Ephesians 4:22-5:2; John 6:35-51

We mentioned in prayer that as we wrapped up our worship service last Sunday, something terrible happened: a gunman killed seven people in a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee. Well, there’s not much I can really say about that incident, except “No.” No, it’s not okay to kill people, and certainly not just for being a different religion or race.

I do, however, have to acknowledge how painful and frightening this attack was for the whole Sikh community in America (see a powerful commentary by my divinity school colleague Valarie Kaur). Since 2001, Sikhs have been disproportionately targeted for violence simply because Sikh men wear turbans and beards. I can hardly imagine how it must feel to belong to a community that faces the threat of violence just because they remind people of someone else.

All the same, I can’t merely say that it’s wrong to kill people. If I need to say that, consider it said – but it never seems particularly helpful just to write off an event like this as the work of a deranged monster. Yes, we could dismiss the killer as a terrorist, a racist, or a skinhead – and all of that seems to be true – but there’s something more. See, he didn’t just shoot Sikhs from India, he also shot a member of what he regarded as the supreme race. He also shot himself.

I have no interest in excusing him, or in pronouncing him duly punished at his own hand. There is no excuse for this kind of crime, and I could say a thing or two about the idea of punishment, but what strikes me is the way this whole event reads like an elaborate, terrible, vengeful suicide. I’m sure there are plenty of facts still confidential to the investigation, but I haven’t heard of anything that linked this man to this particular community other than generalized hatred, anger, and fear. It’s the hatred, anger, and fear that grip me the most.

I try to imagine how hard it must have been to live with that fear and hatred of the other. I try to picture what kind of personal hell it must take to make someone want to force that hell on others. And then, because I claim to be in the life-changing business, I try to understand just how monstrously difficult it would have been to step out of that hating, fearful, angry world and into a new life.

There’s something you should know about Sikhism, something that further compounds the tragedy of last week’s attack. We may never be able to say whether the Sikh temple was targeted because Wade Page thought its adherents were Muslim – which, remember, they weren’t – but everything so far has pointed to the idea that they were targeted for having the wrong color of skin. The bitter irony is that Sikhism arose in India as a universal movement, and it rejected the hereditary caste system that separated people from one another. You may have noticed in the news coverage that most every man in the community has the surname Singh, and most every woman has the surname Kaur. The religion rejects family names on the principle is that all of us are one.

That’s how the early Christian church tried to live, too. A key piece of our message is that there are no ultimate distinctions between people, because in Christ we are all newly created as God’s children. This morning’s reading from Ephesians is all about that new creation, and about the changes we must make to do away with the old self so a new reality can come into being. Liars have to stop lying, thieves have to stop stealing, and everything else that is sinful about who we used to be must be stripped away. The old self is no more; make room for the new self.

Doing away with the old and coming up with the new is a lot harder than we preachers like to think. Imagine, if you will, that Wade Page had a sudden change of heart, even before the violence last Sunday. Where would he have gone? Whom would he have spent time with? Did he even know anybody outside his network of white supremacists? It’s hard to fathom just how many parts of life he would have had to upend for such a change of heart to take hold.

When the Sikh community stepped out of the Indian caste system, or when the Christian community in Ephesus stepped out of the Greek social world, they succeeded because they stepped together. They brought with themselves a group of people who were all committed to changing the world in mutually compatible ways. They were able to start practicing that community together. They developed rituals like baptism that enact the process of letting an old self die so a new self could be born. And I suspect that they truly believed this change was possible.

I’m not sure we truly believe change is possible, most of the time. I could say that about Presbyterians, to be sure, or Rangers, or people in general. But it’s bigger than that. It’s a matter of being social animals. My dog, who otherwise loves every creature he’s ever met, bristles and snarls at four or five very particular other dogs. He doesn’t even need to be provoked anymore, he just needs to remember who that dog is and what they’re always like. As we often say, our reputations precede us.

That’s what I mean about not believing change is possible. It’s the reputation you picked up around town because of how you got through that particular rough patch. It’s the argument you find yourself having again and again, even though you can both see it coming before you even walk in the room. It’s the emotional trigger that sends you to the grocery store or the liquor store even though you’ve promised yourself for the hundredth time that you’re going to do this differently. It can even be just the comfortable satisfaction that life seems to be going pretty smoothly, so long as you carefully ignore the conflicts or frustrations that are wearing you down. We come to live as though change doesn’t really exist, because our patterns and habits take on a life of their own.

In the reading from John, Jesus is now halfway through his long demonstration-dialogue-sermon about identifying himself as the bread of life, and the people are trying to discount him based on his family lineage. They fall into familiar patterns, try to pin Jesus into old roles, and generally try to avoid the challenging promise of what Jesus has to say. What Jesus has to say is that he won’t turn away anyone who comes to him looking for eternal life. He won’t exclude anyone from the always-new reality of God’s steadfast love as long as they’re willing to join in it.

But he knows that human communities don’t play this “new creation” game automatically. We’re great at conditional forgiveness, the kind that makes sense because it’s less trouble just to be wronged occasionally than to fight all the time, but we’re not particularly inclined to put much trust in that person again, at least until they’ve repaid some serious dues. We’re not all that good at truly acknowledging the death of the past and making room for the birth of the new age.

Even in the church (some would say especially in the church), we struggle to make room for the possibility that someone has actually turned over a new leaf. Here we are, with our weekly ritual of confession and forgiveness, and most of us still know exactly whom not to trust with our money, with our secrets, with leadership, or with full access to the Good News. I suspect that we just don’t quite believe that people can be changed, and we’re not sure how it could be done.

So Jesus showed us how. He’s been giving out bread, talking about bread, and now he really says it: “The bread that I will give you is my flesh, which I give so that the world may live.” He has acknowledged that God alone draws us to him, and now he’s ready to go the rest of the way and offer himself for the life of the world. He puts the whole of God’s reality on the line to seal the promise that we can all be made new.

As John’s gospel story goes, we truly can be made new. Jesus’ whole mission on earth culminates when he gives himself to death – as if to demonstrate that death doesn’t have the final power – then rises again into life. Creating the world, again and again, is God’s way of being.

So the church hears the call again to imitate God. To give our lives to each other and for the sake of the whole world just as Christ did. To feast on the living bread of forgiveness that gives the world heaven’s life. It’s in deliberate forgiveness and reconciliation that people are restored to community and communities gain new life.

I have to acknowledge as always that this is terribly hard work. It’s the hardest work of all for most of us, and it’s far harder than simply following a bunch of rules. Forgiveness demands that we seek to understand even what we can’t excuse. Reconciliation calls us to depths of compassion, for ourselves as well as for others, that we may not have dreamed possible. This new life invites us to trust that God is already at work in these lives we share and especially at the rough edges where we grate on each other.

And one more thing. This new life usually asks us to make the first move. To take the first step toward reconciliation, to be willing to understand, accept, and love even when it seems terribly unlikely that we’ll be understood, accepted, or loved in return. That’s what it means to trust that God is already working in our world, opening the way for healing and peace that we couldn’t have expected. That’s what God is already doing in our own lives, what our great story tells us God does in the life of Christ. This is what it means to be God’s people.

Yes, it’s hard work. It’s something we’re only learning how to do. But despite all its hard work – really, by virtue of all its hard work – Christ’s life ultimately frees us to share more generously, struggle more gently, and grow more profoundly into truly new people. May this love continue to work in us and in all people.

Let us pray: Merciful God, Creator of all, we confess the pain, distrust, and misunderstanding that so often characterize our relationships with one another, with ourselves, and with you. Open us to feast once more on the living bread of new creation that you give for the life of the world. Make us more faithful, more loving, more willing to surrender ourselves so that all people may be reconciled in Jesus’ name. Give us the faith that trusts in your sovereign activity to make life new, now and always. Amen.