Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How (not) to confront evil

Philippians 3:18-21; Ephesians 1:17-23

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What joy to lift our glad voices to the one who
“burst from the fetters of darkness . . . to live and to save.”
Jesus lives and reigns. Jesus has risen and we shall not die.
This is a hymn, and a truth,
too large to be confined to the season of Easter.
This is the basis of our hope.
This is the ground of our faith.
Christ is alive. The powers of death and evil lie in defeat.
It cannot be overstated.

And we just heard some glorious prose,
in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, 1:17ff.
Let’s review.
In a heartfelt prayer, he poured himself out,
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .
may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation . . .
so you may know the hope to which he has called you . . .
and the immeasurable greatness of his power.”
He prayed that they may know hope . . . and power.
And what power is this?
V. 20: The power that “God put . . . to work in Christ
when he raised him from the dead
and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
far above all rule and authority and power and dominion . . .
in this age [and] in the age to come.”
Furthermore, this same power now is embodied in the church.
V. 22: “And [God] put all things under [Jesus] feet
and made him head over all things for the church,
which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

It’s hard to unpack all that lofty language,
and figure out what it means for us here at Park View Mennonite,
in this time and place.
What does it mean to embody the fullness of Jesus
in this world where we are,
to live in the power of the one who raised Jesus from the dead?

You know, that’s the question behind everyone of these sermons.
But today the question comes into even sharper focus.

How does the church, representing God’s peaceable kingdom,
live publicly in a world of darkness,
where powers of evil work against the kingdom of God?
How are we to be the church in public?

As citizens of God’s kingdom, we live in the power of the resurrection,
and serve the one who sits
“far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”
So how do we navigate all the brokenness, darkness, pain,
violence, and outright evil that thrives in this world?
It doesn’t just exist, it thrives. It grows. It reproduces.
Where is this God of light and life we represent?
Where is the One who already vanquished darkness and death?

We can’t deny there is brokenness and darkness in the world.
But there are some, including Christians,
who downplay how pervasive and insidious the darkness is.
There are some who explain it as simply human beings
failing to live up to their potential.
The more we learn about ourselves and others,
the kinder and more generous and more hospitable we will be,
the better things will get in this world.
If we just keep calling on our better selves,
the darkness will slowly fade,
and some day we will arrive at a place of light.
If we just try harder, the kingdom of peace will come.

Well . . . by all means, let us engage in the best of human discipline,
let us make every effort to be more kind, generous, and hospitable.
By doing so, we are in some way making the world a better place.

But let us not deny that there are real powers of evil at work,
and these powers are the sworn enemies of God.
If we are the people of God, these enemies will need to be engaged.
It’s tempting to deny the reality of dark powers.
We are, after all, immersed in a culture that has put a lot of faith
in scientific rationalism.
We were trained to think that if its real,
we can prove it by experiment or equation or logic.
That culture, however, is rapidly changing.
Most people today, especially the younger generation,
have little difficulty believing in things spiritual—
good and bad.
Even the scientific community admits
that sometimes science involves a leap of faith, if you will,
unprovable presuppositions.

Nevertheless, we are sometimes slow to admit
that enemies of God in this world are real,
or have personality,
or can be engaged.

In the world of Jesus and the early church,
it was common knowledge that God had enemies,
and they needed to be confronted.

One of the major themes of the gospels—all four Gospels—
was the confrontation between God’s kingdom,
and the kingdoms of the world, and the kingdoms of darkness.

Again and again Jesus confronted the powers
that worked against God’s purposes.
It didn’t matter where the powers were—
in the systems of domination in the Empire,
or in the systems of the religious establishment,
or in the life of a demon-oppressed individual,
or even in the flawed thinking of one of his disciples.
He moved from one to another without skipping a beat.
In both his words and deeds he challenged the authority of Caesar,
he confronted the scribes and Pharisees,
he commanded demons to release their hold on individuals,
and he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
These were all different kinds of powers,
but they were all working against the kingdom of God.
And Jesus confronted them all directly.
He was unapologetic.
But when he engaged in this spiritual war with the powers
he always stayed true to the life-affirming and non-violent
character of God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ whole ministry expressed, in one form or another,
this conflict between the powers of this age,
and the power of God.
From the start he proclaimed, “God rules, and no one else.”
“The kingdom of God is near you.”
And he worked to form a community of the kingdom of God,
a community with a contrasting set of values
than the values of Empire.
In his words and deeds he confronted the powers
and prepared others to confront them.

You can’t read the book of Acts without noticing
the constant conflict between the God and the powers that be.
It happened in any and all arenas of life:
The systemic evil of the Roman Empire.
The spiritual violence done by religious authorities.
Individuals oppressed by demons.
Corruption in the church itself.

Paul warned the church in Philippians 3:18ff,
that “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”

Now, it’s beyond the scope of this sermon,
and beyond the study I’ve personally done,
for me to spend a lot of time trying to sort out the various
manifestations of the demonic in our world today.
I know there is debate about the extent to which these powers
are personal or systemic,
whether they are actual beings with personality,
or whether they are only a force, or a phenomenon.
I think that’s a worthwhile debate.
It has theological and ethical implications,
in terms of how we confront the powers.

I’m not an expert here, but I’ve seen enough evidence,
and talked to enough people, to say with confidence,
it’s not “either-or,” it’s “both-and.”
I have no doubt that all the anti-kingdom powers
we read about in the New Testament—
both the structural and systemic powers,
and the powers that manifest as beings—
are in some way still present in our world today.
It’s hard to deny that there is, in the world,
a strong resistance to the good and saving purposes of God.
This resistance to God’s kingdom and its values
is wide-spread and it permeates all aspects of life.
And it’s a resistance that we, as citizens of God’s kingdom,
are called on to engage, to confront.

So what does that mean, in practical terms, for the church?
The specific way we go about confronting the powers
depends, of course, on what kind of power we’re confronting.
It depends how they manifest themselves,
in systems, or institutions, or in persons.
It requires careful discernment.

But one thing I can say that I believe holds true across the board,
is we do not confront the powers alone.
We confront them as a body of Christ—
as members together in a mutually-discerning community,
a community in covenant with one another,
a community that embodies God’s kingdom in our common life,
a community that forms disciples for life in this world.

That all seems so obvious, but it needs to be said.
Because there are lots of lone rangers out there
who can be downright dangerous.
Some people relish the idea that they’re
David facing Goliath . . .
and whether their schtick is exorcism,
or taking on the big evil systems of government,
they do it without communal discernment,
without accountability,
and with very little humility.

The powers in this world that work against God’s kingdom—
both systems and beings—
are not to be trifled with.
They require the wisdom . . . and safety . . .
of a mutually discerning body.
But neither do they have any ultimate power,
that we need to live in fear of,
or obsess about,
or get all freaked out over.

And furthermore, it’s not up to everyone of us individually,
to engage in every kind of spiritual battle against the powers.

We are not all called to be actively engaged
in a ministry of freeing persons from demonic oppression.
But there are those with the knowledge, faith, and discernment
who are called to do so,
with the support and accountability of their community.

And we are not all called to take on the powers
of the domination systems in our world.
But there are those with specialized knowledge, faith,
and discernment
who are called to do so,
with the support and accountability of their community.

But everyone of us is called to be who we are.
And that is the biggest threat to the powers.
Just to live an authentic kingdom-of-God life,
out in public,
in radical defiance of the status-quo, anti-kingdom powers.

If the domination systems (a term that Walter Wink likes to use)
are hell-bent on making us into people of greed,
and over-consumption,
and ego-ism . . .
or are hell-bent (and I use that word purposely) on making us into
people who use coercion and violence to get what we want . . .
then the way to confront those powers,
and unmask their lies and deceit and insecurities,
is to simply be who we are!
A community of disciples of Jesus
who live lives of radical generosity,
and simplicity,
and hospitality,
and self-sacrifice.

If the whole community of God’s people engaged in this kind of
non-violent counter-offensive against the powers of this age,
what better way is there to demonstrate God’s victory?

Why do you think the powers in Jesus’ day were so threatened—
the domination systems of Empire and Temple,
and the demons that oppressed?
Why do you think Rome and Jerusalem were so concerned?
Why did the demons tremble?
And ultimately, why was Jesus executed?

Because those who held the power
saw Jesus demonstrate a power they could not fight against.
They saw a community forming around Jesus,
that lived by a set of values,
that were starkly different than the values
that helped prop up their own power.
They were afraid of losing power,
so they used their kind of power to do away with Jesus.

What they didn’t know, was that the power Jesus used
was a completely different kind of power.
It could not be killed.
It was not subject to a cross or sword.
It was the power of love.
It was the power of life.
It was the power of God.
And the resurrection of Jesus sealed the victory
over the powers of death and darkness.

And glory to God!
That is the same power, Paul said in Ephesians,
that has been passed on to us,
from God, through Jesus Christ, to the body of Christ.
That is the power that Jesus officially passed on to his disciples,
just before leaving them and returning to heaven.
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 28, Jesus said,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Now, you go and do what I’ve been doing.
Make disciples . . . call them to new life . . .
teach them to obey everything I commanded you.
And remember, I am with you to the end of the age.

So . . . when the people of God simply are who they are called to be,
and do what they are called to do,
the powers of this age will tremble.

And that applies whether we’re talking about the powers embedded
in the Democratic Party,
or in the Republican Party,
or in the government professional bureacracy,
or in the military-industrial complex,
or in big labor unions,
or in big corporations,
or on Wall Street,
or on Main Street,
or sometimes even the powers embedded in church bureaucracies.
And it applies if we’re talking about a demonic presence and power
in the life of a disturbed and oppressed individual.

We’re not the ones who need to tremble.
It is those powers that do whatever it takes to cling to their power,
including deceit, coercion, violence.
It is those who represent the powers defeated at the resurrection
who will tremble when faced with the people of God
living as a community of the Spirit,
in the power of the resurrection.

A poet once wrote this story of a lame and frightened child at night,
and the mother who brought comforting words,
The thunder and lightning gave voice to the night;
the little lame child cried aloud in her fright.
“Hush, little baby, a story I’ll tell,
of a love that has vanquished the powers of hell.

“Sweetness in the air, and justice on the wind,
laughter in the house where the mourners had been.
The deaf shall have music, the blind have new eyes,
the standards of death taken down by surprise.

“Release for the captives, an end to the wars,
new streams in the desert, new hope for the poor.
The little lame children will dance as they sing,
and play with the bears and the lions in spring.

“Hush little baby, let go of your fear:
the Lord loves his own, and your mother is here.”
The child fell asleep as the lantern did burn.
The mother sang on ‘till her Bridegroom’s return.

Alleluia, the great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!

And lift up your voices, and sing! #71 in Sing the Journey.

—Philip L. Kniss, October 12, 2008

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