God brings life to death. I need to start by proclaiming this, as obvious as it might be, because if we don’t cling to this truth, the next ten minutes of this sermon are going to crush us. God brings life to death. Hold on to this.
So, Lent is a time when we are particularly called to be honest and brave in facing the reality of the world we have created, so that we might truly understand the glory of what God has shown us in Easter. And today our Gospel prompts us 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 wish that I didn’t have to preach 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. But last week’s Gospel lesson, and this week’s reading from John and the readings that are coming for Holy Week––readings that we hear every three years––weigh on me. They give me a guilty conscience, actually, and I feel called to drag them into the light.
So here’s the reality 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: To love our enemy, and pray for those who persecute us, not to 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 believe 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 that he calls his followers - Christians - to do the same.
So there’s that. And then there’s 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. And yet, if you read the Gospel of John, you’ll find this logic is pretty typical. In John, the world is divided between 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. This Gospel reduces the world to black and white, good guys and bad guys, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us.
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’m glad the little kids are in Sunday School right now. These texts of division between us and them 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 is what we need to repent of in this season of Lent because of its devastating––its truly dark––consequences.
For example, in the Gospel of John, the bad guys, the children of darkness and evil whom God condemns, are always called “the Jews.” The writer of the Gospel of John only uses the phrase “the Jews” when he wants to talk about bad guys. As we will hear in the readings during Holy Week, “the Jews” killed Jesus by calling for his crucifixion (never mind that all of Jesus’ disciples were actually Jewish), the ones who doubt and challenge Jesus are always “the Jews.” Those who follow Jesus are never described that way, even though they were Jews. Instead, because they follow Jesus, the Gospel describes them as truth-followers. 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 this year as we listen to the texts approaching Easter. And this idea became formative for Christian living, with incredibly violent results. In Toulouse, France, during the middle ages, it was the custom on Easter to find a Jew, 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 nobody got upset, because Christians are children of light, and Jews are children of darkness. During the First Crusades, a Christian war to rid the world of evil infidels, in the year 1096, Christians in German cities by the Rhine killed 12,000 Jews in a three-month period. In those same Crusades, Christian soldiers besieged 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 standing in blood up to their ankles.
And the darkness expands. Using the Gospel of John’s logic that God condemns those who do not follow Christ, and that somehow we should too, from the 14th to the 18th century, Christians killed between 40,000 and 75,000 women because they were accused 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 from 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 two thousand-year-long legacy of Christians condemning and killing our enemies. Not praying for them. Not turning the other cheek. Not loving them. Killing them. Participating in evil deeds that we hide in the darkness.
“But that wasn’t us,” you might be thinking. “That wasn’t me.” “I can’t be held accountable for what happened 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 to bring light into the world - as Christians who claim that God exposes the evil done in darkness, we need to 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 call ourselves children of the light, have pushed others into darkness. We, who call ourselves good, have committed evil. And, lest we think that this is all in the past, I only need to say: in 1990, in the former Yugoslavia - 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; in 1994 in Rwanda - 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 our fellow Christians who were killing their enemies? Did we remind them that Jesus told us to love our enemies? 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. 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 light, 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 does 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. Indeed, God calls us to recognize that we are standing in darkness and invites us to step forward into the light and to claim that new life. 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.” This is what God does for us, through Lent and to Easter, and beyond. For God so loved the world that God raises us up out of our darkness and turns us into children of light. And God calls us to expose deeds of evil, ours and others, not so that we might execute judgement, but so that God might shine that light that brings healing and new life. This is the great love shown to us in Christ. This is the great love that saves the world. This is the great love that brings life to death. Thanks be to God. Amen.