Sunday, April 7, 2013

God's revelation: war or peace?

Texts: Revelation 1 1-8 (Alpha and Omega); Luke 24 13-35 (road to Emmaus)

When we think about Canadian teenagers today, what worries might come to mind? Drug and alcohol abuse? Unplanned pregnancies? Lack of job opportunities? There do seem to be a lot of pitfalls facing young people today.

In this sermon, I focus on a new danger facing young Canadians -- religious conversion! This thought came to my mind as news unfolded this week of three men from London Ontario who converted to a radical form of Islam in high school. Two of them participated in a deadly terrorist attack in Algeria in January in which they themselves were killed. The third has been in jail in Mauritania for several months for reasons not yet disclosed.

More information will probably become known about these three men as journalists and police dig deeper into their story. But there is little doubt that the two who attacked a gas plant in Algeria, who participated in the murder of 40 hostages, and who were themselves killed when Algerian forces moved against them were motivated at least in part by their love of God and their devotion to a particular religious path.

I mention this incident not to denigrate Islam. Islam arose out of Judaism and Christianity and it is the third great faith of the people of Abraham. For 700 years, from 800 to 1500, Islam was the largest religion in the world. Today, it is second in size and influence only to Christianity.

Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam preaches peace. The very word Islam means wholeness, safety and peace. A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God and follows the five pillars of the faith: testimony to God, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. The Holy Book of Islam, the Koran, uplifts Abraham, Moses and Jesus as prophets of God. From the little that I know about Islam, it seems to be as legitimate a path to God as is Christianity. 

So how can conversion to this great religion of peace lead young Canadians to engage in terrorist activity? Of the three men implicated in terrorism in this week's news reports, one was born into a Muslim family. One was raised Roman Catholic. The third was raised Greek Orthodox. How could their high school conversion lead them to commit horrific crimes?

To tackle this question, I look at today's Scripture readings. They present us with two different ways that God might be revealed to us and two different approaches to the role of peace and violence in the religious life.

The Gospel reading is about two followers of Jesus who have their faith tested and then renewed. They have been devastated by the events of Good Friday and confused by the news of Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday morning that Jesus' tomb is empty. Later that day, they encounter the risen Christ as they walk home from Jerusalem.

Given how powerful Jesus' teaching and healing was in Galilee, I can understand why these two men would have followed him to Jerusalem. Given their love for Jesus, I can understand how his arrest and crucifixion would have devastated them. Finally, I can understand why they are walking away from Jerusalem in pain and confusion.

But then Jesus joins them as they walk. At first they do not recognize their crucified and risen friend. It is only when Jesus breaks and blesses the bread at supper that their eyes are opened to the fact that he is Jesus.

At this point, Jesus disappears. With renewed enthusiasm, the two then run back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. They tell them that Jesus has opened their eyes to the meaning of their faith and revealed himself in the act of breaking bread. We can assume that from this point onwards these two will redouble their devotion to Jesus and their work for God's realm.

But will they also become dangerous converts like the three young men in London Ontario? Will the conversion of these two disciples on the road to Emmaus lead them to become violent?

The path of Jesus, like that of Islam, is one of peace. In the very next verse in the Gospel of Luke that follows our reading today, and which we will read in church next Sunday as we finish Luke's story of the resurrection, Jesus greets his disciples with the phrase "Peace be with you."

But despite the peace preached by Jesus, Christian churches have often been involved in horrific violence. Christianity tried to stop the rise of Islam 900 years ago with the Crusades. Over a span of 200 years, tens of thousands of European soldiers responded to the calls of successive popes to journey to what is now Israel and Palestine where they fought the Islamic rulers who ruled the Holy Land. These Christian soldiers slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims, but in the end, they gave up all the territory they had won.

Christianity eventually did regain its status over Islam as the world's largest religion following the European conquest of the Americas after 1492. The church supported these conquests and used the power of the state to force conquered peoples to become Christians.

Christianity, then, is hardly immune from the use of war and violence to spread the faith and achieve the aims of the church.

Today, no one in the church still advocates war as a method of conversion. Some terrorists do claim to be Christian, such as the Norwegian who killed 77 young people at a summer camp in 2011. Fortunately, horrific incidents of terror done in the name of Christ are few and far between.

The same can be said for Islam. Of the one billion Muslims in the world, only a tiny handful believe that they can achieve God's will through terror.

This existence of religious terrorists has a negative impact on the standing of all religions. Since the terror attacks on the United States in September 2001, church attendance has fallen sharply in Canada and the United States. Many people now turn their backs on religion in part because small groups of fanatics use religion as a cover for violence.

Our first Scripture reading from Revelation points to the attraction that violence has for some Christians. Many of us love Revelation's strange imagery of a New Jerusalem: a city made with precious jewels, shining with divine light, and containing the tree of life. But there are also images of extreme violence in it: the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, winged lions, earthquakes, plagues, and painful death for most people.

Revelation was written by a Christian named John about 60 years after Jesus' resurrection.  As a disciple of Jesus, John suffers in prison at the hand of the Romans. He knows the injustice of Empire first hand. In response to his hardships, he writes what is perhaps the most violent work ever to be canonized as Holy Scripture.

The only hint of that violence in the short reading we heard today is the phrase "all the tribes of the earth will wail." But what follows in Revelation are horrific descriptions of war and mass killings.

Revelation, for all that we might love about it, shows that violence appeals to some who love God. When we feel inspired by God's love and are also aware of the terrible injustices of the world, we may be tempted to take the shortcut of violence to try to reach God's promised new Jerusalem.

Jesus on the road to Emmaus points to a better way, I believe. As he walks with the two disciples, Jesus explains the connections between the Hebrew Scriptures and his own death and resurrection. He shows them how the defeat of God and the dashing of Israel's hopes can  lead to the resurrection of Love. Finally, he reveals himself in the breaking of bread.

At the Last Supper the week before, Jesus had given his friends the sacrament of communion. In sharing bread and wine with friends and in giving thanks to God we experience the Risen Christ.
Christ is best revealed not in the fantastical visions of war and death found in Revelation. Christ is revealed while breaking bread at table. In this humble and common activity, we experience the flame of God within and between us.

Experiencing God at the communion table may inspire us to resist injustice. But holy communion also reminds us that Jesus did not lead an army against Rome. Instead, he sacrificed himself on the cross in solidarity with all who bear our cross . . .

Now, despite what I have said so far, I don't worry that many young Canadians will become violent fanatics. The reality for most young people today is a lack of enthusiasm and engagement much more than it is religious or political fanaticism.

Think for instance of the nine young people who were confirmed in Fife Lake and Coronach last May. To be frank, I would be surprised if any of them show up in church again before they graduate from high school.

But regardless of their attachment to the church, we can be sure that they, like any of us, will experience God throughout their lives. When they draw a connection between such moments and Christ, I trust that it will be with the Christ as revealed at the Lord's Table and not with the warrior Christ of Revelation.

Three young men in London Ontario came to know and love God in high school. Unfortunately, they used the inspiration of this conversion to follow a disastrous path of violence.

John, the author of Revelation, came to know and love God in one of the early Christian communities. Unfortunately, he used his inspiration to imagine war as the way of Christ.

In contrast to this, our meals at the Lord's Table remind us of Jesus' path of peace. They remind us that God's Love is found in simple acts of hospitality. They remind us that we can resist injustice through acts of love and not through acts of violence.

Moments when God is reavealed can be powerful and and hence dangerous. But when we allow our hearts to be broken open in a meal of bread and wine that reminds us of Jesus' sacrifice and love, we avoid the dangers. We remain followers of Christ without succumbing to the violence of crusades or conquests and without the need of the violent images found in Revelation.

In a few minutes, we will gather again around the Lord's Table. In this simple meal, we will experience God. It will be a taste a love that renounces violence even as it points to lives and our world transformed.

Thanks be to God.


1 comment:

  1. Revelation does have violent images, and too many have used those to justify their own violence. Indeed, not only terrorists, but mainstream leaders (political and military) have used such passages (and the Old Testament) to justify modern wars. For Revelation, since it is an "apocalyptic literature," known for its heavy use of symbolism, it is also possible to interpret its violence as symbolic of conflict between heaven and earth, like that in Rev. 2-3, where Christ from heaven warns (with the "sword" from his mouth) churches on earth (so they will not join in the literal violence of the "beasts" that rule the earth).