   I don’t know whether Steve covered this in his introduction to 1 Peter – a few Sundays back - but commentators think that this suffering wasn't state-sanctioned persecution of Christians such as under the Emperor Nero in AD60 – under which Peter himself died - but lower level physical and verbal abuse from hostile neighbours.   Nevertheless this was bad enough for Peter to have to write to them about it – possibly in answer to the question of why God was allowing it to happen.

Reminding them of Psalm 34 is perhaps a good way to start.  After that, and in the same vein as the Psalmist, Peter asks his readers a question: ‘Now who will harm you, if you are eager to do what is good?’   That’s Chapter 3 verse 13.  It’s a rhetorical question.  Pete’s assuming the answer 'no-one', No-one will harm you if you are eager to do what is good.   By ‘harm you’, he clearly doesn't mean physical harm – he knows that they cannot avoid physical harm.  Indeed Peter acknowledges that the recipients of his letter may well suffer physical harm in the next verse when he says, ‘But even if you do suffer for doing right, you are blessed’. 

When he asks rhetorically, ‘Now who will harm you ?‘ he must mean that they will avoid some spiritual harm – such as loss of faith in a God that will ultimately rescue them from physical harm – an amazing claim if you think about in that way.   And when he says, ‘If you do suffer, you are blessed’, he obviously doesn't mean physically blessed but rather spiritually blessed: in the way Jesus means when he says, in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

All this might sound over-simplistic – even just pious rhetoric  - on Peter’s part – but he goes on to urge his readers to reflect on and stick with their situation.  Verse 14: ‘Do not fear what they [your persecutors] fear and do not be intimidated’.   That is, acknowledge that your suffering at the hands of those around you is often a result of their fear of you – a needless fear – and this understanding might help you a bit to feel less intimated and bear the suffering more easily.   Fair enough.   He also gives them some further advice – here and later in the epistle - about how to cope with their suffering.
But just as you might question the apparently na├»ve optimism of Psalm 34, you might well say, as I am sure his readers also said, ‘But why do we need to suffer in the first place?’

I think we can all see what Stephen Fry is getting at when he questions why an all-powerful, creator God, who is supposed to be all loving and just, allows unjustified suffering.  Stephen Fry particularly questions the suffering of innocent children, but others such as Job - to whose suffering a whole book in the Bible has been devoted - have questioned the suffering of good people.   In the case of Job, Job himself.  

I personally think that the apparent problem with this question comes in our thinking of God as omnipotent – all powerful.   As I have said before I do not think God is omnipotent in the sense that Greek philosophers thought God was – a thinking that seems to me to have been imported into Christianity and is unnecessary.

My main reason for thinking that God is powerful but not omnipotent, in that way, is this.   Paul in his letter to the Philippians tells us that Jesus ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human form.’  That is, that God, in Jesus, made himself voluntarily powerless – like a slave.  And this for me helps explain – not only God’s saving work through suffering on the cross – but also his - God’ the Father’s - creative work at the beginning of time- and remember that Jesus was there too.   Only through God making himself voluntarily less than all-powerful could creation begin to happen.   And creation, we learn from science, seems necessarily to involve physical pain and indeed physical death.

But back to suffering.  Peter supplies the reason for why his readers are suffering at verse 18 when he says, ‘You suffer for Christ also suffered’ and then goes on to explain why Jesus suffered, that is: ‘for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God’.   And this for me is the key verse in this passage from 1 Peter. 

Now I am not going to talk about how Christ’s suffering achieved what it achieved – a huge subject in itself.   The important thing I think to note, today, is the fact of Jesus’ suffering and that his suffering wasn't meaningless:  it was for something.  

One part of the amazing good news that Jesus brings is that God himself suffers.   He is not a remote and distant God who created the world with all the suffering it contains and left it at that – as Stephen Fry seems to be assuming that he – the God he doesn't believe in – does.   Our God is a God who suffers – once on the cross – and now in response to our suffering.  And through that suffering makes our suffering meaningful.  

Peter goes on to say – Chapter 4 verse 1 – ‘Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh for us, arm yourself also with the same intention….so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.’   So just as Christ’s suffering had a purpose, an intention, so too does our suffering and we should view it in that way.  

It is of course difficult for us to fathom the meaning of our own suffering and even harder to discern the meaning of the suffering of others.   In fact it is hazardous – and can be offensive to do so.   As I said, the Book of Job is a long exposition on the meaning of one man’s suffering and you are left at the end not really knowing what it was all for.  God’s answer to Job towards the end of the book is to reassure him that he, God, is indeed God.   ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ he asks Job.   He does not explain what has happened to Job.

But nevertheless we can be assured – as Job and indeed the Psalmists could not be - because they had yet to encounter Jesus - that that our suffering isn't pointless because God has suffered for us and now suffers with us.  Suffering can only make sense, if instead of argument and reason, we gaze on the suffering of Jesus.