For another setting, I have been invited to wonder out loud about how our faith grapples with the ‘problem of evil.’ In other words, how is it that we reconcile evil and suffering in this world with an all powerful, all loving, all knowing God?
And is there any better place to begin that conversation than with the words and images offered on this Christ the King Sunday when we sing of Christ on a regal throne, all the while imagining him in the midst of the trial that would lead to his unjust suffering and death?
Indeed, surely this central story of our faith offers some wisdom into the questions which have plagued humanity for all of time.
And so I start today wondering at how ‘evil’ shows its face today in the story we are given now:
Without a doubt, there is evil in the betrayal of Judas who for reasons unnamed and perhaps forever unknown to us led the soldiers to Jesus in the garden. (John 18:1-3)
And in the instinctive action of Peter who drawing his sword, perhaps with the best intentions, used it on the ear of a slave name Malchus. (John 18:10-11)
And again in Peter who so quickly forgot who he was and denied ever knowing Jesus. (John 18:15-18, 25-27)
Surely ‘evil’ was present in all of this, right?
And wasn’t ‘evil’ also there in Pilate who questioned Jesus and finding him not guilty, still had him flogged? And in those who mocked him, pressing a crown of thorns into his forehead, spat upon him and struck him in the face? (John 18:33-19:1)
And in the crowd who cried out for the release of Barrabas? Who insisted on the crucifixion of an innocent man instead? (John 18:40)
And in the chief priests who twisted Jesus’ words and discovered a reason to insist on his death, so threatened were they by all that he was. (John19:6-7)
In those who forced him to carry his cross and hung him on it under an inscription which reinforces the irony of this very day: that royalty would look like this. (John 19:16-19)
And in the soldiers who in the presence of a dying man gambled among themselves to determine who would take his tunic? (John 19:23-22)
There is surely ‘evil’ all over this story, yes, and not just ‘evil’ confined to one time in one place but rather, one event that somehow sums up all the evil we will ever know:
- In its disregard for the basic humanity of the one standing right before them, before us.
- In its portrayal of weakness (or ignorance or arrogance) which betrays and denies, which at the very least steps aside and allows ‘evil’ to apparently prevail, and at most aids that ‘evil’ to the end.
- In its submission to larger systems which are led by faulty reasoning which one way or another, always exact a price in terms of human life itself.
And, yet, this is so.
At no point does Jesus (nor any of those who share this story in any of the Gospels) attempt to answer our questions about the ‘problem of evil.’
At no point do we even hear the question articulated as to why God would allow this to happen.
No indeed, no theological argument is waged here.
Rather, we are offered the very substance of the gift of life and faith itself.
In frail human flesh.
Who knew and still somehow loved those who allowed this, enabled this, implemented this.
Portrayed in stubborn courage and hope itself, God’s Own Son, stepping directly into the path of ‘evil.’
I know that I for one will never be able to explain away ‘the problem of evil’ and I’m not sure that is what our Gospel witness ever does.
Instead we are given One who does not back down from it, stepping into its path with dignity.
Who lives a witness of forgiveness in the face of it.
Who trusts, who always trusts, that the ‘evil’ would not win in the end.
Indeed, could it be that you and I, as followers of Jesus are not those who are called to answer the argument, but in the end, are simply living answers to the ‘problem of evil?’
- As we grapple with what is broken in this world, seeking to name it?
- As we don’t run from it, but rather step into its path for the sake of others?
- As we seek to do so trusting that this is the truest image of Christ as King that we celebrate not only this week-end, but every single day?
And yes, I know that while we stumble and fail, you also do this all the time:
- Every time you step to the side of a suffering one, not letting your own discomfort with such pain keep you away.
- Every time you name an injustice in the world and speak the alternative truth of God’s intent for all of God’s beloved. And then use your best gifts to seek to alter the systems which live by the lies which do not honor that.
- Every time you set aside your own innate biases to see, to truly see, the inherent humanity of the one right in front of you. And then live into that way of seeing.
Every single time you do any one of these and more with Jesus as your guide and as your companion, you live the answer to the ‘problem of evil.’
As Jesus did before Pilate now.
And as did Mary, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, and John who stood at the foot of the cross. (John 19:25-27)
And as did Joseph of Aramathea who stepped beyond his own fear of being discovered when he asked permission to take the body of Jesus. And as did Nicodemus who joined him in all that happened next, bearing more spices than one could possibly carry alone, as together they wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth and buried him in a borrowed tomb. (John 19:38-42)
This familiar story is fraught with ‘evil,’ to be sure.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Indeed, it never does when ‘evil’ is confronted by people who face it with the courage and hope of Jesus and the handful who stayed until the end and beyond, setting aside their own hurts, their own fears, out of such love.
Indeed, this is always it, isn’t it?
For we cannot argue away the ‘problem of evil.’
As those who follow Jesus, we can only live our answer to it.
- Obviously, I come to these words in John’s Gospel this week with a particular question about ‘the problem of evil,’ which seems to fit the narrative. Even so, if not this one, what question or questions do you bring with you this week?
- As you can see, I have not yet found a way to argue my way into an answer to those who protest the coexistence of God and evil in the world. Perhaps you have a better answer than I?
- If the call is to ‘live the answer’ to the question or problem of evil, there are many ways to do so. I have offered several above. What might you add?