Sermon preached on Sunday, Trinity 7B, July 22, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 7.1-14a; Psalm 89.20-37; Ephesians 2.11-22; Mark 6.30-34, 53-56.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On early Friday morning when James Holmes walked into a movie theater and began shooting people, we were reminded once again that evil is alive and well in God’s good but fallen world. It is a stark reminder of the human condition, of what happens to us when we shut God completely out of our lives so that we lose his image and cease to be human, at least temporarily. It is an awful example of what Paul talks about in this morning’s epistle lesson when he tells us that before God became human in Jesus, we Gentiles were without God and without hope because we stood under God’s just condemnation and wrath. As both John and Paul (but not George or Ringo) sternly warn us, murderers and all who remain hostile to God will not enter the Kingdom (see, e.g., 1 John 3.14-16; 1 Corinthians 6.9-11; cf. Revelation 21.7-8; 22.14-16).
And Friday’s shootings—not to mention the homicide bombings that killed five Israelis in Bulgaria and nine people, including children, in Pakistan—remind us that despite the myth of human progress that so many of us like to embrace, the truth is that the human condition has not changed much, if at all, since the Fall. In fact, as traditional Judeo-Christian values continue to be challenged and undermined, and as the current cultural trends continue to emphasize hyper-individualism and “freedom” at any cost, we can only expect to see more horrific kinds of these behaviors because the technology for killing is getting more efficient and is easily available to those who would eagerly use it. We can now use our cell phones to talk to each other and blow each other up.
All this reminds us that despite all of our scientific and material advancements, we still do not know what to do with evil when it confronts us like it did in spades this past week. Some will inevitably ask questions like, “Where is God in all this? Doesn’t God care about us? Why does God allow this madness to continue?” As Christians we had better be prepared to give a biblical answer to these real and urgent questions, not only for others but for ourselves. If we don’t (or can’t) we can surely expect to lose heart and hope, especially in an age of instant communication that magnifies all that can and does go wrong with the human heart (cf. Mark 7.20-22). And so this morning I want to look briefly at what our texts have to say about what God is doing about the problem of evil because it just so happens that they offer us a partial biblical response to these questions.
In this morning’s epistle lesson, Paul lays out for us a grand vision for the gospel—God’s peace for his broken and hurting world in and through Jesus, the Messiah. In the preceding section, Paul has explained how God has brought healing and reconciliation between himself and humans through the cross of Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ’s blood shed for us, Paul says, and are raised to new life with Christ in his mighty resurrection and ascension because of God’s great love for us and his mercy toward us. Since our relationship with God is foundational for any of our human relationships, and since we are God’s image-bearers, our relationship with God had to be restored first before we could become the people God created us to be.
But now that our relationship with God is restored in and through Christ, Paul is telling us why it God has done this for us—so that in Jesus the Messiah, Gentiles could be reconciled with God’s holy people the Jews so that God could use those whom he has called in Christ to bring his healing love to his broken and hurting world and its people. In other words, our restored relationship with God and the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile that results is a logical outworking of the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to David in this morning’s OT lesson to provide David with an everlasting throne or dynasty. God would achieve this through the Messiah so that Israel, here meaning those who are in Jesus, would finally be a blessing to the world, just as God called her to be through Abraham (cf. Genesis 12.1-3).
“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but what does any of it have to do with last week’s murders and the greater problem of evil they represent?” Excellent question! This has everything to do with the problem of evil because we as God’s people and followers of Jesus are part of God’s plan of redemption. From the very beginning Christians have always believed that God has defeated evil on the cross of Jesus (cf. Colossians 2.15), even if evil has not yet been fully vanquished, as the events of last week sadly demonstrate. Christians have always believed this because of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of God’s new creation that it announced. Evil may still rear its ugly head but its day is almost done and a new and better day is coming.
This, of course, gives us a future hope but I am not primarily concerned with that here, important as that hope is for us. What Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit all point to is this. Until our Lord returns in great power and glory to implement fully his promised new creation and vanquish evil forever, God calls and equips those of us who are in Christ to be signs and symbols of his healing love and new creation so that he can use us to combat and thwart evil. We don’t just do this individually. We do it together as Christ’s body the Church. That is what Paul is talking about in today’s lesson and it is consistent with God’s call to Abraham and his descendants to be God’s blessing to others. There is a great mystery in all this because from our vantage point it is really hard to see how God can ever hope to succeed in using us to bring healing and signs of new creation to others when we are all so badly flawed ourselves. But call us in Christ God does, and it is through his reconstituted people in Jesus, i.e., the Church, that God promises to implement Jesus’ victory over evil won on the cross.
To recapitulate, this is the biblical answer to what God is doing about the problem of evil. God has defeated evil on the cross and calls his people in Christ to help bring healing and hope to the world as we await our final redemption in Christ’s Second Coming. This explanation of what God is doing about evil may prove to be less than satisfying to some of you because it doesn’t offer unambiguous answers or mighty acts of power and the zapping of evil and evildoers in the manner most of us want from God. But this is where faith and humility come in. We have to be humble enough to know that God has an eternal perspective and is all-knowing, so that we can trust his unfolding plan of redemption and the role we who follow Jesus are called to play in it. Our role is not to save the world but to follow the One who has, and to grow to be like him in the power of the Spirit so that our Lord can use us as his agents of healing and reconciliation. And of course, as we grow in our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge of him, so will our faith be increased so that we can have renewed confidence in God’s plan of redemption through Jesus and his people, even if we do not fully (or even mostly) comprehend it.
So what are the implications of all this? First, let’s start with the obvious. If Jesus calls his body, the Church to be peace-makers, healers, and visible signs of new creation, it is critical that we treat each other in a fundamentally different way from how the world treats its own. It means, for example, that we will not insist on having our own way when we disagree with each other. It means that we will be patient with each other and put up with each other’s foibles and weaknesses, even when they irritate us like fingernails on a chalkboard. Otherwise, people will look at us and see nothing but business as usual, which will result in them roundly ignoring us. We cannot tell others about transformed living if we are not transformed by the power of the Spirit ourselves. The good news for St. Augustine’s is that we do a pretty good job of loving each other, and that is a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence in and among us.
Second, if we are going to be peace-makers and visible signs of God’s love and healing to others, we have to be willing to risk engaging them in conversation about Jesus. This, of course, is anathema these days because we are beaten down (and sometimes up) about “tolerance” and being “open-minded.” But remember that no one other than Jesus promises resurrection and new creation. And so it seems to me that if the promises of the NT are true, it is an exceedingly unloving thing on our part to keep quiet about the only way that leads to real hope and life. I don’t know if James Holmes was exposed to the Christian faith or whether he embraced it at one point in his life. But it is impossible to do what he did for anyone who really is a follower of Jesus. How many people might God use you to help stop from doing something terrible like that by exposing you to others? None of us will ever know the answer to this question but it is the consistent biblical witness that God does indeed use us for those kinds of purposes. And I suspect each of us here can tell a story of how God used others to bring healing and hope to us when we needed it the most. When we are ready to let God use us this way, we really are the kind of “living stones” in Christ God created us to be.
Last, and on a more personal note, there may be someone here who is still laboring under the crushing burden of some guilt or sorrow or sin that you perceive to be unforgivable. If you are that person, I encourage you to hear Paul’s breathtaking proclamation again this morning and to believe his promises that God loves you and has created you for life, not death. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. Nothing is beyond the great love and mercy of Christ and you need look no further than the Table this morning to find proof of that because every time you eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood, you receive a real and tangible sign of God’s love poured out for you. And if that isn’t enough to help you, consider carefully Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. Are you really any different from the folks upon whom Jesus looked and had compassion because he saw they were harried and hurting and broken (and yes, sinners just like all of us are) who were without a Shepherd? Unless you consciously reject the love and forgiveness offered you by insisting on doing things your way instead of God’s, no one is outside of God’s great love and tender mercy, not even James Holmes. And if by God’s grace you really do believe this (and begin to act like you do), you will discover what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.