Last Sunday there was an interview with Stephen Fry broadcast in Ireland that got a fair amount of coverage in the newspapers and online discussions. It is fairly well known that he is an atheist, and he was appearing on a show called “The Meaning of Life” talking about all kinds of issues from his life and experiences. At one point the interviewer asked him to imagine that he ends up at the end of his life approaching the pearly gates and meeting God, what would he say to God? This was part of his answer:
“I’ll 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 is 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 full of injustice and pain?”
A little later in the interview he was asked what he thought Jesus was, and this was the answer:
“I think he was a very good soul, he was an inspiration as a teacher, but I do think that a lot of things he says are actually nonsense.”
So, why would I start a sermon quoting someone who is so strongly opposed to the Christian faith? For three reasons. Firstly because sometimes I feel that I have some of the same questions that he has. I find it difficult to hold on to aspects of my faith when I consider the depth of suffering in the world. I find some of Jesus’ teaching to be difficult to put into practice and I don’t always understand it. Part of a mature Christian faith is not to try and sweep these questions under the carpet, but to acknowledge them, engage with them, and to grow in faith and understanding.
Secondly, I think it’s worth engaging with them because I know other people who agree with Stephen Fry and have rejected Jesus and what they believe to be the Christian understanding of God for these very reasons. In our gospel we heard about John the Baptiser calling in the desert – a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. As followers of Jesus we are also called to be witnesses to testify to the light, so that all might believe. Part of our witness is to be equipped to talk about difficult issues of faith and belief with courage and gentleness. The third reason for looking at this today is that I think that our reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae gives us some clues as to how we might engage with these questions.
The first statement of this passage is critical to this engagement. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Until Jesus came to earth, God had been mostly invisible to humanity. There had been times when God had communicated with and shown Godself to people, but apart from a very few occasions no one had seen God. Up until this point creation had been one of the things that people had looked at try and work out what God is like. “The heavens declare the wonders of God” wrote the psalmist. But now, Jesus had come. He is the image of the invisible God. He shows us what God is like. He is a better source of information about what God is like than creation because he was before creation, and is above creation.
According to Stephen Fry, then if we look at Jesus what we see is a good man, inspiring people, but in the end deeply flawed because his teaching, although it might sound inspiring, is actually completely impractical and twee. I’m not sure that this is consistent. If Jesus really was good then surely he wouldn’t have inspired people to follow misleading teaching. That’s not good, in fact that is bad. As C.S. Lewis put it, Jesus was either bad, mad, or God. Paul argues for the third option, that Jesus is God, in him is all the fullness of God, and that is why we see God when we look at him.
There is a second reason that creation is an unreliable witness to what God is like. This reason is hinted at in the second section of the passage. Paul writes, “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”
This statement seems to me to prompt the question – why do all things need reconciling to God? If creation was as God intended it to be, then why would it need reconciling to God? It wouldn’t. The only possible conclusion is that something has gone wrong – there is a breakdown in the original created order that needs to be put right.
This breakdown is described in the early chapters of the Bible, in Genesis. In Adam and Eve we see our own human tendency to rebel and to grasp what isn’t ours, to choose the selfish option, to reject God’s wisdom for our lives. This choice, and its repetition in every human life but one, have led to a division between God and creation. Creation is broken and no longer is as it was created to be. As such, it is no longer a completely reliable witness to the nature of God.
So, if creation isn’t a reliable witness to what God is like, but Jesus is, then what does Jesus show us about what God is like?
Paul writes that Jesus makes peace through the blood of the cross. This is what God is like. God is not sat back, looking at creation, saying to humanity, “You’ve made your bed, now you’ll have to lie in it.” God is working for the reconciliation of creation, God is working for the restoration of all things, so that suffering and pain will come to an end. Somebody pointed out to me as we were looking at this passage earlier in the week that this is an unusual way to make peace – with blood. Usually the spilling of blood only leads to more blood being spilt, not to peace. But not in this case. In this case Jesus allows his blood to be shed on the cross so that bloodshed can be ended. Jesus enters into the suffering creation in order to end the suffering of creation. There is a sense here in which we can find comfort in the fact that we do not suffer alone, Jesus suffers with us – that is the message of the cross. But we do not only have the message of the cross, we also have the resurrection. And in the resurrection, in the defeat of death we have the promise that the firstborn from the dead will be the first of many who are released from suffering into life. Jesus doesn’t only suffer with us, though he does do that, Jesus also guarantees the end of our suffering. And this is what God is like.
So, what does my Christian faith have to say when I look at the world and see suffering and pain? What is my response when people close to me are hurting? Firstly, the way things are in the world, and the apparent defects in creation are not a reliable witness to what God is like. It is not reliable because it has been broken, and the Christian faith accepts this and is open about it. There is, however, a better witness, a totally reliable witness to help us know what God is like. That is Jesus. What Jesus shows us is that God is more troubled by suffering and pain in the world than we are. God is so determined to put an end to it that God in Jesus came to earth, to enter into that suffering in order to put an end to it. It is still a challenge for us to live in this in-between time. The time between Jesus’ work on the cross and fulfilment of the promises that are made there. In this in-between time there is still suffering and it’s hard. I don’t understand why. But, I do trust God because I have seen God’s love in Jesus. Every time I come to the communion table I remember that blood shed on the cross and I know that I am part of the body of which Christ is the head, the body that is here on earth to work and pray for the final breakthrough of God’s kingdom in which creation will be perfected and once again be a reliable reflection of its Creator.