St Francis, Terriers - Lent 2 (28.02.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Yesterday afternoon I was in Forest Hill, taking part in the annual celebration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and thought organised by the Lutheran Church there. The theme this year was identity, exile and belonging. One of the speakers was a Kurdish refugee from Syria, who talked about his reasons for leaving his own country and making the long and dangerous journey to England. The decisive event that pushed him out, he told us, was the day when ISIS took three dozen young people, including a number of his friends, publicly beheaded them, and fixed their heads to the top of the gateway into the old city in Aleppo.

Those young people are, I suppose, the closest modern equivalent to those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. And the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them also have their contemporary counterparts – rather nearer home, alas. So they face us with the same question that Jesus asked. “Do you think that the victims of that barbarity, and of this accident, were worse sinners than all others?” The link between sin and suffering is well established in people’s minds. In the past I have shared with you the story of my mother’s aunt, dying in pain, and telling her niece “I must have been a very wicked woman to be suffering like this.”

But Jesus is having none of it. “Do you think that they were worse offenders? ... No, I tell you.” He breaks the link between sin and suffering. Or does he? His next words in each case look very much like a sudden u-turn. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

The problem is that word “repent”. It’s a word we understand in a sense that is very different from the meaning it had for Jesus and his hearers. For us repentance is entirely to do with wrong-doing. It’s almost the theological equivalent of a guilty plea in a court of law. We repent of our sins. But when John the Baptist, and later Jesus, comes preaching repentance, sin barely gets a look in. Repentance is linked with believing and forgiveness and good news.

The English word “repent” translates the Greek word “metanoia”, a word that consists of two parts. The “meta” bit has to do with change. The “noia” is linked with words that have to do with thinking, mindset, world-view. So to call on people to repent is not so much to call them to admit their guilt as it is to invite them to change the way they look at things, to change, not their mind, but their mind-set. Suffering is not about rewards and punishments. Carry on thinking like that, says Jesus, and you will perish, but inwardly. If you don’t change your mindset from one based on rewards and punishments, you will die the spiritual death of those who believe that faith is a closed system and that God is not a loving Father, but a capricious tyrant who sets traps for human beings in order to send as many of them as possible to hell.

Now hang on, you might be thinking, isn’t that going against what St Paul writes in today’s first reading? He produces a list of awful warnings which seem to link behaviour quite closely with punishment. Well, up to a point; but the point that Paul is making is that the world has been created in such a way that particular actions have particular consequences. His words are the theological equivalent of the dentist warning young people that consuming too much sugar will rot their teeth, or a doctor alerting us to the effects of smoking. The bad consequences arise not because they are inflicted by a punitive and vindictive God, but because “that’s the way things are”. Buddhists call it “karma”. St Paul calls it “the wrath” – often mistranslated in English-language Bibles as “the wrath of God”. Paul is affirming human responsibility, which applies to those who claim to live under the grace of God as much as it does to everyone else, and warning the Christians of Corinth against imagining that because they are baptised God will protect them from any unpleasant consequences of their wrong actions.

Israel’s history is a warning that it doesn’t work like that. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean we will never suffer. Our human weakness may well give rise to “bad karma”. There is no automatic protection against the evil intent of others. We are as liable as anyone else to illness, physical and mental frailty, and death.

But if we have repented, if our mindset is not that of those who understand the highs and lows of human existence in terms of reward and punishment, then we can see any testing situation that overtakes us as something that is part of our human existence “common to everyone”, in St Paul’s words. What matters is how we treat it, whether we find that “way out so that [we] may be able to endure it”. What matters is whether we retreat, like my mother’s aunt, into a destructive interpretation of suffering as punishment sent specifically by God, or whether we accept it as part of a necessary pruning which enables us, unlike the fig tree in Jesus’s parable, to bear for God the fruit of a transformed life.

In a recent meditation on the way we understand scripture, Fr Richard Rohr wrote about the need to recognise what he called the “transformative significance of human pain and suffering” and how we hold, make use of, and transform our suffering into a new kind of life instead of an old kind of death.

“When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering” he wrote, “human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds [which is part of what we are doing this morning in the laying on of hands and anointing], we invariably give up on life and humanity. I am afraid there are bitter and blaming people everywhere, both inside and outside of the church. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, and the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know how to deal with all this negativity. This is what we need to be ‘saved’ from.” This, I would add, is the death of which Jesus spoke. This is the death from whose power we are “saved” by his death on the cross.

To him, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit…