Jesus Speaks to Gun Violence

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
May 5, 2019

Luke 22: 35-36, 47-53 (CEB)
35Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?”
They said, “Nothing.”
36Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a wallet must take it, and likewise a bag. And those who don’t own a sword must sell their clothes and buy one…
47While Jesus was still speaking, a crowd appeared, and the one called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him.
48Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Human One with a kiss?”
49When those around him recognized what was about to happen, they said, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” 50One of them struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.
51Jesus responded, “Stop! No more of this!” He touched the slave’s ear and healed him.
52Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders who had come to get him, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? 53Day after day I was with you in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But this is your time, when darkness rules.”

John 18: 33-36 (CEB)
Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”
35Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
36Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

Today, we continue our sermon series, “Jesus Speaks Today.” This is our attempt to look at some of the major matters filling our news today and consider how Jesus might respond in our world today. Last week, we talked about climate change and what the Bible says about creation care. This morning, we are going to give some consideration to gun violence.

Now, before we really delve into this, there are a few things I need to make clear. The first is that Jesus did not speak about gun violence, obviously, because guns did not exist in Jesus’ day. So whatever we might try and glean about what Jesus would say in response to gun violence today is only speculation based on what Jesus said about weapons, about violence in general, about life, and ultimately about the kingdom of God. The second thing you need to know is that I am basically a pacifist; at least as much of a pacifist as you can be and still believe in the need for a police force. (True pacifists believe that there should not even be police forces.) However, even though I am mostly a pacifist, I also believe in the right of people to own guns.

And one final note about this sermon. I planned this sermon over two weeks ago—that was before the shooting at the synagogue in California, and also, obviously, before the shooting on the campus of UNC-Charlotte this past Monday evening. I think these two events, just in the last two weeks, reveal exactly why we need to be having this conversation today; why we really need to look to the Bible and really discern all that we can about how Jesus might respond to the problem of gun violence in our communities.

I really started to give consideration to and formulate ideas for this sermon a few weeks ago around the time of the 20th anniversary of Columbine, which was on April 20 (the day before Easter). I had just turned 19 when the Columbine school massacre happened. Those kids were my age. The survivors—they are my contemporaries. Columbine, unfortunately, became the first of what has been many mass shooting incidents not only in our schools, but also in workplaces, houses of worship, malls, and the worst at a concert in Las Vegas last year. And this says nothing about the countless homicides that happen in our communities every day. I saw in the Times Free Press just last week that homicides are up in Chattanooga again this year.

So as we think about gun violence, like I did last week, let me share a few statistics with you about gun violence in the U.S. Since 1990, an average of 10 children die per year at school as a result of gun violence. Needless to say, there have been years where that number was higher—Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012, and Parkland just over a year ago in 2018. But it’s not just these mass shootings. In 2015, there were 33,636 gun-related deaths. Of those, 21,175 were suicides, 11,208 were homicides, and 505 were accidental or negligence. In 2016, there were over 38,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S., and nearly 40,000 in 2017. Additionally, guns are a big part of our culture. The U.S. population is roughly 350 million people, and there are at least 270 million guns in the U.S. Just for a little perspective, in all of the U.S. military, there are 10 million guns, and in all law enforcement agencies in the U.S. (this is local polices forces to the FBI, CIA, etc.) there are 26 million guns. In other words, there are nearly 10x more guns in the hands of civilians than in the hands of our law enforcement in the U.S. And people have guns for lots of different reasons—they might be a part of a collection, for hunting or sport, or for protection.

So if Jesus were here among us today, what would Jesus say about gun violence? As I mentioned, guns didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, but knives, and swords, and spears, and bows and arrows all did. But even before we think about Jesus’ response to weapons, let’s just remember some of the basic teachings of the Bible and of Christ as it relates to violence against humanity. One of the 10 commandments is, “Do not kill.” A simple three sentence phrase with a very clear message. Christ taught his disciples to do things like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” In the Scripture passages we heard a few moments ago, Jesus rebukes one of the disciples (presumably Peter) for cutting off the ear of a soldier with his sword. Later, Christ tells Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world;” that if it were, his guards would have fought in his defense, preventing his arrest. All of these passages seem to indicate that Christ would speak against us taking up weapons against one another, even for the purposes of self-protection (that was what Peter was doing, right?).

However, there’s this one strange comment that Jesus makes around the same time as his arrest in the garden and his appearance before Pilate. We also heard this passage a few moments ago—Jesus basically instructs his disciples to sell their possessions in order to buy swords. Read in its full context, Jesus seems to be implying that things are going to get really awful after he is gone from them and they will need swords to keep themselves protected. This is the only passage in the Bible that is like this, and it is Jesus’ words. It seems pretty clear that Jesus is telling the disciples they should have weapons for protection, but that’s not consistent with Jesus’ rebuke of Peter just a few hours later. This is a tough passage to make sense of, and as I studied it this week, I discovered one pastor (the same pastor) who interpreted this passage in two different ways. In one case he said that Jesus is telling the disciples to get weapons for protection. But then in another case, he looked at the way Jesus responded when the disciples started pressing about how many weapons they should have. Jesus’ response was, “That’s enough!” effectively ending the conversation. From this, the pastor concluded that Jesus was using hyperbole to prepare the disciples for the time after his departure—that Jesus doesn’t actually intend for the disciples to go naked in order to buy swords, and that he’s getting sick and tired of all the talk about violence; hence the “That’s enough!”

It’s really not clear. The bottom line is that Scripture doesn’t prevent owning weapons, and our Constitution allows for the right to keep and bear arms. By the same token, the overarching Biblical message discourages violent responses to violence. So, again, what would be Jesus’ response to gun violence today? I think there are two things we need to keep in mind. The first is that we are a people of faith. We are to live out of that faith, not out of fear. And the only object of our faith should be Christ our savior. Psalm 20, verse 7, reads, “Some people trust in chariots, others in horses; but we praise the Lord’s name.” If we are living out of fear and we need a gun to feel safe, then we are not living with full faith in God. Period. Full stop. Because of Jesus Christ, we do not need to fear death—that’s the heart of the Gospel! That is good news!

Related to that, here is the second thing that needs our consideration, and this is a little more complicated. The promise of Scripture is abundant life for God’s people, and God’s clear message throughout Scripture is that God desires that all people would experience that abundant life. We need to value this God-given life and seek abundant life for all, just as God does. This means each of us should work toward what is called a “consistent ethic of life.” Here’s what that means—if you value life before birth (in other words, if you are against abortion), then you should also value life after crime (in other words, you are against the death penalty). And if you value one of those and not the other, you should ask yourself why that is. Then you should start looking at every life in between—what about the kids who go to school every day and have to engage in active shooter drills because we have so many school shootings now? Do we value those kids’ lives? What do we need to do in response; to work for abundant life for them? And what about the perpetrators of those crimes, many of whom are bullied or have mental illnesses? What about the tens of thousands of people every year who use a gun to commit suicide? What do we need to do for these people? Do we need to put more resources toward bully-prevention? Do we need to put more resources toward mental healthcare? What steps need to be taken to ensure that people who will use guns to harm others can’t ever get their hands on one of those guns? If we value life and desire that all people would experience abundant life in Jesus Christ, then we HAVE to be asking these questions.

The day that Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook elementary school and killed 20 young elementary students and six teachers, Ken and I sat in front of the TV watching the news and cried. We wept. For hours. I think every single time someone dies as a result of gun violence, Jesus cries in that same way. For every life that is taken too early in violent acts, Jesus weeps. I think it’s also possible that Jesus, out of anger at our failure to value the life of all people, would say something to the effect of, “Surely there is a better way. Surely we can stop this. There are bad people out there that do bad things. Stop fighting with each other (remember this from last week, too?) and come up with some solutions that actually work.

The prophet Isaiah said, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks…”

Our Savior said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

What are we doing to ensure that for all people everywhere this is not even a snowball’s chance in Hades that that abundant life will not be cut short due to gun violence? What are we doing?

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