Asking the question – Br. Robert L’Esperance

robertHilary of Poitiers

1 John 2:18-25
Luke 12:8-12

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.  And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Hard words, very hard words; and words that seem to me rather uncharacteristic of the Jesus portrayed for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Luke.

Luke’s gospel has been described as the loveliest book ever written.  Personally, I love the Jesus portrayed for us in this Gospel.  Luke often describes Jesus in prayer.  Luke’s Jesus knows who he is and he understands his mission in the world.  He moves consciously and deliberately toward Jerusalem.  He is the divine-savior.

Luke’s Jesus is a healer of both bodies and souls.  It is in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus restores the ear of the High Priest’s servant cut off by a follower’s sword who in his agony on the cross promises a repentant criminal, “…today you will be with me in paradise.”  He is kind, compassionate, and tender toward all who come to him in need.

Even though Luke worked hard to give us a “lovely” Jesus, he, along with Mark and Matthew, preserved this hard saying about what has come to be called the sin against the Holy Spirit.  I don’t know if you are like me but it is my tendency to move quickly over these kinds of gospel “hard words.” They make me uncomfortable.  My first inclination in reading this text was to find something else to speak about.

I came to this community almost sixteen years ago.  And I continue to come to terms with the reality that the spiritual life is often about living into parts of our lives that we would rather avoid.  And I believe that this view must apply to how we read the Scripture.  These words are there and I think that we are meant to come to terms with their implications.  I think that it is worth asking the question:  Why is this saying preserved even in the “loveliest book ever written?”

Jesus’ first century Jewish audience did not understand the Holy Spirit in the Christian sense, as the third person of the Trinity.  To a first century Jew, God’s holy spirit conveyed truth to men and allowed the mind of man to grasp that truth.  Jesus knew something about human nature: as beings, created with free will, we can turn away from truth; we can refuse to grasp the truth of God.  The truth that it is God’s will that we should be saved.  Our free will extends that far.

What I think Jesus is saying is that it is possible for us to repeatedly and habitually turn away from God’s mercy.  Jesus is saying that it is possible for a human being to become so completely unaware of God’s goodness and mercy that that person can become unaware of sin.  When this awareness is dead, repentance, the very act of turning to God, becomes impossible.  We can, in essence, become dead to God’s power to save.

The gift of our free will is an awesome responsibility.  Evil can habituate itself.  You know that if you read newspapers or watch television news.  We can get comfortable with evil.  It is real and none of us is immune to its power.  If we search into our consciousness each of us can verify that statement for ourselves.

Jesus knew the power of evil.  He faced it continually.  He struggled against it and he embraced our struggle against it as his own.

I’ve been thinking a lot about love in the face of evil, lately.  During Advent and Christmastide, I read a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth century German Christian theologian who wrestled with Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies.1  Bonhoeffer, some of you will remember, lived in the midst of the horrors of Nazi Germany.  His life ended as a victim of that horror when he was murdered in a Gestapo prison only days before Soviet Armies completed the final assault on Berlin.

Many people believe that Bonhoeffer was involved in the July, 1944 plot to kill Hitler.  But, the book argues that Bonhoeffer was and remained a convinced pacifist, faithful to his theological positions, never abandoning his understanding that violence is irreconcilable with Christ’s teachings.  His final theological work Ethics remains thoroughly engaged with Jesus’ non-violent teaching of love for our enemies.

Bonhoeffer was a vehement critic of Christianity and its compromises with state power and authority.  He famously said that it wasn’t Hitler that needed to be converted but rather it Christians that needed to be converted.  He condemned both historical and contemporary failures of the church to condemn violence and human degradation whenever and wherever it shows its ugly face.  While we might currently be caught up in non-Christians killing Christians we probably should remember that Christians have been slaughtering other Christians for at least the last 1,800 years.  It’s not exactly as though we are in a position to claim some sort of moral high ground as much as we might incline to do so.

I am not an expert on geo-politics, Christian-Muslim relations, Islam, the Muslim understanding of jihad, or why people kill in the name of God.  In fact, I’m not an authority on anything.  Which might lead you to ask, “So why are you standing up there talking to us?”

Frankly, I’m not quite sure. Except that maybe like you, I’m just struggling with how to love others as our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ commands us to love.  Maybe I’m asking myself if I engage and struggle with Jesus’ hard teachings.  And if so, how do I do that?  Do I have the courage and perseverance to do so?  Am I willing to say “no” to violence and killing even in the face of violence and killing?  Am I willing to take the same kind of radical stance that got Jesus nailed to a tree?  Am I convinced that I am called to do so?

Bonhoeffer insisted that Jesus was not a moral teacher and that he wasn’t interested in whether a person is good or bad.  The only thing that Jesus is interested in is love.  In each and every instance of moral decision, said Bonhoeffer, we must again decide anew to hear and respond to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the God-man.

He went on to say that in the same way we must personally decide whether we are Jesus’ disciples or not.  And if we say that we are Jesus’ disciples what difference does that make?  Does my discipleship make any difference at all in how I respond to violence and what I say about our collective response to it?

Can any of us afford to become so habituated to evil that we are willing to make peace with it?  Isn’t that what we are doing if our response to violence is more violence?  Have we become so habituated to violence that we are unable to even imagine non-violence as a real, viable alternative?

Like I said, I’m no expert, but I just can’t help asking the question.

  1. Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.

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  1. Stewart on February 3, 2016 at 16:18

    I’ve just read the hatred and distain on Twitter spewed at Potus for his comments on bigotry and the need to protect believers of all faiths. What the comments portray is a misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslims who follow that faith. They should NEVER be grouped with jihadists who have their own interpretation of Islam for their political and zealous objectives.

    Remember that the apartheid government in South Africa based apartheid on their interpretation of their “christian” beliefs too! Should I condemn all Christians too?

    Peace, Shalom, Salaam!

  2. Louise on January 16, 2015 at 09:30

    Thank you for these insights. They helped me this morning as I have been wondering about the church’s response to jihadists. Jesus did tell us to love our enemies and pray for those who abuse us. Maybe we need a day of prayer and fasting for those Muslims who hate us so vehemently. Come Holy Spirit and fill their hearts with the fire of your love. And renew our hearts as we pray.

  3. Glenn Empey on January 15, 2015 at 15:34

    Thank you. A very thoughtful and authentic homily that provides much helpful food for thought.

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