Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sects and Violence

If it was possible for us to travel to Jerusalem, back to the days immediately following the resurrection and Pentecost, it would be easy to find several thousand Christians. But these excited men and women would probably give you a puzzled look if you asked them about them their views on "the Church".

The notion that this fledging community would one day be a worldwide religion would have baffled them. For the Jewish Christians, Jesus was the promised Messiah for whom all creation had been waiting for thousands of years. When the Holy Spirit came upon non-Jews, it was clear that they, too, could share in the hope which Christ had brought into the world. Their new faith wasn’t about the destruction of Judaism, but the fulfilment of it.

But two key things forced Christians to start seeing themselves as a distinct community. One was the incredible truth that the Holy Spirit lived in the hearts of each of the believers. When somebody accepted the message of Jesus - regardless of whether they were a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman, or a slave or an aristocrat - a supernatural event as incredible as the very creation of the world took place: They were born again. The presence of God in the lives of each person meant that the Christians had to look at each other as brothers and sisters, loved by the Creator who gave His son for their salvation.

The second phenomenon which stopped Christians from being one of many competing traditions within Judaism was persecution. Though the first converts regularly went to the Temple, it soon became clear they were no longer welcome. By preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead, they were implicitly accusing the religious and secular authorities of committing an act of wild injustice when they had him crucified. Repeatedly, the forces of Roman government and religious power were used to stamp on and scatter the group of people we now call the Early Church.

The Apostles realised that the believers had to be taught how they should relate to the world in which they lived. Christians were people who had been called into an unimaginable relationship with God. They would proclaim his greatness to their fellow men and women through their love, and - like Jesus - they would suffer terribly but not retaliate.

Peter, in the first of his letters wrote:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

One of the enduring fun questions of theology is, "Can Christians in heaven see what is happening on the world today?" If Peter has been able to watch what has happened in the last 20 centuries, we can only imagine his grief at so much of what passes for Church History. This holy nation, which was once so furiously persecuted, allowed the Cross to become a symbol on shields and flags of war. So-called Crusaders invaded Jerusalem, the site of Pentecost, and slaughtered women and children until they were wading through blood. At times these supposed strangers in the world have used the torture of the Inquisition, the witch trial and the colonial war to try and advance the cause of the Prince of Peace.

Today, we are still living with the consequences of these awful departures from doctrine. Our Muslim neighbours are not about to forget the Crusades, and neither should we. Gandhi famously said his biggest problem with Christianity was Christians.

In CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil advises his apprentice how to frustrate the faith of a young Christian, he says:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her, spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.

When the sins of the church are preventing people from unblocking their ears to the message we are charged to proclaim, we must repent of past transgressions and search to see how we went so terribly wrong.

If Peter could visit us now he would doubtless have excellent advice. Perhaps, if he can look at these disasters, he feels the same way he does when he remembers episodes in his own life. When the central event in human history was about to take place he denied Christ three times. Earlier that same night, he had attempted to defend Jesus using a sword and slashed off the right ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus rebuked him, saying, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

The message of Christ is revolutionary, and just as Peter’s personal catastrophes served to reveal the truth and beauty of the Gospel, so the staggering mistakes of Christians reveal the darkness into which we will always fall if we lose sight of the amazing message of grace.

Christ’s death brought forgiveness from sin for the world. But fighting the temptation to sin is part of the battle of the Christian life. When the Apostle Paul used military language when writing to the Ephesians, this was the battle he was talking about:

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground... Stand firm then with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

The “sword of the spirit” is identified as the word of God, and it is this weapon which Jesus used when tempted by Satan in the desert. We read in Matthew: "The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’"

The church has made its greatest mistakes when it has tried to take control of the kingdoms of the world by crushing it opponents. Time after terrible time, Christians have found themselves in positions of power and attempted to coerce into conversion people of other faiths and interpretations of Christianity, convinced they are doing God’s will. But when the church which once was persecuted becomes the persecutor, we have fallen to temptation and succumbed to the splendour of earthly power.

The experiences of the church in the fourth century are a lesson for us today. In 305AD the Roman emperor Diocletian tried to wipe out the faith in the last and worst of all the persecutions. Clearly, he failed.

Just 76 years later, emperor Theodosius IX made Christianity the official state religion. Millions of members flooded in and Christians discovered the fun of building giant places of worship. But the powerful figures in the church also started experimenting with using civil tools of law and order to enforce what it believed were theological truths.

The power of the Roman state was on the wane and the church leaders found themselves filling the void. It’s a gross mistake to think all the actions of these men, who were sinners and forgiven sinners like ourselves, were wrong. These were terrifying times with barbarians marauding across Europe and Muslims capturing Jerusalem. But the church was absorbing superstition it should have been dispelling, its simplicity was seduced by grandeur, and at times it seemed the church’s chief sword was not the Bible but the one which hung on a soldier’s belt.

But in every century, there have been heroes of the faith who devoted their lives to the true Church - the men and women in their midst - and who reminded the institution that we are saved by the grace of God, and who have called on their leaders to resist the temptation of persecuting power.

In 1934, the German theologian Karl Barth met with friends who believed Christians could not strike a deal with the Nazis who sought to found a National Church. They wrote in the Barmen Declaration:

Jesus Christ, as he is testified to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death. We reject the false doctrine that the church may and must acknowledge as sources of proclamation other events, powers, forms and truths as God’s revelation beside this one Word of God.

Barth’s writings were also instrumental in convincing South African theologians that they could not provide a spiritual foundation for an apartheid state.

It is almost certain that far more people have been killed by atheistic governments in the former Soviet Union and China than were ever killed by an oppressive church, but the Communists had a point when they described religion as an opiate of the people. Hymn-singing and rousing sermons are almost as essential as a ready supply of munitions in any war effort. In Easter 2004, young American soldiers in Iraq were preparing to storm Fallujah. This is what they were told:

Today is Palm Sunday. The day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he broke the bounds of Hell. Tonight commences your triumphal entry into Fallujah, a place in the bounds of Hell. This is a spiritual battle, and you Marines are the tools of mercy.

It is incredible that the only passage in the Bible which even many of the most conservative of Christians oppose taking literally is the Sermon on the Mount. But the words Jesus spoke that day are echoing through the centuries and continuing to astound and challenge peoples of every nation. He said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth’. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well... You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

This is not a manifesto for the overthrow and destruction of people and societies. Rather, it’s a mission to transform them with love and faith in the riches and justice of a heavenly Father.

So much of the story of the Israelites’ experiences in the Promised Land is the tale of people who cannot quite believe God will provide for them the way He has said He will.

Their dread of their crops failing and their fear and sometimes envy of their neighbours was so great that they persistently worshipped other gods. This led them into disgusting practices such as infant sacrifice.

Superstitious fears of evil forces and bad luck are responsible for some of the most dreadful crimes in history. The craze for witch-hunting in Europe was an example of lousy theology combining with hysteria and mob rule. Philip Jenkins wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:

As recently as [2001] at least 1,000 alleged witches were hacked to death in a single ‘purge’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Far from declining with urbanisation, fear of witches has intensified. Since the collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime, in 1994, witchcraft has emerged as a primary social fear in Soweto, with its three million impoverished residents.

Christ’s Gospel is a message of love which drives out fear. Communities where it is preached should have their terror transformed into the certainty they are loved, guarded and owned by a God who calls them his children.

The Bible is starkly clear that the wages of sin is death, but the fact that you and I are alive today is proof that God has chosen not to give this world the punishment it deserves. God chooses to love, to forgive, to redeem and to set free. Just as Jesus told the woman the religious zealots had wanted to stone for adultery that she should “go and sin no more”, this is the only message a church made up of forgiven sinners is entitled to preach.

This is the authentic Christianity which has blessed, is blessing and will bless the world. It is a proclamation of what God has done for us.

So when we see examples in history of the use of the name of Christ to hurt and steal, we are not looking at flaws in the Christian faith, but at an abuse of that name - a true blasphemy.

Jesus seemed to anticipate that dreadful things would be done in his name in the times which lay ahead. This may be why he told the parable of the sheep and the goats, and why Matthew wrote it down:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you. When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

They also will answer, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these you did not do for me.

Sometimes Christians have been so shocked by the decadence of denominations and the lifestyles of the communities around them that they have retreated away from society completely and fostered a faith characterised by isolation from the very people for whom Christ died. While such believers may have good intentions, it’s a tragedy when a message of joy to the world is hidden.

Resisting sin while showing practical love and recognising the worth of people created in the image of God is a challenge which has always been at the heart of Jewish and Christian worship. The Apostle James declared:

Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and windows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

We need to pray we will spot pollution when we see it. It can come in the most religious of guises. Jesus warned:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them... “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

One of the best defences against the lure of false teachers must be to try and grasp the wonder of what God has done and prepared for us. If Christ was prepared to die to create the Church - people united with him in the Holy Spirit - there must be something wonderful here.

Once Nazism had perished, Karl Barth was asked what advice he had for young people. He replied, “They should know their Bibles and they should love people.”
The truth is, as he noted, we assemble here today at the summons of our King. The Church which started in locked doors in Jerusalem can now be found in every time zone, uniting the richest and the poorest peoples of the Earth.

We have made great mistakes and we may make greater ones. But this manifestation of the human habit of messing up the most beautiful things - something we have been doing since the Garden of Eden - should in no way distract us from the joy and the mission which Jesus passed on to those he was not ashamed to call brothers:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you to the very end of the age.


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