Monday, April 22, 2013

Terror and Resurrection

After wrestling all week to even mention the Boston Marathon bombing in my sermon on Sunday(thinking it might be good to have one hour where we didn't hear about all the bad news in the world), the intense media coverage surrounding the manhunt on Friday made me decide to address the problem of suffering and evil.

We had already planned on reading Acts 9:1-20, which tells of Saul's conversion from early church antagonist to apostle. We reflected on how there are no good answers to the problems of evil and suffering, but how followers of Jesus respond by telling the story of the God who loved us enough to enter into our suffering and redeem it by coming out on the other side.

You can listen to the audio here or on our church website, download it from, or subscribe in iTunes. If you're not into podcasts, a transcript is below. Comments and discussion are always welcome, but keep it on topic and respectful.

Terror and Resurrection 

Since we last gathered here to worship, a lot has happened. On Monday we saw a couple of homemade bombs transform the finish line of the Boston Marathon go from a place of victory and celebration to a place of fear and pain. On Wednesday an ammonia plant in West, Texas exploded, leveling houses and registering as a small earthquake on the richter scale. Then on Friday, we watched a massive manhunt shut down the greater Boston area as it all played out in real time on our TV screens. By the end of that very confusing day, one of the suspected bombers was dead, the other captured but barely alive after battles with police that seemed more like a movie than real life.

The events of this past week would have been hard enough by themselves, but the psychological scars from Newtown and the political football it became are still with us. We only have to say the names of places like Aurora, Tucson, Columbine, or the World Trade Center and instantly we recall many other images of horrific, senseless violence. We watch these things and we get overwhelmed. We wonder aloud, “what is going on in the world? Am I safe anywhere? Is my family safe anywhere?” Or we simply ask, “why?”

“Why?” Why, God, why? Where is God in all this? It doesn’t make sense. If God is good and just, and if God is all powerful, why do these things continue to happen? This awful tension between our basic claims about who God is and the reality of evil and suffering in the world are, for many people, the single biggest obstacle to faith. We in the church don’t help the situation when we give cheap answers to try and make this tension go away. We might try to paper it over with a quaint moral lesson as if that would somehow justify the death of innocent people. “Well, this was God’s way of bringing us together.” Or some preacher climbs into the pulpit or gets in front of a TV camera and says, “God allowed this to happen because of this particular person or group I don’t happen to like.”

In that spirit, I’d like to announce that God has allowed all the violence this week because the Louisville Cardinals won the NCAA basketball tournament. It makes about as much sense as blaming earthquakes on gay marriage. If Pat Robertson can do it, so can I.

Friends, the truth is that there is no way of making this tension go away. All of our attempts fall intellectually flat at best and at worst pervert and blaspheme the name of Jesus Christ. We can engage in some theological conversation about free will and God’s conscious self limitation, and that can help us gain some perspective, but at the end of the day that tension remains with us. So instead of trying to find a quick fix, an easy answer that will make it all go away, we’re better served by seeking ways to faithfully navigate this tension. We’ll let God do the solving and simply ask how do we faithfully live with and respond to the reality of evil and suffering in our world?

Jesus frequently responded to hard theological questions by telling a story, and that’s what the Bible does for us today. A while back we had decided to read Acts chapter 9 today, and here we find quite a story. Acts tells us how the church got its start, and how, much like their rabbi, Jesus, they had a talent for making people mad. One of their chief antagonists is a guy named Saul. Saul is every mother’s dream. He’s a nice boy who never missed church, he graduated at the top of his class in seminary and he’s among the most respected scholars of the Torah at a very young age.

The thing about Saul is, though, that he’s so passionate about his faith, that passion blinds him. He’s vulnerable to having that passion twisted by some very bad influences, and that’s exactly what happens. The high priest and others in the religious establishment encourage him to be passionate about a very rigid form of religious orthodoxy. His passion for that orthodoxy is so great that people who don’t conform to it aren’t simply misguided sinners, they’re evil. They should die.

So there’s this new group of heretics out there- a cult, really. They follow this uneducated rabbi who left his small, hick town, came to the big city of Jerusalem and managed to get himself killed. Served him right- he was leading people down the wrong path. But even after he died, his movement kept going, in fact it was gaining steam. Saul sees this Jesus movement, known as “The Way”, practically spitting on the Torah and the teachings of the elders. It’s such a threat to the true faith that, like their rabbi, these people deserved to die. That’s Saul’s thinking, and that suits the High Priest and the Sanhedrin just fine.

So here we find Saul “spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”. He’s arrested people and even gotten some mobs together to stone a few of them to death. Followers of The Way know who Saul is and they’re afraid of him. Another way to say that is they’re terrified of him. Saul is a fanatic religious terrorist.

Saul the terrorist is taking his campaign on the road, heading up to Damascus with the men and the means to commit more acts of terror, and out of nowhere, Jesus shows up. Now, this is a little strange because given how Saul has been acting up to this point, the only thing Jesus should be doing is coming down to smite this guy. “You messed with the wrong disciples- now everyone will know who the Son of God is!” But God has this weird way of confounding our expectations and showing us just how powerful he is, not through destroying, but through making something brand new.

Saul is riding along, plotting his next act of terror, and without warning there is a light from heaven so powerful it knocks him off his horse and blinds him. Saul the terrorist is all of a sudden lying on the ground, suddenly very afraid, and he hears a voice. “Saul, you think you are doing my work, but you’re actually persecuting me. You think you are powerful because you can kill and destroy. I’m about to show you what real power is.”

In one blinding moment, he goes from being powerful and in charge to powerless, being led by the hand because he can’t see. The one who brings him healing is the very target of his campaign of terror, a disciple named Annanias. When God tells Annanias to go find Saul and help him, he says, “um, Lord, have you not heard about this guy? He’s my enemy, he’s your enemy. And now you’ve put him out of business. Nice work, Lord!”

God says, “no. Any thug can kill and destroy. Acts of terror don’t make you powerful. I’m going to use Saul to do incredible things, and you’re all going to learn what real power is when you see me make your enemy into your friend.”

God is not in the revenge business. God does not respond to real or perceived slights with acts of divine terror. God does not fight fire with fire. God is not discovered at the root cause of violence and suffering and death. God is the one who comes right into the middle of violence and suffering and death and redeems it by proclaiming that it does not have the last word. Its effects, as terrible as they are, are temporary. God has claimed the last word and that word is: Resurrection.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the cross. It’s the ultimate instrument of pain and suffering, of humiliation and isolation. To the people of the first century Roman world, the very mention of a cross brought terror. Jesus takes the very worst we have, suffers and dies on the cross, then rises again, undoing the ultimate effects of suffering and violence, breaking the power of death once and for all.

So when the reality of a fallen, brutal world gets shoved in our face as it did this week and, I’m sorry to say, will happen again, we don’t respond by blaming the victim or trying to make the tension go away with some cheap excuse. We respond by telling the story of the God who loved us enough to enter into our suffering and emerging on the other side, not unscathed, but victorious. In the face of terror that claims to have the final word, we witness to God’s claim on the final word. That word is Resurrection. Life.

Saul the converted terrorist got a new name, a new identity: Paul. Many years later he wrote a letter to one of the many churches he planted all across the Mediterranean, in a place called Ephesus.

Paul wrote, “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” ~Ephesians 2:14-16

Hostilities will end. Violence and terror will end. Senseless suffering that causes existential crises and frustrated cries of “why, God, why?” will end. The noise of bombs and guns and sirens will fall silent, and all that will be heard is that one final word: Life. Eternal life.