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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Wager: Religion is Worth It!

Tonight we read from the story of Joseph. Let me leap forward to the end where Genesis sums it all up. After all the twists and turns, Joseph speaks to the brothers who had done him so much wrong: ‘even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good’.  Until now, even though Joseph has been reconciled to them, the outcome is not yet clear. Will he, the powerful Egyptian officer of state, treat them as family or as vassals?  What will forgiveness mean for him and for them?  Joseph reaches a true ‘my Lord and my God’ moment. “You intended evil…. God intended good”. In conspiracy and catastrophe, God has done all tings well.  

When is it a true act of faith to say ‘it was for the best, and good has come out of it’, and when is it just a thoughtless cliché to make us feel better about the bad things that happen?  We don’t say it, and shouldn’t say it, when we hear of a child who has been abused, or bystanders blown to pieces by a suicide bomber, or a pensioner murdered in her own home.  We condemn wickedness, and we do what we can to help its victims, but we try not to theorise because we know that words can make things worse as well as better. In the face of what is wrong or just bewildering, we won’t try to guess what God intends in the perplexing, inscrutable events of human life.  

Yet the instinct to find meanings is also part of being human. And this is where Joseph helps us with an insight of faith into life’s meaning.  Faith tells a story of how God has been moving within the ordinary processes of cause and effect to work his wise and loving purposes in the world.  It is not always apparent from the evidence: it’s faith that makes the connections. It takes the long view where we can only see the foreground. That brings strength and hope. It’s possible to pick up the pieces and carry on. 

I was talking once with a distinguished astronomer. ‘Where is the ground for your beliefs?’ he asked.  I said it was as much a matter of the heart as the head, for the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.  I went on to say that I had a strong instinct what my life would have become if I had not been a Christian. I would have been only half alive, and served the wrong gods.  Now I have been a Christian for fifty three years and a priest for more than forty, I have staked my whole adult life on Christianity being true.  As my retrospect lengthens, I echo Joseph’s words. God did indeed intend it for good.  But they are still said in faith.  Suppose Christianity turned out to be a fantasy?  Would my life have been wasted?  I have only this one life to live. I can’t go back and start again, choose a different ladder to climb up on. We stake our lives on the beliefs and values that matter to us.  Pascal’s Wager taught us how much of an act of trust faith is.

You may recall, a few years ago, the slogan on London buses: ‘There is probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’.  The word ‘probably’ is the clue.  It tells us that atheism is not so much a cool decision of unbiased reason as a true act of faith. It’s a wager: weigh up the evidence, then stake your life on it. Worry is only for religious people. But what if it said: ‘God may exist, so stop being frivolous and start living well’? I can only speak for myself. I concluded years ago that I would rather have lived as a Christian and tried to make a difference in the world than serve the gods of money, power, ambition and self.  The wager is that Christianity is true.  Even if it turned out not to be, the Christian life would still be worthwhile. It would still add to the sum of human happiness including my own. 

Faith doesn’t mean knowing for certain. If only we could!  It’s trusting that this is good news worth investing the whole of life in, a wager that makes sense because of the man who calls to us to follow.  Two thousand years of Christian experience tell us about the life-changing power of goodness.  My scientist conversation partner had a lot to say about how religion divides and demeans people.  He is right: debased religion is mad, bad and dangerous to know.  But, I said, why not judge religion as you judge science, not at its worst but at its best?  For me, it is the goodness and integrity of so many Christians I have known that makes Christianity not only attractive but believable.  

On this first day of the week we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.  He is God’s pledge that our hope in this good news is well placed. If ever it was true of an event that ‘you meant harm but God meant it for good’, it is the crucifixion. Who’d have thought it on Good Friday? Yet Easter makes it both possible and believable.  It is not the certainty we crave. Faith still has to be faith. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” There is still a wager  in entrusting ourselves to Jesus and his kingdom. How can we know where it will lead? But to construct our life on this rock gives us stability amid shifting sands.  With the years the conviction grows that it was a wise decision. It was worth believing that “God intended it for good”, that ‘love is his meaning’. In that faith we can both live and die. 

Haydon Old Church, 28 July 2019

Genesis 42.1-25