6th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Rev 21:10, 21:22-22:5;
John 14:23-29; Acts 16:9-15
STRENGTH TO LOVE: THE POWER OF LOVE AS THE WAY TO PEACE
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. — John 14:27a
Last week, we talked about one of those central messages of the biblical story: the vast difference between what the world typically counts as power, and the true power of creation and life which Jesus came to bring us, namely, the power of love. This week, we see that that difference in powers also leads to a fundamental difference in the way to peace. Jesus comes to lead us into the true way of peace, which is completely different from the world’s typical way to peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”
First, we need to understand again that the contrast in ways of peace is not a contrast between global and personal peace, that Jesus came to offer us only a personal way to peace. No, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says these words on the night before his showdown with Pilate about nothing less than Truth with a capital “T.” He tells Pilate that what he is doing, his giving himself over in love on the cross, is itself the Truth he came to bear witness to. He is laying down his life as part of God’s plan to reveal the truth of how to be human in a way that leads to real and lasting truth. Pilate’s supposed power of being able to condemn or acquit Jesus is beside the point of Jesus showing all of humanity the true power in the world, the power of love.
And, as we are following up today, that real power of love has a completely different way to peace, not just to personal peace, but the true way to peace for the whole world. Again, in his showdown with Pilate, he says it straight out: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Here is the fundamental difference between both Jesus’s power and his way to peace, and the world’s kind of power and its way to peace. Our kingdoms, our reigns, our power, our peace, involves the use of violent force. The kingdom of God which Jesus is bringing into the world — the reign of power and peace which he is bringing — never involves the use of force because it is the epitome of love, and true love never forces itself. It may lay down its love in service to others, but it never forces itself, and, heaven forbid, it certainly never kills.
The Book of Revelation, from which our Second Readings during this Easter season come, confirm this picture. Revelation uses bizarre images and symbols to tell the story of human history writ large. It tells the story of the ultimate clash between the typical beastly power of empires, which ends up in its own fiery lake of violence, and God’s power through the lamb slain, which achieves the ultimate victory as symbolized by the New Jerusalem, the new human city, coming down from heaven. It is a city whose gates are always open, and whose waters stream forth for the healing of the world.
Let me call your attention especially to one shocking part of today’s reading — though the shock is blunted by taking it out of the context of what has come before it — which we skipped over in the lectionary’s six-week tour through Revelation. Actually, get out your Celebrate inserts, and look at verse 24. Do you see it? “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev 22:24). Now, it might be shocking in itself for how inclusive this verse is. All the nations and kings of the earth are invited to bring their glory in through the open gates of the New Jerusalem. But here’s the real shocker: the last we saw of the nations and kings of the earth, they have gotten into bed, so to speak, with the epitome of human empires, Babylon. “For all the nations,” we read, “have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:3). And a few verses later they descend into the lake of fire (19:19-20). Yes, lake of fire. Obviously, the symbols in Revelation aren’t literal, because no one descends into a lake of fire and then a few verses later is welcomed into the glorious peace of the New Jerusalem. All throughout Revelation’s story of humankind being duped by the Satanic view of power as wealth and armies, the nations and the kings of the earth have let themselves be deceived by this power. But there is coming a day — brought about by the true power of love, the power of the lamb slain — a day is in the process of arriving when true power and true peace will bring healing to the nations.
How is this coming about, you ask? The Book of Revelation is very clear about this. When St. Michael and the angels are pictured throwing Satan out of heaven, for example, we read how. Satan — which means the Accuser — is in the business of accusing others to be the bad guys and getting the nations and kings of the earth to buy it. Satan, in short, is in the business of pitting Us (with a capital “U”) against Them (with a capital “T”). But in letting himself be slain the Lamb has chosen to be in solidarity with all those accused in the satanic games of empire, to give witness to a very different kind of God, with a very different kind of power, and a very different way of peace. We read that the followers of the Lamb throughout history ‘are conquering Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they do not cling to life even in the face of death’ (Rev 12:11).
In the next chapter of Revelation, John of Patmos pauses from his narration of world history to speak directly to us who follow the lamb. “Let anyone who has an ear listen,” he says. “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” (Rev 13:9-10). In other words, it’s the same measure for power and peace which Jesus explicitly states to Pilate: while the nations and the kings of earth follow the way of beastly violence and force, the followers of the Lamb do not fight. We are called to endure in faithfulness to the Lamb.
The Book of Revelation was written at a time when followers of Jesus were faced a crucial choice. Most scholars think it was a time when there wasn’t an active persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. But that presented the temptation of becoming too comfortable with the ways of empire. So each follower of Jesus constantly was faced with daily decisions of how much they resisted those ways of empire or how much they succumbed to its temptations. The ways of empire and of God’s reign are completely different, and one must always choose between the two! The letters to the seven churches at the beginning of the Book of Revelation make this choice clear. The churches which are scolded are the ones who are lukewarm to their mission of standing against the evils of empire (cf., Rev 3:14-17). To be lukewarm and not make a choice is to effectively make a choice to simply go along.
When the Empire chose to make Christianity the religion of the empire a couple centuries later, this kind of choice only became more pronounced. It became even easier to get sucked into the deadly ways of empire. Tragically, much of subsequent Christian history has been either lukewarm to empire, tolerating its excesses and deadly ways, or even collaborators with empire, supporting and participating in its deadly ways.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I believe that central to our current situation is once again taking this choice seriously. The evils of empire have become increasingly obvious, especially to our younger generations. Is that a big reason they are mostly missing from church? That our children and grandchildren more readily see how the church has been a collaborator with empire, or lukewarm at best? Even if they don’t understand it in those terms, I think they’ve learned to smell the stink of its evils. I firmly believe that the key to revitalizing our Gospel mission and message is to understand the stark difference between the ways of empire and the ways of the Lamb Slain, the precise difference we’ve been reading about this Easter Season. Next week, we will bring this contrast in choosing to a climax, framed in terms of choosing the new way to be human that Jesus offers us.
This morning let’s end on a positive note, pointing to those today who I see as exemplifying the way of the Lamb Slain. By now, it should be no surprise to you that I see this new way beginning with Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu man who took seriously the teachings of Jesus on nonviolent resistance, on the way of conquering through love. Closer to home, Martin Luther King, Jr., went to study this way in India in the late 1950’s and then brought it to America as the way of the Civil Rights Movement. Let me close this morning with one of King’s articulations of fighting for peace through love, the way of the Lamb Slain in Revelation, a way of peace the likes of which the world does not give us. King writes,
To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’ — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” published in his book Strength to Love.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, May 22, 2022