Milborne and Puddletown
Sunday 28th May 2017
Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-11
When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.
The first sentence in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book Not in God’s Name.
He goes on to say: “Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practised cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. When this happens, God speaks, sometimes in a small, still voice almost inaudible beneath the clamour of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such times is: Not in my Name.”
We are all aware of the tragedy that hit Manchester last Monday night. It has shocked all decent people and left us asking many questions: why, how, who.
It has brought immense pain to those who have lost loved ones, those who are still in hospital, those who witnessed the attack, and I’m sure also to the non-radical members of Salman Abedi’s family, for they too have lost someone precious to them.
It was a truly evil act, by a young man who had been led astray by those who call themselves religious teachers, and who wield such power that they persuade others to kill innocent people and themselves, and to see it as an act of glory.
It is controversial to say it, but I think these young men are as much victims – albeit in a very different way – from those who are attacked.
And yet, they are not, for it is their own decisions that cause so much damage. We all have to take responsibility for our own lives and the way we live them.
How different from the Jesus we see in our Gospel reading who talks of glory – for him, glory is not about anything but giving glory to God. And glory for the Christian God is not about power or murder or gain but about love, self-sacrifice and obedience.
When Jesus died, he didn’t die a glorious death but one on a cross. When Jesus died, he didn’t take anyone with him, but opened the way to life eternal.
Those who bomb seek to cause heartache, destruction and disunity. What they have yet to see is that in the midst of the pain they cause, others come together rather than break up. The outpouring of love and care from strangers on Monday night showed humanity at its best, even as Abedi showed it at its worst.
The bombing brought people together in a way that few things can. People opened their homes, gave lifts, offered their taxis, provided food, stayed with the dying.
People, from the beggars outside the arena to the rich and wealthy waiting to pick up children and everyone else in between became united in their grief and love.
It didn’t matter what religion people were. It didn’t matter whether they were rich or poor. It didn’t matter whether they were old or young. What did matter was people’s common humanity.
What holds us together will always be stronger than that which drags us apart.
Manchester may seem a long way from here. And yet all of us have been drawn into its story.
We may wonder what we can do to change things; how we can use this tragedy to glorify God.
As much as people were united in this tragedy, there have also been other voices coming across loud and clear. I’ve heard people say we should throw them all out of the country, that we shouldn’t allow Muslims in.
It’s very easy to demonise those who are not like us. It’s easy to point the finger at the other, and assume we’re OK, but that there’s something wrong with them.
Salman Abedi is a representative of a particular distortion of Islam. He is not all Muslims. But because we are not Muslim, because we are not brown-skinned, because we don’t have our roots in a foreign culture, it becomes all too easy to say it’s them not us.
Every time we fail to challenge the sort of view that says, “because of the sin of one man, all like him should be rejected,” we are not living as Christians. Throughout the Bible tradition there has been a call to care for the stranger, the foreigner among us, the vulnerable, the orphan, the widow, the poor, the victims of injustice.
We don’t reject all white Christian English people because of the crimes of an individual or group – of course we don’t – we’re like them. It sounds absurd when we put it like that.
We don’t tar all those born in Glasgow or to single mothers who give up their children for adoption or who’ve never known their fathers with the same brush as Ian Brady who fits into all those categories.
We condemn his acts, which were certainly evil. But we don’t condemn all those like him, because it’s a bit too close to us, and we see how stupid that would be.
But every time we fail to challenge another’s condemnation of all Muslims or foreigners because of what the one has done, we too are breaking God’s heart. For our God is a God of love who has created all people.
Our God is the God who took condemnation and abuse, who was flogged and beaten, who was crucified, not for anything he had done, but for the sin we do.
Our God is the one who identifies with us, becomes one of us, so that we can become like him.
Our God is the one who stands alongside the victims and the vulnerable and becomes one with them, rather than removing Godself from the world because we are not the same, because we are not also divine.
An attack against those children and others in Manchester is an attack against us all because we share a common humanity. We are all made in God’s image.
So, speak up, when you hear others making sweeping statements because of the sin of one man. And yes – what happened in Manchester was a sin, it was a crime, it was an evil act.
But none of us are completely pure. In recent years the word sin has been pretty much airbrushed out of society, and even in the church in some ways. But sin is not just a major crime like that of Abedi. Sin is anything which grieves the heart of God. If sin weren’t such a problem, Jesus need never have come.
When it comes to difference, Jonathan Sacks has further wisdom, this time from his book The Dignity of Difference: “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God's image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”
“We encounter God in the face of a stranger. That, I believe, is the Hebrew Bible’s single greatest and most counterintuitive contribution to ethics. God creates difference; therefore it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God. Abraham encounters God when he invites three strangers into his tent.”
Abedi sees others as people who need eliminating; we however see them as people who need embracing; people who can teach us about God; people who can show us what love really means. For it is no test to love those who are like us; how much greater it is to love those who are different.
It was Jesus who said that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hates us. That is the God we follow.
When we fail, which we do often, we are denying the God we love, and the God who loves us. Just as Abedi did.
As we point the finger at others, we need to become more aware of our own fallenness too. God does set moral and ethical standards, and the way in which we can glorify God is to be obedient to the way of life to which we are called.
It is a way of life that requires of us love for all; generosity of spirit, time and money; working against injustice; provoking peace; kindness and care; humility and putting the needs of others first. It is a way of life that puts God at the heart of who we are and what we do.
It is a way of life that puts Christ at the centre, and his example of love, self-sacrifice, and obedience as the one for us, wherever that may lead.
But we can guarantee that, wherever it leads, it will mean the welfare and flourishing of the other and not their destruction.