This week Fr Martin Magill returned to his ecumenical tithing, visiting Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Newtownabbey. His post today focuses on the substance of the sermon by Rev Warren Peel, although he notes that his visit also gave him the opportunity to catch up with friends he had met at the Dock Cafe.
Fr Martin Magill’s Ecumenical Tithing: Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church
For the past number of years since meeting a member of a Reformed Presbyterian congregation I had wanted to worship with this denomination. As I was in the general area of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, I chose to worship there this weekend.
I was warmly welcomed at the door of the church and given a Bible, Psalter (book of psalms) and an order of service. I then spoke to two young members of the congregation whom I had met in the Dock Café in the Titanic Quarter, one of whom kindly left his seat and sat beside me during the service.
As we were talking the church fell quiet and the service began with silence. The service was a “guest service” and there was a warm welcome to all the visitors from the minister Rev Warren Peel who then gave an overview of the first psalm we were to sing which was Ps 46:1-6. This was followed by a prayer including a petition for those suffering.
Rev Peel read from Genesis 3:14-19 and then from Revelation 21:1-5 and 22:1-5. We sang Ps119 and again we were given an overview of the psalm with comments made on different verses. The purpose of this was to prepare the congregation for the sermon.
The sermon lasted just over 35 minutes, but certainly did not feel that long.
It was on the theme “Why do good people suffer?”
The following are some of the points which struck me as I listened:
- The death of the little boy Robert Christie on a farm a few months previous, 9/11 tragedies, the shooting down of MH17 killing nearly 300 people, the typhoon in Philippines last year and so on raise the question “where was God?”
- There is no easy answer, though it is easy to sound glib. Many atheists scorn Christians about the suffering in the world. Christianity is presented as nonsense by some in the world because of this issue.
- What do atheists say? Some would say the world is purely random which would be little comfort for those who are passing through the fire of suffering. At such times, words are not really that helpful, but instead compassion, prayer and a shoulder to cry on are valuable as is the support and grace of God.
- Rev Peel suggested we need some biblical principles to help for the storms of suffering as a form of preventative medicine. He used the image of hurricane shutters and having them in place before the suffering starts. Christian faith will take much less of a pounding. We need the humility to say “I don’t know” but we know God in his essence is goodness.
- Billy Graham said ,“I don’t know” after the Oklahoma city bombing and pointed out that suffering would either make us bitter or more tender, recognising how we need to trust in faith believing in God.
Rev Peel suggested we take three simple angles/positions.
Beginning – where did suffering come from?
God created a perfect world without suffering, God put Adam and Eve into the Garden of Eden which was a place of abundance where everything was perfect. The minister then referred to the film “Good Morning Vietnam” and to a very moving scene with beautiful scenery with the song “What a wonderful world” playing and then how the scene changes to shootings, bombings, reminding us of the pain and suffering of the world. But the song kept playing.
Rev Peel reminded us that we live in a world of terrorism, greed and inhumanity. Suffering came from a revolution. Adam and Eve chose to disobey – there were many trees but one tree they were not to eat from but they chose to listen to the devil. Adam and Eve trusted the devil. Death entered our world – every part of our humanity, our world was affected by that disobedience. We live in a world poisoned by that revolution – the sentence of God on rebellious human beings. We cannot rebel without consequences.
Rev Peel asked a rhetorical question “don’t we all rebel against God?” – we don’t keep God’s command as he asked us to – we are rebels. He then went on to say it is astonishing there is happiness in the world. Why is there so much happiness? He referred to a book by Harold Kushner called When bad things happen to good people. Rev Peel pointed out “There are no good people – there are no innocent people and a better title would be Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does God give so much good and some of us suffer very little?
Suffering is the exception not the norm – if we get the attitude right then we face suffering with less resentment. There is still the issue of why some people suffer more than others. Some kindly people suffer a lot more than some selfish people. Each of us has rebelled.
Suffering from the perspective of the end –
Rev Peel reminded us that God will overcome the work of the devil in creating a new heaven and a new earth. We need to offer people something hopeful – God promises to undo the evil done at the Fall. Justice will be done, all wicked deeds done in secret will be punished – people get away with murder here but on the last day every sinful act will be punished. Suffering will be done away with. God’s people will be given new bodies with no more suffering – no more sickness, poverty, addictions, God’s people will no longer have pain. The natural world will be restored to perfection.
But why does God not do that now? What is God waiting for? He waits for more people to be saved – to become Christian. Rev Peel pointed out there would be no more opportunity to repent on the last day when the door of heaven would be shut for those who do not receive Jesus as their Saviour. God delays the day of reckoning.
Suffering from the centre of history – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
God rescued his people – How do we escape hell? The answer is the cross of Jesus Christ. God suffered for our sake so as to offer us a world without suffering. Jesus suffered so we don’t have to suffer. Jesus paid the price – not one “milligram of hell” will ever touch a Christian. Jesus suffered in our place, he suffered everything we deserved. We only get a fraction of what we deserve to suffer for our rebellion against God. God knows about suffering from experience – he suffered for our sake. God knows what we are suffering – it is not wrong to cry out in anguish to God – we cannot say that God has no idea – the Father knows what it is like to lose his Beloved Son – Jesus knew bleak loneliness.
God is gracious and compassionate. We deserve punishment but God promises to restore, owing to the death of Jesus – he suffered so that we can go free. Rev Peel finished his sermon by inviting those who were not Christian to become Christian, and to speak to someone about this. He would be at the door if anyone wanted to speak to him. He told us about the programme “Christianity Explored” which the church ran from time to time. He finished again by saying to those who were not Christian: “Please do something about it”.
We closed by singing Psalm 23A and again we were given an overview of the psalm.
Afterwards, I had the opportunity to speak to four young members of the congregation and then to the minister Rev Warren Peel. It was a fascinating evening with incredible singing and a significant number of young people in their teens and twenties in the congregation.