The sermon I preached today about the recent shootings in Buffalo, Laguna Beach, and Uvalde was well received, so I’m posting an edited version. I will continue my series on Revelation next week.
Usually I begin sermons with a fun story to orient our thinking in a particular way. This does not seem appropriate today when we are already preoccupied with the horrific news of mass gun violence. We cannot avoid talking about the shootings, so I will do so in light of today’s scripture passages – Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21; Acts 16:16–24; and John 17:20–26. (For those of you who are wondering about this choice of texts, they come from the Revised Common Lectionary, which certain churches ask me to follow when I preach for them.)
Over the past few weeks the lectionary has featured readings from the final chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21–22 tells us the goal, how things will end up. I’m one of those people who tends to be optimistic; I see ways in which the world is getting better. But Buffalo, Laguna Woods, and Uvalde remind all of us that we are far from God’s goal and are in some ways going in the wrong direction. In 2020 the USA set a record with more than 45,000 people killed by guns. And gun murders are certainly not rare in Hampton Roads. We have a task ahead of us. So let’s look at God’s Word in light of our distressing reality.
Revelation 22:14 is a crucial verse that ties the chapter to the rest of the book, while telling us something powerful today: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” The phrase “wash their robes” does not mean scrubbing cloth with warm, soapy water. Instead, the author is referring back to Revelation 7:13–14, where the saints “wash their robes” in the blood of the lamb (as I explained in an earlier post). It’s not about immersing a cloth in liquid; it’s about taking part in the violent death of Jesus Christ. We must be ready and willing to join in Christ’s suffering if we hope to enjoy the Tree of Life and live with Christ in eternity. (For more on this, see my post on Revelation 2–3).
Acts 16:16–24 gives us a great example of Christians who take on hardship for Christ’s sake. Paul and Silas have been called to travel from Turkey to Greece to tell people about Jesus. For the most part, Paul’s preaching has not put him in danger: the people of Philippi may not be all that receptive to their message, but they do not give Paul and his companions a hard time. Trouble emerges only when Paul threatens their finances. He drives a spirit out of a slave woman, and in doing so takes away her owners’ ability to profit from her spirit-given ability to predict the future. It is the economic effect of Paul’s action that makes people angry. So Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten, then put into stocks. It is at this point that Paul and Silas are washing their robes in the blood of the lamb.
Paul and Silas of course are ultimately vindicated, benefitting from one of the most powerful miracles in the New Testament. But to become vindicated, they must first go through personal hardship.
In 2022, God is calling American Christians to face a different kind of hardship, a hardship that involves pushing society to take measures to reduce gun violence. One of the traditional core values of Baptists and for Christians generally is the recognition and promotion of the immense value of human life. As gun violence poses a significant ongoing threat to the lives and welfare of our neighbors. So we have no choice but to urge our government and society to take real action. Speaking out may make people uncomfortable and may even cost us something. But if we want to enjoy the Tree of Life, we need to wash our robes in the blood of Christ.
A major obstacle to our speaking out is that Christians disagree about appropriate ways to reduce the violence. Jesus recognized that to accomplish God’s will on earth, his followers need to speak with one voice. This is why one of his last acts on earth was to pray in John 17:20–23 that his followers will be unified. Our lack of unity cannot be an excuse for failure to take on gun violence. When we are not unified about how to best serve our neighbors and our society, our task is to get unified.
How do we become unified? The answer is easy: recognizing that God can speak to all Christians, we humble our hearts, pray together, then dialogue with each other, putting as much or more energy into listening as we do talking. Those who disagree with us may yet have God-given insight, so it is wise to attentively listen to how others see things. And if we are truly humble and genuinely seek to understand the views of our sisters and brothers, conversation will promote consensus-building.
Of course, such conversations can be difficult and trying, and carry the risk of creating bad feelings with those close to us. As a result, many Christians avoid conversations with people who disagree with them. But if we do not allow ourselves to be challenged by those who think differently from us, we will not be able to gain unity, and our personal growth is hindered as well.
Every day, dozens of human beings loved by God are killed in the USA by guns. More than once a week there is a mass killing in the USA (four victims in a single incident). Gun violence requires the church to act, and if our division prevents us from acting, then we must work hard to erase that division through humble prayer and earnest dialog.