4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Rev. 7:9-17;
Acts 9:36-43; John 10:22-30
ANSWERING THE CALL TO WORK FOR PEACE
On my way here today, I saw a large highway billboard that actually helps me focus what I want to say to you today. It has a big picture of the Dali Lama and says, “He doesn’t just wish for peace, he works for it.” The Dali Lama is a follower of the Buddha and has become a contemporary face for working for peace. Jesus is sometimes known as the Prince of Peace. But if we go on the basis Jesus’ followers today, who would we choose for such a sign? Pope Francis, perhaps?
I’d like for us to challenge ourselves this morning in reflecting on our own religious training and practice. The Dali Lama doesn’t just wish or pray for peace, he does things to actively work for it. I presume he trains his followers to do the same. What about you or me — and I’m speaking here to the older generation here this morning, including myself. When we went through catechism class many years ago, how much of our training focused around being peace makers in this world — not just praying for peace but learning how Jesus worked for peace, not just for the afterlife, but in this world? What techniques and habits did you learn that center on working for peace? We were told to love and forgive others, which is certainly important. But what does love and forgiveness look like in terms of real-life work, making a difference for peace in our world?
I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we might question this aspect of our training as disciples of the Prince of Peace. I know that I grew up with a training and focus that primarily was one of comfort that I had peace from God that takes me into heaven, into the next life. I don’t remember much talk about situations in politics or the brokenness in the world and steps I could take to contribute to peacemaking. In fact, some of the Christians who actively worked for peace, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Berrigan brothers, were considered troublemakers by other Christians — sticking their noses into places they didn’t belong.
I want us to honestly ask ourselves these questions today in the context of wondering again where all the young people have gone in terms of participating in church. The Welcome Statement — which I write about in my newsletter column coming out in a week — has this line: “If you are three days old, 30 years old, or 103 years old….you are welcome here!” I have no doubt that Faith intends to be welcoming to all ages, and that that’s a good intention. The problem I see is that one of the ages named, 30, is nearly absent. We have the intention to be welcoming to 30 year-olds, but let’s ask ourselves why there are so few around. Could there be cultural barriers in place such that 30 year olds don’t feel welcome at Faith? (That, in fact, is what we are exploring in our Sunday morning class at 8:30 am. We are reading a book by a 30 year old person — Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans — who loves the Lord and Christian mission but has problems fitting in to typical churches these days because of cultural barriers.)
I want to suggest to you this morning that one of the big reasons the younger generations are missing is that they seek people like the Dali Lama who don’t just wish for peace but work for peace. They would like to find more people in churches who have real ways to work for greater peace in this world. What would that mean? I suggest that it would mean a shift in focus for how we read our Bibles. There are amazing answers for how to be peacemakers in the Bible, but it’s a big book with a lot of different themes. It’s easy to read looking for certain answers and completely missing others. Have we focused too much on the comfort of the afterlife, for example, and not enough on what Jesus taught in order to work for peace in this life? Do we need an adult catechism — a major educational effort — to help us relearn, refocus, and retool ourselves in the ways of being peacemakers? For the sake of signaling to young people that we are answering the call to work for peace in this world?
Here’s an example. In 1935, the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had come to find that Lutherans read Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount to let them off the hook on real ways of peacemaking. When Jesus says dramatic things like, ‘Turn the other cheek,’ and, ‘Love your enemies,’ Lutherans had actually come to read those lines as impossible commands from Jesus. They are only meant to move us to the need of grace and forgiveness in seeking the afterlife, not as real guides to making peace in this life. In facing the rising tide of Hitler and Nazism, Bonhoeffer wrote his great book on Discipleship,1 focusing on new ways to read the Sermon on the Mount and take it more seriously for tasks like peacemaking. Not nearly enough of German Lutherans listened to him, or history might have gone differently.
And, ironically, there was another model for reading and acting on the Sermon on the Mount going on at the same time in another part of the world. In 1930’s India, a London-educated Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi,2 was taking Jesus quite seriously in the Sermon on the Mount as his guide for nonviolent, peace-seeking resistance to the evils of the British Empire. Millions of Hindu and Muslim Indians followed Gandhi into this way of peace, not even knowing that it was largely inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Gandhi knew. He had learned to read the Christians’ Bible in ways that they didn’t, in order to not just wish for peace but to work for it. I believe that the younger generations of Jesus-lovers today are hungering for that way of reading the Bible and practices of peacemaking
One other quick example. We are reading through the Book of Revelation this Easter season — that is, the more comforting parts, anyway, not the gory violent parts which make this chapter of the Bible very bewildering and difficult to read — also, notoriously difficult to interpret. Many Christians still read it as a prophecy of Jesus returning to use the kind of violence he never showed the first time he came. Jesus came as the Lamb Slaughtered; but many Christians expect him to return as the Lion of Judah who will perform a wholesale slaughter on all our enemies.
I’ve seen a huge banner in recent weeks in front of the church down the street, titled “Unlock Revelation.” I checked their website, and, sure enough, they unlock the supposed secrets of Revelation in the opposite fashion as I do. Here’s how I would “unlock Revelation”: by focusing on these important verses:
Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:9-10)
The Book of Revelation is a call to nonviolence in a world of human violence that will someday tragically bring about its own end. And when that human violence does finally sink into its own pit of death, God is waiting to usher in a world of peace. Meanwhile, you and I, as followers of the Lamb Slaughtered, are to remain steadfast in our nonviolent ways of peace.
So let’s wrap-up: As we celebrate Easter, we will always continue to have the comforting message of defeating death — which is today’s wonderful picture from Revelation 7: all those innocent martyrs who have been victims of human violence gathered around God’s throne, with God wiping away their tears. But my question for you today has been: What’s at stake in learning to read the Bible in new ways that highlight peacemaking in our world? I think it might mean the difference in finally welcoming in the younger generation of Christians who want to be shown some real ways to be peacemakers in this world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, April 16-17, 2016
1. See Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, especially chapter 2, “Simple Obedience,” for more on his criticism of a current Lutheran reading of Matthew 5. Bonhoeffer argues that a Lutheran critique of “legalistic obedience” should not undercut the grace gift of “simple obedience” that comes to disciples of Christ. There is also a good section on this issue by Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey in the Editors’ Introduction, a section titled “Luther, Kierkegaard, Pacifism, and the Sermon on the Mount,” pages 7-16.
2. Bonhoeffer, sometime in the early 1930’s wrote Gandhi about visiting him in India; we don’t have that letter. But we do have Gandhi’s response, a letter dated Nov. 1, 1934, inviting Bonhoeffer to India; recorded in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 13, London, 1933-35, pages 229-30. Bonhoeffer had met Anglican priest Charles Andrews, a friend of Gandhi’s in India, who told him about the ways in which Gandhi followed the Sermon on the Mount; see a letter to and response from Andrews regarding Bonhoeffer’s interest in visiting Gandhi in India, same vol. 13, pages 136-37.