Becoming Like Him in Death
This past week we experienced yet another mass shooting in Las Vegas, where a lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, killed 58 persons, wounded over 400 others, and then committed suicide. I’d like to speak later about our response to this tragedy as Christians and as human beings. There are many more questions about this senseless tragedy than there are answers – there was no link to ISIS or Al Qaeda and there does not appear to be an obvious “switch” that set the gunman off on this rampage.
How do we, as Christians respond to gun violence? Why is it that after every mass shooting tragedy -- from Sandy Hook Elementary School, to the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, to the Church killings in Charleston, South Carolina, to the Pulse Night Club in Orlando – Why is it that we as a country fail to address the root problem ENABLING these senseless tragedies? Personally, I think we have failed to place reasonable restrictions on gun ownership. Don’t we all know that our “hands off” approach to gun violence has inevitably led to mass tragedies. We have become a country on edge. In some sense, it is no longer a question of WHETHER a mass tragedy will impact us or someone we love, it is a question of WHEN.
A. In this morning’s Gospel from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Paul talked about death. From a Roman prison cell, Paul wrote that to be truly Christian, we must strip away the extraneous things in our lives – our jobs, our careers, our houses, our ambitions, our accomplishments. Paul taught that we must give up our own lives in order to live a life in Jesus Christ.
But how do we, in Paul’s words, “BECOME LIKE HIM IN DEATH”? Paul shares several versions of this experience. The first is personal: Whether we are a great Christian, like Pope Francis or Bishop Peggy Johnson, or a back bencher, we must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul writes:
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Phil. 3:7-10).
Paul tells us about the life he had to give up for him to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Early in today’s Gospel, Paul talks about his Jewish pedigree: Paul was born a pureblooded Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. This tribe demanded the very strictest obedience to Jewish law and customs – Yes, Paul was a Pharisee.
Before he knew Jesus Christ, Paul, then known as Saul, persecuted early Christians – with a religious zeal. Saul had social position, he had power over others, and he persecuted the early Christian Church. [PAUSE] We all know how that went – while on the road to Damascus, Saul persecuted Christians, Saul is struck blind, God asks him “Saul, Saul why do you persecute my people?” And at once, Saul, now known as Paul, enters into his own personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Paul’s transformation is a model for our own lives: To know Christ is a consciousness in your heart and mind – it is a presence. This presence transforms you in way you could never do on your own. This presence both leads to the forgiveness of our sins, and guides us into realizing our God given potential. The first thing that happens when you enter a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is that you love others, and when you love others, you begin to feel the pain, suffering, and dislocation of others.
B. Jesus Christ, was sent to this earth for two main reasons: First, Jesus Christ was sent to deliver the Good News -- to proclaim that salvation is available for all through faith in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Second, Jesus Christ was sent to reduce all the commandments of God into just two: Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul. And love one another, as you would wish to be loved. Its as simple as that.
When we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we must put ourselves in second place. We must extend God’s love to those who need it most. Paul tells us that this is not going to be easy. In fact, we may have to lose our own lives to gain a life with Jesus Christ:
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the SHARING OF HIS SUFFERINGS by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11).
We have all seen examples of those Christians who gave everything to SHARE THE SUFFERINGS of Jesus: St. Stephen, the first martyr, who was stoned to death for speaking truth to the Pharisees; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian Minister who was executed for attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler; and Martin Luther King, who gave his own life so that millions of African-Americans could participate equally in the life of our nation.
C. To be fully in relationship with Jesus Christ, we must know and preach about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us that, when Jesus learned that Lazarus had died, he went to Bethany where Lazarus was buried. Jesus called to Lazarus and he got up and walked out of the tomb. Jesus raised Lazarus, so that we can know the possibility of eternal life with Jesus Christ.
The power of His resurrection means a power to do that which we think is impossible - that which we are unable to do for ourselves. The power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection is available to you when you realize that you’re dead, stuck, and you can’t get out. The message and mystery of the resurrection is that God can do for you what you can’t do for yourself - what you think is impossible.
Paul teaches that one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ is everything. But this relationship comes at a cost. By gaining a life based in Jesus Christ, we may be forced to lose our own lives. By living the example of Jesus Christ, we will be expected to give up all worldly things and spread God’s message of love, to those who will freely accept it and to those who will not. WE MUST EVEN PREACH GOD’S LOVE TO THOSE WHO WANT TO KILL US.
D. So, what’s Paul’s bottom line? First, get to know Christ and don’t be fooled by false substitutes. Don’t fill up your life with things and memberships that are not really fulfilling. Paul’s point is that our associations and accomplishments, our good deeds and performances, our positions and our power may seem great. But they’re really all empty without a personal ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ.
Secondly, Paul is telling us to rekindle and revive our passion for living. Some of us are still impacted by pain from 20, 30, or even 40 years ago. It’s time to let it go or get some use out of it. We all know that the place to find passion is in your problems and in your pain. We must love others, help them in their pain, and in doing so we begin to heal ourselves.
Finally, allow Jesus Christ’s RESURRECTION to work in your life. Is there something in your life that’s dead? Is there something about you that’s dead? Is there something in your life that appears to be impossible – an illness, a broken relationship, or a deeply felt loss? It is time to see how Jesus Christ’s resurrection works TODAY in our lives. By our faith in the resurrection, we connect deeply with an ever-living God who re-lives his resurrection each time one of our souls is turned, in faith and righteousness, towards Jesus Christ.
I would like to close today with a challenge for each and every one of you. Given the events in Las Vegas, we have the opportunity to examine our faith and our beliefs. This is not a test. There are no right or wrong answers. But I want you to think about what it is that YOU BELIEVE today, in the wake of the worst mass killing in American history.
I would like to pose three questions for you to consider, talk about with your families or loved ones, and gauge where your hearts and minds stand on these questions. I won’t ask for any answers; this exercise is really for your benefit.
First, there were 58 persons killed in Las Vegas, with many more injured in the gunfire. My question is, of those 58 persons killed, DO YOU BELIEVE THAT ALL OF THEM WILL ENTER HEAVEN? Is it your personal religious belief that ALL those who died in Las Vegas will enter heaven? Or is it your belief that only those deceased who have a right relationship with God, the type of relationship that Paul speaks to in today’s scripture, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven? If you believe that only some, but not all, of the 58 persons killed this week will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, then where will the others go? Do you personally believe that those who are not in a right relationship with God will go to someplace else, like Hell or Purgatory? Or do you believe that the lives of all or some who died in Las Vegas just ended there – No Heaven, no afterlife, no Paradise?
Second, we do not know whether the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, was a Christian or a member of some faith tradition. DO YOU BELIEVE THAT STEPHEN PADDOCK WILL PAY FOR HIS SINS FOR ETERNITY? Do you believe that God’s justice will condemn Stephen Paddock for his sins through the FIRE OF ETERNAL DAMNATION? Or do you believe that God’s love requires us to FORGIVE Stephen Paddock for the crimes he has committed? If we FORGIVE Stephen Paddock, WHAT JUSTICE will there be for the 58 victims and hundreds of wounded?
You may recall that a few months ago, I preached about the Asian and Korean concept of HAN, which is a concept that requires us to consider the impact that sin has on the VICTIMS of injustice, crime or violence. In this case, the 58 victims of Stephen Paddock. As I preached then, our historical concept of Biblical justice involves the shattered relationship between God and the sinner. But the concept of HAN, which is rooted deeply in our commission to love our neighbor fully, requires that we do not forget the victims of sin. If radical hospitality and love require us to forgive Stephen Paddock, how can we conceptualize justice for his victims?
And lastly, when does a society, such as the great society of the United States, start to become responsible for mass tragedies like Sandy Hook, Aurora Colorado, and Las Vegas? When will it be time for us to admit that, through our inaction, through our failure to insist that gun violence must stop, that we become complicit in these gun tragedies? Each time an event like Las Vegas occurs, more and more people are killed and injured, more and more families are impacted, and yet our political leaders DO NOTHING?
We all hope that our democracy means that the WILL OF THE PEOPLE will guide government policy. Well, what is the WILL OF THE PEOPLE after a tragedy such as Las Vegas? Why can’t the majority of Americans, who generally oppose semi-automatic weapons for recreational use, who oppose “open carry” laws that allow people to take guns into schools, movies and sporting events in certain states, and who oppose gun magazine cartridges that contain more than 10 rounds of ammunition – the clear majority of Americans are in favor of these common-sense gun restrictions. WHY CAN’T WE (THE RATIONAL MAJORITY OF AMERICANS) STOP THE VIOLENCE?
Is it a collective sin that we, as witnesses of Jesus Christ, do nothing in the wake of these tragedies? Is it a collective sin that the National Rifle Association has been allowed to co-opt the political process in favor of FEWER AND FEWER restrictions on the so-called Second Amendment right to “bear arms”? Or are we content to live with a status quo that inevitably leads to ever larger mass shootings? Is it a sin to bury our heads in the sand, while the NRA and the Washington lobbyists pass “band-aid” legislation – for example, legislation to ban so-called “bump stocks,” which will really only impact about 1% of all gun owners?
Do we, as a democratic society and as faithful Christians, have a duty to protect our children and the next generation from increasingly violent and increasingly deadly gun violence that is reaching every corner of our nation? [PAUSE]. LET’S THINK AND PRAY ON THESE QUESTIONS.
May it be so.