Proper 28 (November 13-19)
Texts: Luke 21:5-19;
‘THEOLOGY AND PEACE’ IS NOT AN OXYMORON
I’m out of town several days this week for a Theology & Peace Conference. Many people might think Theology & Peace an oxymoron — like jumbo shrimp, awfully good, deafening silence, loyal opposition, devout atheist, civil war, or militant pacificist. Many might think theology and peace are two words that don’t go together because human history seems chuck full of peoples at war with each other in the name of their gods. Christian history isn’t any different — with the exception of the first couple centuries before the church allied itself with the Roman Empire under Constantine — whose motto was apparently, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” And the rest, as they say, was history — a history of Christians warring in the name of Jesus Christ, with crosses on their shields and tanks. In recent weeks, we’ve mentioned that the Protestant Reformation did nothing to reform that part of our history. It only gave another reason for us to fight each other in Christ’s name — wars between Protestants and Catholics.
When I go to the Theology & Peace Conference this week, [name withheld] is going to sub for me in confirmation class. I’m having her show part of my favorite movie about Jesus.1 It was done as a TV mini-series more than 20 years ago, and I’ve used it in confirmation classes ever since. It is reasonably faithful with the story of Jesus’ life from the Gospels, but kind of like John was faithful with the other three Gospels, when he used many of the same stories but filled in a bunch of dialogue. The Gospel of John also carefully adds to the stories of the other three Gospels in ways that fit his congregation.
The thing that I feel this particular Jesus movie does well is fill in the political element. We get behind the scenes dialogues with the leaders in Palestine at the time, people like Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Caiaphas the High Priest. The movie makes it clear that Jesus lived at a time when the possibility of armed rebellion of his fellow Jews against the Romans was thick in the air they breathed and the water they drank. Just before Jesus was born, the Romans had brutally put down a rebellion in Galilee. Jesus grew up in towns and villages that had been destroyed by the Romans, with many of their people killed. Less than thirty years after Jesus himself was executed on the cross by the Romans as an insurrectionist, the Jews rose up against the Romans in a big way and were crushed. Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands of people were killed.
It is helpful for a movie to fill in this history for us, two thousand years later, because that background is largely lost to us. Yet for the first Christians who benefitted from Mark’s Gospel — the first of the Gospels written, with Matthew’s and Luke’s following not long after — that history would have been front and center for them. And the strange passage that is today’s Gospel would have been among the most important parts. For what do we see Jesus prophesying in today’s Gospel Reading? The utter destruction of the temple that would take place a generation later. Jesus’ followers are admiring the beautiful structure of the temple, and Jesus tells them, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke were written right after that had happened. It thus elevated Jesus’ status as a prophet. Jesus — like the Hebrew prophets of old — had tried to warn his people about what was to come, and they hadn’t listened. They chose armed resistance to their enemies once again and were crushed.
Even more so, Jesus had come as the Messiah of God, not to lead such a rebellion in God’s name, but to definitively help his people understand that their God was different from all the other gods precisely in this respect. Their God, the Jewish God, is a God of peace, who, instead of justifying or commanding the next war, sent Jesus to show us a different way to be human so that we could begin to live into the way of love, the way of true peace.
This Jesus movie, which the confirmation kids have been watching with me, highlights precisely the fact that for Jews and Christians the words theology and peace should go together. Because the God revealed to us through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is preeminently a God of peace. They portray Judas as having ties and sympathy with the Zealots, the Jews who would lead the subsequent armed rebellion. Shortly before betraying him, Judas tries to talk Jesus into leading the Zealots into a war with Rome. Jesus flatly denies him. “I’m not here to lead a violent revolution,” he tells Judas.
For me the most poignant additions to the movie begins with the opening scene, before the credits even roll. The movie opens with Jesus traveling with his earthly father Joseph, looking for carpentry work. They are sleeping out in open country. And Jesus has a nightmare of soldiers during the Crusades and World War I fighting and dying in his name. Then, brilliantly, the movie later adds a second time of temptation to the one in the Gospels at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This second time of temptation is as Jesus is praying in Gethsemane on the night before he’s executed on the cross. Satan takes him into the same scenes of the opening nightmare, the scenes of subsequent times in history when Christians will fight and die in his name. Satan tries to convince him that his death on the cross will be in vain. “But you can stop it all tonight,” Satan says to Jesus. “Come down off the cross. Why die in agony when you can take control? Make the earth a paradise. End poverty and hunger and war. You can do it; it’s within your power. Right now.”
Jesus responds, “No, I cannot. It is not God’s will.”
To which Satan responds: “It’s not God’s will to end war? What kind of God is that?”
“One who loves mankind so much,” says Jesus, “that he gives them freedom of choice. God has not created them so that he can be their dictator. He gives them the choice of doing good or evil.”
Looking at the soldiers dying in war around them, Satan laughs and says, “And this is what they choose.” Suddenly back in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Judas approaches with his betrayal, Satan tries one last time to dissuade him. “Jesus,” he says, “you don’t even have to bow down to me. Just call to your Father and ask him to deliver you. Tell him you don’t want this. He won’t make you go through this. Just wave your hand, and you’ll be home safe. Do it, now. You know what I showed you was true. You are going to die in vain. You don’t know the plan. I do. I’ve seen it. Nothing changes. Humankind doesn’t have the capacity to love like you want them to. This will never happen. Just lift your hands, Jesus, and wave this all away. Go home, Jesus. Go home to your father now. Don’t die in vain. Don’t die alone.”
Jesus responds, “I am not alone. I’m with my Father. I will not die in vain. I am in the hearts of men and women. I will die for the everlasting kindness of the human heart created by the Father, so that human beings will make God’s image shine once again. And those who will want to, will find in me the strength to love until the end.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, this is, in fact, one of the biggest points of my conversion. I was taught to basically agree with Satan, that humankind is incapable of loving enough to choose God’s way to peace. How about you? Think back to your Sunday School and Confirmation Class days. Were you taught that human beings are incapable of loving like Jesus this side of heaven? That we are trapped in our sin from being able to love as God loves? In short, many or most of us were taught to believe as Satan in this movie when he tells Jesus, “Humankind doesn’t have the capacity to love like you want them to.” I’ve slowly undergone a conversion over the past 30 years to the point where I believe that, as the creatures created in God’s image, we are capable of loving like God does.
Otherwise, why would Jesus have boiled all the commandments down to love? In John’s Gospel, it’s the theme of Jesus’ Farewell Address to his disciples, on the night before his death. “I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). He goes on to say a couple minutes later, after promising to send them the Holy Spirit, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). We will do greater works than Jesus! Why would he say that if he believed with Satan that humanity is incapable of loving like Jesus wants us to? The key is the “abiding places” that he prepared for us in the cross and resurrection. Those abiding places are us! Jesus promises to come dwell in us with his love through the Holy Spirit! That’s how we’re capable of Jesus’ kind of love! Because it is his love dwelling in us!
St. Paul — who since the Reformation has been made the bearer of the bad news that we’re too trapped in sin to love like Jesus wants — St. Paul actually has the opposite message. He fully buys into what Jesus says. Again, it’s on the basis of Jesus living in us through the Holy Spirit. If we continue to live in the flesh, then, yes, we are incapable of breaking sin’s hold on us. But if we live in the Spirit, we become a new creation. “It is no longer I who live,” Paul says, “but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). And, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).
So the bottom line, Brothers and Sisters, is that Theology & Peace is not an oxymoron. Jesus came to reveal to us a God of love who sends Jesus into the world to teach us how to love with a God-like love — even to the point of loving our enemies. In the Spirit, we can choose to love like God loves us so that we might bring that saving love to a broken world. In the words of my favorite Jesus movie, ‘Jesus died for the everlasting kindness of the human heart created by the Father, so that human beings will make God’s image shine once again.’ And it was not in vain. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 13, 2022
1. It is titled simply Jesus (DVD version), released in 1999 and starring Jeremy Sisto, Jacqueline Bisset, Debra Messing, and Gary Oldman. There is a shortened version (from a length of 2:54 in the original DVD and TV mini-series down to 1:44) available both on YouTube: https://youtu.be/XPRmNXSU3c8, and Amazon Prime Video.