The Reverend Martin Kitchen
Preached on 23rd January 2005
by The Reverend Martin Kitchen
Text: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1.3
The German poet, Eduard Mörike has a beautiful little poem, entitled simply, Gebet - 'Prayer' - which says,
Herr, schicke was du willt, / Ein liebes oder Leides,
Lord, send whate'er you will Whether of love or pain;
I am content that either Should flow from your hands.
But grant that no joys And grant that no sorrows
Should overwhelm me! For in between those two
Lies sweet modesty.
I thought of that while considering two of the great events that have happened in the world over the past weeks: the first, that dreadful earthquake and tsunami in the Indian ocean; the second, the landing of the Huygens probe on Titan, the moon of Saturn.
Much has been said about the former, but it was the kind of event that ridicules the notion, suggested in Genesis 1.28, that humankind is here to replenish the earth and subdue it. It simply washed away any fantasy that we can completely control the powers of nature; for all that we are created in God's image with a mandate precisely to do so: in Genesis, the notion of being created in God's image implies having dominion.
But let me remind you also of what was happening last weekend as we came to church. 750 million miles away, a probe landed on Titan. As far as I could tell it was the size of a very large dinner plate. It had on board nine probes, which were able to send back to earth data about the surface, the climate, the sub-surface, the chemical make-up, the weather, the clouds, the moisture, the gases, the pressures - and a host of other information - about that moon of one of the planets of our solar system.
Named after the Dutch astronomer who had discovered Titan, the project had been years in the making, the journey lasting the last seven of them. The voyage had been trouble-free, and the sound of the craft descending through the moon's atmosphere could be picked up on the European Space Agency website: so you could hear, in real time, what was happening 750m miles away!
These two events, it seems to me, represent the full sweep of human living, what can happen to us, and what we can achieve; what we can do, and what we suffer. In the English language we have two, as we say, 'voices', of the verb, the active and the passive, and they come to expression in those momentous incidents. For we suffer - God knows we suffer - and stories are now around this place of people we know, students at this and other universities, say, who were staying around that ocean rim and were involved in that catastrophe. And we also act, and achieve, and bring new things into being; such is the complexity of our nature.
The book Ecclesiastes represents Old Testament Wisdom tradition gone to seed. It is called Qoheleth in Hebrew, usually translated as 'The Preacher', the one who speaks to the community of the people of Israel. Here is someone who has seen it all, run it all, exploited it all, seen through it all and become thoroughly fed up with it all. Absent from here are the high-flown thoughts elsewhere in the Wisdom literature: of Wisdom as the agent of creation, playing by the side of the Almighty as he created the heavens; absent too are the homely sayings about living the wise and fulfilling life; absent are the discourses about difference between humanity and the divine, about the humility engendered by the scrutiny of the ways of God and the smallness of the earth and its creatures. The Preacher, Qoheleth, The Community Man, Ecclesiastes, has both done it all and suffered it all.
And the message that there is nothing new under the sun, that study is weariness to the flesh (as if we didn't know!), and that there is no profit to be gained form all our toil. All that we do and all that we suffer lead only to this conclusion: Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before things get any worse; but, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.... The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Life, in other words, is a four-letter word. There is nothing to be done about it. You're born, you die, and that's it. You fall in love, and you fall out again. You make a living, and you lose it; you build, and your building collapses. Do your religious duty and have done with it; you can't escape God, so you might as well keep him happy.
At the other extreme of response to the human condition is the Blessing which starts the First Letter of Peter. The letter is addressed to a Christian community which is aware of its vulnerability. The churches in Asia Minor comprise slaves and people who are married to unbelieving partners. They have a difficult role in society, and their task is so to behave that they might convert their unbelieving loved ones and neighbours. The way to do this, says 1 Peter, is by modesty and submission. That way, people will take note of them and be moved to join them.
We don't know whether such a strategy worked, or whether the alternative offered in the same letter was more often the case: namely that the Christians were able to understand their sufferings as imitating those of Christ, so that they were better able to bear the scorn and rejection which was their lot.
But it starts with this wonderful ascription of praise to Jesus Christ for all that he has done to that community and for it. And the great paradox about being 'done to' by the God who is Father of Jesus Christ is that it makes human beings into bearers of the divine, and thus divine agents themselves.
So if the scattered Christian communities of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia have a share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, if they are to come into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, then they are graced with the capacity, not only to bear any suffering that might come their way, but also to rejoice - and to love their neighbours. It may well be that, in the words of Isaiah 40, All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. But these people have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
So they are invited to live the implications of that new life, supporting each other in their distress and waiting for the vindication that will most surely come to them.
Now, in more than one sense, these texts are worlds away from our context. The Sunday Telegraph may well have mischievously misquoted the Archbishop of Canterbury to the effect that the tsunami made him question his belief in God, but such a response is entirely appropriate, for if must have done precisely that for many.
And the hope that all will be well one day at the end of the world is of little support to vast numbers of communities around an ocean rim who simply do not understand such language; for they have in common not a religion, not a faith, not a culture, but only the stark fact of physical geography - for it is only 'Westerners' (and here's another sweeping generalization) who think that there is such a single entity as 'Asian culture'.
But what the response of the world community tells us, if we will listen, about the deep nature of our human community is profoundly significant, if we are prepared to listen. It is not enough in itself; it won't do to say that the compassion and generosity of people - in rescue and relief and giving - in any way makes good the evil that has been suffered.
But what it does is indicate a truth which is implicit in many parts of our scriptures, and which we must embrace if our race - I mean our one, human race - and our planet are to have a future, and this is it: that the human race is indeed one, and that we are all, all of us, with no-one excluded, brothers and sisters. Christian people can glean that from an understanding of how we are made - the doctrine of creation - and of how we are remade in Jesus Christ - the doctrine of salvation.
That does not mean that we have to strive to get everyone to agree with us and join us. What it does mean is that believing what we do about the universality of Jesus Christ as we believe in him, we can take steps to move towards our neighbours across the globe, not only in practical help and relief, but also in friendship, in conversation, in thinking and in faith. In order, even, to explore together what might be the resources of all our various religious and cultural traditions which can help us live alongside one another as sisters and brothers, celebrating our differences, and neither denying them nor being threatened by them.
That might lead us to reflect that war is not compulsory. Neither, of course, are co-operation compassion and conversation. The point is that we have choices.
And the choice before us is to love and understand Jesus Christ as the unifier of all, so that what is promised to the scattered Christian communities of the Asia of the first century may characterize all our human communities today. Because if the suffering of one group leads to the compassion - the suffering alongside - of the others, then, in the language of Christian faith, Jesus Christ is glorified yet again and yet more.
Other events around the world tell us that some such moves have to be made between the religions of the world, if the people of the world are to survive. Hans Küng has pointed out that there will be no reconciliation between the nations without reconciliation between the religions; and today's global wars indicate how right he may well be.
In the poem to which I referred at the beginning, the poet Mörike speaks of a desire to know neither ecstasy nor agony. And while in some of our moments that may seem very attractive to us, it is really no option. We are called to be disciples, as 1 Peter goes on to say, because Christ also suffered for [us], leaving you an example, so that [we] should follow in his steps.
And the experience of Ecclesiastes need not leave us so demoralized or depressed that we fail to respond to the call of Christ. We are indeed subject to horrendous suffering, not only from oppression and violence, but also from the nature of the world itself; and we are capable of great achievements. But in him we are invited to explore the costly possibility of how we might not only achieve an end to the suffering of our neighbours, but also come to love them as our sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ.
To take his Blessing upon our lips is to commit ourselves to his way of life. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.