God brings life to death. God forgives. I need to start by proclaiming these things, as obvious as they might be, because if we don’t cling to these truths, we are not going to make it through the next ten minutes of this sermon. God brings life to death, and God forgives. Remember this.
So, we’re moving towards Easter, and towards the proclamation of new life in the face of death and to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection that demonstrates the power of God’s forgiveness and light in the face of darkness. But this proclamation and celebration is meaningless if we do not first acknowledge the death and darkness that cause us to yearn for this life and light in the first place. And so in Lent, we spend time reflecting on these things, although of course we’d rather not. Lent is a time when we are particularly called to be honest and to be brave and to face the reality of this world, so that we might recognize the glory of Easter and the coming of God’s kingdom.
Today we are called to face the reality of the death and darkness in the world that is caused by us. By Christians. By followers of God. And I’ll be honest that I would rather not talk about this. I know that sometimes you come to church to get away from all of the darkness in the world, and to receive comfort, and the last thing you want to hear is a depressing sermon. And I’ve been looking for a way all week to avoid talking about this. But last week’s Gospel lesson, and this week’s reading from John and the readings that are coming for Holy Week, combined with President Obama’s statement a couple of weeks ago at the National Prayer Breakfast about the atrocities committed in the name of the Christian religion–all these things have come together and have been weighing on me–given me a guilty conscience, actually, and so here we are.
So here’s what we as Christians have to face. On the one hand, we have the Christian proclamation, “For God so loved the world.” We have this thorough conviction that God loves the world, and that Jesus loves the world, and that we are called to follow Christ by loving the world. Jesus tells us in Matthew to love our enemy, and to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us that if our enemy is hungry, we should feed them. The letters in the New Testament tell us that we should not repay evil with evil, but with blessing. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile, to lay down our lives as he did, not just for our friends but for our enemies. We can all agree that Jesus responded to violence with peace, that he responded to hate with love, and that he would rather give his life than take another. And he calls his followers - Christians - to do the same.
So there’s that. And then there’s our history. There’s the passage from last week, where Jesus goes into the Temple with a whip and violence, overturning tables, shouting at people, and being very un-peaceful. Now, to be fair, even the very earliest Christian fathers - those who founded the Christian church - thought that this story couldn’t be true, because Jesus couldn’t possibly have acted that way. But even if we set aside this story, we have today’s reading from John. It starts out okay - “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son .... in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.” Whoa - what just happened here? All of a sudden, the reading gets very harsh. Hostile, even. The Gospel of John divides the world into those who believe in Jesus, who are saved, who are children of the light, and good, and those who do not believe in Jesus, who are condemned, who are children of the darkness, and evil. The world becomes stripped down into black-and-white, good guys and bad guys, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us. As the writer of the Gospel interprets Christian history, and remember that this Gospel was not an eyewitness account, but written well after Jesus’ actual crucifixion and resurrection - in John’s history, the Jews killed Jesus by calling for his crucifixion (nevermind that all of Jesus’ disciples were actually Jewish), and that the “bad ones” in the story are always “the Jews.” The writer of the Gospel of John only uses “Jews” to talk about bad guys. Those who follow Jesus are never described that way, even though they were - they were described as truth-follower. Children of the light. The Gospel of John is extremely hostile to those who don’t follow Jesus, and to the Jews in particular, and we will hear it over and over again as we listen to the texts approaching Easter.
And here’s the thing. Here’s the part that I really would rather not preach about, and the part that I’m sure you would really rather not hear about, and the reason I made sure my kids weren’t in church today. These texts of hostility - this division between us-and-them (didn’t we talk about this last week?) - these texts - which are not just in John but throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament - they have had a profound influence on the actions of Christians in the world. This idea that Christians are children of the light sent out to conquer children of the darkness, the idea that we are good and others are evil, the idea that it is our job as Christians to confront and overcome those who do not follow Christ - this violence is one of the legacies of the Christian church on earth. These texts from John were used on Good Friday, to preach that Christians should go out and kill Jews. In Toulouse, France, during the middle ages it was the custom to find a Jew on Easter, drag him to the front steps of the cathedral, and strike a blow to his head. Sometimes this blow was so severe as to kill him. “But he killed Jesus! He’s a child of the darkness. He’s evil!” During the First Crusades, a Christian war to rid the world of evil infidels, Christians in German cities by the Rhine killed 12,000 Jews in a three-month span in the year 1096. In those same Crusades, Christian soldiers beseiged Jerusalem, and despite offers by the Fatamid Muslims to share the Holy City, the Crusaders slaughtered 50,000 Jews and Muslims. A document from that time by a Crusader says the soldiers were in blood up to their ankles. “But they are not followers of Christ! They reject Christ! They’re evil!” From the 14th to the 18th century, Christians killed between 40,000 and 75,000 women on accusations of being witches. John Calvin had an opponent burned at the stake for heresy. In the early 16th century, in Germany, the Christian aristocracy killed between 100,000 and 300,000 peasants, inspired by words of Martin Luther. In the late 17th century, an American Puritan pastor, a pastor rejoiced when he found out that 600 Native Americans had been burned alive. Our Christian history is an appalling almost two thousand year long legacy of Christians killing their enemies. Not praying for them. Not turning the other cheek. Not loving them. Killing them.
“But that wasn’t us,” you might be thinking. “That wasn’t me.” “I can’t be held accountable for what they did in the past!” “I wouldn’t do that!” Or “We didn’t start it - we were persecuted first!” You know, these are the excuses my children make when they get caught doing something wrong. Let’s be adults here. This is Lent, and this is a time of repentance. Lent is a time not just for individual repentance, but for corporate repentance. There’s a reason we say confession together at the beginning of the service. There are some sins that are so huge they involve everybody, and some sins so staggering that we must repent of them for generations. And we should be ashamed of trying to wriggle out of these accusations. As Christians who follow Jesus, who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us - not punish them, pray for them - as Christians who are about to celebrate that Jesus gave his life and asked for forgiveness for those who had clearly wronged him - as Christians who claim that the faith we confess is 2,000 years old, and who claim God’s blessing has extended to us through the generations, we need to also confess that we, as a Church, as a community of Christ-followers, have done terrible, violent, murderous things. We, who are supposed to love, have killed. We, who are children of the light, have brought darkness. We, who are supposed to be good, have committed evil. And, lest we think that this is all in the past, I only need to say: the former Yugoslavia - 1990 - 100,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims and Croatians, were killed, and women raped, by Serbian soldiers who operated under the explicit blessing of the Serbian Orthodox Church; Rwanda - 1994 - almost 1 million Rwandans were killed - in April of that year, a priest offered shelter in his church to over 4,000 Rwandans, and then this “priest” removed the communion elements and ordered a bulldozer to take down the building with the people inside and then invited militia in to finish the job. This wasn’t the only time this happened in Rwanda and we knew about this. The western media knew about this. But what did we, as Christians, do? Did we publicly condemn these atrocities committed by people of our faith? Did we as Christians denounce those other Christians who were killing their enemies? Did we remind them that Jesus told us to love our enemies? And in case this still isn’t current enough - the Central African Republic - 2014 - Christian militia beheaded a Muslim man despite the presence of peacekeepers in the region. Who are the children of the light and who are the children of the dark? Who are the ones who love good and who are the ones who love evil? “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” Who exactly is Jesus talking about here?
Do you remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon? God brings life to death, and God forgives. All of this history I have just recounted is too much, it is too overwhelming, and it should crush us under our own guilt if we do not remember that God brings life to death. The guilt of Christian violence, if we acknowledge and confess it, should and does kill us. But we are on a path towards Easter. And in Easter, death has met its match. Death has been overcome. Not by confrontation or hatred or violence. Death has been overcome by love, and by forgiveness, and by the grace of God in Christ. The Easter message that we so desperately need to hear at this moment is that God brings new life wherever there is death. God brings new life wherever we bring death.
Easter means that those whom we have killed, God has gathered up into God’s embrace and given new life. Easter means that God’s kingdom is packed full of our enemies, those whom we did not love and those for whom we did not pray. Easter means what the Gospel of John actually manages to get right - that the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God does not allow ours sins to win. God overcomes our evil and our darkness with God’s own good and God’s own light. God overcomes our hatred with the love of Jesus. God overcomes our killing with the new life we see in the resurrected Christ.
And, although we do not deserve it, God shares Easter with us, too. We heard it earlier, from Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Chapter 2, verse 4. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” The result of Christian works has too often been violence and death. But God gives the gift of new life and forgiveness, and grace through Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.