April 14, 2019
(Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14 – 23:56)
The people who crucified Jesus did not know what they were doing.
Although they attempted to anger him, Jesus responded with forgiveness.
Although they mocked him with a sign that said, "King of the Jews," Jesus showed that he was the king of all God's people, the Messiah.
Although they challenged him to save himself, he saved the criminal next to him.
So we hear from our gospel reading from Luke today.
Jesus turned evil into good. And he continues to do the same today.
As we all know, a group of terrorists known as ISIS, terrorizes many people and many countries. There are multiple incidents one could list, but I will use one from about 4 years ago to illustrate today.
On February 12, 2015, 21 Coptic Christians were executed by Islamic State terrorists on a Libyan beach. Called the Copts, this group is the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and one of the oldest in the world. They trace their church back to Saint Mark, who introduced Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt, just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
These Coptic Christians were taken hostage and executed because of their faith in Jesus Christ. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, released a video of the killings titled, "A Message Signed with Blood to the Nations of the Cross." ISIS clearly wanted to send a message to Christians around the world, to residents of what they call "the Nations of the Cross."
But like the people who killed Jesus, they did not know what they were doing. Instead of weakening the Christian faith, they strengthened it.
The 21 men who were murdered were working on a construction job as tradesmen. All were Egyptians except for one. A young African man from Ghana. A Greek Orthodox bishop said that the executioners demanded that each hostage identify his religion. Under threat of death, they could have denied that they were Christians. But instead, each of the Christians declared their trust in Jesus. Maintaining their faith in the face of evil, each man was beheaded.
The bishop, named Demetrios of Mokissos, describes this crime as "a grotesque example of the violence Christians face daily in Libya, Iraq, Syria and anywhere that ISIS prosecutes its murderous campaign against anyone it deems an infidel." But as horrible as these executions were, the story has an unexpected and maybe even a little inspirational ending.
The young African man who was with the Egyptians was not a Christian when he was captured. But when the ISIS terrorists challenged him to declare his faith, he replied: "Their God is my God."
What a statement! How many of us would have the courage to say those words if we were in his situation? "Their God is my God."
After hearing those words, the terrorists killed him. But in that moment, the young man became a Christian. Jesus said to him, as he said to the man on the next cross, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Bishop Demetrios concludes, "The ISIS murderers seek to demoralize Christians with acts like the slaughter on a Libyan beach. Instead they stir our wonder at the courage and devotion inspired by God's love." The terrorists who killed that young man did not know what they were doing.
On this Sunday, we are confronted by a king who dies on a cross. Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves others. Rather than crying out in anger, he forgives the people who kill him. Both then and now, Jesus brings good out of evil.
What a difference it makes when people see Christ as their king, even though that king is hanging on a cross. The criminal next to Jesus did this when he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The young African man on the Libyan beach did this when he pointed to the Coptic Christians and said, "Their God is my God."
Both the criminal and the young African man saw Christ as king. They grasped his power and trusted him to save them. In the face of death, they put their complete faith in a crucified Lord.
Such stories stir our wonder. But they also leave us with a question: Are we living our Christian faith in such a way that people will look to us and say, "Their God is my God"? The challenge for us is to speak in ways that reveal authentic faith and act in ways that show real courage and devotion. Only when people are inspired by what Christians say and do will they be willing to accept Christ as their king.
Jesus continues to turn evil into good on Libyan beaches and in American cities. Sometimes the evil is human violence, which falls under the category of moral evil -- evil that is done by a sinful human being. But there is another category called natural evil, which is often attached to painful experiences that cannot be blamed on any person. Unlike the killing of Coptic Christians, this category of evil does not directly involve human choices and is usually the result of a natural process. Cancer, genetic defects, tornadoes, earthquakes -- these can be described as natural evil, because they arise out of nature and cause tremendous suffering. Although, I do not personally care for the term “natural evil” that is term applied by theologians for bad things that happen naturally. But, that is a topic for another time.
Fortunately, Christ has power over all forms of evil, moral or natural. And more often than not, he fights evil through people who follow him with courage and devotion.
Rodger Nishioka is a Presbyterian seminary professor and Christian educator who is convinced that actions speak louder than words, and that Christian service provides new ways of knowing Jesus today. "Words are lovely," he says, "but in the 21st century, when we have rhetoric everywhere, maybe people are paying attention to how you and I live, to what we do."
Nishioka tells the story of a young couple who moved from New Jersey to Iowa to start their careers. They visited a couple of churches but didn't join a congregation. Then the wife discovered that she had Stage 4 breast cancer and was terrified. She entered the hospital for surgery, and was visited by the pastor of one of the churches they had attended.
Once home, the young wife received a visit from one of the women of the church. She brought a casserole and said that she and her fellow church members had been praying for the woman and her husband. The wife thanked her and asked how much she owed her for the casserole. The woman said, "Sweetheart, this is free." They talked for a while, and then the church woman helped by cleaning the house.
Next day, there was another knock on the door. This time it was a man from the church bringing another dinner. The young wife offered to pay him, and he said, "No, this is free. This is what we do." Then he offered to fix her screen door, and he went out and got his tools and fixed it.
The congregation brought a meal to this couple every day for six months. The two had so much in their freezer that they invited people from their workplaces to a meal at their house. Their colleagues asked, "Where did you get this food?"
They replied, "It comes from our church." Note the pronoun: Our church.
Their colleagues then asked, "What church do you go to?"
What made the difference was actions, not words -- how Christians were living and what Christians were doing. In this Iowa community, young adults were looking at authentic Christian devotion and saying: Their God is my God. And once again, Jesus the King was bringing good out of evil and life out of death. We here at St. Francis have done similar acts of kindness for others – some instances even to help myself personally when I needed help. This is what we are called to do.
However, such stories stir our wonder. And although, we seem to do this to some degree in our small little parish, I wonder if someone on the internet reading this sermon will be motivated to make our God their God and help others in Jesus’ name.
Nishioka, continues "Maybe in the 21st century, folks are looking for a group of believers who act for the glory of God." Not for themselves, but for the glory of God. Not for themselves, but for Jesus.
Believers like the Coptic Christians on the Libyan beach. And like the men and women of the Iowa church.
All of us are challenged to take actions that will cause people to look at us and say, "Their God is my God."
Finding ways to help the homeless on cold winter nights so that they will not die on the streets of hypothermia.
Mentoring teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are, and what they are supposed to do with their lives.
Building medical clinics in developing countries, so that lives will not be lost to AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Taking the time to teach children the stories of Jesus, and show them the love of Jesus.
Fighting the cancers of racism and prejudice by building relationships with neighbors of different races and nationalities, all of whom carry within them the image of God.
Evil comes in many forms, both moral evil and natural evil. Some is delivered by sinful people, while some is the result of the spread of cancerous cells. But Jesus has the power to overcome it all, and to bring life out of death in every time and place and situation. Our mission is to act in ways that show that we are willing to follow Jesus with courage and devotion. We can do more than simply putting cloaks on the ground for him or waving palm branches, we can help him in our fellow humans in need.
If we act as followers of Christ, Jesus will remember us and welcome us into his kingdom. And for some people around us, our God will become their God.
Let us pray.
For all of God’s holy Church, that we may be a visible sign to others as we follow the way of the cross in the world today. We pray to the Lord.
For peace in areas of the world beset by war, hostility, and conflict, especially in the lands where Jesus walked. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are in prison, that they may find comfort in the Lord and not lose hope. We pray to the Lord.
That Jesus’ reliance on God through his passion and death may be a model for us in our trials and suffering. We pray to the Lord.
For those who feel abandoned, who feel they have no one to turn to, that they may realize that they can always turn to God and that God will never abandon them. We pray to the Lord.
During this Holy Week, we pray for the grace to reflect on the Way of the Cross and on the sufferings which Christ endured out of love for us. We pray to the Lord.
Lord, we pray for unity among all Christians and that during this Holy Week those who believe in you, who hope in you and who love you, will worship you in harmony and with the love you so richly deserve. We pray to the Lord.
For the members and churches in Louisiana that were burned due to an arsonist who targeted these churches which were African American churches. First, may God guide all peoples to stop racial bigotry; secondly, for these churches to find comfort and help as they rebuild their houses of worship. May love win over hate in this horrendous crime. We pray to the Lord.
For our government leaders to realize that the immigration crisis should be viewed as a humanitarian crisis and offer proper help to these people fleeing in hopes of finding a better life.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Lord Almighty and ever-loving God, we present our prayers to you today. Your will guided your Son while he was with us here on earth. May we accept your will as your answer to our needs. We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and Savior for ever and ever. Amen
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA