A dozen years ago this month, a campaign of vicious genocidal slaughter began in Rwanda. In just three months, 850,000 Rwandans were killed. Theologian and ethicist David Gushee asked how such brutality could have occurred in "the most Christianized country in Africa." Churches, seminaries, schools and benevolent organizations were scattered all over the country. Ninety percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians. "And yet," Gushee writes, "all of that Christianity did not prevent genocide, a genocide which church officials did little to resist, in which a large number of Christians participated, and in which, according to African Rights, 'more people died in churches and parishes than anywhere else.'" (David P. Gushee, "Church Failure, Remembering Rwanda" in The Christian Century, April 20, 2004, p. 28)
Pondering the failure of the church and Christians to prevent Rwandan genocide, Gushee also reminds us that Germany was a pervasively Christian nation, yet the vast majority of German Christians were loyal to--or at least silent in the face of--Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Christians were complicit in the Holocaust. Gushee could likewise have noted that white South African Christians were the architects of apartheid, that most American slaveholders were Christians, and that, during the Crusades, Christian soldiers, marching behind the banner of the cross, killed thousands of Muslims and Jews.
Who knows how much damage has been done by Christians who have failed to live by the ways of Jesus? Priests abusing children committed to their care; ministers committing adultery with their parishioners; church officials pocketing money they pilfered from the offering plate; and angry demonstrators waving placards that blaspheme a God of love by claiming that God hates. And what of the damage we do to our own hearts and minds when we are driven by greed more than gratitude, by pride more than humility, by competition more than mutuality, by selfishness more than service?
Reflecting on Rwanda, but his words apply more broadly, David Gushee said:
"The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees - they guarantee nothing."
Why is that?
* Because not everyone who claims to be Christian has yielded to Jesus' command that "we love our neighbors as ourselves" and has not understood the lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: Everyone is my neighbor.
* Because we can never be sure of the motivations that bring people to worship, we are here for more reasons than we know, probably for more reasons than we can imagine.
* Because Christian people are influenced, not just by Jesus Christ, but by social, economic and political systems and by assumptions, ideas, loyalties and feelings that are at odds with the gospel.
In other words, it cannot be assumed that Christians are actually following Jesus.
It is urgent, for the sake of the church and of the whole world, that we become people who are unswervingly committed to the will and way of Jesus. People who are bending every energy of their lives to become more and more like him will be agents of reconciliation and understanding, of healing and hope, of love and mercy. To put it simply, "Jesus people" will make the world a better place.
God wants to make us like Jesus. That is the clear message of our text from the First Letter of John: "When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." God intends to work in us, with us, and on us until we fully reflect the spirit and character of Jesus.
As a child, I got the impression that God was mainly concerned about life after death. Nearly the whole point of salvation seemed to be to stay out of hell and get into heaven. But, even as a child, it seemed to me, even though I never said much about it, that if God's main purpose was to get people into heaven, then conversion would ideally be followed, not by baptism, but by a funeral, since everything else in life would pale in significance to the day on which we got our eternal destinies settled. I realized later, of course, that my impression of what God was concerned about was incomplete at best. God's concern is that we become like Jesus Christ-people who live with a passionate concern that the will and way of God be done on earth as they are in heaven.
In her autobiography, Gertrude Stein described an exchange she had with Pablo Picasso. Even though he had painted a portrait of her, he did not immediately recognize her. Stein wrote: "I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Yes, he said, somebody said that she does not look like it, but that doesn't make any difference, she will." You and I are growing into the image of Jesus; and even though there are days when we do not seem to be very much like him, we will be one day. In the end, as Carroll Simcox beautifully put it, "You and I shall be our real, complete selves for the first time ever. We think of ourselves now as human beings. We really aren't that - not yet. We are human becomings. The fetus conceived only yesterday is a human becoming. If you are living in Christ, believing in him and trying to follow and obey him as the master of your life, you are by his grace, becoming ever more and more like him."
To say that God is in the process of making us like Jesus Christ does not mean that God is cloning us into exact replicas of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, a wonderful and gracious paradox at the heart of the gospel is that the more we become like Jesus, the more we become our truest selves. Don Wardlaw once said that "to be yoked to Christ is to be a soul companion with the authentic self God intends for us to be." As we discover deeper dimensions of Christ-likeness, we uncover more and more of our honest-to-God selves.
Jesus is the pattern and the power, the model and the source, of authentic human life. We are meant to have what he had and has:
* a radical and liberating faith in God;
* a childlike trust in the grace of God;
* a trembling wonder before the mystery of life;
* a durable hope that, because we are in God's hands, death and sorrow and pain and tears are not the end, but joy and wholeness and laughter are;
* an astonishing confidence that we and the world are headed, not toward midnight, but toward sunrise; and
* an undimmed awareness that the heart of all things is unconditional and compassionate love.
How can we become as human as Jesus? Genuine transformation is not a self-help exercise or a do-it-yourself project. It is God's work. Transformation happens as God convinces us we that we are loved-that, like Jesus, we are God's beloved children. The elder John could not contain his wonder at that truth: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are." The words God spoke to Jesus at his baptism are words God speaks also to us: "You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased." We are invited to experience a relationship with God that embraces and transcends our fondest experiences of both father and mother. God's love for us is tender and strong, reassuring and challenging, nurturing and empowering. God's arms of welcome and affirmation are always open to us. We are God's children. We are loved.
That deep down assurance that we are loved empowers us to join Jesus in his compassion for our broken planet, his passion for peace, his hunger and thirst for justice, his welcoming embrace of the excluded and his tender mercy toward sinners. Beloved children of God, remember those whom the rest of the world forgets, keep company with the fallen and the downtrodden, work to turn strangers into friends, and labor for reconciliation among enemies. That is why the Letter to the Romans says: "The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." The transformation of creation is bound up with our transformation. "Beloved," the elder John wrote, "we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." And, beloved, what the world will be has not yet been revealed either. But when it is, it will, at last, be as God always intended: a place of unmarred beauty, unbroken peace, unquenchable joy and unending love.
O God, work in our minds and hearts until we think and feel like Jesus and give us courage to join him in loving and healing the world. We pray, as we would live, in his name. Amen.
(Carroll Simcox, in James W. Cox, ed., Best Sermons 5. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1992).
(Don Wardlaw, in Thomas G. Long and Neely Dixon McCarter, eds. Preaching in and out of Season, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990.)