Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War is the greatest Catholic film of all time. That statement is a bit cheeky, given that: a) There is no Christ-figure in the film; and b) I’m not Catholic. But the force that drives the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to resist the archvillain Thanos is the same force that animates the Catholic Church against the culture of death: the conviction that life is inherently sacred.

As an evangelical Protestant, I used to perceive Catholicism as a works-based religion that taught its unwitting adherents to try to earn their way into heaven. While I am less certain that I understand Catholic soteriology today than I did in my twenties, one thing has become clear to me about the Catholic Church: it is the last great bulwark against the culture of death in the West. One by one, the Protestant denominations have fallen, giving up the fight against the creeping malevolence of the sexual revolution and its self-interested ideology of population control. Like second-tier Marvel superheroes, many Protestants have disappeared into thin air, but Bishop Thor and Cardinal Iron Man remain in the battle.

Thanos is the classic, militant hippie who never gave up on the, now discredited, teachings of The Population Bomb. There are too many people! The universe can’t possibly support them all! Humans (and their other world counterparts) are stripping the cosmos bare, voraciously devouring the scarce resources of every planet. Thanos’ own home world, we are led to believe, suffered such a fate. But did it? The ruins of his planet resemble the ravages of war, not the desperation of famine.

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For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. -Ephesians 6:12

It is difficult for me, and perhaps for many followers of Jesus, to remain within this tension about which Paul is speaking. We fight against the demonic rulers and dark powers of the world, not against the humans through which that evil is made manifest. And yet, as the events of Charlottesville exploded across our social media timelines, it became nearly impossible to discern between the dark powers of evil and the white supremacists through which that evil came. As a foster father with two African-American children in my home, I felt a personal rage welling up within me, a readiness to fight to protect these two kiddos whom I have grown to love. While I have always found the evil of white supremacy to be particularly vicious, putting black babies to bed in my own home has created a heightened sense of urgency for me.

Even though my family has not been directly assaulted in any way, I have seen the vileness of white supremacists online as they have spewed their hatred at ethnically-mixed families in general, and white families with black children in particular. To see it manifested in the real world, as it was so brazenly this past weekend in Charlottesville, activates a fighting instinct within me. (And I have never been a fighter.)

This instinct to physically fight white supremacists, however, is neither constructive for our society nor reflective of the way of Jesus. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood people, even when those people are trying to pick a fight by insulting our most deeply held values by denigrating entire ethnic groups. Instead, our struggle is against the systemic evils of our society – racism, in this case – that entrap our fellow image-bearers of God into their broken ideology and dark philosophy. Racism is the invention of Satan and his fellow evil spiritual forces, for they lust to divide humanity into competing subgroups, driving us to devour and destroy each other. They do this, as they do everything, with lies; particularly, they do this with the lie that a human’s value is dependent upon their ethnic identity, and this lie’s equal if not opposite twin, that all the world is out to destroy my particular ethnic group. Racism is the ironic combination of ethnic arrogance and perceived ethnic victimization. Pride and fear, convenient footholds for the devil’s lies.

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Several weeks ago I preached a message at Hope Church called The Sanctifying Work of the Holy Spirit (audio is above) as part of our 5 Marks of a Healthy Disciple series. A big chunk of this sermon was taken up by an explanation of what I call the sanctification cycle. I have found that sanctification happens in four general phases. (I use the word phases rather than steps because these do not always go in order, they often overlap, and sometimes happen all at the same time.) These phases represent the cyclical work of the Holy Spirit as he forms believers into the image of Jesus. Just as we are never truly done with phase one, we never truly master phase four in this life.

As you journey with Jesus, perhaps the sanctification cycle can serve as a sort of map for where the Spirit has you. On what is the Spirit focussing his sanctifying efforts in your life? Identifying the work of the Spirit in specific terms will help you cooperate with him to achieve his goals for your good. Is he convicting you of sin? If so, what sin? How can you focus your energies on overcoming that sin? Is he empowering you for mission? If so, has he given you specific direction? Of course, it may not be so easy to identify the work of the Spirit, but having a map could help you hear his voice more clearly.

Phase One: Conviction of Sin

The first phase of the sanctification cycle is the conviction of sin. As he was describing the work of the Spirit, Jesus told his disciples that one of his primary tasks was to convict the world of sin and righteousness. This is true for every believer, too. One of the most important tasks of the Holy Spirit is to name our sin and call us to repentance. Unnamed sins maintain their hold on our lives, but God longs to set us free from the power of sin. He wants us to live in the same freedom, and with the same power over sin, in which Jesus lived.

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Ezekiel was an enigmatic prophet who saw and proclaimed strange and beautiful things. In chapter 47 of his book, he records part of a powerful, hopeful vision given to him by God. In this vision he saw a river flowing from the restored temple. At first, the water of the river was only ankle-deep. But as he was led out a little bit farther, it became knee-deep. A little farther still and it was waist-deep. Beyond that, however, it grew deep enough to swim in – so deep, in fact, that no one could cross it.

Everywhere the river flowed, even in the wasteland, life sprang forth. Fruit trees grew up on either side, yielding all kinds of fruit for food and leaves for healing. The river flowed down to the Dead Sea, where it turned the salt water fresh, and fish from all over the world lived in it. Where the river flows, the prophet testified, everything will live.


Where the river flows everything will live.
Wednesday night at General Council (the biennial national conference of our denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance), David Hearn, president of the Alliance in Canada, preached a powerful message on this passage. His main point was this: The Spirit is the river, and it’s time to get in over your head. Too many Christians are settling for an ankle-deep experience of the Holy Spirit. We ask the Lord for a favor, but not for power. We ask Jesus to save us from our sins, but not to send us on mission. We’re not interested in discovering or using the gifts the Spirit has given us, and even when we are it’s usually for the purpose of self-fulfillment. We’re ankle-deep in a bottomless river because we’re afraid of losing control. We’re afraid of what might happen when we get in over our heads.

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I don’t know much about the refugee crisis, or why President Trump has issued an executive order to close our borders to people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Libya. I’ve read the executive order, but I couldn’t parse the political or social implications of it for my children. The global political situation is beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand the causes of the war in Syria. I can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, and I’m not sure there is a difference anymore. My Twitter timeline and Facebook feed are filled with posts of varying degrees of outrage at Trump’s executive order. I don’t know whether I should be outraged, and if so how much, because, in our post-truth culture, I don’t know who to trust to explain this to me.

When the chaos and confusion of our culture swirl around me, my instinct is to lash myself to the only fixed point I know – Jesus Christ. He is my Rock, and the one on whom I can rely in distressing times. When I don’t know how to move forward, I try my best to find Jesus and just follow him. While I cannot speak to the complexities of holding political office (particularly the office of President), I believe I have something to say to my fellow Christians, particularly my evangelical brothers and sisters.

The world is a dangerous place. It has always been this way, though some of us in America have not had to experience the kind of imminent threats that people in Syria deal with today. But the reality is that death, disease, and suffering are never far away. Whether the threat is from a microscopic virus or a bloodthirsty warlord, there is much in our world to make us afraid. Fear is, more often than not, the rational choice.


Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus.
But it is not a choice that Christians are permitted to make. Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus. All of life is an act of discipleship, therefore all of life must be a demonstration of the agape love Jesus exemplified in his life, and most completely at the cross. The Scriptures are clear: “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Our own love may be imperfect, but if the Holy Spirit dwells within and among us, then so does the perfect love of God. The Church is the place where fear does not get to have a voice because the melodies of God’s love are too loud, too strong, too catchy.

As the people of God, we do not have a choice between fear and love. We are compelled to love and commanded to reject fear. Fear must never be our rationale for any decision, large or small. We cannot support public policy that rejects refugees because one of them may (by the tiniest of chances) be connected to a terrorist organization. It is impossible to faithfully follow Jesus by carrying your cross while at the same time deny hospitality and refuge to those in need because you are afraid that they might mean you harm. Jesus knew what the Romans were going to do to him, and he overcame the fear he expressed in the Garden by steeling himself toward the cross. Why did he do this? Because he loved the world – even the Roman soldiers who crucified him!

Perhaps there really are terrorist agents trying to sneak into this country through the refugee process. Jesus didn’t command us to be unwise or naive. But in the absence of clear information, we must not assume the worst of others. We must love without fear. We must welcome the stranger; after all, how do we know we aren’t secretly entertaining angels? We must provide for the needy, because as Jesus himself said, when we do this we are doing it for him. We must love others and entrust ourselves to God.

I admit, that’s not a very good public policy. But I’m a pastor, not a politician. My primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God, not the United States of America. I’m not calling on the state to enact a more Christian policy. I’m calling on the Church to act more Christianly. Don’t be afraid, Church. Jesus has conquered our greatest enemy, death itself. There is no one, then, that we should fear; but there is everyone that we can love.

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