Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Hour Has Come

Jesus said, 'An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.'
There is nothing prophetic about this saying, of course. There have always been people who believed that by killing someone else they were offering worship to God. Jesus' own enemies were motivated by religious zeal when they had him crucified.
Ironically, the persecutors of the early Christians sometimes attacked them for being atheists and denying the existence of the gods, because they refused to worship idols. And, as soon as they got their own hands on the levers of power, Christians began killing one another for believing the wrong things. They were even more enthusiastic about killing the followers of other faiths – especially Islam – whose expansion for a long time threatened the very existence of Christianity. Those who killed the Church's mortal enemies were easily persuaded that they were offering worship to God.
For most of our lives these destructive and primitive ideas seemed like ancient history, but they were still festering beneath the surface of contemporary events, waiting for a chance to break out again. In countries as far apart as America and Indonesia, Nigeria and Britain, Muslims and Christians have been killing each other again with renewed intensity since 9/11. Often, these murderous attacks have been carried out by mobs motivated by simple thoughts of revenge or by an 'us and them' mentality, but sometimes people have sincerely believed that by killing the followers of another religion, or even someone who didn't agree with them, they were worshipping God. That seems to have been the motive for the July 7 attacks on London. They were carefully planned expressions of devotion to God.
Of course, Jesus says that whenever people think that killing someone is an expression of worship, they are wrong. Those who do this, he says, 'Have not known the Father or me.'
Nevertheless, Jesus is under no illusion that both Christians and the followers of other faiths will – from time to time – convince themselves that it is not only right to kill their opponents, but that it is a way of offering worship to God. To imagine that religion is only ever a force for good is, sadly, just as misguided as imagining that it is always a force for harm.
The only safeguard against getting religion wrong is to be open to God's Spirit. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of people who claimed that it was God's Spirit which was urging them to commit murder, but that doesn't change the fact that listening to the true Spirit of God is the only way to guarantee having the right understanding of sin, righteousness and judgement.
Sin is not about being different. Fundamentalists imagine that anyone who disagrees with their harsh version of religious faith is a sinner. If you have a different point of view, or different politics, or a different lifestyle, or a different kind of faith, you deserve to die. And, in fairness, that's the view which Christian crusaders have adopted just as stridently as Muslim suicide bombers. But it's wrong! Sin is not about being different from the true followers of God. Sin is about not knowing God and, since God is love, anyone who teaches us to hate our fellow human beings does not know God and must be every bit as much of a sinner as the people they are targeting.
Righteousness is not about being better than other people – about drawing a distinction between those who deserve to die and those who do not. It's about being like Jesus, and since Jesus has gone to the Father, only the witness of the true Spirit of God can remind us what Jesus is really like. Without the advocacy of the Holy Spirit, we shall be tempted to remake Jesus in our own image and even – in extreme cases – to come up with a murderous and hateful image of Jesus, an image which seems to be encouraging us to kill other people as an act of worship. That is not the righteous Jesus. Nor is a murderous God, the righteous God of Islam.
And judgement is not about visiting God's wrath on other people, whom we happen to think deserve it. The judgement of the world is not ours to decide. It has already taken place, on the Cross, and the values of this world have already been condemned. But these ungodly values have not been judged by blowing their followers to pieces or by putting them to the sword. They have been judged by one man's innocent death to bring attention to a radical new way of living, a way of complete obedience to God's love and complete submission to God's will. Any religious movement which is triumphalist, which seeks to impose its will on other people whether they like it or not, has nothing to do with the true Spirit of God which points us to the Cross.
As we face new situations and new challenges, like global warming and the best way to control new and hazardous, but potentially beneficial, scientific discoveries, we shall have to turn increasingly to the guidance of the Spirit. The answers to every question will not be contained in the Scriptures because problems like the right way to use genetic engineering were not even on the radar screen when the Bible was written. But how will we know that we are listening to the right Spirit? The answer, says Jesus, is that the right Spirit gives glory to him – and to his way of righteousness and love.

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