Blessed are the peacemakers (or how to spot God’s kids)

In the fall I began leading our church community through the Sermon on the Mount, the longest recorded teaching of Jesus. We have been moving deliberately through the introduction to the sermon, a collection of blessings known as the beatitudes. What follows is an adapted transcript of my sermon on Jesus’s words about peacemakers. Since it originated as a sermon, I’ve retained some repetition and methods of emphasis that are more natural to speaking than writing. Imagine you’re hearing me preach it…or be thankful that you’re not.


peacemakers

Jesus begins the most famous sermon of his life by declaring that an assorted band of misfits and weaklings are the ones who are truly blessed: the poor and empty, the sad and broken, the quiet and unimpressive, the desperate for God’s help, the merciful, the ones who are unattached to power or money. It’s a strong start for a new preacher soon to claim to be King of the world, don’t you think?

Next he adds this:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Before exploring what he means by peacemakers, I want to give some attention to the substance of this particular blessing – being known as God’s children – because I think its attachment here is crucial.

Being a child of God is the very core of our identity, which John addresses clearly in a couple of places:

But to all who received him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.   -John 1:12-13

John says that the primary transformation in the identity of those who believe in Jesus is they become children of God.

Later he writes:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.   -1 John 3:1

Here he highlights that God’s love results in us being called children of God, using the same language Jesus uses in Matthew 5.

So both being a child of God and being called a child of God are of primary importance to people who believe we are God’s and that Jesus reveals to us both how to live and why we are living.

When we believe in Jesus, he gives us the power to become children of God, which is about both a change in our identity and a capacity for living into that identity. That gift is God’s great show of love for us.

This blessing from Jesus for peacemakers (they will be called children of God) is tied to our core identity as people of faith.

We’ve been through a similar discussion a lot over the years, so I’m not going to belabor this point, but let’s again be clear that Jesus is not saying “you earn becoming a child of God by being a peacemaker.”

The Gospel is about God’s extravagant love for us such that Jesus died for us while we were still sinning. We are made in God’s image, that image in us is cracked and broken, and God repairs the brokenness through Jesus. That and that alone makes us God’s children. As John says, it’s a gift he gives us because he loves us.

However, Jesus clearly makes a statement here that the peacemakers will be called children of God. So what does he mean?

As we discussed in the previous beatitudes, we don’t receive God’s mercy because we’ve been merciful; we embrace a life of mercy because we understand that we were given mercy when we most needed it. We don’t see God because we make our hearts pure enough; the gift of faith enables us to take our eyes off of everything else we tend to look to for security and peace and life and fix them on Jesus, and in him we see God.

Jesus is making a similar kind of statement here. You don’t become God’s child because you make enough peace to earn your way into the family. This isn’t a mantra for some sort of bizarro mafia. In the mob, you have to make enough of the right kind of havoc to become part of the family. This isn’t the peaceful version of that.

No, because God has loved us so much – because he has given us the power to become children of God – we receive that gift. And as always with Jesus, the gift of being God’s child isn’t meant for selfish gain, but for becoming part of God’s family and participating in the work of the family.

And the work of God’s family is – not as an afterthought or secondary goal, but as a primary purpose – the work of God’s family is peacemaking.

Colossians 1:15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Take note that this is primary doctrine about Jesus, not secondary teaching.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

And now we, the Church, are brought into it. We are caught up in what’s true about Jesus here.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” – pay attention, Paul says, because here is what happens when ALL the fullness of God comes into humanity:

God reconciles all things to himself.

How? By making peace.

And how does he make peace? Through the laying down of his own life.

So let’s take note of three truths:

  • This is God’s nature and his work among us – the making of peace by way of self-sacrifice.
  • Jesus is the head of the Church, the Church exists to follow and be like him in the world, so we are all bound to his way of self-denying peacemaking.
  • Not only is this our model – we’re going to follow this way which will turn us into peacemakers – but this is the fuel for all peace we will make. In other words, our efforts toward peacemaking won’t merely be mimicry; they will be supernaturally empowered by the work of Jesus on the cross.

Paul again, this time in Philippians 2:1-11:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

If you have any contact with or benefit from Jesus at all, embrace and perpetuate the way of peace. Moreover:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

If you follow Jesus, peace and power come not through conquering or winning – not through any of the means the world and its systems tell you are necessary for peace and power – but through service and sacrifice.

Listen, for us to believe that Jesus overcame and is overcoming all the darkness and disorder in the world by way of the cross … to know that “He completely humbled himself, therefore God exalted him and gave him the name above every name” [exaltation and empowerment were born out of humility and sacrifice] … to hear Jesus and the Scriptures call us into that way as the purpose of our lives, the road to true peace, and only means by which God’s goodness and order will enter the world…

For us to hear and believe all of that and still accept and even cling to the ways of the world in which power, money, and violence are assumed to be necessary for creating order and establishing peace is an absurdity of the highest order.

For us to hear and believe all of that and to then reject or resist making peace in the world and in our own immediate spaces, relationships, and community by laying down our lives – believing we have the weight and supernatural peace-making power of the cross behind us – is to miss the point of being a child of God.

You are not God’s child, John says, because you’re his biological descendant or through your will – not because you decided you really wanted to be a child of God. You’re a child of God because God loved you enough that he gave himself away for you, and instead of waiting for you to be behave or be peaceful, he became the way of peace for you.

And no one and no structure in this world will be reconciled any differently.

You cannot acquire enough power for yourself and we cannot acquire enough power for – and I think this message is crucial –

We cannot acquire enough power for the Church or Christianity to impose peace – real peace, God’s peace – on the world.

We cannot accumulate enough of the world’s goods or ascend high enough in the world’s power systems to bring people into proper order or make them good.

That will only happen through the peacemaking of the cross, and now that you’ve become part of the family, you are alive to participate in the family business – making peace by giving your life away where and when peace is needed.

John again:

Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.   -1 John 2:4-6

We don’t get to opt out. We’re his kids. We’re alive because he made us alive, and we exist to embrace him and his way.

So what does that look like in action?

I think when we bump up against these reminders, we tend to shift into peace-keeping mode. We assume this means we’re supposed to avoid disagreement or arguments, bottle up our questions and frustrations, resist change, talk people down, and generally try maintain a status quo that is, if we’re honest, most peaceful to me or to us.

But there’s both a human problem and a Jesus problem with that notion. The human problem is that we can’t maintain a kept peace. As I try to keep the peace, eventually my frustrations or someone else’s will boil over, the illusion of peace will disappear, weariness will set in, and we’ll give up on the idea that peace is even possible.

The Jesus problem is that he didn’t come to keep the peace. He made peace, and His peacemaking was disruptive – both to the religious system that tried to keep peace by way of power for their own good and to the hearts of men and women who insisted real human peace was their freedom to do whatever made them happy, whether or not their lives were reconciled with God’s purposes for human flourishing.

Peacemaking is not peace-keeping. In fact, peacemaking is often disruptive, especially as we enter into the way of Jesus, which is to make peace by giving ourselves away. That sometimes will lead us into a moment or movement whose purpose is to create peace for a person or a people who are being deprived of peace, not by God’s ways, but by the world’s ways.

Case in point: Last Monday was Martin Luther King day. Dr. King and his movement were disruptive, but he was a peacemaker. The argument that his kind of disruption wasn’t creating peace was made by people who already had the peace they wanted in way the world was ordered that time.

But me having the peace I want does not mean that the need for peacemaking has come to an end.

See, as those comfortable with their own peace accused Dr. King and the movement of being unreasonable and impatient and disruptive, black men, women, and children were being treated like animals. And there was nothing peaceful about that.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross to keep the peace of those conditions. He didn’t shed his blood to create a peaceable society where humans made in his image are treated as subhuman.

Jesus’s peace is a reconciling peace, and the work of the civil rights movement was bringing that reconciliation to earth as it is in Heaven.

And Dr. King and so many women and men around him aimed to make peace the way Jesus made it – by prophetically speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth while being willing to suffer alongside those who were suffering, believing that the power in that suffering was the very power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel God’s peace through sacrifice.

That is one of the enduring gifts of the civil rights movement to the Church and the world, I believe: it showed us that laying down our lives does not mean losing God’s truth or Way and taking on the way of the world.

I could go on for weeks about what this peacemaking looks like in the day-to-day, but for time and simplicity’s sake, I want to offer a couple of overarching biblical guides with a question or two (or three) for you to consider for each.

My request is that you hear these scriptures and questions as for you and not as challenges for the people you disagree with or about whom you think “I’ll be at peace with them when they…” This is for you.

James 1:19-20, 22:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Questions: What is my guiding instinct with people I don’t understand: critical words? Anger? Or listening?

How and with whom can I actively become a disciple in the way of Jesus to be slow to speak (including my inner monologue) and quick to listen?

Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Questions: If it’s true that I don’t have to respond to people and powers I disagree with or fear with with self-protection or by overpowering them, who do I need to learn to see differently and what will it look like for me to be Christ’s ambassador of reconciliation to or for them?

Please don’t duck the difficult answers.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are very conservative and voted for Donald Trump.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are really liberal who insist Trump is #notmypresident.

And without getting into a whole ‘nother sermon about what the Bible says about race and refugees and poverty, for most if not all of us, some part of answering these questions ought to turn our attention toward people who have different color skin than us or who have a lot less money than us or who came to our country fleeing oppression or poverty in some other part of the world.

Perhaps we can simplify the questions a bit and ask:

Who is not at peace in my community and my world?

What do I believe heaven looks like for those people?

How can I spend my life joining God in bringing that reality of His kingdom in heaven to earth for them?

I think understanding these two things – in Christ everything old has become new and now God is making his cross-shaped appeal through us – is the crux of living the Christian life, probably always, but certainly in our moment.

Paul says “he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

You aren’t alive – not at any moment – for yourself or for any cause other than the cause of Christ.

And the cause of Christ is the reconciling of the world to God, which is now happening through his children, the peacemakers.

You can choose to have it said about you at the end of your life that you were a good Democrat or a good Republican – a good liberal or good conservative or libertarian – and you can offer all kinds of legal and economic and social reasons why you stood on that side with integrity.

But Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians aren’t the ones who are called the children of God; peacemakers are. And woe to us if we are known as the best, most consistent and well-intentioned [insert cause label here] and not as peacemaking children of God.

The point isn’t that being any of those things is wrong.

The point is this: no cause but the cause of Christ – anchored in the work of Jesus on the cross and the Kingdom that cross creates – is worth your identity.

When Jesus said the peacemakers “will be called” the children of God, none of us know for sure how much he meant “called by God” and how much he meant “called by the onlooking world God intends to reconcile.”

But I am certain that in our day and age, the world is not going to look at a group of policy-makers or power-acquirers or wealth-protectors and say, “Oh look, God’s children! Yeah, I see it. I see Jesus in their way.”

The world is going to see the nature of God in the peacemakers. Not the peace-keepers who just try to get everyone to get along without bugging each other. But the peacemakers – the ones who shrug off all our other labels and concerns that aren’t deeply rooted in enabling God to make his appeal of “Look at Jesus!” through us.

If that group of people can rise up and be known for speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth…

If that group of people can be known for suffering alongside those who are suffering and demonstrating that the power in that suffering is the reconciling, redeeming, life- and identity-changing power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel and empower the creating of God’s peace…

Then I think they – we, with God’s help – will be known as God’s children, both by the onlooking world and by God himself.

Isaiah said it this way:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
-Isaiah 58:6-8

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Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? // Part 1: What I don’t know about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.

That’s what Jesus said. I’ve lived among Christians for 38 years and a month or so, and I’ve picked up on a couple of things that seem to be sort of a big deal. Believing what Jesus said is one of them. So I’m wondering: why don’t we want to be called God’s children?

I’ll come back to that.

I don’t know what happened the night George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I’m not sure anyone does. I’ve read, “Only Zimmerman and Martin know what happened that night,” but I’m not sure even that is true. I’ve waded through the aftermath of many situations far less traumatic than this one and often found that the participants and witnesses tell strikingly different stories. Without exception, we are subjective creatures, and all of our experiences inform and shape how we interpret every moment of our lives. That does not mean, of course, that we should not pursue truth and justice; it simply highlights the need for a system designed to sort out the complicated convergence of subjective humans when laws are broken and people are hurt. And if we are honest, it reminds us that even our best ideas and efforts for justice are limited by our humanness. We are not robots programmed to spit out emotionless narrations of fact. We are complex beings bursting with feelings and opinions, some that we choose and some that choose us. That’s just the way it is, and it is wonderful and awful.

My sense of the nuance and complexity of these moments — including both the events of Trayvon’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal 504 days later — makes it extremely difficult for me to comprehend the certainty of so many of the words I’ve read and heard since Saturday night. I’ve watched people with no connection to either person celebrate the verdict as absolutely right or decry it as a mockery of justice, and either reaction seems fundamentally illogical unless those folks watched the entire trial. Please do not react to something I did not write. I did not write that deep emotion about this situation is illogical. I’m talking about that emotion being directed at a verdict rather than at the deeper, longer struggles we are tying to a jury’s legal conclusion.

A trial verdict is a very specific response to very specific questions asked of jurors about not what transpired between Zimmerman and Martin, but what transpired in the trial. I wonder how many people understand that it is not an opportunity for jurors to express their opinions about what Zimmerman or Martin did on February 26, 2012. The jury was bound by excruciatingly detailed instructions and by the laws of the state of Florida to ultimately discern whether or not the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Ask anyone who has served on a criminal jury whether or not their verdict was perfectly in line with their opinion of what really happened, and most will answer negatively.

The system is designed, however imperfectly, to protect against the whims of our emotions and opinions and set a high standard for convictions. That system does fail, and it is not free of the prejudices and inequities that still permeate our society. But in the trial of George Zimmerman, the jurors were not asked and should not have been expected to remedy systemic injustice over and above the facts they were presented with respect to Florida law which, for better or worse, makes it legal to shoot and kill someone for various reasons, even away from your home. They were asked and should have been expected only to determine whether or not the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin according to laws the jury did not write. This is not me criticizing those who didn’t like the verdict. I think this truth is just as relevant to those who were celebrating the acquittal. If you did not watch the trial (and I didn’t), you simply don’t know (and I don’t) whether or not the jury’s verdict was reasonable or whether it represented justice in this case based on what transpired in the trial. (If you did watch every minute, certainly your opinions of the verdict have deeper roots.)

Again, none of that is intended to suggest that people should not have reactions to the death of Trayvon Martin or to the man who killed him. I would be troubled if we did not have strong feelings about this dreadful situation. I just think we’d be wise to understand that most of those reactions have less to do with the legal nuances of a trial and more to do with the crippling fractures in the way we relate to one another as humans.

Even at our best, we are reacting to the frustration of being black and having to wearily explain again and again that Dr. King’s dream hasn’t been fulfilled just because the laws have changed. We are reacting to the confusion of being white and feeling like we are expected to apologize for our skin color, even if we don’t believe we are racist. We are reacting to the insanity of laws that encourage gun ownership in an effort to curb violence. We are reacting to the reductionist politics of gun control that blame an object for human behavior. We are reacting to our inability to shake the feeling that Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal reinforce what most black men intuitively know: that forty-nine years and two weeks after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time still makes you a suspect, not just for the cops, but for any self-appointed neighborhood protector carrying a gun, so you better watch your back. We are reacting to our exhaustion from trying hard to learn how to speak and act appropriately with folks of other heritages and races, only to discover that we’re still offending people.

And at our worst, we’re just belligerent and unwilling to consider any viewpoint but our own, secretly rejoicing in these opportunities to crank out bombastic rants on the internet or at parties. We simultaneously feed and consume the verbal and visual anger-porn that is the lifeblood of a media whose primary bias is neither liberal nor conservative, but greed. And pissed off people sell.

This dysfunction is not limited to issues of race, violence, and justice, but that is a cocktail that offers our collective compulsion to tear one another apart a direct route the surface. The result is what we’ve all experienced over the last few days — people talking over and at one another in ways that deepen divides and move us further away from anything resembling peace and human decency.

You don’t have to believe what Jesus said or even believe Jesus is real to look at all of that and wish for something better. That instinct transcends race, creed, and all of our other differences. Unless your soul has been completely seared by so much heat and so little light, some elemental pulse of humanity in you has to know we weren’t made for this.

(Tomorrow — Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? Part 2: Making peace in a culture of verbal violence)