Sunday, 13 November 2011
Sermon on Ephesians 6: 10-20
I have decided to make no real attempt to preach on the passages today. This is partly because I am preaching at the 10.30 service later about remembrance – because of course it is Remembrance Sunday today. Instead I just wanted to comment on the very first line of the epistle reading: ‘My brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might’.
Now as some of you know I have very great problems with the notion of an omnipotent god: a god that is all powerful – in the traditional sense of that word – A god who could do anything if he wanted to do so. I have talked about this before I think. Or at least I know I have preached on passages in the Bible such as the discussion between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom where God appears to change his mind, or where Jesus changes his mind in the conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman. These passages it seems to me contradict the notion that God is unchanging. I think that verse from Hebrew’s which says Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever needs to be unpacked in its context and not taken for a proof text for the unchanging nature or the unchangeablity of God.
At a fundamental level it seems to me that that there is not much point in petitionary prayer if it doesn’t - at least sometimes - leads to God changing his mind. OK – of course – one point of petitionary prayer to align our desires with that of God – but if every year it rained on the church fete when, every year, we prayed for it not to do so – we might begin to think we were wasting our time praying for fine weather on the day of the Church fete. But I digress: of course it’s just about logically possible to believe in a God who is both all powerful – omnipotent – and yet capable of changing his mind. But logic – as I have begun to learn recently – isn’t the be all and end all of everything.
And from a gut-feeling point of view it just doesn’t feel right that God should be all powerful – in the general meaning of that word - and yet permit the wars – and all that goes with them – that we are particularly remembering this Remembrance Sunday. How many parents prayed fervently for their child to be kept safe in the wars of the last century – the First and the Second World Wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam - and the wars of this century – in the Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan – to name just a few. And yet our supposedly all powerful God did not seem to answer these prayers.
Rabbi Harold Kushner - faced with the contradictions involved in reconciling the notion of an all-powerful with a perfectly good God – after the death of his son from a disease that he had suffered with from birth – refused, like Job, to resort to platitudes. He says ‘I would rather affirm God’s goodness while compromising his power. I would rather believe in a God who sees things happening that he does not want to happen but cannot stop them. I think goodness is of more religious value than power’.
So one possibility is that God is not omnipotent – all powerful – at least in the usual meaning of that word. That he cannot wave a wand and stop wars in their tracks, he cannot stop even the death of his own son, much as he may wish to do so (and as surely we would all wish).
We need at least to pause and think about phrases such as the ‘power of God’s might’ as in today’s epistle reading and think again what we mean when we say in the first few in the words of the creed – as we have just said - ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty’ and when we address God in our prayers as ‘Almighty God’ ‘or when we sing ‘I am weak but thou art mighty, Hold me with Thy powerful hand’ or ‘What a mighty God we serve’ or the countless other lines in songs which imply God is powerful or mighty.
I guess it all depends on what we mean by power when it comes to God. We have been used to think of power and might as something welded by powerful, mighty men – and I mean men here rather than people. The power of king’s, prime ministers, chief executives, heads of departments, bosses, etc. etc. And therefore If God is King of Kings, boss of bosses, he (and again I mean he rather than she or it) must have the same sort of power as they have in order to be more powerful than them. Actually this doesn’t necessarily follow if God’s power is distinctly different to what we tend to think of as power. And if God’s power is a different sort of power to than that of say a king then this might enable me to say that God is omnipotent
There are at least two ways of thinking of power illustrated by the two prepositions that can be linked to the noun power i.e. ‘to’ and ‘over’. I think God’s power is more like ‘power to’ than ‘power over’. ‘Power to‘ and ‘power over’ are two very different things. But we are accustomed to think that power over – power over people, power over inert matter is necessary in order to have power to. For example we think God has creative power and that he used this power to created the universe but does this automatically mean than he has power over matter. Similarly we think God has the power to forgive us but this doesn’t mean that he has power over anything in order to forgive. Perhaps God’s creative power, his power to forgive, his power to give meaning, etc. etc. are very different from say David Cameron’s power to increase the rate of income tax or to lower it.
Whereas power would seem necessary in relation to creation or forgiveness, power in relation to love is clearly not. It sounds and is meaningless to suggest that God – or anyone else for that matter – needs power to love another. And this has some led to suggest that God’s power is much more like love than authority. So this would mean when we pray as we will pray later ‘Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, We mean something like, ‘All loving God, Father our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of men’. You’ll note that changing Almighty to All loving in that sentence changes the meaning a lot!
There is I think much more that might be said about God’s power as more akin to love than to authority but here to finish with is a quote from Austin Farer about love as power and power as love.
‘We have so mishandled the sceptre of God which we have usurped, we have played providence so tyrannically to one another, that we are made incapable of loving the government of God himself or feeling the caress of an almighty kindness. Are not his making hands always upon us, do we draw a single breath but by his mercy, has not he given us one another and the world to delight us, and kindled our eyes with a divine intelligence? Yet all his dear and infinite kindness is lost behind the mask of power. Overwhelmed by omnipotence, we miss the heart of love.’