I created this meme not to be clever or funny. I have simply put together two of our lessons today in one picture to highlight a serious conundrum for us as Christians. In the first lesson from Acts we read about the stoning of Stephen. Then in the Gospel we hear Jesus say that He came to give us abundant life. What? How do we reconcile those two thoughts? How do we reconcile believing in an all good and all powerful God and yet see bad things happen to good people. How do we look to Jesus as our Shepherd to protects us and make sense of a Muslim terrorist walking into a Christian Church in Egypt on Palm Sunday and blowing it up?
First a disclaimer. This problem of reconciling a good God with the reality of evil is called theodicy. It has been the subject of countless volumes of theology and countless Phd dissertations. So I am not going to settle it in a Sunday sermon. In fact I watched a lecture of Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias on this topic. He spoke for nearly two hours and still did not give a satisfactory response, at least not for me.
So I want to address this conundrum as a priest rather than as a theologian and try to help us understand Peter’s pastoral response to the persecuted Church of his day. If you are in the midst of pain I hope that you find this helpful. If you are not then this may even be more helpful because the best time to embrace a theology of suffering is before you are in it. It’s hard to think clearly when the townspeople show up with torches and pitchforks.
Peter gives us the key in his letter. He says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps.” So the Cross becomes the lens through which we look at and interpret life, especially when life becomes painful and unjust. What does the Cross tell us about life and about suffering?
First the Cross tells us that sin and evil are real. Sin is so real that God became flesh to break its power and evil is so real that it killed Him. Evil is not just the absence of good, nor an imbalance of power, nor the opposite of an abstract set of moral absolutes. Sin and evil are real. The Scripture says that Satan entered Judas’ heart and that is why he betrayed his Lord. There are dark forces that drive this world and enslave the souls and minds of men. How else would the most educated nation at the time, follow a madman into World War II, that would cost millions of lives? So if you are being persecuted for your faith or if you feel like your life is under attack then the Cross reminds you that it is not in your head. It is real. Peter’s caveat here is to be sure if you are suffering that it is for righteous reasons and not because you are being a knucklehead.
Second the Cross tells us that good triumphs over evil. The forces of darkness played its best game that week. They moved folks around like pieces on a chessboard working towards checkmate. They moved the crowds from “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him” in just a few days. They got one of His own to betray him. They used the courts to falsely accuse and condemn Him. They worked through cowardly Pilate to look the other way and wash his hands of the matter. They used the Roman soldiers to drive the spikes through His hands and feet believing, that they were only doing their job and following orders.
But when Jesus came busting out of the tomb on the third day the forces of darkness had to have known that they had overplayed their hand. The very evil that they intended had been turned around by an all good and all powerful God to be the very redemption of the world. The Cross tells us that whatever we are going through or whatever we may go through, God will work to our good and ultimately good will triumph over evil.
Let me give you an example of how I have seen this work. A few years ago I met with a young woman of our parish as she was looking at colleges. She wanted to use me as a reference. She is incredibly bright and it looked like the sky was the limit. She was accepted at Sewanee and loved it there. She made friends quickly and was thriving. At one point she made an error on a term paper, forgetting to give the source in her bibliography of a footnote in her manuscript. Before she knew it this error was blown entirely out of proportion, she was charged with plagiarism, academically put on trial and kicked out of school. Over one stupid error, her life blew up and she could not see a future.
She tried another school but it did not work out and things got bleak. She moved back home and started work at Publix. This was not the future that she had dreamed.
During this time I tried to encourage her that while it seemed that her life was falling apart, God was still on the throne and He would work it all to the good. I encouraged her to trust His promise. To her credit she didn’t call me a name or slap me but I’m sure that she wanted to because it did seem like such a trite thing to say in the midst of her pain. But it was true and it was my job as her priest to remind her of what she already knew!
Some time later a young handsome Anglican moved from California to Tennessee to open a factory for his family business. We met his mother and his mother gave Beth the job of being his Tennessee mom and finding him a wife. Beth got on her J.O.B., a light bulb came on, and she introduced him the young woman. Their wedding is next week. It is interesting to think that if she had not been kicked out of school and returned home they may have never met or developed a relationship.
This leads me to a third thing that we learn from the Cross. God has a plan. In point of fact God had a plan before the foundation of the world of how He would go about redeeming us and renewing creation.
Ravi Zacharias told of a British atheist philosopher who claims that there is no design, nor purpose in life. He says that there is only DNA. He does not believe in moral absolutes. He says that DNA is neither good nor evil it just is and we all dance to its music.
At an international cricket match in England, the man at bat was clearly out and everyone saw that fact but the umpire. But because the umpire did not call him out, he remained at bat. He was able to score some more runs and as a result England won the match. The atheist philosopher was outraged. He tweeted that he was ashamed to be an Englishman after this batter won the game under such false pretenses. The philosopher was not prepared for the responses. He received a deluge of tweets that the batter was simply dancing to his DNA. They mocked him for having moral outrage while denying moral absolutes.
Of course there are moral absolutes. There are divine laws because there is a Divine Lawgiver and that Divine Lawgiver has a plan. Evil can play into His plan, evil can work against His plan but evil can never defeat it. After the Muslim terrorist blew up the Church in Egypt the Pope of the Coptic Church prayed in public, thanking God that the Lord found those victims worthy to receive the martyrs’ crown. Isis meant to punish them, but according to the Pope, Isis gave them a promotion. God has a plan that cannot be stopped.
The fourth thing that we learn from the Cross is that it is a mystery, not a problem. A mystery is a truth that is too great for our minds to understand. A problem is something, that given enough time and effort, can be solved.
If God had a plan for our redemption, even before the foundations of the world, then why did He allow sin in the first place that would lead to our need for redemption? That idea, like the question of why bad things happen to good people, has been plaguing man since the beginning. Let me save you some time and some brain cells. It cannot be answered. It is not a problem that we can solve. It is a mystery to be embraced. That is the point of the Book of Job. At the end of the book God confronts Job with His greatness and Job realizes that He would not understand the answer even if God were to give it to him. So Job repents in ashes. Job embraces the mystery and worships.
Is there a way to reconcile God being all good and all powerful with the reality of evil? Yes. God knows but He is not telling. We would not understand it if He did and sophomoric answers like the need for freewill or the order decrees in the mind of God only present more questions. We instead are called to humble ourselves and embrace the mystery. What is the alternative? The only real alternative is to either deny that God is all good and all powerful or to deny that evil is real. Give that a try for a while and tell me how that works out for you. Actually DON’T! Just live with the mystery. Is that too much to ask?
If you have been a parent and taken your young child in for a shot or a medical procedure, then you have been on the other side of this mystery. As the doctor is hurting them they look up into your eyes wondering why you are not stopping their pain. Their eyes ask, “Do you not love me? Do you mean to do me harm?” But because they would not understand the need for the shot or the medical procedure, all you can do it hurt along with them and hope that they know how much you love them and want what is best for them. A young child can’t wrap their mind around what you are doing but they can trust you and believe in your love. That is what the Father asks of us.
This takes me to my last point about the Cross. The example that Jesus taught us through the Cross is to trust our Father no matter what. As you know He wrestled with God in the garden Maundy Thursday night. He asked if there was any other way. But in the end He put His full trust in God and said, “Nevertheless not My will but Thine be done.” Then on the Cross He cried out in ultimate trust, “Into Thy hands I commend My Spirit.”
So we are to follow Jesus’ example of complete trust. I encourage you to picture trust as a room and then enter it and lock the door behind you. Make it a conviction.
But how does this understanding of suffering fit with Jesus’ statement about giving us an abundant life? Several points here.
First it tells us that what Jesus meant by the abundant life is not what Joel Osteen means by the abundant life. To Joel the abundant life is a $12 million dollar mansion and a private jet. And yet Jesus had no place to lay His head and He had to borrow a donkey to make his triumphal entry. Still Jesus’ life was abundant because of His relationship with His Father. He and the Father were one. Jesus was secure in His Father’s love. He understood His purpose in life. He knew that as a result of His obedience glorified for all eternity.
Jesus offers us that abundant life by inviting us to join Him in His relationship with His Father. He invites us to share in their unity, their love. He invites us to share in His riches and to be glorified with Him.
Second, when understood properly, suffering has a place in the abundant life that Jesus promises because God works all things to our good. The stoning of Stephen gave him the martyr’s crown and the following persecution resulted in the Church scattering to the nations and as a result the gospel was spread abroad. Also don’t forget that the Saul who was present at the stoning became St. Paul. No doubt that experience was one of the seeds that God planted in his heart that led to his conversion. And who but God could calculate the good that has come from Paul’s conversion?
Third there is a great Southern expression,“It’s gonna feel so good when it stops hurting.” When we understand that God uses suffering not to punish but to refine then while it is not pleasant at the time we can kiss the scars. Many of you have been through things that you would not wish on your worst enemy but because God brought you through it you are better for it today.
In the end therefore I would argue that this meme that I have made is not contradictory. It speaks the truth that even in the midst of suffering Jesus offers us an abundant life. And when we remember that this abundant life that He offers will go throughout eternity it becomes, in the immortal words of the Godfather, an offer we cannot refuse. Amen.