Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“The Price of Peace”

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Luke 12:49-56[1]

In our study of the Psalms we’ve talked a lot about ideas like justice and righteousness, mercy and peace. It is clear that this is the goal of faith—a world where God’s unfailing love and saving grace define the way we live with each other.

And the primary way in which the Bible speaks of a life that looks like this is with the word shalom, peace. In the Bible, peace is the wholeness that comes from knowing God genuinely and living the life God intended for us. Peace is what happens when God’s reign and God’s justice prevail. It includes all that God is working toward in this world. It is God’s salvation that brings reconciliation with God and humanity.[2]

And so it comes as quite a shock when, contrary to everything the Bible teaches us to expect, we hear Jesus saying he has come not to bring peace but strife!

Part of the problem is with the whole shape of our faith. We take something that essentially subverts our cultural values, our selfish desires for prosperity and happiness, and we turn it into one great mechanism to fulfill all our wishes![3] It’s called “cultural religion.” And the values of that kind of faith are things like conformity, keeping up appearances, material success. It’s the outlook that insists on maintaining the status quo at all costs. Those who are invested in “business as usual” are interested in a different kind of peace than what the Bible has in mind.

Jesus confronted that kind of religiosity head-on![4] He says, somewhat ironically, that he has not come to bring peace, but strife. This ominous declaration stands as a warning to all those who are invested in maintaining the status quo no matter what. It challenges those who care more about keeping up appearances and preserving “business as usual” than promoting God’s kingdom and God’s justice. Jesus brings conflict, strife, crisis to those whose faith is defined by those conventional values.[5] As one commentator put it, Jesus says to those whose faith is locked into the status quo, “I have come to bring crisis because business as usual means injustice and death.”[6]

We’re familiar with the story of Nelson Mandela, the South African black activist who spent years in jail for his protests against Apartheid, the government-sanctioned official state policy of separation between the races. We may not be as familiar with the story of Stephen Biko. He was also a leader in the struggle against racism, but his story didn’t turn out so well. Biko was arrested and tortured to death by South African police. His story was told by another South African, white newspaper editor Donald Woods. Woods exposed the inhumanity and injustice of Apartheid and as a result he was forced into from his homeland. Their story was dramatized in Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film, Cry Freedom.[7] There is peace today in South Africa—at least more peace than there was for Stephen Biko—but that peace came at a high price.

True peace, God’s peace that brings wholeness and life, always comes with a price. The truth behind our Gospel lesson for today is that Jesus does come to bring a different kind of peace, but it is peace that will only come from confronting injustice, especially the injustice that benefits the privileged few. It is a kind of peace that will only come from exposing the untruth that sustains the status quo which perpetuates the brokenness of our world. It is a peace that can only come through the strife and conflict that God’s justice and God’s truth provoke among those who are comfortable with “business as usual.”[8]

As I have said before, from Moses to Amos to Jesus, practicing justice is the defining quality of those who claim to know God! Justice is about living life the way it ought to be lived in relationship with God and others. It’s about the mercy and love and kindness that make for “life abundant.”[9] As I have said before, the Bible insists time and again that those who love God and will love others, and they will show it by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute.[10]

And that is the reply to the plea from Psalm 80: “Why have you broken down the walls of your vineyard?” The immediate answer is that the Lord of Hosts came to his vineyard Israel and “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed” (Isaiah 5:7). But the ultimate answer comes from Jesus—who came to break down the systems of injustice and untruth that rob people and nature of life through oppression and exploitation. But his intention was not to destroy, but to clear the way for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s peace that brings life to all creation. As the late pope John Paul II put it, “If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. It you want life, embrace the truth–the truth revealed by God.”[11]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/19/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.”

[3] Cf. J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 38, this kind of “Christianity” “becomes the religious fulfillment of the prevailing social interests.” Cf. also ibid., 58.

[4] Indeed, one might say with Moltmann, Crucified God, 37, that Jesus’ cross is itself the contradiction of all cultural values.

[5] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 18-19: The promises that the hope inspired by the Gospel makes “must stand in contradiction to the reality which at present can be experienced,” which is a reality of suffering and death. Cf. also ibid., 103, 118, 225-226, 330. For this reason, he says (p. 324) that “Christians must venture an exodus and regard their social roles as a new Babylonian exile” in which they must proclaim the hope of the Gospel and work for the transformation of society. Cf. also Jerry A. Irish, “Moltmann’s Theology of Contradiction,” Theology Today 32 (July, 1975): 21-31.

[6] Teresa Berger, “Disturbing the Peace (Luke 12:49-56)” in The Christian Century, (August 10, 2004):18; accessed at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle. asp?title=3116 .

[7] Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Review of “Cry Freedom”, accessed at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=6091

[8] Cf. Moltmann, Crucified God, 39, where he speaks of the necessity of “the painful demonstration of truth in the midst of untruth.” Cf. also ibid., 71, 145, 212.

[9] Nicholas Wolferstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today 48 (April, 1991) 16.

[10] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 451.

[11] John Paul II, Homily at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, January 27, 1999.

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