Preacher Revd Neil Summers
A former Bishop of Durham once said, ‘We become like what we worship’.
It was an insight from the Book of Psalms (115.8 to be precise), where it’s said of the silver and gold idols of the gods that ‘Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.’ We become like what we worship. And the converse is true: that what we are like indicates the kind of thing that we worship. By the word ‘worship’ I don’t necessarily mean something religious: our worship is what we give our attention, adoration, reverence and devotion to, whether it be hero- or celebrity-worship, or the love of your life, or the pursuit of money or power or pleasure. What is it that you and I worship? Where do our energies and resources go? And what kind of person does that worship make us…?
In today’s world, many people have bought into the lie that religion is the cause of war and is therefore a ‘bad thing’. I mentioned it in a sermon myself only a couple of weeks ago when I criticised Prof. Richard Dawkins for promoting this sort of opinion. I do think many wars have had a religious dimension, because the vast majority of human beings are religious people, but very few wars have been fought solely on religious grounds. The great genocides of the twentieth century were perpetrated by atheists, communist and fascist, from Hitler and Stalin to Pol Pot and Chairman Mao. Contemporary civil wars may use religion as a cloak, but seem to me to be more about the lust for power rather than an expression of religious belief. And that’s true also of the atrocities committed by ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and those who emulate them elsewhere in the world, atrocities which are abhorrent to genuine Muslims; atrocities which are justified by those who commit them by warping the worship of Allah, known in Islam as All-Compassionate, into an instrument of the angry dreams of mainly young men taking to themselves the god-like power of life, death and destruction over whatever group of people they desire.
The troops of ISIL show by their actions that they worship not God, but the ancient idols of power and death. And they sacrifice themselves – as well as others – to the power of violence. This is indeed a blasphemy against the nature of God. But Islamism (not Islam), like all forms of violence, including the ones which our own country has in the past espoused in its wars and conflicts, has a story and structure of belief which justifies violence and the killing of others. We have our own stories, which justify, for example, air strikes against our enemies. And when those stories are questioned, as, for instance, by conscientious objectors in the First World War; or the courageous stand of some leading churchmen (and it was men in those days) in the 1940s against the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians; or, more recently, the mass rallies against UK involvement in the Iraq war; or the speaking out of courageous Muslims against the forces of ISIL, the response can be violent and threatening, because those who worship power over others will react with power and violence, because they – because we – become like what we worship.
And this is where the Christian story has much to say, including against its misuse to promote the interests of the powerful. The words read from Scripture in our service today claim that the world is made for the worship of God as seen in Jesus Christ; that Jesus shows us what God is like, a God of light and love, a God who gives utterly, and seeks to reconcile people to one another, and the world to God, through the life and death of Jesus. God does not choose the way of violence and power over us, and neither should we over others. God becomes vulnerable to us in Jesus, and we are invited into the story of God to be vulnerable in love together with him.
If we truly worship who God is in Jesus Christ, we must love God and our neighbour – all our neighbours, with no exceptions, because every human being, however unpleasant or damaged or different, is a child of God, loved by God without limit. This is part of what the way of the cross we will follow this coming Lent will make very clear. It is the strongest possible defence against the perversions of ISIL, all religious fanaticism and, indeed, terrorism of every kind. One of the greatest gifts of the Christian gospel story to the world has been the commitment to love even our enemies, and the refusal to divide people into ‘them and us’, that basic dehumanisation which underlies violence and death.
In Christian understanding, all violence and war is a failure of love. Which is why it is hard for me to say that, despite its obvious appeal, and my respect for those who believe in it, I can’t quite sign up unreservedly to pacifism. It seems to me there are times when conflict, in extreme circumstances, may be the lesser of two evils. But it must be severely limited, and it is certainly not something to be celebrated, but rather to be forgiven and healed. It is heroic culture-worship, ancient and modern, that sees violence as the solution to problems rather than part of the problem itself. I believe that we ourselves here today instinctively turn away from violence, but of course that’s not the only form of power over others. In our culture, science and technology, social media, information, money, pornography or celebrity, inappropriately used, are alternative forms of wielding power over other people and the world around us, as has become all too obvious in recent events. They, too, are objects of worship which have the potential to corrupt the lives of those who are devoted to them, because they are about attempting to make the world in our image and not in the image of God.
‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory’, says John, magisterially, at the beginning of his gospel – words echoed by Paul in his Letter to the Colossians, where Jesus Christ is described as the image of the invisible God, the head of all things, revealing the fullness of God. And this glory of Christ is seen, not in an overbearing kingly rule, but by the making of peace through the cross.
Here is the power of the Christian story: not God’s power over us, but the power God gives to us. ‘He gave power’, says St John – but power for what? Not power over anyone or anything; but ‘power to become children of God’: the power to become like the God we see in Jesus Christ; the power to love even the unlovable other; the power to suffer for the sake of love.
Finally, as Lent approaches, a time for some serious self-examination, here’s a suggestion for a new version of the three R’s: remember, reflect and respond. Remember, when the next atrocity hits the headlines, we all have the capacity to become like what we worship. Let us, then, reflect on ourselves: what story do we live our lives by, what do we worship? And let us respond by opening our hearts and our lives to at least the possibility of becoming a person made in God’s image in Jesus Christ.