Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: I Timothy 1:19
Old Testament: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
New Testament: I Timothy 1:12-17
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 911. The memory of that day remains etched in our minds. This day was a new generation’s coming of age.
Many of us who were stunned by 911 were born after Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941 served a similar role for an even older generation than us Baby Boomers. It challenged the conscience of a nation that didn’t want to go to war.
Both of these historic events were shocking. They touched off feelings for revenge that are rarely felt by most Americans. Very few Christian pastors challenged the prevailing mood of their congregations by calling for forgiveness.
The pulpit reaction was nearly unanimous. With only one exception that I know of during 911, preachers believed an innocent America had been victimized by enemies. Those who lived through Pearl Harbor said the same about what they heard from the pulpit on the fateful Sunday of 1941.
During the Second World War, Japan wasn’t thought of as a religious enemy. It was a secular nation at war with the U.S. After 911, Washington tried to separate the attack on the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and the failed effort in Somerset County from religion. For the longest time, terrorism was a secular term that described foreign terrorists. The term terrorism separated the acts from the religious beliefs in a secular sanitizing of religious conflict.
Secularizing both attacks served the purpose of Washington, D.C. to remove religious beliefs from a rationale to go to war. Washington wanted to separate its call to war from a religion. It also served our private purpose as Christians to separate the call to war from our faith in Jesus Christ.
Christians in the West are very sensitive to being identified with the Crusades and the Inquisition. Both are vilified by educators, jurists, and politicians. We have accepted the criticism. We distance ourselves from these blemishes on Christian history. Church leaders accept this criticism.
So, Church governing bodies remained largely silent when our nation’s President called us to war in response to the terrorist attacks. Congress and the nation endorsed the call. Church members came to worship the Sunday after 911 – more than what would have come for the second Sunday of September.
They went back to their personal business afterwards. They didn’t come back the next week – for the most part. Their absence seemed to show their effort to compartmentalize their Christian faith from the bloodshed and destruction that would result from going to war.
They went to worship the Sunday after 911 to find religious answers to console them. Pastors were still reeling from the attacks. Many had no clue what to say. They had been devoting their preaching to personal faith matters.
A public event of the magnitude of 911 didn’t fit the preaching narrative of how to have successful marriage, how to raise children, or how to God blesses those who bless Him.
Some pastors dared to remind their flock about Jesus’ teachings in the face of this evil moment. After hearing Jesus’ reminder again to “love one another,” “turn the other cheek,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” church members went back to their private faith without worship.
Other pastors challenged their church members to stand up to this terrorist evil. Some took this to resume life as if nothing happened. Others heard this as a call to war. Many young people joined the military.
Others who were older from the Baby Boomer generation recycled their memories of their high school days from the Vietnam War era. They remembered how “God is love” from Sunday school lessons had taught them not to fight in Vietnam. They had been ambivalent about war then. Now it was different.
They remembered their high school classmates who enlisted or were drafted to fight for American freedom in Vietnam. Those who came back from Vietnam were changed forever. They remembered how poorly the people in this nation responded to their willingness to die for the rest of us in a war that was widely believed to be unnecessary. Nine eleven dredged up repressed memories.
Nine eleven was a direct attack on America like Pearl Harbor. There was little said of a religious nature about what it meant. Just like there wasn’t much said after Pearl Harbor about religion – other than we were right to fight. Nine eleven didn’t generate conscientious objectors we saw during the Vietnam War.
Here we are fifteen years later. How has 911 touched your conscience?
First, let’s consider what’s meant by the term, “conscience.” The Greek word for conscience is suneideisus. The Apostle Paul uses suneideisus more than anyone writer in the Bible. He uses it 18 times. The other 12 times suneideisus is used is in the New Testament. The word “conscience” is exclusively a New Testament term in the Bible.
Since it only shows up in the New Testament, it’s related to Jesus Christ – the subject of the New Testament. Outside the Bible, in Greek literature, the word “conscience” was used to describe “joint knowledge.”
In this sense of the use of conscience, Greek writers described knowledge about morality that’s jointly shared by people. People inherently know what’s right and good. People share a similar understanding of what is bad or evil.
The Apostle Paul uses “conscience” in a similar way. Christians share a similar understanding of what’s right and good. Christians generally share an understanding of what is bad or evil. This use of conscience can be seen in Paul’s teachings about not eating meat offered to idols in his letter to the Corinthians.
But Paul also uses conscience as a description of a person’s knowledge of the goodness and righteousness of his or her conduct. As Christians, we use our conscience when we judge that our personal conduct is good or right as opposed to being bad or evil.
We don’t exercise such judgment from nothing. It isn’t our own opinion. The judgement of right or wrong, good and evil comes from one standard. It isn’t our own standard. It’s Jesus Christ’s standard. We know the good or the evil by Jesus’ teachings and by the way Jesus’ lived His life.
The integrity of Jesus’ teachings with His conduct show us, His followers, the only standard by which to evaluate our conduct. Jesus is not one standard among many. Jesus is not one measuring tool among many for the Christian conscience. Jesus is the one standard by which all of us jointly come to a knowledge of right and wrong. In other words, Jesus is our conscience.
Jesus consciousness is our conscience. Jesus consciousness informs us of what’s right from wrong, good from evil, truth from falsehood, justice from injustice. Every aspect of measuring a moral life, moral conduct for Christians comes directly from Jesus Christ, the Lord of your conscience!
So, how has 911 affected your conscience?
Has 911 challenged your understanding of what you know about the world, or about God, or about yourself? It should. It’s our test of conscience given by God to measure our knowledge of Jesus Christ, His Holy Spirit, and our Creator.
One great challenge Christians have is to separate knowledge of God from myth. God knowledge is different from myth. God knowledge rises above myth. Myth is formed by people. God knowledge doesn’t come from people. It comes to people from God. For Christians, it comes through Jesus Christ.
Myths are generated by people to give themselves a god’s blessing. Myths religiously link the people of a nation with a deity who created the nation. The Greeks had Zeus. The Egyptians had Ra. The Japanese had the kami.
Where ever there is myth, there is a people who created a national narrative about a patron god. The god formed them as a nation and blessed them against other nations. This happens internationally among other religions than Christianity. But it has also happened inside Christianity.
The myth of an Aryan Jesus gave the German people a messianic mission to conquer the world for themselves. German Christians could not tell the difference between myth and knowledge of God given in Jesus Christ.
Which takes us back to 911. What have we as Christians learned about the difference between myth and knowledge of God through this experience? There are many lessons to be learned, for sure, that have challenged our consciences. But there are a few that might rise higher than the rest for our consideration.
First, God’s knowledge of human nature opposes what it is commonly held by many Americans in the present American myth. The American myth is religion is antiquarian. It has no influence in modern life. Religion is of no consequence.
Religion has no role in the education of the nation’s youth. Parents have accepted this myth by not bringing their children to religious communities for training. Grandparents have vainly tried to challenge their children’s ambivalence.
Our youth have left the church. This culture has been a long time coming.
We learned this myth through Thomas Jefferson, who said, “What does it matter what a person believes. It neither breaks my bones nor picks my pockets.”
This is not just naïve. It’s dangerous.
We’ve seen very well in 911 what the power of religion is. People around the world are religious. Not all religions share the same belief with Christians about who God is or what God wants people to do that is good and right.
Ask the families of the people killed in the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 if religion neither breaks my bones nor picks my pockets. Ask the families of Christians and Yazzidis in Iraq whether religion breaks my bones or picks my pockets. Ask the families of people who died in Paris, Brussels, Mosel, Damascus, and Kabul whether it matters whether there is one God who is loving and merciful, or another God who is judgmental and punishing, or thousands of gods who justify every type human behavior.
What we’ve seen during the last four generations, in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and world-wide terrorism is the consequence of global religious pluralism.
There is no world-wide agreement on God that remotely agrees with “God is love. In Him is love. Without Him there is not love. Anyone who knows Him loves.”
Christians cannot hide from this conflict over who God is and be silent. The Christian conscience must be convicted by 911 to state the reasons why Jesus Christ’s teachings are the molder and shaper of a new world conscience of love.
We as the Church of Jesus Christ must not settle for a portrayal of Jesus Christ as being irrelevant in our times. The goodness and righteousness of God’s love is known through Jesus Christ. It was not Christ who initiated 911.
The Christian conscience is being compelled by God through this horrible event. We must dispel the myth that it doesn’t matter who people claim to be God. It does matter. Jesus is relevant because He is the only way to global peace.
Second, 911 dispels the American myth there is no role for intolerance in religious life, or in American life. Just think about this myth for a moment.
Tolerance and intolerance are both related to the act of judgment that conscientious people make every day about what is good and what is evil. Daily we must decide what is moral from what is immoral. Unless we make this judgment we are condoning anarchy.
We are doing an injustice to God when we say, “Its true for you but not for me.” This is not what the Westminster Divines had in mind when they claimed the first principle of Presbyterianism is “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”
If it’s true for you but not for me, then why should anyone be trained in counter-terrorism. Terrorists’ opinions are of no consequence.
It’s true for them but not for us. Who cares? Well, we Christians care!
My wife and I, along with Gloria Sipes from our church, volunteer with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. We usher at the Benedum and Byham Theaters. After the attack on the Bataclan Theater, we have had counter-terrorism training.
Did we like it? No. It was nice to usher without worrying about such things. Many of us became ushers with the Public Trust to escape the world’s problems. People come to the theater to find a respite from world headlines.
But the fact remains, sin is real. Human sin doesn’t regard all life as sacred. Human sin doesn’t care what God’s standards are for goodness and mercy. We live in a world of sin that God wants redeemed.
Of course, we can’t redeem the world ourselves. But, Jesus Christ has shown us what a redeemed world looks like. A redeemed world treasures the sacredness of every life.
We, as Christ’s followers, have a responsibility to our neighbor and to ourselves to uphold the sacredness of life. This is Jesus’ teaching in “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and that favorite saying of Jesus we hate to do, “pray for those who persecute you.” These are acts of a Christ-like conscience that make for peace.
When Jesus Christ is Lord of our conscience, we take the initiative in promoting Christ’s mission of peace on earth, good will to all people. We take seriously sin and do not tolerate what diminishes abundant life.
World peace is the goal of Christ’s death on the Cross for our sins. God’s intention is that His kingdom would be on earth as it is in heaven. We know this from Jesus’ teaching on prayer. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
So we must not tolerate indifference to religious beliefs that deny the sacredness of each person. We must not tolerate apathy about what other religions teach about their god. We must not tolerate thoughts and actions that deny God sent Jesus to be the Lord of our global conscience for the positive purpose of global peace. We must show others that Christ’s teachings should shape a common conscience about abundant life together that gives peace.
When that day comes, the whole world will be at peace.
It was a wakeup call for us as ushers that the world of our indifference has ended. We must be people of a Christian conscience who are responsible every day for the peace and mercy of this world.
Each of us is responsible for the stewardship of the gift of life that God has given us in Jesus Christ. Each of us must be on guard for sin and promote the common conscience of God’s love that brings peace to this sin-sick world.
On this fifteenth anniversary of 911, God is calling to our consciences to dispel the myths of our culture that deny Jesus Christ’s relevance that makes peace. When we rise from our pews with one voice as whose consciences are directed by Jesus Christ we will say to the world what we believe about God matters.
Because of what we know about God through Jesus Christ, we will not tolerate those who believe God calls anyone to be the eternal judge of another person’s life that calls for their destruction. That’s what religious terrorists do.
We shall call the world to abundant life together in the name of Jesus Christ. We will not be intimidated by terror or religious extremists who deny our faith in Jesus Christ.
Our revenge will be to stand courageously in love before those who seek our destruction. We will offer them the only true hope for global peace and justice– Jesus Christ. We will show God that we have heard His appeal to our conscience.
We will also show the world the truth of Paul’s incredible claim about Jesus’ power to overcome evil in Romans 8:28, “In everything, God works together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” Even 911.