Sunday, January 9, 2011

Does God Condemn Suicide? (Matthew 3:13-17, Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

This is the first of a five-part series of messages. We are wrestling each week with a different question for God or about God. These are real questions that have been asked by thinking persons who identify themselves as outside the Christian faith. Often, the answers they have gotten to these questions have confirmed their disinterest in God, the Church, and Christians in general.

My hope through this series is that we can honestly and openly engage these questions - not to provide definitive answers, but simply to have a way of discussing these issues with civility, engagement, and grace.

Today, we are beginning a five-week series of messages I have simply entitled "Ask God." Each week, we're going to look at a different question either about God or for God.

As most of you should know by now, one of the foundational, core passions of my ministry is helping to bridge the gap between God and people who have been cut off from God, those who have said, “I don't think the church, Christianity, or God have anything to offer someone like me."

Many of these people have, at some time or another, asked serious questions about the Christian faith. Unfortunately, many of answers they have gotten from Christians and from churches have proved unsatisfactory. For some, the simplistic, canned answers they have gotten just haven't done justice to the complex and highly-nuanced questions being asked. For others, even asking the questions has been viewed with suspicion, as if having questions, doubts, or curiosities about God was somehow a threat to the entire Christian faith.

Friends, God can take our questions, our doubts, our uncertainties, and our genuine curiosity. God isn't threatened when we have a question. God has given us the gifts of intellect and reason, and God certainly intends for us to use them! If the faith we profess can't stand up to a little cross-examination on the witness stand, what's the point in professing that faith in the first place? Feel free to take the sermon notes out your bulletin because we’ve got a lot to cover this morning, and I know you’ll want to write some things down as we wrestle with these tough questions.

This morning, we start out by asking this question: “Does God condemn suicide?” I realize that talking about suicide is difficult partly because it has touched so many of us. Most of us here are probably thinking of a friend or family member who has committed suicide. Many of us have probably thought about suicide, some of us have considered a plan for how we’d do it, and a few of us may have even attempted it.

I am well-aware that in a group of people this size, statistically, it is highly likely that one or more persons here today are seriously contemplating suicide. Listen, if that’s where you are, I want you to come talk to me this week. In fact, I expect you to come talk to me. I have wrestled with this question and this message all week. For the person here who might be considering suicide, and for those here who have been directly affected by suicide, I only hope that somehow God will shape and use what I have to say to bring guidance, grace, and healing – that’s my prayer today. May we pray.

Part of the difficulty for Christians in talking about suicide is that it’s never directly addressed in Scripture. There are examples of suicides and persons with suicidal thoughts in the Bible; Judas Iscariot is probably the most famous and cited most often. Judas, one of Jesus’ 12 closest followers, betrayed Jesus to the government authorities, but then was so wracked with guilt and tormented by his own thoughts that he hung himself in a field outside town. The Bible calls him cursed, but the primary judgment against him lies in his betrayal of Jesus, not in the act of suicide.

Or, back in the Old Testament, Samson commits suicide by using his super-human strength to collapse a building on top of himself and a whole bunch of the enemies of Israel. Or, think about Jonah, who according to the story, was swallowed by a great fish. Did you know he was suicidal? Jonah is literally running away from what God wants him to do, and is so tormented by his thoughts that he is living in a private hell in his mind. When the storm rages on the sea, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, because if he drowned in the storm, he knew the personal hell in his mind would come to an end.

But, the Bible never really offers any statement about what happens to someone who commits suicide or how God views it. So, any statement about suicide is interpretive in nature. And by the fourth century, that’s where the church started to get itself into a messy predicament when St. Augustine called suicide an unforgivable sin, because the person who does it has no opportunity to repent in this life, and because they die in a state of sin, they are sentenced to an eternity of suffering and torment in hell.

For centuries, this was the official position of the Church. Those who had died by their own hand were forbidden from being buried in church cemeteries, and family and loved ones often carried shame and stigma with them for decades. For a long time, the prevailing, unwavering opinion of the church was that suicide was an unforgivable sin, and those who chose that route were eternally lost.

My research this week took me to several websites with discussion threads about God and suicide. People were offering all sorts of opinions about how God views suicide. Throughout those threads, I found several posts like this one:

“I am thinking suicide. I never thought my life would turn out the way it has, never in my wildest dreams. I suffer from depression and have tried everything. I always seem to fall short in life no matter how hard I try. I am not happy. I do consider other’s feelings about me if I take my life. But I think they will get over it. I have told my own father and he does nothing. Plain and simple, I am just a failure in everything I do. I just can’t live like this no more. I have been thinking of suicide for 20 years.

“Because my life just plain sucks. I keep saying to myself, ‘Maybe not this time, maybe things will get better,’ I have been saying that for 20 years. Nothing’s changed. I prayed to God for things to change, but he has never answered me. I feel there is no other choice but to carry out ending my life.”

I don’t know about you, but my heart just breaks when I hear this. If you have a heart, you just have to feel the pain and anguish in his words. He has prayed for God to fix it and make things better, and that just hasn’t happened.

Now, as disturbing as this post was, even worse was some the “advice” that was given from Christians: one who said, “Listen, this is simple, just ask Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit to fix whatever mess you’re in.” Another said, “Let Jesus be your umbrella.” Another said, “Suicide is killing, and God says killing is a sin. If you kill yourself you’re committing a sin you can’t repent from, so God will have to send you to hell for your sin.”

Do you think any of those answers were helpful? I’ll be honest – when I read those kinds of responses, I am embarrassed to be a Christian because of the harm that is done in the name of Christ through statements like these. This comment was made over a year ago on December 12, 2009, and with answers like these, I can’t help but think what might have happened to him and where he is now.

I have a problem with so readily condemning the actions of others, and of condemning suicide in particular. First, Jesus told us that he holds the keys to hell and death, which means we don’t. It is not up to us to make pronouncements about who God does and does not let into heaven and on what terms. The Scriptures tell us over and over again that only God judges, and only God can know the spiritual condition of a person and know his or her final decisions (see Proverbs 29:26, Psalm 75:7).

Second, the darkness of mental illness is something over which persons have no control. Our understanding of human psychology and mental illness still has a long way to go, but it’s also come a long way. Even after people seek God, they may still be very much troubled by feelings of failure, hopelessness, or being unloved.

These feelings and thoughts are like a train. First comes the engine, then several cars, then the caboose. Suicide is the caboose of a train of thought. It comes after several others cars with messages like “I can never do anything right” or “Nobody likes me” or “I may as well just give up.”

God is well aware that people are subject to harmful and self-destructive thoughts. That doesn’t make them wicked people. It makes them ill. It means their thoughts and feelings are all jumbled up, they may not know how to overpower an evil thought and instead, evil thoughts overpower them.

In the second chapter of Romans, we are reminded that God judges each of us according to the knowledge we had to work with (Romans 2:2). So, if our thoughts are jumbled because of mental illness, God is not going to punish us for what we have no account over. If a person doesn’t have the tools or the mental where-with-all to overcome evil and self-destructive thoughts, God shows mercy. We are reminded in Scripture that God is more merciful toward our mistakes than we are toward the mistakes of another (Psalm 103:6-18).

Third, Jesus prayed on the cross, “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?” Do you know the response that came from heaven when Jesus prayed those words? Nothing. Deafening silence.

I can’t overstate the significance of that. Jesus – the son of God, who was himself God – knew what it felt like to be alone and abandoned and forgotten. Jesus – who was sinless – knew what it felt like for his deepest and most earnest prayer to be met with silence. And so when someone feels alone in the world, when they feel friendless and hopeless, that is a very real feeling that even Jesus himself experienced. Those feelings don’t make someone a sinner or suggest that they have some defect or flaw of character, because even Jesus himself struggled with the very same feelings.

And so, if anyone wants to condemn another because they have been plagued by fears and feelings of hopelessness, because they have been tormented by personal demons, because they have lived in a private hell within their own mind, one should also realize that in the same statement of judgment, Jesus is also condemned. If we are willing to make statements of condemnation against another, we must also be ready to make those statements against Jesus.

I will not make a statement of condemnation against anyone who has committed suicide because of one simple word: grace. Because, I do not believe that eternal salvation hinges on a yes or no question administered at the moment of death. Salvation is a gift from God, and it is only by God’s grace that any of us are saved.

For all of us, grace is first tangibly given to us in our baptism, which is why we refer to baptism as the sacrament of salvation. In baptism, God’s grace is literally poured into our lives. As United Methodist Christians, we understand baptism being primarily God’s action – God is the primary actor in baptism, giving us grace before we have even asked for it. It’s not about us understanding what is happening to us, it’s not about us making a public profession of our faith, it’s about God’s grace being poured into our lives.

As Christians, we find our primary identity in baptism. These waters tell us who we are, and they tell us that we belong, first and foremost, to God. In baptism, God names us as members of God’s family and claims us as God’s own. And so, whatever other labels we find stuck on ourselves matter little. We are named and claimed as God’s – more important than our nationality, more important than our family of origin, more important than our education, more important than our mental state, more important than our sexual orientation, more important than our race or color or creed. We are claimed by God through our baptism, and God pours grace into our lives.

That is part of the reason we are talking about suicide today. You see, today is celebrated throughout the church as “Baptism of the Lord Sunday.” Our scripture reading reminds of Jesus’ own baptism in the wilderness, and Christians are called to renew our own baptisms and re-commit ourselves to the promises that were made then, and most importantly, to remember that we belong to God. Just as the Spirit hovered over Jesus at his own baptism and a voice called down from heaven, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” so too does the Spirit hover over each of us at our own baptism, and God says, “This is my beloved son” or “This is my beloved daughter.” Periodically, we Christians reaffirm our baptisms simply to remember that, first and foremost, we are children of God.

In a few moments, you’ll all have a chance to come and remember your baptism. When the message is over, we will have a time of prayer, and I encourage anyone who wants to pray at the altar rail to do so, not just this Sunday, but any Sunday. Then, we’ll all come to the font, to remember our baptisms. I will invite everyone who has been baptized to come forward to participate. If you’ve never been baptized but you can feel God drawing you, don’t come forward today, because I want to find a time to sit down and talk about how God is working in your life, so we can then schedule your baptism so you may participate in this grace-filled mystery of God.

I close with this story. Almost exactly two years ago, January 11, 2009, I was preaching at Blackburn’s Chapel in Todd, NC. Blackburn’s Chapel was a satellite location of Boone United Methodist Church; we were one church who met in many locations. It was also Baptism of the Lord Sunday. David Scott, one of our musicians from Boone, went with me to Blackburn’s Chapel to lead music on that day. He brought his two sons, Daniel (17) and Matt (15), with him. I should also let you know that I have permission to share this story from both David and Lana, the boys’ parents.

The service concluded that day as we will today, with me inviting everyone in the congregation who had been baptized to come down the center aisle to the font, where I touched the water, made the sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, and said, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

Two days later, on Tuesday afternoon, the receptionist handled a phone call in the outer office. It was the Emergency Department at Watauga Medical Center calling on behalf of the Scott family who requested the immediate presence of a pastor. I was the only staff pastor in the office, so I dropped what I was working on and broke every traffic law flying across town to the hospital.

I was ushered into the back corner of the Emergency Department where paramedics and emergency staff were performing CPR on 17-year-old Daniel. His mother, Lana, had come home from work and hit the garage door opener as she pulled in the drive. The door opened, a fog of smoke rolled out, and Lana found Daniel, sitting in his truck in the closed garage with the engine running. She called 911 and began CPR. Paramedics continued CPR the whole way to the hospital and for some time after they arrived until they finally stopped shortly after I arrived. They never did receive a response.

For years, depression had been one the demons plaguing Daniel’s life. It had caused difficulty in his relationships, in his schoolwork, in his overall interest and engagement with people and activities. And like a train of cars each filled with a negative thought, those thoughts kept coming until finally he saw no way forward except to end the torment within his own mind.

Sometime after CPR was stopped and everyone spent some time with Daniel, we returned to the family conference room. David, Daniel’s father, looked at me and asked if Daniel had come forward on Sunday to remember his baptism. Daniel had been sitting on the back row, and I remember he allowed everyone else in the congregation to come forward before he jumped up from his seat and strode deliberately down the aisle. I remember his hair was hanging down in his eyes as it always was, and I had to push back his hair to get to his forehead, which I touched with the water and made the sign of the cross, and said, “Daniel, remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

We are told in the Scriptures that God’s will is ever-directed toward his children’s good. Clearly, Daniel committing suicide was not what God wanted for Daniel’s life. I think God would have said, “You are here way too soon. I had so much more I wanted you to see and experience and accomplish. Even so, in the waters of baptism, I named you as my own and claimed you as my beloved son. I know the demons that have plagued you, the mental illness that trapped and warped your thoughts, the feelings of hopelessness and despair that led you to think this was the best possible option for you to pursue. And, my grace is sufficient for you, for this and every time of need. I am sorry for the pain and torment you went through, and my love for you is greater than all those thoughts and feelings, and my grace is greater than even this destructive thing you have done.”

Friends, we come back today to the waters of baptism – the same waters that claimed Daniel, and you, and me – and named us as God’s own. Through these waters, God led his people out of captivity and we are led out of whatever holds us captive. Through these waters, our sin is washed away and we are clothed in righteousness. Through these waters, we are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation – all this is God’s free gift, offered to us without price. What shall separate us from the love of God? Nothing.

1 comment:

  1. Truely, a wonderful sermon on a VERY TOUGH SUBJECT, A.J.! Thank you! You are blessed and you are a blessing!

    Gloria Mahaffey