It’s getting better all the time

shutterstock4mccormack-300_1

It’s getting better all the time
Or the Lord will fulfil his promise to Israel
a sermon for Advent I

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

1 Thessalonians 3:9,11-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

“We are all going to hell in a hand cart.”

“This country is going to the dogs.”

“Things aren’t what they used to be.”

In a survey run by YouGov, 71% of respondents said they thought the world was getting worse, and only 5% said that is was getting better. But what’s the reality of the situation?

Jesus instructs us to pay attention to the signs of the times “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” So what does the metaphorical fig tree look like today?

Is the world getting worse?  How should we measure it?  Examining the rise (or fall) of Violence and Poverty could help us see the truth of the matter.

1.4 billion people on the planet today are living in extreme poverty.  (The World Bank defines extreme poverty as life on less than $1.25/day.)

Extreme poverty and its related causes kill nearly 10 million people every year, mostly women and children.  Or to put it another way 1000 people die from extreme poverty every hour.  The horrendous attacks by terrorists are shocking and grab the headlines, but in actual fact extreme poverty is the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.

To give us some perspective: the Second World War was the deadliest war in human history. If we take a sample nine year period around and including the war, approximately 70 million people were killed.  Yet over the last nine years, extreme poverty has killed more than 90 million people, and it continues to kill 10 million more each year.

Extreme poverty means a deprivation of most of life’s most basic necessities and opportunities: no clean water, no sanitation, no housing or very limited shelter, high infant mortality, high maternal mortality, chronic malnutrition, and poor or no health care.  Schooling is an unaffordable luxury.

What can we do?  I wonder if that makes you feel helpless?

Nothing can be done, our work for Christian Aid and with our monthly appeals are just us sitting like the deluded King Canute defying the inevitable tide.

It’s tempting to believe that.  But it’s a lie.  And a dangerous lie.  Not only can something be done, it has been being done and at an accelerating rate over the past several decades.

100 years ago, most people in the world lived in extreme poverty. If there was a bad harvest,   someone in your family would die.

In 1990 only 34% of the world lived in extreme poverty. 66% of humanity had left extreme poverty.

By 2005 only 22% of humanity lived in extreme poverty. 81% of humanity had left extreme poverty.

Today less than 20% of the human race lives in extreme poverty.

But this did not happen by chance, this was not inevitable.  This happened because people like you knock on doors for Christian Aid once a year.  This happened because people like you give to our monthly Majority World Appeal.  This happened because people like you write to your M.P. and ask that we don’t cut our International Aid budget in this age of austerity.

This happened because people like you work to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

But Jesus tells us to be alert, to read the signs of the times and keep on working.  We must keep working, because there is still a lot to be done.

24,000 people continue to die every day because of extreme poverty. Our optimism alone will not help those whose lives are threatened by extreme poverty – we need to continue our work.

That is Poverty – we have work to do, but also every reason for optimism.  What about violence.  We live with an increased terror threat.  Is the world more violent than ever before?

At the start of this year I read the book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Decline” by Stephen Pinker.  It’s the most inspiring book I’ve read in a decade.  Pinker argues that a smarter, more educated world is becoming more peaceful in several statistically significant ways. His findings are academically rigorous using examinations of graveyards, surveys and historical records.

Here are some of his statistics: The number of people killed in battle – calculated per 100,000 population – has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries as civilisations have evolved.

Before there were organised countries, battles killed on average more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. In 19th century France, it was 70. In the 20th century with two world wars and a few genocides, it was 60.  Today battlefield deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.

The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008.

There were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to about 25 now.

Pinker says one of the main reasons for the drop in violence is that we are smarter. IQ tests show that the average teenager is smarter with each generation. The tests are constantly adjusted to keep average at 100, and a teenager who now would score a 100 would have scored a 118 in 1950 and a 130 in 1910. So this year’s average kid would have been a near-genius a century ago. And that increase in intelligence translates into a kinder, gentler world, Pinker says.

“As we get smarter, we try to think up better ways of getting everyone to turn their swords into plowshares at the same time,” Pinker said in an interview. “Human life has become more precious than it used to be.”

The traditional view of Advent is that as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem we also prepare for the Second Coming of Christ – “in the clouds in glory.”

We may no longer believe in a supernatural vision of Jesus coming back to rescue us from Armageddon, but the belief that the Kingdom will come, the belief. that there is hope for humanity, the belief that good will ultimate triumph over evil, the belief that poverty can end, that we can make wars cease – this is what we need to take into our heart this Advent

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Advertisements

Christ the King 2015

Daniel 7.9-10;13-14
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Revelation 1.4-8
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 18.33-42
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 

Today is the feast of Christ the King.  By a fluke of the rota Margaret has preached on this Sunday for three years in a row!  While Margaret Is now quite an expert on the subject, she did ask to have Christ the King off this year.

I promise you (and Margaret) that it is coincidental that it’s pure chance that placed her on this Sunday three times in a row, but I have to confess that I do struggle with the celebration of “Christ the King.” I’ve never been happy with the idea of monarchy.  I was lucky enough to be brought up by a mother who would regularly tell me that I could ‘be whatever I wanted to be’ in life.  I was the first person in my family to go to university, and although my mother may have preferred I took Business Studies rather than Theology, she was very proud.

But some jobs are closed to all of us here regardless of our skills and expertise and qualifications and talent…

Monarchy is one of those jobs.

The hereditary principle seems unfair to my Lefty principles, but I can understand how someone who works hard wants to pass on the benefits of their labours to their children…

However, today’s monarchs tend to be descended from the most brutal and scheming bullies from ages past.  Study history if you doubt it.

If you look at the Bible you can see how, through the thousand years it took to write the text, the vision of God develops:

I’m over-simplifying, but basically –

  • when the nation were made up of nomads God was one among many local gods, their provider and guide.
  • When they were ruled over by Kings God was the Great King.
  • When the nation was in moral and political turmoil God was the great Judge and righter-of-wrongs,
  • and then Jesus adds the idea of God as a loving Father.

Surely too much emphasis on Christ as “King” is a backward step in our understanding of God and one that alienates republicans…?

Can we make sense of this celebration for today?  Let’s start with this morning’s reading, where we find our King on the cross.  Our King seems to have been executed, as a King, but without ever having ruled a Kingdom.  He had a handful of men and women who followed him closely – though these were made up of illiterate fishermen, political agitators, collaborators with Rome and prostitutes – not a Title or public school education between them; and scarcely a penny to rub together.  Jesus also moved in larger circles than these: crowds turned up to hear him speak.  Again, here the crowds were not the scrubbed and polished folk that come for Royal visits today:  the sick, the leperous, the mentally ill, the poor and the outcast came to hear.  I think it was Billy Connolly who said that the Queen must think that the whole world smells of fresh paint, because wherever she goes, the day before the decorators were in, making the place spick and span for her Highness.  Jesus did not visit newly opened business centres and shopping malls, he preached on hillsides and on the shores of lake Galilee.  The crowds were not sycophantic social-climbers, they came to be impressed by the new teacher in town, they felt no need to impress him.  They were fickle, and would call for his crucifixion in time.  Definitely no trappings of a Monarch as we would understand them.

For these, and some of the reasons I opened with, many modern Christians shy away from the language of ‘Kings’ of ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Majesty’.  A popular prayer book (which we used to use for Morning Prayer here each day) includes the line ‘Oh Lord, our Governor’.  To call God ‘Governor’ is a perfectly acceptable interpretation, but it sounds unfamiliar, and strange.  Some modern prayer books go further.  The idea of ‘Kingdoms’ is too undemocratic for this age of ‘constitutional reform’.  In some prayer books the ‘Kingdom of God’ becomes the ‘Realm of God’, or even the ‘Commonwealth of God’.

This squeamishness about the language of ‘Kingship’ is not without foundation in the Gospels.  Jesus does not claim the title ‘King’, the nearest equivalent to ‘Christ the King’ in the Gospels is ‘Jesus the Messiah’.

‘Messiah’ was the term used for Israel’s deliverer.  The nation of Israel had suffered a series of occupations:  Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman.  They awaited a deliverer – a Messiah.  It is clear that Jesus saw himself as a ‘Messiah’, but his attitude to the title is interesting.

If we read carefully through the Gospels, and in particular Mark’s Gospel – the first to be written – we find that Jesus seems to shy away even from the title Messiah.  When the demons possessing a demoniac recognise Jesus as a Messiah, Jesus commands them to be silent.  When Jesus heals, he often also enjoins the healed, and witnesses, to secrecy.  The leper is commanded to go to the Temple to be declared clean, but to ‘tell no one’.

It seems strange that a Messiah should want to spend his life incognito.  But Jesus’ reasoning becomes clear when we remember what was expected from a Messiah.  The Messiah was to bring political freedom and independence to Israel.  The Messiah would vanquish the occupying armies, and establish a Kingdom that would sit in judgment over all the other nations of the world.

A Messiah would be the most powerful person who ever lived.  A mighty warrior, an inspired leader, a Monarch beyond compare.

Jesus was certainly a Messiah, but his idea of what Messiahship was all about was so different from the understanding of Messiahship of those around him, that he avoided the very word.  If Jesus had stood on the hillside and shouted ‘I am your Messiah’, he would have been instantly surrounded by zealots and agitators, ready to riot and cause mayhem to overthrow the Roman overlords.  Not long after the revolutionaries had thronged to his side, the Roman authorities would step in, and a premature crucifixion would have followed.

If we look at the titles that Jesus himself preferred to be called rather than ‘Messiah’, we find that he refers to himself as ‘the son of man’ – an elaborate phrase for ‘I’ – or ‘this mother’s son’ is the nearest equivalent that I can think of.

The way of Jesus was not the way of merely political power – he did not impose his Kingdom on anyone.  He talked to whoever would listen.  The citizens of his Kingdom were volunteers, inspired by his teaching.  The power of his Kingdom was not the ability to force obedience, to control vast numbers of citizens; the power of the Kingdom of God was, and is, the power of love.

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love.  When that is said ‘the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love’ it seems very nice and cosy.  It would seem like it is unalloyed joy to enter this Kingdom.  But remember our reading – The King of this Kingdom is executed on a cross.  There is tragedy in the very nature of love.  We are called to love God, love ourselves, and to love others.  If we truly try to love others we will be hurt.  We will be hurt by those we try to love, and we will be hurt by those who don’t want certain people to be loved.  If we love the exploited and the despised and the abused, those who do the exploiting, despising and abusing will not be pleased.  To love is to be unpopular.  To love truly is to know death.  Not just the death that signals rest at the end of a long life, but the untimely, cruel death of crucifixion.

I believe that we are right to be cautious about the language of Christ the King, but not because Christ is not a King, rather because Christ is a different kind of King to all earthly Monarchs.

The Kingdom of God, is not a Realm that throws its weight around imposing its rule on other nations.  It does not vie for power and wealth and influence.  The Kingdom of God is what gives value to the cup of water given to the thirsty, it gives value to the words of kindness to the homeless wanderer, it gives value to our work for the Church.  These are the things that build God’s Kingdom.

The paradox of true faith is that it brings peace and crucifixion, comfort and challenge, it is the paradox of a Kingdom with a crucified King, a God who is a human being.

The rule of our King is not political or military, this Kingdom is of love, and those who love are its citizens.  The benefits of being a citizen of this Kingdom are pain and crucifixion, but also life, meaning, wholeness and hope.

As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, let us commit ourselves to the Kingdom, and to serving Christ our King in living, and loving, after his example.

Amen.

Apocalypse now? a sermon by Margaret Offerman

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Apocalypse now?

We’re absorbing the news of another ghastly attack on groups of people having what should have been a normal Friday evening enjoying themselves.  If you Google ‘terrorist attacks’ since 2001, the year of the bombings in New York and Washington, you will find a huge grim list of towns and cities that have been the victim of these outrages against humanity.  In Bali, Madrid, Moscow, Kampala, Istanbul, on and on goes the catalogue of places where large numbers of people have been shot or blown up by what the press, more often than not  call them  Islamic extremists.  They call their victims crusaders.  Does this mean it’s a holy war?

In the 70s and 80s we experienced bombings and threats of bombings quite frequently as the IRA attacked British cities.  On the whole they were small scale.  Now we’re much more aware of the universality of these episodes to the extent that sometimes they barely get a mention.  Analysis after the event often emphasises the alienation of the perpetrators.  They resort to terrorism because they have no attachment to the societies where they now live and which they’re attacking.  They’re almost invariably killed, either by suicide or by the armed police who close in on them.  They’re young.  They’re people without hope.

Our readings this morning were both about the apocalypse in the 2nd c. before Christ and the 1st c. after.  Jesus’s prophecy was fulfilled about 40 years later when the rising against the Roman occupation failed, the Temple was demolished and the Jews were scattered.

It’s tempting when we hear the news, of masses of refugees fleeing civil war, of  the re-growth of nationalism and its demands that we fragment internationally rather than unite, of natural disasters which are headlines for about a week and then slip out of consciousness, to feel that the apocalypse is approaching.  We feel impotent, daunted by the scale of the world’s problems.

I want to narrow the focus, since the season of Advent is nearly here.  The end of the church’s year is traditionally a time for taking stock.

In consecutive weeks in the middle of last month, the Guardian featured articles and reports related to the future of the church.  Three were negative, verging on apocalyptic.  Giles Fraser’s was the first I read.  He’s an Anglican priest.  He  argued that as custodian of  15,700 churches, many of them, like ours, Grade 1 or 2 listed, the C/E is struggling to swim with a huge millstone round its neck.  Its energy is sapped because it’s allowed itself to become a  buildings department of the heritage industry.  He claims that if every single one of these churches were to be blown up tomorrow,  England would be a much more Christian country in 10 years time.  His reasoning is that if the C/E were to be freed from its self imposed responsibility to be a universal service provider it could concentrate  its resources on its mission to become a high-morale bundle of energy,  a campaign HQ for the re-evangelisation of England.  At present, and this is his final paragraph, its buildings are so loved by those who take no interest at all in its message that it doesn’t have the nerve to do what Dr Beeching did to the railways in the 1960s.  Moses didn’t have to worry about holes in roofs.  He worshipped in tents, not temples.  And we must learn to do the same.

Simon Jenkins, whose article appeared the following week, is  a journalist and author.  He has edited the Times and chaired the National Trust.  His  headline read:  Churches can survive – but the religion will have  to go.  He argued that parish churches are the nation’s grandest social resource.  What he called ‘the fact’ that the church is failing in its original purpose doesn’t prevent its achieving  its potential. The essence of most churches is their beauty and physical prominence.  They should recover their status as the community’s social and cultural focus.  However this will never happen while they retain their aura of religious exclusivity.  Their role as places of prayer, peace and consolation is no longer relevant.

Its’ frustrating to read this kind of caricature by someone who admits that,  though he visits churches,  such beliefs as he has find no outlet in attending church.  How can he judge its relevance if he chooses not to experience what it offers?   (Though it was unfortunate that on the day his article appeared, two footballers announced that they were offering shelter to homeless men in Manchester,  and that same day Manchester’s bishop was reported as saying that he couldn’t possibly house refugees in his 6 bedroomed house because ‘it’s pretty smallish by bishop’s standards’. )

We in the C/A had an alarm call at the beginning of the year with the introduction of a new way of raising money for the diocese, no longer based on an imposed quota system assessed centrally on an estimate of the wealth of the congregation.  Instead we had an appeal to the prayerful generosity of individual congregations, accompanied by a warning that if that didn’t produce enough money to meet the needs of the diocese and of individual churches, ‘hard decisions would have to be made’.  Implicit in those words was the threat that churches would be closed down and clergy posts would be cut.  Dr Beeching will be reborn as an archdeacon.

Are people like Giles Fraser and Simon Jenkins right?  Are we approaching the end time in the church?  Would we mind if our churches became  architectural archives?  Museums of church history?  Gyms?  Wholefood restaurants?  Carpet warehouses?  Luxury flats?  Those of you who read the ‘ Nooks and Corners’ page in Private Eye will recognise these as the fates of many former churches.  I’d be very depressed if this were to happen to the C/A or even to churches of no particular aesthetic merit or historical significance.  However I recognise a serious risk that many churches are like  stopped clocks which are  satisfied that twice a day they tell the right time.   I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re a navel gazing little clique here.  We’re outward looking, involved in activities that make a difference to our neighbourhood and our world.

But it’s possible, here at the Ascension, that unless we move forward, we may not stand still but move backwards.

An unlikely champion of the church appeared, also  last month,  in the shape of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist.  He asked Lego to supply him with large quantities of plastic bricks which he was going to use in one of his pieces of conceptual art.  Lego refused on the rather odd grounds that they never allowed their product  to be used to make a political statement.  Ai Wei Wei posted this  on the internet and immediately he was inundated with parcels of Lego.  He did then make a statement:  The internet is like a modern church.  You go and complain to a priest and everyone can share your problems.  It may not be a totally realistic view of the church but it’s a shrewd recognition that one of the strengths of the church is that it’s a community.

We need to build up the strength of our community.  This can take very tangible forms – increasing our contribution to the refugees’ boxes and the begging bowl, committing ourselves to more frequent attendance at church, on Sundays and during the week, signing up for our planned giving scheme, now that we have a cashless collection, joining rotas  eg of Sunday School helpers or leaders of the intercessions, becoming a Friend of the Washhouse Youth Project, praying regularly for our fellow members – thanking God for them and interceding for those in need.  If we’re serious about offering ourselves as a more effective community resource we should be  putting more effort into raising the money to reorder the interior of our church.  This would transform our lives here and signify our intention to be a power-base for our area.  These may sound like very prosaic, small scale  suggestions and rather ominously self-centred.  And they’re not on the whole the kinds of activities that are exclusive to a church.  Rotary clubs raise money for good causes.  Very successful youth projects are run by non-religious people up and down the country.

There’s  another dimension to our life here.  We do what we do, not because it’s an interesting hobby or because we feel it’s our civic duty.  We do it because we try to obey the love comandment.  We do it because we won’t allow events to lead us to cynicism or despair.    We do it because we live with hope, hope that the kingdom we’re striving to create will come on earth as it is in heaven,

Remembrance Sunday Sermon by Richard Magrath

20150924_103653-1

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, 8 November 2015

[Readings: Epistle: Philippians 2:4-11 Gospel: Luke 15:1-7]

Anniversaries

You can tell by the colours on the leaves that we have once more come round to ‘Remembrancetide’: last week we celebrated the lives of the saints in heaven; and, later, remembered in our prayers the Church Expectant; now the whole country turns its mind to those fallen in the wars.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War; and, you might remember, this was marked by a big service at Westminster Abbey; and, if I recall correctly, the Ministry of Culture suggested we all switch off the lights in our houses, at the fateful hour, to symbolise the ‘lights going out all over Europe’.

A Poem

But there was another centenary last year, shortly before this; commemorated only with a plaque at a rural bus stop. As the papers described it: “A hundred years ago, a steam train carrying an unknown poet made an unscheduled stop in a Gloucestershire hamlet called Adlestrop. Absolutely nothing else happened.”

Nothing else happened, but the man wrote a poem about it, which has been described as “one of the nation’s favourites”, though I’d never heard it before last year – so here you go:

Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

There is apparently debate over whether or not this is a ‘war poem’: on the one hand, it was written before the War, and I should imagine some enjoy it for that charm of the last, late Edwardian summer; and yet, at the same time, the clouds were gathering (June 24th 1914), and maybe one senses a cetain tension: “someone cleared his throat”; the feeling that, if “No-one left and no-one came”, then what, exactly, are they waiting for? And, at the end, the nigh-on apocalyptic sound of “all the birds”, like in the Book of Revelation we hear “the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands”—

The Countryside

And, indeed, whenever I a walk in the countryside, amid the “willows, willow-herb and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry” I always think of the First World War.

And it’s strange: in the countryside one feels so far from London – and from all that is contingent and trending and passing away – as C.S. Lewis might put it, out of the Shadowlands, into eternal England; “No whit less still and lonely fair / Than the high cloudlets in the sky”.

And yet this eternity – admittedly, one known half through landscapes, half through books– is somehow marked, forever, by the First World War, killing men off by the villageful; the pretty war memorials scars of real wounds that once went so deep.

The Suffering of God

And this makes me wonder: does eternal God suffer?

Now, I understand this is a controversial point in theology – so I must tread carefully; and I will make three points, in ascending order of controversy:

(I) Suffering as pain

First: it is undeniable that the Divine Son, Jesus Christ, in his human nature, suffered; that he who was scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, and had no place to lay his head, felt in his Divine Body many of the same pains as those distant wounded war casualties from black-and-white photos in the glossy centre pages of history books.

And that Our Lord, who was executed so unjustly, must be especially close to those who were cruelly shot for desertion by their own side.

And Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, standing at the foot of the cross, knows the very same sorrows as those mother who stood and waited for news of their own beloved sons’ deaths.

(II) Suffering as passivity

But there is another sense to suffering: suffering can also mean letting things happen, not having control, being passive; things happening to you that you do not want.

Rowan Williams, in his recent book on St Mark’s gospel, notes that Jesus only accepts the title “Christ” when he is most powerless: arraigned before the High Priest, abandoned by his disciples, bound and handed over to wicked men.

Kierkegaard thought the essence of tragedy was suffering: having bad things happen to you, which are not your fault.

The origins of the First World War are complicated; and scholars disagree over how to best apportion blame. But it is clear, of course, that many millions suffered for what was not their fault: (except that, like us, they were sinners, living in a world ruled by sin).

When we are called upon to suffer, then how do we react?

Edward Thomas, the poet who wrote ‘Adlestrop’, enlisted in the army just over a year later. He was killed on April 9, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Arras. He never lived to see his poem published.

And some others enlisted; and some were conscientious objectors; and still others fled. And afterwards some were proud of what they did, and I’m sure others were ashamed: how we act – in war, in suffering, at any time – is, of course, immensely important.

But then, I remember the disciples fled Gethsemane when the armed gang arrived to take Jesus. And how our Lord then reacted – freely giving himself over to wicked men – was not intended simply as an example, to strengthen us in our suffering, or indeed even to remind us that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”

No: he did it to save them; and to save the war dead, and the deserters and objectors; and the French and the Germans; and the Tsar and Lloyd George; and the Archduke and his assassin and even the centurion who pierced his own side with a lance; and to save you, and the many, whatever we have done.

(III) Suffering in his Divine Nature

Which brings me to the final and most controversial statement: does God suffer in his eternal Divine Nature?

I submit that he does. Because God is love; and how else does a loving father, loving mother feel, to see their beloved children in pain, and yet so distant?

God suffered to see his people turn away from him both in ancient times and modern, when they turned away from justice because they preferred the gains of war, ignoring the call to turn their swords into ploughshares.

God suffers like the father of the prodigal would have done, to hear a word from a far country of about beloved son’s sad existence.

God suffers like the shepherd who lost one of his sheep, and then climbed out on the mountaintops to find him:

‘Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way,
That mark out the mountain’s track?’
‘They were shed for one who had gone away
Ere the shepherd could bring him back.’
‘Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?’
‘They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.’
‘They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.’

Suffering: conclusion

Lines from a famous revivalist hymn; and I have spoken about three kinds of suffering – but really they are all of one piece: for why did our Lord suffer the thorns and the cross, but that he handed himself over to wicked men, for us; and what was this, but another step of the Incarnation, when he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself—”

Or, as another famous hymn writer, Charles Wesley puts it:

‘He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace—
Emptied himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.

O divine love, that suffered so much, for it cared so much, that it embraced nearly every form of suffering known to fallen humanity; and all this that, some day, we (all of us: the war dead and the saints) might need suffer no longer.

Amen.