Today we continue our summer sermon series on what it means to be a Christian by looking at the idea of Christianity as a peace movement. In the passage from Ephesians which we just heard, the writer is telling the people to put on the whole armor of God! Put on the breastplate of right […]
Today we continue our summer sermon series on what it means to be a Christian by looking at the idea of Christianity as a peace movement.
In the passage from Ephesians which we just heard, the writer is telling the people to put on the whole armor of God! Put on the breastplate of right action! Take up the shield of faith which will quench the flaming arrows of oppression! At first glance, it really doesn’t ring of peace but it may help if we take some time to look at this letter, this scripture passage, in context.
For many years, it was simply assumed that the apostle Paul wrote this letter to a community, possibly in Ephesus (though biblical scholars are not even sure about that). Many scholars now believe that this letter was written a generation or more after Paul’s death. These communities, these followers of the very new Jesus Movement, were religious minorities in the Roman Empire. And though this passage doesn’t mention a specific persecution, the group receiving this letter probably faced frequent mistreatment from their neighbors as well as government authorities. At that time it was illegal to be a part of this new Movement or to be identified in any way as a follower of Jesus. Regardless of that, the writer, who was trying to be faithful to the Pauline tradition of echoing Jesus’ message, was trying to build up the community and to encourage them to move away from the violence that was so prevalent during that time.
But think for a moment, this group was harassed, was discriminated against, and execution was a very real possibility if they did not obey the Roman rule. These people were probably frightened and angry and what do we often do when we are angry? We lash out! We fight! We want to get even and we want to make others hurt like we hurt. But this community had been told to set aside this notion of violence, of warfare and replace it with images of peace. The writer of Ephesians tells them “…put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace!” Now this is something very different than what was expected. They weren’t being told to attack. They were given a different message and encouraged to create something meaningful, something peaceful. This was the message that the writer of Ephesians shared with his community and it comes from the message of compassion and justice that Jesus shared with his disciples.
We know through our various studies that the Gospel message was a message of peace. The writer of Matthew’s gospel imagines Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who work for peace; they will be called the children of God.” And the writer of John’s gospel pictures Jesus saying, “Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace.” The world’s peace, during that time, was the idea of the Pax Romana or the “Roman Peace” which wasn’t peaceful at all. It was brutal and it was violent. And though we may see the message of early Christianity as a peace movement, somewhere along the way it took a wrong turn. Quite often, to me, Christianity doesn’t really feel all that peaceful.
The late theologian Marcus Borg shares that “For the first three centuries of Christianity, Christians refused to participate in war. Christian authors who comment about this in the second and third centuries regularly attributed this to the teaching of Jesus. They understood passages like “Love your enemies” to prohibit killing them. Yet loving enemies did not mean passively accepting what they do. Instead they were to be resisted – but nonviolently.” (taken from page 193 of the book Convictions)
You know, I think one of the most common misconceptions held in our culture today is that to work for peace or to be peaceful people somehow makes us weak. That to hold fast to the idea of non-violence somehow makes us timid, makes us “less-than.” We have been taught that there are only two options when facing violence: fight or flight. And I believe that nothing could be further from the truth. There is a third option; an option that is used by groups working for justice and that is a willingness to stand up for what is right while intentionally not resorting to physical forcefulness. Being people of peace takes strength; it takes courage. But because it goes against the status quo of power and might, those advocating for peace and non-violence are radical just as Jesus and his message was radical! This going against the political powers in a peaceful manner, it was totally unexpected and frequently very effective! And there are some great illustrations of Jesus’ radical non-violence throughout the gospels!
Example: in Matthew’s Gospel, the writer shares that Jesus has instructed his followers, “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go two miles.” The late American biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink explains that this doesn’t mean what we’ve taken it to me….that we should always go the extra mile…that we should always extend ourselves to do what others tell us to do. This instruction from Jesus is taken from the practice of limiting the amount of forced labor that Roman soldiers could impose on subjected people. You see, in areas ruled by ancient Rome, there were mile markers regularly placed along the highways. And a Roman soldier could order a civilian to carry his pack one mile only. For the civilian to carry the pack more than one mile came with severe penalties for the Roman soldier. By doing this, Rome was attempting to limit the anger of the occupied people and still keep its soldiers on the move. Nevertheless, this order was a bitter reminder to those in the Jewish community that they remained oppressed people even in their own land.
But imagine the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to begin carrying his own pack when the civilian says, “Oh no! Let me get that! I will continue to carry your pack for you!” So now, the soldier no longer has to force the civilian. The civilian carries the pack cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Is the soldier’s strength being insulted? Are you trying to get the soldier disciplined? Create trouble?? What the civilian has done is has thrown the solider off balance. Can you imagine the Roman soldier pleading with the civilian, “…come on…just give me my pack back!” That would have made the soldier very uncomfortable and that’s the point. No violence. No passivity. It was just a non-violent confrontation that causes people to think about their actions. It breaks the cycle of humiliation and shames the oppressor by encouraging those in society’s margins to stand their ground and to acknowledge their own personal power.
When I reflect on these peaceful, non-violent actions that are found though out the history of Christianity, I think of so many who have worked or continue to work for justice and for peace. I think of those who worked for women’s rights; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Alice Paul and Margaret Sanger and those who peacefully protested so that women could vote and could make choices regarding their own bodies. I think of those who worked for civil rights; Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medger Evers and all those who struggle to end racism. Those who sat at a lunch counter and those who worked so hard to end segregation in schools and in so many other public places. I honor those who acknowledge that Black Lives Matter! I think of the activists who have worked and continue to work for the queer community; Barbara Gittings and Harvey Milk, Rev. Elder Troy Perry and Sylvia Rae Rivera and so many who have worked towards equal rights for the LGBT community, for marriage equality and those who continue to reach out to young people, gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, questioning, assuring them that there is nothing wrong with them; affirming to each one that they are good and beautiful, just as they are. All of these and many more justice workers have stepped out in non-violent action for themselves and for others because it is work that needed to be done. And it remains a call for each person who honors the Divine to create a peaceful, non-violent kin-dom here on earth.
But I also believe that the concept of Christianity as a peace movement is a two-fold idea. We understand the message of Jesus to work towards peace and not let others oppress us, to resist persecution with non-violent means. But there is another side to creating peace and that is to grow and nurture the peace within each of us. We can work towards peace in our community and in our world, but if there is no peace within us, our work for a non-violent society won’t be nearly as effective.
So, how do we find that inner peace? How do we step away from what does not serve us well? There are so many ways to do just that. We must be intentional about our own self-care. We pray. We meditate. We live in the present moment. We think outwardly. We focus on hope. We step away from judgment and condemnation and we honor the Divine in all people. We remember the message of Jesus, “Peace be with you…peace be with you.”
Ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu shares, “If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations. If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities. If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors. If there is to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home. If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart.” And the Dalai Lama tells us, “World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion.”
My friends, identifying as a Christian is easy. Doing the work of a Christian life is tough stuff. It’s not all Sunday mornings and great music and sermons and brunch with your friends, though that is part of it. Often that is how we find our internal peace. That connection with others and with God really is imperative to the work we are called to do. But we are to take that internal peace and go out and make difference in our world.
Truly Christianity is a peace movement. It started out that way and it is up to us now to make it so. We are, each of us, God’s hands. Let us continue the peace movement ourselves and work towards and more just, AND more peaceful world – for ALL people! And this is the good news. Amen!
Creates peace in the world
I share the light of peace
With all living beings
And so it is