When Religion Falls from Grace

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 6, 2013 (World Communion)

John 16:1-4a ESV

World Communion Day, which (by the way) is always the first Sunday of October, serves to remind us that we are not solitary Christians, or a solitary congregation, but we are connected in spirit with all those who claim the name Christian the world over.  The very word “communion” speaks of connection, fellowship, and sharing. 

World Communion Sunday had its humble beginning in the 1930s to promote Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation.  But since that time it has grown and is observed by all major progressive Christian denominations.  Even in the small, rural, conservative church that I grew up in, World Communion Sunday was observed as one of the four—and most important—communion Sundays of the year.  As we receive the bread and dip it into the cup, we are reminded that Christians from all walks of life the world over also receive the bread and share the cup as a sign of their connection, fellowship, and sharing as well.

As a side note, it is significant, I think, that today just happened to be the day that we would commission our Nicaragua Medical Mission Team Members.  This, too, is a significant reminder that we are connected in a vital way in service, fellowship, and sharing with Christians in Central America.

But World Communion Sunday calls us, I think, to be connected today with another segment of the Christian Church, and that is all of those Christians who are suffering severe persecution and violence.  There was an excellent commentary by Terry Mattingly in yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel about persecuted Christians all over the world.  For the past few weeks, I have been taking note of articles in newspapers and magazines about the Christians who are being persecuted in Syria.

By way of a historical note, Christian churches in Syria date back to the middle of the first century with the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.  There are an estimated 2 million Christians in Syria today, but they comprise only about 10 percent of Syria’s population.  So they are a conspicuous minority.  Christians in Syria have been suffering from an increase of antagonism and violence, and feel themselves targeted by the rebels.  Sunni Muslim rebels have been bombing Christian churches and historic convents, some dating as far back as the 4th century.  Along with the churches and convents, historic Christian artifacts and Bibles have been destroyed as well.  Christians have been killed by terrorists, and many Syrian Christians live in fear each day.  Many Christians feel that there is a push to not only drive them out of Syria, but the Middle East in general.

As you know, a possible strike by the U.S. against Syria because of Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people has been hanging in the balances for weeks.  I do not wish to get political or take sides on that issue.  But I only want to point out that such a possible strike complicates matters even further.  Pope Francis, as well as the Syrian Christians who are already the target of persecution and violence, worry that a strike could further inflame Muslim extremists against the Christians who already daily live in fear for their lives.  So the fallout from a retaliatory strike could result in the loss of more lives of innocent Christians who find themselves caught in the middle.  So the Syrian issue becomes a very tangled ball of yarn, to say the least.  But all of this is to remind us that as we celebrate World Communion this day, we should do so bearing in mind persecuted Christians in Syria and other parts of the world as well.

Well, with all of that as the background, it leads to a second issue I want to address; and that is, “When Religion Falls from Grace.”  Any time one religious group hates, persecutes, and exhibits and promotes violence against those of another religious group, that group has fallen from grace, in my opinion.

Now, just in case you have never heard of the term, “falling from grace” was a theological phrase that you would have heard a lot a couple of hundred years ago.  It was considered to be the opposite of “eternal salvation” or “once saved always saved.”  There was a time when different Christian groups argued the point quite heatedly, some saying that if you were ever “saved,” or if you were lucky enough to be one of “God’s elect,” your eternal salvation was assured forever.  Others took an opposing view, saying that one might be “saved” today, but he could also backslide and be lost again tomorrow.  In other words, one could fall from grace or fall away from God’s favor.  But the question I am asking is, Is it possible for an entire religious group to fall from grace, to fall from God’s favor, when their motives and actions spring from hatred, divisiveness, and inflicting suffering?

When we think about true religion, what are the characteristics that make it so?  I suppose the answer to that question is somewhat subjective.  And there probably would be as many answers as we have people here today.  But it seems to me that true religion should demonstrate love and compassion, instead of fostering and promoting hatred; true religion should strive to promote unity and harmony in the world, instead of creating divisions that divide and alienate; and true religion should seek to better the lot of humanity, rather than creating more suffering in the world.  And so, in my opinion, when any religious group (whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else) allows itself to be motivated by hatred, divisiveness, and inflicting suffering on others, that religious group has fallen from grace.  And such appears to be taking place in Syria today.

Now, what we are hearing most about in Syria involves Muslim extremists persecuting and terrorizing the Christian minority.  But undoubtedly, in other parts of the world there are Christians who happen to be the majority who are guilty of persecuting and intimidating those of other religious groups who happen to be the minority.  We all know that over the centuries, Christians have not always been without fault.  Any religious group—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise—can become dogmatic and oppressive, thinking they alone have a hold on the truth.  And when any religious group begins to think that they alone have a hold on the truth, they feel it is their calling—their mandate from God—to convert (by force if necessary) those who practice their faith differently.  And by so doing, they think they are doing God a favor.  Such is reminiscent of those words in John where he quotes Jesus as saying, “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2 ESV).  This is one of those instances when the Bible tends to repeat itself again and again and again.

The uncomfortable question all of this poses to us is this: Has there ever been a time when our religious practice was less than it should have been?  Was there ever a time when we allowed our religious sympathies, beliefs, or leanings to inflict suffering, or foster divisiveness, or propagate hatred toward those of another religion?  Have we allowed our religious beliefs or practice to be less than what constitutes true religion?  World Communion Day serves to remind us to seek to excel to the better way.

And so, how incumbent it is upon us to live in such a way and witness to the world in such a way that it is evident that the religion we practice here at this United Church is a religion motivated by love and compassion, that seeks to promote unity and harmony, and that strives to serve humanity and help make the world a better place.  May such be our aim, and may such be the way we will strive to live.  Amen.

Works Drawn From:

Christian Post (CP World), September 5, 2013.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2013.

USA Today, September 25, 2013.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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