Thanks to Martha Spong, of North Yarmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, for her blog post that inspired this sermon.
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Luke 24:13-35
Giving all glory and honour to God.
On this Mother’s Day, as I miss my mother, I remember that she had lots of mysterious folk wisdom. If your nose itched, it meant that you were going to kiss a fool. If you dropped a fork, a man was coming over. You could predict a baby’s gender by dangling a needle over the mother’s stomach. And a lot of the time this stuff came true. And both stories this morning have elements that are just as mysterious and unbelievable. How could the couple walking with a stranger from Jerusalem to Emmaus not recognize that he was Jesus? How could he just disappear after they recognized him as he blessed and broke the bread? How could 3000 people have their lives changed as they were baptized after Peter’s sermon?
It seems impossible. But it also seemed impossible when 3000 people had their lives changed, in New York and Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2001. Their lives were taken away from them. And this week we have thought of that day, and those lives, and how our lives changed, too. On Sunday night I was using my computer, and on Twitter there was an announcement that President Obama would make an unscheduled national security announcement at 10:30. I just thought, uh oh. In movies this usually means that a meteor or comet is heading for the earth, or we have contacted aliens. But soon we knew that American commandos had killed Osama bin Laden.
And celebrations broke out in the United States. This is understandable, that people felt joy that a figure who had done such harm to Americans and so many others was dead, that they finally had a real victory in the war on terror, that this was part of healing the wounds of 9/11. And I can’t judge anyone who was celebrating. I only know what I believe our faith tells me as a follower of Jesus Christ about how I, and maybe we, can react to news like this.
Osama bin Laden was a criminal responsible for the mass murder of many innocent people, and exploiting and twisting the Islamic religion to promote hatred and division. As far as we know, he never showed any remorse for the harm he caused, and in fact bragged about it. Many Christians feel relief that he is no longer able to threaten us, and that is a legitimate reaction. But faced with the death of a person, I as a Christian cannot rejoice. That’s the way I see it. I can’t view the death of anyone, no matter how reprehensible their actions and beliefs, as an occasion for street parties like a win for a sports team.
Others have said that, hearing of bin Laden’s death, they had to rejoice in this news, and their faith justified them doing so. They could point to, among others, the song sung by the Hebrews in the book of Exodus when the Egyptian army was drowned in the sea, and the verses in Ecclesiastes, there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance, a time to love and a time to hate. And that is true. But it also says in the Old Testament, in Proverbs, ‘Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.’ The prophet Ezekiel quotes God as saying, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.’ And Jesus tells us, in words that we discussed here in February, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’
Let the wicked turn from their ways, and live. Osama bin Laden seemed bent on not turning from his ways. He was probably plotting the deaths of more people. So what do we do when the wicked will not turn away? Augustine, one of the great figures of the ancient church, said, yes, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but there are times when love requires us to go to the aid of the innocent and to turn the wicked from their ways by using violence in the cause of justice. War could sometimes be a necessity to obtain peace, Augustine thought. Yet, he continued, even in war we as Christians must cherish the spirit of peacemakers. War is only a last resort in a just cause that tries to restore peace. It cannot be used for revenge and retribution on our enemies.
Although both the president and our prime minister say that justice has been done, for many people killing bin Laden is revenge. And as followers of Jesus we cannot bask in the satisfaction of vengeance. Now, refusing to embrace revenge does not mean that, even if we find it in our hearts to forgive bin Laden for his crimes, we forget his deeds, or his victims. But if we accept the unfortunate necessity of violence in our broken world, we must also recognize that all bloodshed, no matter how justified, only perpetuates the cycle of violence and counter-violence. This week, bin Laden may be dead, but there is still terrorism, there are still wars, and we know that his death will bring retaliation someday. The cycle continues.
Jesus shows us a better way. The couple who walk with him on the way to Emmaus tell him how disappointed they are, how Jesus had been a great prophet but was put to death. They had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel. They had hoped he was the Christ, the Messiah, but the Messiah they expected, the warrior king who would expel the Roman occupiers from their land with arms and bloodshed. And so they don’t recognize Jesus, because he is not what they expect. And, so often, we don’t either, because we expect Jesus to follow us in the violent ways of the world we have made, rather than us following him in his way.
God refuses to oppose evil with evil. On the cross Jesus does not retaliate with violence against those who use violence; instead, he forgives them. And he rises from death to overcome evil and death. At Good Friday and Easter, Jesus conquers the hatred that inspires violence, and the revenge that inspires counter-violence, exposing the lie that makes this cycle of violence inevitable. He is not a warrior, but a lover, who gives himself in love rather than take life, who extends God’s healing love to all who suffer, and the forgiving love of God to all who use violence for their purposes – yes, even Osama bin Laden.
Jesus comes to bring the kingdom of God, whose story denies the story of the violent world where we live. We are trying as followers of Jesus to live in and to extend this realm of God, the realm of love and justice and peace, while living at the same time in a world of hatred and domination and brutality. We are citizens of heaven, yet with responsibilities and duties as citizens of Canada. And that is a struggle. That’s why there is no one Christian response to the death of Osama bin Laden, or the war in Afghanistan, or the war in Libya. There are many legitimate reactions as different believers interpret Scripture and their reason and experiences and tradition. The Apostle Paul tells the Philippians, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, and that is what each of us is trying to do as we are confronted with how we can respond in faith to issues of war and peace.
As I said, it is understandable that pent up rage and fear that has lasted nearly 10 years burst into celebration on Sunday. But I think that this could have been, and can still be, a somber time, a time for serious reflection, not a time to dance and chant slogans. A death like this should cause us to ponder the serious responsibilities each of us has before God to follow Jesus in his way of peace, and to commit ourselves to working for God’s realm of peace, and love, and justice. Osama bin Laden was about hatred, and division, and death. We cannot be.
Jesus says, all who draw the sword will die by the sword. He knew how much we love to get revenge, and how vengeance just spirals into an unending cycle of bloodshed. He knew that we are trapped in webs of violence that seem inescapable in this world. We cannot figure out ways for peoples to live together without war being a necessity to keep peace.
Yet there is hope. Look back through the story of the week before Easter, to Thursday night, when Jesus goes with his friends to the garden to pray. Peter and the others, knowing that Jesus is in danger, do what makes sense to them to protect him – they bring weapons. And when the authorities arrive to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and strikes at one of them, and wounds him.
Peter, like us, is trapped in the violence of our world. He, like us, knows no other way to respond to threats. He, like us, can’t see how we can live in peace and security without threatening death and harm.
Yet Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword. And here Peter is in our reading today, preaching to the people of Jerusalem, ‘Repent every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. The promise is for you, for your children, for all who are far away, everyone whom God calls. Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Peter who drew the sword in anger has been changed by the words and the resurrection of Jesus into Peter who preaches the good news of peace, Peter who brings people into the community of Jesus who died and rose again to show that love is stronger than hatred. Peter is doing what he can to extend God’s realm, for true peace does not come because an enemy has been killed, but because God’s realm is at hand.
One of the earliest calls to celebrate Mother’s Day was in 1870. Julia Ward Howe, who earlier had written the hymn Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, wrote her Mother’s Day Proclamation in reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War. She stated that women need to say firmly, our sons cannot be trained to injure the sons of the women of another country. And she continued, the sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Women must meet to commemorate the dead, and then solemnly decide how the human family can live in peace.
On Mother’s Day, a day originally intended to be dedicated to peace, the news is still dominated by violence fostering more violence. Bin Laden is dead but little else has changed. Yet we are called, as Peter was called, as Julia Ward Howe called to other mothers, to be peacemakers. We are called to grieve, for the thousands who were murdered on September 11 and the lives that were changed, for the thousands who have died in the wars that followed, for those who will die as these wars drag on for years to come. We are called to pray, for the world, for our leaders, for the common good, for God’s kingdom to come. And we are called to look at ourselves and the opportunities we have to make peace. We are called to let Jesus and his resurrection change us as Peter was changed, called to travel the way with Jesus like that couple on the way to Emmaus, walk with him on the way to peace, not just in the imperfect choices we must make in matters of war and national security, but especially to build peace right here in our families and our community. And maybe then we will reach out to a stranger, and in gestures of friendship we will recognize Jesus, and we will run back to the community with this good news and to embody the grace and love of Christ. May it be so.