Until Christians, or for that matter persons of other faiths or persons of no faith at all, stop dividing the world between the good and the evil, the insiders and the outsiders, the saved and the unsaved, those destined for heaven and those destined for hell, those who have the truth and those who do not, there is not much hope of God’s peaceable kingdom coming on earth.
Paul, in his correspondence with the Corinthians, says that Jesus, who we believe is God’s supreme agent of redemption and viceroy of God’s kingdom, “died for all, and therefore all died”—that is, in a mystical or symbolical or representative way we all died with Christ.
We are all in this together. We are all complicit in the evil, the hate and condemnation that killed Jesus; and we all have the potential to overcome evil with good. Good and evil run through every heart, flows through every body, touches every soul, infects and influences every person.
We are all—Christians and non-Christians, people of faith and people of no faith, religious, secular, or spiritual—we are all children of God.
If we do not let go of this dualistic way of thinking and acting that sees the “outsider,” the one outside our group, as someone less than a child of God, as someone who needs to change and become like us, we will not see or experience anything of the power and love of what Paul calls in this text, “the new creation.”
Western Christianity has been dominated by a dualistic way of thinking for most of its history. And it certainly hasn’t made us more loving or kind or hospitable or accepting or embracing of people different than us.
The best traditions of Jesus that have been passed down to us in our sacred Scriptures challenge our dualistic categories. Especially the tradition of the open table. Jesus welcomed all to open fellowship with him, without requiring any prerequisite in terms of faith, repentance, or moral change. Those who accepted his invitation to discipleship would certainly go through a process of moral transformation, but Jesus welcomed all to eat with him and offered to everyone his friendship. If we do not change our dualistic thinking, “our worldly point of view,” then we Christians will be more of an obstacle than a catalyst, more of a hindrance than an inspiration to God’s redemptive purpose in the world.
Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Athiest Jewish Christian, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell of his experience in New York in the twelve months that followed the terrorist attacks and about the opportunity they had to learn to love the city and its people.
But while he was waiting to go on the air, he heard the two cohosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. Disoriented and a bit dizzied by what he heard, he realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say; because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”
Selmanovic paused and said, “No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward, morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned,” he told his radio hosts, “that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”
The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They suddenly started talking about something else, as if their guest had said nothing at all. They cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. They obviously had no intention of even considering the possibility that their viewpoint could be wrong. Ponder the statement made by Selmanovic: “It is we Christians who need to be converted to the ways of Jesus.” That offers us a different perspective on our mission doesn’t it?
But then, maybe we are too much like the radio hosts and are so sure that we are right, that we have the answers, that we simply brush off the comment as irrelevant. It’s easy to do, especially since we have no shortage of preachers and Christian leaders who will tell us exactly what we want to hear. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic comments: “I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.” We will not experience the transforming grace and love and beauty of the new creation unless we Christians become converted to the ways of Jesus.
We gather here today in celebration of Easter and most of us have been led to believe that the primary meaning of the resurrection is that we will live forever with God. That’s not it at all. It is true, I believe, as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 in response to some of the disciples in Corinth who denied a future resurrection, that because we died with Christ we also will be raised with Christ; that we will have some spiritual, corporeal body like unto the body of Christ. That is part of our faith. But that comes to us as one of the benefits of the resurrection; that was not its main function.
There would have been no Jesus movement, no community of disciples committed to living in the way of Jesus, had these first disciples not encountered in some way the living Christ. Their experience of the living Christ confirmed that God was at work in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ appearances to them alive from the dead served to vindicate the life he lived that culminated in a cruel, humiliating, and painful Roman execution.
The way Paul expresses this faith here in our text is that God was reconciling the world to God’s self in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. God was present in Jesus, in his life and teachings, in his healings and confrontations with the religious authorities, and especially in his ignoble and violent death on the cross. And herein lies the message and ministry of reconciliation; herein is revealed the transforming power of forgiveness.
God sustained and strengthened Jesus, God was present, not in coercive power, but in persuasive power, bearing up Jesus so that Jesus could bear the hate and cruelty and animosity of the powers that be without lashing out, without returning evil for evil, without reacting in kind. God, acting in Jesus, bore the evil of humanity, represented by the wrath and judgment of the religious and political powers that killed him.
So what did God do in and through Jesus? God forgave them. In Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion Jesus prays on behalf of his tormentors and killers, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is the power of the cross.
This is no passive, weak resignation; this is the power of the new creation. On Sunday morning in June 1991, Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife, Julie, were unpacking boxes in their new home, when the phone rang. The voice said, “You will be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolf St., Jew boy,” then hung up. Two days later, the Weissers received a packet in the mail. The note read: “The KKK is watching you, Scum.” Inside were pictures of Adolf Hitler, caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, and graphic depictions of dead blacks and Jews. The note read: “The Holohoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you.”
The Weissers called the police, who said that it looked like the work of Larry Trapp, the state leader or “grand dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan. He led a group of skinheads and klansmen responsible for terrorizing black, Asian, and Jewish families in Nebraska and nearby Iowa. The police warned them that he was dangerous and they knew he made explosives.
Though Trapp was confined to a wheelchair because of late stage diabetes he was a suspect in the firebombings of several African American homes around Lincoln and for the March 1991 burning of the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha (crimes for which he later admitted). He was planning to blow up the synagogue where Weisser was the spiritual leader.
Trapp lived alone in a drab efficiency apartment. On one wall he kept a giant Nazi flag and a picture of Hitler. Next to these hung his white klan robe. He kept assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns within instant reach. In the rear was a secret bunker he’d built for the coming race wars.
Michael Weisser became indignant when Trapp launched a white supremacist TV series on a local public-access cable channel, featuring men and women saluting a burning swastika and firing automatic weapons. He called Trapp’s KKK hotline and left a message: “Larry, do you know that the very first laws that Hitler’s Nazis passed were against people like yourself who had no legs or who had physical deformities or physical handicaps? Do you realize that you would have been the first to die under Hitler? Why do you love the Nazis so much?” And then he hung up.
Weisser continued the calls to the machine. Then one day Trapp picked up, “What the f____ do you want?” he shouted. Weisser said, “I just want to talk to you.” Trapp, said, “Stop harassing me,” and wanted to know why Weisser was calling. Weisser remembered a suggestion from his wife: “Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something, and I wondered if I could help. I know you are in a wheel chair and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something.”
Trapp was too stunned to speak. Then he cleared his throat. “That’s okay,” he said. “That’s nice of you, but I’ve got that covered. Thanks anyway. But don’t call this number anymore.” “I’ll be in touch,” Weisser replied. During a later call, Trapp admitted he was rethinking a few things.” But then went back on the radio spewing the same old hatreds. Furious, Weisser picked up the phone. “It’s clear you’re not rethinking anything at all!” After calling Trapp a liar and a hypocrite, Weisser demanded an explanation.
In a surprisingly tremulous voice, Trapp said, “I’m sorry I did that. I’ve been talking like that all of my life . . . I can’t help it . . . I’ll apologize.” That evening Weisser led his congregation in prayers for the grand dragon.
The next evening the phone rang at the Weisser’s home. It was Trapp. He said, “I want to get out, but I don’t know how.” The Weissers offered to go over to Trapp’s place that night to “break bread.” Trapp hesitated, then agreed. When the Weissers entered his apartment Trapp burst into tears and tugged off two of his swastika rings. Soon all were crying, then laughing, then hugging.
Trapp resigned from all his racist organizations and wrote apologies to the many people he had threatened or abused. When, a few months later, Trapp learned that he had less than a year to live, the Weissers invited him into their two bedroom/three children home. When his condition deteriorated, Julie quit her job as a nurse to care for him, sometimes all night. Six months later he converted to Judaism; three months after that he died. (This story was drawn from Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millinnium; the story is told in the book by Kathryn Wattrson, Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman).
That is the power of the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the power of transforming love and you don’t even have to be a Christian to experience it. After he had become a different person Trapp said in an interview, speaking of the Weisser family: “They showed me such love that I couldn’t help but love them back. It’s just an experience I’ve never had before.”
We who are disciples of Jesus see this expressed through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul says that he who knew no sin, that is, he who was not guilty of any wrongdoing against the religious or political powers, was made to be sin for us, that is, he, empowered by divine love, bore the sin—the hate and evil—of the worldly powers. Since God was somehow present in Jesus, God was bearing it too. God and Jesus were acting together to absorb the injustice and evil, to take it upon themselves, refusing to project the evil back onto the evildoers.
This is what makes reconciliation possible. This is what makes the new creation possible. This is how we become, in Paul’s words, the righteousness of God. This is how we become just and good and kind and compassionate and persistent in love. This is what can change our world. The way of the cross leads to resurrection; the way of non-violence and forgiveness leads to new life.
When God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, God was saying that the unconditional love revealed in Jesus will prevail. God is patient. No matter how long it takes; love will have the final word. The power of the new creation, the power of forgiveness and restoring love, the power to redeem and atone for all the evil that is at work in our lives and in our world is available to us if we will by faith claim it and live it.
I have no doubt that our world could be drastically changed, that we could begin to realize the dream of God’s new world, if just a small percentage of Christians converted to the way of Jesus.
Give us courage, Lord, to honestly consider our lives in light of the life, death and the resurrection of Jesus. Help us examine our lives in light of the reconciling love embodied and revealed to us at the cross. Give us the honesty and humility to admit our failures and repent of the selfishness and greed that is in us. Give us the wisdom to stop defending bad religion and start living the faith that can transform our lives and our world. Amen.