Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
Like many clergy who have served congregations I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time preparing parents of infants, older children, and adults for baptism in the church. Inevitably some part of those preparation sessions was spent going over the service and explaining what we do and why we do it. Within the service of baptism, after the words of baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the renunciations of personal, communal, and cosmic evil are among the most ancient parts of the service. Not surprisingly questions that run along the lines of, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” tend to provoke a number of questions among those preparing for baptism.
In response to a question that I often received, do you really believe in the devil? I always had a ready answer that I don’t believe in a guy in a red jumpsuit with horns and a tail and a pitchfork any more than I believe in God as the big guy with the enormous white beard. I do believe in evil greater than even human beings can concoct, and we can be pretty nasty. I would often use as an example what my uncle encountered as a scout in the U.S. Army during World War II when he shot a German guard who was firing at him and who would not surrender his post outside of what my uncle thought was a POW camp. Then he entered the gates of what turned out to be Buchenwald. My uncle never liked to talk about that experience because it was horrifying, because it filled him with shame about being of German descent, because he encountered human evil that had grown so monstrous that in his understanding it had taken on a life of its own. It had become cosmic in scope.
As powerful as that story is in our family it has served as mostly an intellectual example of cosmic evil until this July 4th when my immediate family went to Theresienstadt or Terezin as it was also called. Terezin was the only concentration camp in the Czech Republic. Built in the 18th century by the Hapsburgs as a military outpost and used later as a political prison, it was a ready-made facility for the Nazis for the Final Solution when they invaded what was then Czechoslovakia. The Nazis displaced the 4,000 or so residents of the town that stood next to the military prison, and over the course of the war created a ghetto for 66,000 Jews from the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, and France. The existing prison was turned into a concentration camp of slave laborers of those who attempted to escape, or who were old, young, and infirm and those who were political enemies of the Third Reich. For more than 24,000 who came to Terezin it was the last stop. For countless others it was the way station before being loaded on trains bound for the death camp Auschwitz. It was the model camp with which the Nazis duped the Red Cross into reporting that all of the terrible rumors about death camps were just that: rumors. The remarkable film of the visit of the Red Cross is shown every hour and you watch this propaganda while listening to dispassionate voices read the numbers of people sent by train to camps in the east and the small number of survivors of those journeys. The graves at Terezin are surrounded by profusely blooming blood red roses. On all of the graves are stones left by mourners to pave the way from this life of suffering to an eternal life of peace.
What you are most profoundly aware of as you walk the grounds of Theresienstadt is the silence and the emptiness. This is the void left by great evil when it finally departs, an emptiness that even nature finds difficult to inhabit and human beings even more so. All that is left are ruins and, of course, the story of what happened, told by guides young enough to be my children so that we will not forget. They tell the story again and again because we are human and one of our great acts of sinfulness is forgetting that the “real presence” of God in the words of liturgist Nathan Mitchell “is about real people.” The chief reason why we gather on Sundays to share this small meal is to know the God in Christ who is present at this table so that we may become this Christ, “broken in love and mercy, given for a world in which our place like his is among the needy, the marginalized, despised, the criminals,” the victims and the perpetrators of evil who need this love and mercy the most.
There is a lot that may be offensive in our Scripture today. We would do well to walk cautiously amid the militaristic images of this part of the Letter to the Ephesians and not use it as a way to tank a moral or political discussion that we do not have sufficient will to have because it is difficult. In the Gospel of John this massive chapter concludes with some very hard words from Jesus in which he speaks quite graphically of eating his flesh and drinking his blood as a source of eternal life, satisfying the great hungers of the world for justice and mercy, forgiveness and love. Jesus stakes out a radical position in offering his own body and blood for others, and inviting us to share in his life and death by eating and drinking of him. Such provocative speech carries a very clear message about sin and evil and what God through Jesus chooses to do to address it. Sin is more than the small mistakes of our lives, the little oops, sorry, didn’t mean that. Sin and the evil it begets is a “raging destructive power that can take full advantage of prominent social structures,” especially authoritarian ones, to corrupt and destroy the people of God and destroy the will of God. This is one of the great lessons of Terezin and every other concentration camp. In every act of genocide in every century it is clear that we chronically fail to remember this lesson about real evil and the real presence of God. What is at stake here are choices between “Christ and the devil, peace over conflict, faith over evil.” Morality, as one commentator put it, “is not purely a human endeavor.” We must step forward and clothe ourselves in the armor of God to withstand such a challenge.
Practically speaking the Letter to the Ephesians asks us to put on this armor not by yelling and screaming godly invectives at those we deem ungodly, but by pleading with us to pray as a community, to be faithful to Christ in all things, especially the small ones because the clarity of these images in this letter are not always apparent in everyday life. We wrestle with great dichotomies over good and evil every day and our only hope to understand whether these are in fact the good and the evil and not paradoxical parts of a single reality is the power of God made present in prayer, and in a community of faith. In addition to prayer it is gathering and participating in the life of a faith community that make it possible for us to put on Christ, a “resurrectional stance” that embraces, however costly, God’s great loving desire to reconcile the world to itself and to God. It is in community that we learn to receive the life of God that Jesus invites us to share in on this day.
We imagine in this age of mega churches that the successful church is always about exponential growth of communities of happy people for whom the cost of salvation, Jesus being lifted high on the cross, is “so over.” The good news today is about disciples turning back, no longer going about with Jesus because the questions we face are hard and the realities we face many times even harder. We can not draw back quietly hoping to catch Jesus on an easier day. Jesus offers sure words of comfort, but also “words that can shock and hurt when we follow Jesus and put our self-preservation before the reconciliation of creation to God.” Peter’s poignant confession that he will continue to journey with Jesus because he has no other person to whom he can turn invites us to examine our expectations of God: Are they “authentic and life giving for us and for all, or merely reflections of the values of our society and our culture”?
Hard as this word of God may be, let us not forget how much hope it offers. We who demand so many signs as proof of God’s side of our relationship are offered so much today so that we may be empowered for this serious struggle of being faithful to God. It is no less than God’s own attributes that we are being offered as those of our own lives, truth, righteousness, peace-making, perseverance, and justice. All are the abiding presence of God in us and through us to a world still full of the haunting emptiness of too many Theresienstadts. It all begins with receiving the life that God gives, and that Jesus invites us to have by taking this bread and wine, eating and drinking of its self-giving love. It is a first step to letting God fill the emptiness and waste places of our lives, a small stone on a grave that paves the way from sin and death to forgiveness and new life, a rose that blooms in the hope that we may remember amid any evil that God is present, too, and we can choose God. Amen.