Your Will Be Done
Rev Donald Phillipps
In this sermon preached on Trinity Sunday Rev Donald Phillipps examines a traditional understanding of the "Will of God" in the context of contemporary drama and tragedy. It's a warning against glib answers!
‘And so it was. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good.’ - Genesis 1:31
Today is Trinity Sunday - and having said that, I think it would be wise to go on to something completely different. No, perhaps an extra word or two are appropriate.
In our Gospel reading we heard Jesus’ last words to his disciples, according to St Matthew, commanding them to baptise the whole earth in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Maybe you didn’t give that Trinitarian blessing a thought, so familiar is it - but the very least that can be a said is that the formula simply doesn‘t have a place in the record of the infant Church. That Jesus might have said these words is doubtful in the extreme - in fact, when the first disciples did begin to baptise new converts they simply baptised them in the name of Jesus - no more, no less.
Matthew’s Gospel, like that of Luke, probably reached something like its present form no earlier than forty years after the death of Jesus, and more likely fifty or even sixty years later. The first rapture was over - Jerusalem had been pretty well razed to the ground, and the disciples, if there were any left by this time, had been scattered - there was to be no Second Coming
What was going on among these dispersed Christians, was a great deal of thinking - of remembering what they could about the man from Nazareth and what he said and did. Different individuals and different communities of Christians had different memories, and they didn’t necessarily tie in with each other - there must have been a long period during which, in widely separated communities around the eastern Mediterranean they tried to make sense of it all. There was no Peter or James or John to have the last authoritative word - but there was a desire to turn confusion of memory and oral tradition into some sort of order, and to do so in a way that could be remembered.
One outcome of this process was the establishment of a three-fold way of thinking about God. There was the God of Israel, the creator and subject of the ancient scriptures - there was the man from Nazareth, who seemed to them to be, in a unique way the son of that God - and there was the Spirit (of both, was it?) still at work in the world.
When faced with serious confusion it is almost instinctive for human beings like us to try to establish some sort of order - that’s what God did with the ‘formless void’, which was the earth. That’s what we still try to do in the face of the inexplicable - and particularly in the face of great disaster
That’s why even more words about the doctrine of the Trinity seem totally out of place, totally irrelevant, when our hearts and minds are full of images of the chaos and destruction wrought by cyclone and earthquake. The earthquake in the Sichuan Province of south-west China - 38,000 deaths as I was writing this, but at the epicentre of the quake over 100,000 were living and there fate was unknown. Cyclone Nargis, inundating the Irrawaddy delta of Myanmar - 78,000 officially dead, but who knows what the toll will be, if ever the government there were to admit the truth. It’s not so far back to Boxing Day, 2004, and the great Sumatra/Andaman tsunami - 250, 000 people dead, and that is a reliable figure.
And every day the media turns tragedy into news - where it is not natural disaster but, rather, human stupidity and greed and deliberate malice bringing about death and destruction.
What such large-scale horror does is to force us to think about God - however we conceive that God to be.
Today is not a day for again engaging in an annual redefinition of God - though we are human, and have words with which turn our thoughts into something we can communicate to others. Today is certainly not a day when we declare that our particular words for, or about, God are better than anyone else’s - or, blasphemy of blasphemies, that our God is ‘better’ than theirs.
But I do think that today is a good day to read again those few verses from the very beginning of the ancient Jewish scriptures which tried to account for the world they believed God had made. I don‘t imagine we’ll say anything that’s new - but against the particular background of these past days we might just begin to discover new ways of thinking - I think we’ve got to try.
And I’m going to start with a recent event much nearer our experience - the tragedy of the Elim School students on the Mangatepopo River in Tongariro National Park. Things were said publicly at the time which reveal just how deeply ingrained are very ancient notions of the relationship between God and God’s creation. If I were to pick one scriptural phrase that reflects both our deepest superstitions and opens an authentic window into the nature of the God we worship it is that found in the prayer Jesus taught us’ “Your will be done .” It is to that so familiar text that I turn
The New Zealand public were privileged, in a way, to be given access to the deep faith of the Elim Church community and of the families who were most affected by the tragedy. No hint of apportioning blame - no second thoughts about whether the expedition should have been called off - no desire for retribution through courts of law or official inquiries. At one level we saw the people who had lost most able to rejoice in what they still had - memories of loved and loving children, admiration for a fine committed teacher - there was grief, but the grief was overcome by faith.
Only at one point did I feel uncomfortable, and that was when one of the fortunate survivors recalled how he had prayed to God for deliverance and how God had answered his prayer. To give thanks to God for deliverance from some evil, or some mortal danger is one thing - should we not, indeed, always be ready to praise God for the good things that happen in our lives.
What seems so difficult for us to accept is that God is equally present in the folly and the hideous suffering and the most malign cruelty that humans can inflict on each other. God is not apart from it - but God can be there only in the person of those who struggle against, who resist, who challenge the evil
The will of God is done when ordinary women and men do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly - such people are the will of God in action - without them God achieves nothing. The young man praised God for saving him - the God in whom I believe would say to that same young man: “Well done, good and faithful servant, you used your strength, your skills, your courage, and yours is the victory!”
I don’t want to pursue the matter against this emotional background further - it’s not fair to make an issue of something that is so intensely personal. Instead I will use as an example the life and death of a man who suffered at the hands of an evil regime - a victim of Nazi terror - a man whose faith was strengthened in the face of utter godlessness - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
He had become disillusioned with the established churches, believing they had failed their members by forgetting that Christ’s is the only word the church must heed, trust and obey in life and in death. Despite the obvious signs of Naziism’s fundamentally evil creed, Bonhoeffer believed the Church had largely chosen to compromise its principles with what had become the will of the people, though others simply withdrew from political engagement. For him the church was so preoccupied with survival that it lost the credibility of being the bearer of the gospel.
In his struggle with Naziism, he never saw himself as other than fulfilling the will of God - for him the will of God was not a system of external rules, but something new and different in each different situation in life. Bonhoeffer became party to the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and for that he was executed at Flossenburg prison - he believed to the end he was doing the will of God.
I think we have a great uneasiness about our ability to discern right from wrong - we want certainty - but Bonhoeffer urges us to be concerned with living the will of God rather than finding a set of rules to follow. The will of God may lie concealed within a great number of alternatives, and is not necessarily only to be found through prayer or rigorous spiritual discipline. But Bonhoeffer firmly believed that we can come to know the will of God.
To walk humbly with God brings a wonderful sense of freedom in the making of decisions - a confidence that God is working through humanity. There’s no single path to such discernment - the simplest way I can put it is to suggest that when we think most seriously, most openly, most selflessly, then we have come into God’s presence - God is as a near as that
What is God’s will - listen to these words of Rabindranath Tagore: ‘Life sends up in blades of grass its silent hymn of praise to the unnamed light’ - is it not the will of God that grass should grow in the sunlight?
The will of God is, in many ways so simple and straightforward a thing - founded on justice and love and compassion
Is it not the will of God that every creature of God, every human, should grow up under the light of the sun - and towards the unnamed light, the Light of the World, whom we call Jesus, the Christ