A Lesson in Holiness: Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D.

The story of Emilio Sandoz, the fictional Jesuit priest of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lesson to teach us about holiness.   Now, I have yet to read Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow; regardless, I believe the lesson still stands.   And if you have not yet read The Sparrow, and whether you like science-fiction or not, it is an excellent book which will both challenge you and move you. I highly recommend this book!

In a previous post, At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology‘, I wrote about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and what that might mean for Christianity; Mary Doria Russell does a great job of exploring this concept in The Sparrow. Father Sandoz, along with a few friends, find life on the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system of our galaxy; he and a group of Jesuit missionaries are able to go to Rakhat. The reader experiences the positive of what holiness truly is – love for God and love for neighbor. And while these are not human beings, the Runa and Jana’ata are another species of God’s intelligent creatures; the Jesuits show them the great love that they deserve.

But in the negative of what holiness is – a lack of sin – we are forced to face perhaps our most difficult challenge in practicing the positive of what holiness is – love. I don’t mean ‘negative’ in a way that has a bad connotation; I mean ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ simply in terms of what holiness is and is not. It is just the plus side of thinking – love – and the minus side of thinking – not sinning.

Nonetheless, events happen on Rakhat which haunt Emilio to the point where he can barely speak of them. These events are so horrendous that they cause Emilio to struggle with overwhelming and crippling amounts of both shame and guilt.

When he returns to Earth, he becomes an outcast because of the public’s perception of what happened on Rakhat.

I belong to a denomination called The Church of the Nazarene, part of the Wesleyan-Arminian branch of protestant Christianity; we have a strong focus on holiness.   We discuss theological doctrines like ‘Christian Perfection’ and ‘Entire Sanctification’; these are the ideas that, through God’s power in the Son and the Spirit, we are filled with God’s love so much that it is as if there is no more for sin!   It is a sound doctrine, but there is a very strong focus on avoiding sin or even any perception of sin.

The great temptation and danger is to only think of holiness in terms of what it is not – not sinning – rather than what it is – fully living in God’s love! And when we only think in terms of what it is not, then we miss what it is!   Inevitably, we must ask: what will we do when we are confronted with sin, whether it is in ourselves or in another’s life?

If we see sin, or even the perception of sin, in another’s life, then distance and separate ourselves from the person and offer nothing but sharp words, we miss the opportunity to show and live the positive of what holiness is – love. If we run from our own sin within us and don’t deal with it in the right way, criticizing ourselves and becoming our own worst enemy, it can weigh us down to the point that we are crippled with overwhelming guilt and shame.

Either way, we forget three of God’s most basic qualities in holiness: grace, forgiveness, and compassion.   We lose sight of Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

With news of the events on Rakhat, there was the idea among Earth’s people, and even many of Emilio’s colleagues in the Society of Jesus, that Emilio must have done something horrible and sinful. In the pursuit of holiness to the point of self-righteousness, there was little grace shown to Emilio. There was a strong initial tendency to focus on the negative of holiness – not sinning – rather than a demonstration of the positive of holiness – love.

We should always be willing to understand circumstances and do the right thing in the midst of a bad situation; this is being faithful to God. But it should not be to the point where we miss the opportunity to demonstrate love with grace, forgiveness, and compassion. To love, no matter what (and it really, really, REALLY means no matter what!), is our most basic obligation as Christians; it is what separates a true Christian from the rest of the world. In the pursuit of holiness, Christian perfection, and entire sanctification, a disposition towards love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion, is where we must lean to first.

Christ, our example in holiness, came to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to the demon-possessed man running wild, the woman at the well who had been already been with so many men, the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned, the man who struggled to believe, and the tax collector who stole and cheated so many people out of money. Christ came to this world to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to even the criminals and the depraved hanging on the crosses next to him on Calvary.

Christ came to offer his love to the people that the fictional Emilio Sandoz represents – the misunderstood, the broken, and the ones struggling with crippling guilt and shame. And Christ came even to offer love to the people who would jump to conclusions and judgment about Emilio.

Christ came for you and for me. Christ came for the sinners.

Christ was beaten, suffered, and died.   He slowly and painfully suffocated to death while hanging on a cross in one of the world’s most barbaric forms of execution. He came so that through this atoning sacrifice, we, the sinners, might finally be reconciled to God.

Christ came so that you and I, absolutely broken people, yet still God’s loved and created beings, might have hope in true life and love of God through the risen, living Christ. Christ came so that you and I can learn and live the positive of what holiness really is – love.

Christ came so that you and I, in being a positive example of Christ’s holiness, can show God’s love to the depraved, the criminals, the adulterers, the demon-possessed, the thieves, the frauds, the unbelieving, and the liars.

Christ died for the ones who sinned against him, the ones who beat him, clamored for his crucifixion, sentenced him to death, nailed him to a cross, spit on him and mocked him as they watched him die so that – yes – even they could receive God’s love and be a part of Christ’s family.

As I mentioned before, perhaps our most difficult challenge in holiness is not necessarily practicing the negative – not sinning  – but practicing the positive – love.   Christ died for all; are we willing to show the type of love that Christ showed to all?

Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D. offers us a challenging reminder to focus on what holiness is. And the lesson? With Christ as our example, and by the power of the Spirit of God working within us, the positive of what holiness is – love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion – is something that we must live out towards one another every day, no matter what, and no matter whom.

“He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”

The relatively recent Newsboys single, “God’s Not Dead (Like a Lion)” has new meaning for me tonight.   The simple words of the chorus, “God’s not dead; he’s surely alive. He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” have a deeply profound meaning for every single human being on this planet.

Tonight I had an amazing experience; I could even qualify it as a religious experience.   I want to give you fair warning though – once you learn the details of this experience, you may not think of it as amazing or religious at all, but fairly gruesome and morbid.   That is okay!   To each their own, right?   But I encourage you to continue reading anyway.

I have been finishing the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course with the U.S. Army over the past several weeks (CH-BOLC Class 13-001 Hooah!); as part of our training we visited a local medical school and had the chance to look at, touch, and examine cadavers; these are people who have donated their deceased bodies to the school to be used for science.   We talked with medical professors and students, learning about all of the incredible systems of the human body.   But here is what you may think is morbid – I held a human brain in my hands.   I held a human heart.   I held a lung.   I held many other various parts of the body, like a leg and a stomach and a head.

I know – it may make some people queasy.   It may make you reading this right now queasy.   I was nervous that I might get queasy before I walked in to the room with the cadavers.

But I didn’t get queasy.   In fact, the entire time I was there, I could not help but think to myself that the human body is absolutely amazing.   It has extremely complex systems that all work together cohesively.   Muscles are interconnected all over the body.   The lungs, the heart, the airway, the esophagus, and who knows what other parts (I am by no means a medical doctor), were all packed tightly together inside the ribcage like pieces of well integrated and almost woven puzzle, protected by bones and muscle.   The stomach and other organs were right underneath it.

There is the spine protecting a sensitive power cord leading down the back, pulling and sending information from all over the body back and forth to the brain, all within fractions of fractions of fractions of milliseconds.   Then there is the brain, which doctors are constantly learning about more and more, which is basically a living computer more powerful and more complex than any other information system in the world.   Even inside the skull, it is protected by a “tough mother” (quite literally dura mater) which is perhaps some of the strongest material on the planet.

All of this, together, forms who we are as self-aware, living, breathing, moving, intelligent, creative, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human beings.

And as I listened to the doctors, professors, and medical students, I realized just how much of an absolute miracle the human body is.   Whether perfected by God over millions of years or created in a single day, there can be no argument that its creation was guided by the hand of a powerful, intelligent, and loving God.

But that is just a description of a lifeless human body being examined by students!   Somehow life itself once pulsed throughout that body.   Somehow that heart got its very own self-sustaining electrical current that makes it pump blood through the body every day.   Somehow that brain received a consciousness making the person aware of who they are and what they are doing in life.   Self-awareness and everything that comes with it – this characteristic is only true of the human being.   That simple fact makes us realize that there is something more to us; there is something to the idea that the human is possibly the culmination of the creation and that we have great responsibilities as that pinnacle being.

But what brought consciousness to us?   What made us aware of who we are?   What changed the human from a lifeless body in the dust to a living, breathing, moving, intelligent, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human being?   And what separated us from every other magnificent animal which is out there roaming the earth?

Genesis 2:7 gives us an answer: “…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

God has breathed life into every single one of us.   Every human that has ever walked the ground, they have been alive and known who they were because of the breath of God, sustaining them in life.   God’s Spirit gives us life.   God’s Spirit, breathed into every single one of us, and whether we want to recognize it or deny it, is the only reason we are living, breathing, moving, intelligent, creative, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human beings.   God’s Spirit is the reason we are self-aware and the reason God has given us this great responsibility as the culmination of creation.   God’s Spirit is the reason why our hearts beat every day, pumping blood through our bodies so that we can walk, run, laugh, breathe, talk, write, play music, and just share life with one another.

God created us in his image.   It’s an image of God himself: love.   We are sustained in life and in love only by his Spirit.   Apart from his Spirit we are dying creatures.   In his Spirit, we learn to truly live as we were created to be.   This gives us a clue that to love one another is a critical element of life itself, an essential piece of understanding the meaning of life.

Unfortunately, each one of us will die.   It’s simply the result of the overwhelming amount of separation there is from God, our sustainer, in the world; there’s nothing we can do to stop ourselves from dying.   It’s just the way it is.

But I want to share some hope with you as you finish reading this short article: one day, at the end of this age, God will once again breathe life into our bodies.   We will be raised from the dead, and upon God examining the condition of our hearts, God will permit us to live in an eternal paradise of a new creation, free from any kind of death, and with Christ as our King.   God will draw our physical bodies together once again from whatever state of decay they may be in, whether they are buried in the ground, cremated into ashes, or even if they are cadavers donated to a medical school so students can learn and advance in scientific knowledge, and then God will breathe life into us once again.   We will awaken into true life with God.

Today, you are alive (duh, right?)!   God’s breath is in you right now!   God’s Spirit is in you, whether you accept it or whether you vehemently deny it; God is within you, causing your heart to beat, your brain to think, and your thoughts to consider these very words that I have written.   It is something to rejoice in!   It is something to truly be in awe of!   It is a reason to love others and love God with everything that you are!

So as I conclude my thoughts, I leave you once more with the words to the chorus of the recent Newsboys song:

“God’s not dead; he’s surely alive.
He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”

Humid Forest Paths

I had the opportunity to share this message with the West Chester Church of the Nazarene this morning. I hope that as you read it, you will be challenged to be a “doer of the word.”
….

“It was not too long ago that in the hot, humid countryside of Central America, there were two small children walking along a forest path. The path was half in the shade, half in the sun. By now, the little girl was almost beginning to wish that it would rain again, just to give them some relief from the hot temperatures and the humidity. As they walked, a snake warming itself on the sunny part of the path was disturbed by the two humans’ presence and it slithered back into the forest, not wanting to be bothered by the two small, thin human-shaped creatures.

“The two children had nothing. Well, they almost had nothing except for the clothes on their backs and the pants that they were wearing, but even those were pretty tattered by now. And it was not too long before that that those two children had just a couple pieces of fruit to eat and a piece of bread between them; but those little kids devoured those two sweet, delicious pieces of fruit, along with the semi-stale bread, almost the second they had received them from the poor man in the village they had been walking through.

“Somewhere, either in the village the two small children had already passed through or the village that they were coming up upon, the little girl thought for a moment that she could smell the aroma of coffee, similar to the aroma of coffee that her mother and father used to make before… well… before…. The little girl did not want to think about it. She looked at her brother and grabbed his hand. The two were alone now. Their mother was gone. And they had not seen their father in years. Their mother never talked about it, but the little boy, who was just a few years older than his sister, and who was just old enough to start realizing what was happening in the world around him, had figured out that it was not too long ago that there had been some sort of violence in the area where his village was. People from the outside, modern world, might call it a civil war, or maybe a drug war, or something similar and along those lines, but the little boy did not know about all of those things quite yet. He just knew that it was some kind of act of violence that taken his father away. But his mother, she was crying as she sent the two children away from their home. He did not know why or how, but deep down he knew that it would just be him and his sister, and somehow they had to make it in this world.

“That man in the previous village had been so nice; even the boy could tell that the man was poor and did not have much, but as the two little children passed by on the path through the small town in the hot humid weather, even the old man who wore such ragged clothes took pity on the boy and the girl, and just before taking a bite out of the delicious fruit himself, and out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the two kids walking, barely smiling and thin, as if they themselves had not had much food to eat either; and he knew within his heart that he could not eat his small meager lunch while these two kids had nothing. The boy took the fruit and the bread from the man who so graciously offered it, and he and his sister scarfed them up almost immediately. It had satisfied their hunger for now, but it would not be long before the two of them would be hungry again as they continued to walk on the hot, humid, forest path, half covered by shade and half engulfed by the blazing tropical sun.

“Again, the girl noticed the aroma of coffee in the air, reminding her of her mother who had been so long gone. She tried to think just how long it had been, but could not tell exactly. Had it been weeks? Had it been months already? She squeezed her brother’s hand even harder. By now the boy had noticed the smell of the coffee in the air as well, and it too brought back memories that had not totally slipped away through the dreary days on the mountain paths. He did not know exactly what would happen, but at least for the sake of his sister, this little boy would pretend that he knew that everything would be fine.

“By now, they saw the village where the smell of the coffee was coming from. A slight smile crept across both the faces of the boy and the girl, brought to them unconsciously by the memories that were almost unknowingly being brought to the very backs of their minds, though hunger was still on the fronts of their minds. A small house came into view behind the trees. It had already been many hours since they last ate that small meager meal of a couple pieces of fruit and a piece of semi-stale bread, and both of their stomachs were beginning to tighten in their yearning to satisfy their hungry diets. The boy looked at his sister and squeezed her hand, now smiling. The boy started to walk faster towards the direction of the house, his sister almost directly on his heels. “Surely,” he thought, “surely they will give us something to eat.” The two got closer and closer to the house, the smell of coffee permeating the air, and the smell of bread and fruit and roasting meat growing stronger. Through a window he saw a woman, and as he looked toward her, the woman looked up, and caught the eyes of the two small children that were coming in her direction.

“Immediately she began to frown and yell something at them. The boy had heard it so many times before. The door opened and the woman and another man came out, both of them still yelling something, motioning with their hands and pointing away from the house as they yelled at the two small kids. The smile disappeared from the boys face, he looked to the ground and began to turn around. Another similar feeling, a sinking feeling, was beginning to rise within his stomach, but that feeling of heartache, it combined with hunger just long enough to make him forget about his and his sister’s hunger as the sadness welled within him, forcing a tear to form in the boy’s eye. He looked at his sister; she knew what was happening, for there were already tears in her eyes. There would be no food tonight. They had already eaten their meal for the day and that would be it. The next priority for the boy would simply be to find a somewhat safe place for the two to sleep, just like they had done for so many other countless nights as they wandered from forest village to forest village in the humid countryside.”

At this point please open your Bibles to James 1:19-27.

James 1:19-27 (NRSV)

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unsustained by the world.

“It was at that point, that as the heat of the afternoon began to fade and the sun was just starting to make its descent in the hot, barren sky, and when the two children had walked a little bit further, that the boy saw another building; it was a somewhat vaguely familiar building, but it had been such a long time since the two kids had been in one like this, that they simply did not know what to expect if they were to knock on its door. The building was small and not fancy by any means, but to the outside wall it had a cross affixed to it. The boy and the girl did not know what to expect, but the boy realized that it may be their last hope for the evening. The two children thought to themselves that it would be so nice to not have to sleep outside anymore, but for just one night, be able to sleep under the shelter of a roof.

“And the two kids walked to the door of the small building with a cross affixed to the outside wall, the small boy holding the hand of his little sister, the two small children with rags for clothes who had barely eaten anything for days except for what the poor man gave them that morning. And the boy did not know if anyone would be inside or not, but he raised his hand, and knocked on the door of the church.”

Too often in the complicated and diverse branch of Christianity which we call Protestantism, a branch that we are a part of, we learn only half the picture. It is drilled into us (I’m speaking generally of Protestants now) that it is by faith alone which we are saved. That is certainly true; it is by a faith that responds to God’s abundant grace through which we enter into salvation, but that is just the beginning of the picture of this religion which we call Christianity. Salvation is entering into the kingdom of God; and now that we are part of the kingdom of God, salvation transforms into a vastly beautiful picture of love within the world. However it is a kingdom of love which we have entered into that demands action from its participants.

Sola fide; faith alone – the cause that Martin Luther championed almost exactly 500 years ago in response to the then corruption and abuses within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Again, there is no doubt in my mind that is truly by God’s grace and love alone that God would invite us to be part of his kingdom. Our response to that grace and love is to have faith in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We become one of God’s own through the work of Christ on the cross; we become, on both an individual and community basis as the Church, representatives of God’s kingdom of love to a world that is filled with desperate, hurting, hungry, and searching people. The Church is designed to be the earthly kingdom of God, comprised of you and me, and should be a bright light of active, holy, missional love on a hill, and a light visible for all the world to see, giving hope to all who need it as the world struggles in darkness.

That is a much richer concept of the full picture; it is a picture that compels those who are a part of this kingdom of holy love to act and do. It is a picture where salvation is the beginning of true life, and not necessarily the ends which we so often treat it as. It is a picture that is not simply content with merely hearing the word, but is only content with demonstrating this word of love to all people and all creation.

James challenges us, his fellow Christian brothers and sisters, we who claim to be a part of this kingdom which is based upon a foundation of an absolute, holy love that can only be found in both the Son of God and the Son of Humanity: Jesus Christ. James challenges us to not merely be hearers of the word, but be doers of the word. In fact, James says some challenging words in verses 22 through 24 which cannot be taken lightly: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” One who is only a hearer of the word forgets what the kingdom of God is like almost immediately; one can conclude that for someone who is only a hearer of the word and not a doer, their actions and their lives may not demonstrate who they claim to be.

There is power in this word – in what we call scripture. It is a power that brings us to life and gives the words on scripture’s pages application for our everyday lives; but it is a power given to it by God’s Holy Spirit, active and breathing this scripture to life every single day, both in the past and the present, and from now into eternity. And moreover, there is power in the Word, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of love and the incarnation of the ultimate message of this scripture: holy love. And by that power of holy love found in God and in scripture, there is power for our own lives to be changed. It is a change that is wrought in us so that we are no longer simply hearers of the word, but we become active doers of the word, living participants in the beautiful, loving kingdom of God. It is a change where we can become free from the bondage and death of sin, and become alive to the holy love that is so abundant within God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

James says in verses 19 through 21, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” By the power of God’s Holy Spirit working within our lives, we can turn from evil and from sin; we can rid our lives of unrighteous anger. We can rid ourselves of the sordidness and rank growth of wickedness that is caused by sin. And we can be restored into the image of God – the image of holy love. By welcoming with meekness the implanted word, we can become “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” We can become doers of the word and not merely hearers of the word.

There is a hurting world out there; it is a world that is in pain and oftentimes filled with people who simply do not know where they can turn to. Some of us may encounter that world today, for others of us it may be later this week, but we will encounter it; in fact, the Church is called by God to go out and encounter it. Even today some of us may be a part of that hurting world, and some of us may be desperately seeking that hope and love which is found in the kingdom of God and which should be so abundant in the Church.

Those two little children, that boy and that girl who were hungry, tired, weary, wearing ragged clothing, and who did not have a place to sleep, they do not have to be found walking on a humid mountain path in Central America. Those children can be found in the beautiful cities of Europe, in the deserts of Africa, in the rural farms of Asia, in the islands of the Caribbean, in the mountains of South America, and in the outback of Australia. Those two little children can be found wandering the streets of our own North American cities, even as the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the history of our planet. Those two kids can be found in the rural towns of the midwest, suffering through poverty. Those two little children can be found in the homeless and hungry beggar who we encounter at the train station, and even in the man or woman that we pass by as we walk down the streets of West Chester, Pennsylvania. No matter where we go, there is hunger, there are people who barely have enough clothes, and there is poverty. Whether it is the widow or the orphan, there are people who are in need of a helping hand. There are people seeking both hope and love.

I ask of us – of this congregation, of our denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, and of the global, universal, catholic Church which we are a part of – do not let our religion be worthless as James warns us. I pray that each one of us may not only be hearers of the word, but doers of the word and active participants in God’s kingdom of love, who live by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to not only effect changes within ourselves, but who go out and do the loving work of Jesus Christ which still needs to be done in our broken and hurting world.

As we leave here today and encounter those two small children in the world, what will be our response? Will we merely be hearers of the word with no change in our lives, deceiving ourselves, and rendering our religion worthless? Or will we be doers of the word, caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping ourselves sustained not by the selfishness of the world, but by the loving kingdom of God, and inviting others into the presence of holy love? When we encounter the poor and hungry man or woman, and when we encounter the heart that is crying out in pain and simply asking for love, will we be doers of the word, helping those who are in need? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are being treated with injustice in the world, will we be doers of the word, standing up and demanding justice for those who cannot ask for it themselves? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are not being shown mercy, no matter who it is, will we be doers of the word, representatives of the kingdom of God, and ask for mercy on their behalf? Or will we merely be hearers of the word?

Will we be doers of the word and be a light for the kingdom of God? Or will we merely be hearers of the word, deceiving ourselves, and forgetting just exactly what the word is the moment we walk away?

When I think of our congregation at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene, I am encouraged. When I walk through our doors, I am confident that I will find a loving group of people. I see in this congregation a group of people who love God with everything that they are and who love each other with that same holy love. I see a group of people who are demonstrating this love to those two small children, those people who are in need. It is demonstrated with our goal to raise $1,000 for an Alabaster offering this month (a goal we can reach!), our continuing drive to bring goods in for the West Chester Food Cupboard, our food backpack drive last month for local school children, and our help with Safe Harbor in the recent months.

Let this passage be a reminder to us to not ever give up on being doers of the word; allow these words to remind us to not ever give up on being a people who act on the faith and the grace by which we enter salvation. Let us not forget the whole, beautiful picture that is the kingdom of God and the fulfilling gospel of Jesus Christ. Allow James’ words to be an encouragement to never be content with merely hearing the word. Let this passage remind us of the power of the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, ridding ourselves of any sordidness or rank growth of wickedness, and continuing to transform us in holiness and love for others.

“When those two hungry and tired children knocked upon the door of that small church building, seeking help in their hour of need after walking all day on a hot and humid forest path, the door opened. We, the people of the Church, answered, giving food and shelter and demonstrating the love of God to both the little boy and his sister.”

Do not ever be content in being merely a hearer of the word, but live welcoming with meekness the power of the word and the power of God to change our lives, continually caring for the orphans and the widows, and all others who are in need.

Not even Batman wanted to kill people….

Do not worry! There are no spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises in this post. And while the most recent Christopher Nolan Batman movies are just that – movies (still with plenty of violence, although thankfully not as gratuitous as other movies) – perhaps Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman are a better example of a Christian attitude toward violence than we may first realize. I am not claiming he is the best example, but he may be a more suited (ha…get it?) example than we might initially give him credit for. In the United States, we live in a culture and society that is seeking more entertainment through violence (perhaps that violence has flowed over into our attitudes, where it seems that most cannot even hold a respectful conversation anymore). Wondering if this is true? Look at how well the first movie of The Hunger Games did in theaters. The ironic thing is that I am not so sure most people understood one of the points of that story was that having an actual “Hunger Games” is not a good thing.

Concerning physical violence in our entertainment, it is a dangerous and slippery road. Do we have long before people within the United States try to sanction games similar to that of the “Hunger Games” or of Rome and the Coliseum, where gladiators fought to the death, and people were slaughtered for the entertainment of the citizens? These were not fictional people that died; actual human beings died, killed without mercy. Life disappeared from the earth and was destroyed for the amusement of the masses. One may say, “We recognize the sanctity of life, no matter who it is, so surely it wouldn’t happen.” But then the lines get blurred all too quickly when someday a producer, in the pursuit of making money after people have been desensitized to the fictional violence that is portrayed in the movies, comes up with the idea to have a “Survivor”-like game where convicted criminals must fight to their death. Will you then still say, “We recognize the sanctity of life, no matter who it is?” With the speed society is moving today, I am afraid that the day we return to the gladiatorial death games of the Roman Coliseum may be sooner than we think. I hope I am wrong in that assumption; I hope that day never returns.

In Batman Begins, when the criminal is presented to face his death at the hands of Bruce Wayne in the training center of the “League of Shadows,” which was perhaps, in the perspective of the world’s eye-for-an-eye lex talionis version of justice, rightly deserved, Bruce Wayne refused to kill the man. His words were, “I’m no executioner.” In The Dark Knight, not even Batman let the Joker fall to his death. In The Dark Knight Rises, not even Batman…. (That’s right, I said no spoilers.)

As representatives of the Church, we must learn to be sincere in saying, “We do not need to tolerate a culture of violence anymore, no matter where it is or what it looks like or whom the violence is directed towards. Instead we, as the Church, will take seriously Christ’s commandment to show love to all.”

The true test of love is whether we can have an attitude of love toward those we disagree with, do not like, or even those who are considered enemies. Yes, I just wrote the word enemies. In American culture, it is incredibly difficult to show Godly, life-giving and life-upholding love towards enemies; having an attitude of Christian love does not mean the destruction of their lives. Enough blood has been shed in this world through people’s selfish manipulations of truth. Life anywhere in the world is a gift of God, and one would think that a Christian would learn to respect that. Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian ethicist, said a statement along the lines of “There is nothing worth killing for, but there are things worth dying for.”

Christians are not called to represent the world’s justice of lex talionis, but we are called to represent the kingdom of God through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Primarily we are called to love our neighbors and enemies; that love includes demonstrating peace. However, that peace and love for an enemy may come at a price, and that price may be our own lives. It is a difficult call Christ has given us; this is perhaps the most singularly difficult and challenging aspect of the gospel – to be ready to give one’s life, even for an enemy, in the pursuit of demonstrating God’s love. We are called to show love, and even when death may be the imminent cost of that love, we are nevertheless still called to be faithful to God’s message. Selflessness, not selfishness, regarding our own lives, is something we must be prepared for. There is no room for unrepentant selfishness in the kingdom of God; let that be a gut-check for us all.

The good news is that even death is not the end nor in vain when it happens in love, but that there is a resurrection that will come in a newly restored creation; ultimately love will conquer evil, even though we may not see it today.

Many times it may appear that evil does conquer love; remember, God calls us to be faithful to the message of love for all, no matter what the circumstances are. I urge you – do not give up hope. However, I do want to share one instance where we have seen the results of love conquering evil, although that love came at the cost of death. Many of you may already be familiar with this true story; I highly recommend reading Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot and End of the Spear by Steve Saint.

In 1955, five missionaries sought to bring the word of God to a notoriously violent indigenous tribe in the Amazon. In fact, according to the accounts of many of the indigenous people themselves, this group was on the verge of killing themselves into extinction. Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Jim Elliot finally made contact with this group; in January 1956, all five of these men were killed by the people they sought to demonstrate love to. But even with a rifle in the missionaries’ airplane to use for food, it was never used for self-defense. These men had one goal – to demonstrate Christ’s love. They had no desire to kill anyone; the cost was their lives. Their act was selfless; they were faithful to God’s message of love to the very end.

Yet despite the evil that took place, love overcame. Because of their family’s strong love, a love which was faithful to Christ’s call to love even an enemy, their families were able to forgive the people who had killed these five men. They ended up fulfilling Nate’s, Roger’s, Ed’s, Pete’s, and Jim’s call to minister to this group, living with the Auca tribe, and changing their attitudes from hate, violence, and vengeance, to Godly love. Lives were changed and evil was overcome by holy love. There was no eye-for-an-eye lex talionis justice here, only mercy, forgiveness, and love. Love prevailed; and in the face of evil and violence, the only thing that will ever overcome these horrors and change lives is love.

Christ died for those who sinned against God; Christ even died for his enemies, the people sinning against him. To love someone, even an enemy, to the point of death – is that not the same love that Christ asks of us in John 15:12: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you? Forget Bruce Wayne and Batman for a moment, let us look to Christ as our model! So I ask us, as Christians in the United States, what has happened to that most basic call to love one another, to love our enemies and the people we disagree with? Please prove me wrong that it has not entirely disappeared.

Perhaps it is not physical violence, but maybe it is an attitude of violence and a language of hate that is present in our lives. In response to the recent comments made by the head of Chick-Fil-A, there has been ugly hate speech spewed out by both sides, whether one agrees or disagrees with what the man said regarding marriage. Where is, at a minimum, the attitude of loving conversation in our society? Whether we agree or disagree with someone, does not the least person simply deserve to be treated with love, whether in your eyes that person happens to be the head of Chick-Fil-A or the openly gay man or woman down the street?

Attitudes of anger, hate, and violence are horribly rampant in Congress and politics today; where is the attitude of loving conversation? Have we forgotten how to show a simple love and respect to someone, whether we agree with someone’s politics or not?

Violence, whether it is in our actions, our words, or our attitudes, is not the way of Christ; love is the way of Christ. Destruction of life and violent attitudes are not things we should simply accept; if our on-screen, fictional hero of Batman did not even want to kill people, why are we so quick to condone the destruction of life, whether in entertainment or in reality, and even if that violence may simply be the hate and anger that seems to be running so unbridled through society today?

Instead, be the Church of love that God has called us to be.