Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sermon 3/9/08 The Beatitudes Part Five: "A Generation of Love"

“A Revolution of Love”
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God.

When preparing for this sermon, I found a “peacemaking” website[i] advertising a one day conference called, “Peace that Lasts.” In the middle of this image advertising the conference was the words, “Postponed.” I am sure there is a good reason that this conference was postponed, but it was ironic that the words, “Peace that Lasts” and the words “Postponed” went together, because that is the image I get when I think of the way peacekeeping actually goes.

The idea of peace in the world is one that we talk about quite often. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard people say, “Pray for Peace in the Middle East.” In reality, I am not sure how many of us actually believe there will be peace there. Most of us think the lasting peace has been postponed for another day and time.

In the seventh beatitude in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be sons of God.”[ii] When I think of peacemakers, I think of two types of people. I think of the people who take the position of pacifism, which means that we are to never engage in violence no matter what the scenario is. I also think of people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. who practiced passive resistance. They were attacked, criticized, beaten, and some killed for a particular cause. They would not respond to violence by acting violent themselves. The question remains, “What did Jesus mean by “peacemakers.”

The Peacemakers

When we think about what it meant to be a “Peacemaker” it is helpful to understand what the culture in Jesus’ day would have understood by the term. The Romans used a term called pax romana which meant “preserving the peace.” One of the benefits of being under Roman control was that the Romans promised that when a nation submitted to Roman rule, they would they new Rome would defend them from other nations. In a region that was ravaged by war, this seemed like a good deal. Israel itself was never taken over by the Romans before 70AD, they simply submitted to Roman rule for protection.

As beneficial as this could be, there were some drawbacks to this plan. Citizens had to pay taxes to Rome and submit to Roman authority. As long as the people were doing what Rome required of them, they actually were OK. The problem occurred when Rome was threatened.[iii] In order to maintain power and control over the region, Roman authorities would crucify any offenders on a cross and hang them so everyone would see. The cross became the Roman method of maintaining peace.

Within Jesus’ own Jewish culture we find some help as well. The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. Shalom literally means “wholeness.” It was actually used as a standard greeting. Shalom did not mean just the absence of violence in someone’s life, it meant to bring about someone else’s well being.

If we put these together, it seems that Jesus may have been confronting the idea of pax romana with a type of peace that is deeper. It is one thing to have the mere notion of peace; it is quite another thing to have a peace that brings wholeness and well being. While the Romans may have offered piece from war with neighboring countries, they could not offer wholeness and well being to people.

Jesus, later on in this same sermon explains how to bring peace in such a way that will create wholeness and well being. He states several things that he wants his followers to do.

1. Do not resist an evil person, instead if someone strikes you on the check, turn your other cheek. If someone wants to sue you and take you tunic, give him your cloak as well, and if someone forces you to go one mile, go the second one.
2. Love you enemies and pray for them.

On first reading, often times Jesus sounds like a baby who is afraid to stand up for himself. We either reject Jesus’ teaching because we know this does not work in the real world, or we take it to heart and become passive. We allow ourselves to get walked on. However, I think this is a misreading of what Jesus is actually saying.

Jesus is not advocating passiveness. When Jesus tells us to turn the other check, what he actually means is turn the other cheek in order to show that you are not offended by the slap on the face you have just received. Jesus is telling his followers that they are not turn respond with the same action that has been used against them, because to do so would be to sink to their level. Instead respond in a way that shows that the action done by the other person is harmful and inappropriate.

The same is true for giving your cloak or your undergarment. This would have meant you were literally naked, thus shaming the person who is taking from you. By law Roman solders could ask someone to carry their equipment one mile, but they must take it back after that. If you were to carry it two miles, then you could get the Roman officer into some trouble.

Being a “peacemaker” is to take an action. It means to take a stance for what is right so that you can be one who brings about wholeness. Peacemaking brings about wholeness in two ways. First, it does not allow anger caused by another’s action to consume us. Second, it allows others to experience grace that may turn their hatred into love. The goal of peace is not just for the benefit of those being the peacemakers, but it is to bring peace to those who are in the wrong as well.[iv]

I am convinced that the way in which Christians respond to the negative things around us is the most important thing we can do. If we respond with hatred or by being passive, then we miss an opportunity to show God’s grace. When respond in a way that brings wholeness and healing, we shine God’s light into the situation.

Being Sons of God

There are two ways of understanding the phrase, “sons of God.” The first way to understand this is to say that we have become sons of God through being reconciled to God. Through being reconciled we have been adopted as God’s children. In the Ancient Near East, a person would be known by their name and who their father was or where they were from, for example, “Joshua son of Nun or David son of Jesse.” We take the name son of God when we are reconciled to God through Jesus.

The second way to understand the phrase “sons of God” is to say that we take on the characteristics of God. We are now like God. This makes the most sense out of the passage. When we decide to bring peace to the world, when we bring wholeness to relationships, then we then become “like God.” We are sons and daughters of God because we live the way the Son of God lived.

When we take on the role of being “peacemakers” we will be sons of God, I believe, in both ways. By being peacemakers we identify with Jesus himself who took up a Roman Cross and showed the world how to have “wholeness” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says,

The peacemakers will carry the cross of our Lord, for it was on the cross that peace was made. Now that they are partners in Christ’s work of reconciliation, they will be called sons of God as he is the Son of God.[v]

Bonhoeffer is right to suggest that we become sons and daughters of God by identifying with Jesus in bringing peace to the world and to those around us. We will also be sons and daughters of God because we are acting out the character of God in our lives.

Bringing out the Good in Others

On Saturday, I was sitting with my wife Melanie, my mom, and my aunt in the emergency waiting room because my cousin had to be taken in my ambulance. We were talking about my cousin, who is one of the kindest people you will ever meet. She has been going through a rough patch in her life, which has been complicated by her job. She works as a cashier at a large store here in town and she has thousands of people walk through her line at work. Of those people, sometimes she gets folks who are in a bad mood for some reason and they take it out on her as the go through the line. Sometimes they will even try to get her fired over the most trivial things.

We began to reflect upon how we treat other people as we go through various lines and it really convicted me that we as Christians should strive to be a peacemaker in every situation we find ourselves in. When we are going through a line at the store, no matter how long the line is or how rude the person is to us, God calls us to offer peace and wholeness to the other person.

I believe Walter Wink, in the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way is corrected when he asserts that the problem we have offering peace is that we see people as either good or bad, but the truth is that everyone has both good and bad in them. It is our job as peacemakers to show unconditional love and accountability in order to bring out the good in the people we see. This does not have to start in Washington DC; it has to begin with us, who claim to be followers of the ultimate peace maker, Jesus Christ.[vi]

Revolution of Love

Last week Laura Walters came and sang a song called Revolution and the lyrics are simple, but profound:

Let it be a movement.
Let it be contagious.
Let it be a revolution of love.

The song in it simplicity is saying that the way we have been doing things is not working. We cannot continue to respond to injustices the same way those who are unjust act towards us. We see these failures on an international level and in our own personal lives. Nether can we sit by and allow injustices to continue to happen around us. As Christians, we have a third way, the way of Jesus where we confront the injustices around us with love. It begins with the choices we make in our everyday lives until it becomes contagious, until like leaven in the dough, it works its way throughout the whole world, bringing true peace and wholeness.

[ii] Matthew 5:9
[iii] There is good information found in Hans Dieter Betz’s commentary, “The Sermon on the Mount” Hermeneia (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1995)
[iv] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Abington Press: Nashville, 2003) This is a great little book about Jesus’ way of peace. Most of the information presented in the previous two paragraphs can be found in the book. It defiantly influenced the direction of this first part of the sermon.
[v] Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone: New York, 1937)112-113.
[vi] Jesus and Nonviolence

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