Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Politics, Peace, and the Kingdom of God

“Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called Sons of God.” Matthew 5:9

From time to time I am afforded the opportunity to speak at a local United Methodist Church during their contemporary service. I grew up in the UMC and feel a deep family connection with the church. I now attend a more contemporary community church, but I love going back home to participate in the tradition of the UMC. Ironically, as I said, the service I speak at is their contemporary service, but I love being back in a United Methodist gathering nonetheless.

One of the many reasons I love speaking there is that the leadership who invites me always has a Scripture reading for me to speak from. This is because this church, while it has a few varying expressions of worship, wishes for the collective body to share the same heartbeat, to move together. So, the passage that is being discussed in the traditional service next door is also being discussed in the contemporary service. I love that.

I had unfortunately been forced to turn down a couple of invites by this church. I travel as a part of my ministry work and was going to be out of town on one occasion, and, on the next, my wife and I were getting ready to welcome another little girl into our home. I feared they would stop asking if I kept turning the offers down. So, the very first opportunity I had, I jumped for the chance to speak.

On that particular Sunday, Shannon, the pastor over the contemporary service, tells me that I am going to be discussing Matthew 5:9, which is the Beatitude that states: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called ‘Sons of God.’”

Well, when I heard this would be my topic, I was both excited and frightened. When we think of “peacemakers” we naturally enough think on a national level, we think government and war, which means, “We think politics.”

Let me let you in on a little secret. Unless the preacher or teacher is a bit foolish, no preacher or teacher, especially when he or she is a guest speaker, wants to discuss politics during church service. Our culture is not big fans on mixing their so-called “private faith” with the matters of public policy. Sometimes, when things in society get scary, pastors might have to speak to these things, but never without much trepidation.

So, I thought to myself, “Well, if you worried about not getting an invite back before, you don’t have to wonder after you talk about politics.” I mean, what do I, a preacher of sorts, or perhaps more accurately a strange missionary type, know about politics? Opening my mouth about things above my pay grade can get me into a lot of trouble. I have a lot of opinions on church and politics, but the people in my little corner of the world are not often on the page I am on, and I was not sure I was ready to open that can of worms. So, what do I do, someone very convicted about the church’s place in politics, but very much alone in my opinions at times, at least in these parts?

Well, I began to think to myself, there is a lot to talk about when talking about peace. Perhaps I could circumvent the topic of politics altogether. One thing I am a stickler for is trying my best to staying true to the text, so I wondered if the idea of peace in Matthew 5:9 would give me some wiggle room.

Sadly for me, the Greek term used in the NT for peace has little depth. It simply means, “the absence of conflict.” Don’t be impressed, it’s easy to look up. Anyway, this means, therefore, that the term “peacemaker” means, “one who puts an end to conflict.” Again, this really turns our mind to politics and war. We can of course talk about ending conflicts in the home, but who really needs a spiritual lecture on making sure your kids play nicely.

But, then again, while Jesus’ words were recorded for us in Koine Greek, He was, of course, speaking to an OT people. In other words, His audience would be thinking in terms of what their Bible said about peace, and their Bible is what we now call the OT. Well, the OT’s word for peace is indeed filled with much depth. Shalom! One could spend a year sermonizing on the OT idea of shalom.

Shalom is the OT’s peace, and fortunately for me, it means to have balance, harmony, and unity on all levels of life. It is a vision of living in harmony in all you do. In fact, Shalom is the vision of what things will be like when God returns, all the disunity will be set back to unity in the world. All things will be made new, and we will have peace.

With this in mind, we can talk about peace for the individual, having peace in your heart. We can talk about peace in the family, peace and order for the home. We can talk about peace in one’s church family, which the NT speaks of time and again. And, yes, it can refer to peace between nations. But, since I only have so long in a sermon to speak, I could just avoid peace on the political level, and talk about peace on all other levels, and then I am all out of time. Problem solved.

Again, I wanted to remain as true to the Bible as I could, even if I was going to omit talking about all that I could talk about. I knew that if I was now going to talk about peacemaking on the OT level, and in the OT peace is really the end goal of what God is doing in history, then I would have to ask the question, “What is OT idea for the catalyst for peace?” If I am going to say that Matthew 5:9 is God’s invitation to become a part of His bringing shalom, we would have to know what it is we would be promoting. What will bring this long awaited peace for the often struggling and frustrated nation of Israel?

Well, we know in the Israelite vision of the future, God had revealed to them that blessing would come through them. We see this with God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. Here God makes a covenant promise that through the nation that would come from Abraham’s progeny, blessing would come to the nations. As the OT narrative continues, Israel learns that they are to bring blessing to the nations, at least in part, by living as an example of God’s Kingdom. They would live as God intended man to live, and the world would take note.

Of course, Israel also learns just how hard it is for them to follow the ways of God to bring about this blessing. In fact, they find the task to be impossible. So, God makes a further covenant promise, this time specifically to David, for a coming Messiah. He will be the key to Israel’s fulfillment. Messiah is the catalyst, and for me, this causes more frustration, because Messiah for the OT mind was a political figure. The Israelites believed Messiah would come as a political leader to take the throne of Israel, perhaps even raise an army, and He would subdue the nations of the world and bring peace. In referring to this part of Messiah’s calling, the OT referred to the Messiah as “The Prince of Peace.” That is a political term if there ever was one. A Prince, the heir of a Kingdom, The King of Israel, He will be the answer.

We get thrust right back into the NT and are face-to-face with this Messiah, the Christ, this “Prince of Peace,” and here (in Matthew 5:9) He stood before the people of Israel, teaching and preaching, and indeed speaking to their deepest longing: Peace, shalom!

I was not out of the woods yet in my attempt to avoid talk of politics, but, perhaps, Jesus would be my out. Now, for sure we see throughout the Gospel story that the people of Israel, and in fact, for much of the time, even the disciples believed, that the end was near, because Jesus, the Messiah had come. Or, for those who did not believe Jesus was Messiah, they still were looking for His imminent arrival.

Now, when we talk about the end being near today, we are left with ideas of Armageddon and destruction. It is a fearful sight for us, but for ancient Israel, the end was exciting. This would be the time when the Messiah would take control of Israel, and He would lead a political movement that would change the world. Through leading Israel, He would bring peace to the nations. The end was for Israel, and still for us today, when Messiah would come to establish His final rule.

Sure, this is what they thought, but Jesus of course was all about changing expectations. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount, where we find our passage, was all about subverting the tired religious thought of the day. His sermon is all about telling Israel, “you have thought this about following God, but you have become too comfortable in your religiousness and have been thinking too small.”

Perhaps, then, the idea of shalom for Israel was misplaced. Perhaps it was not about politics at all. Jesus did not have a problem with disappointing Israel by not living up to their expectations. In fact, we must note that Jesus does not lead a political revolution in the way that they had come to understand Messiah’s coming. He did not overtake the state. In fact, He was put to death by the state. Maybe He would get me out of my predicament yet. In order to see if He was in fact redefining Shalom here in Matthew 5, as He redefines so much else in this Sermon, I thought I would look to the text in earnest. What is Jesus really saying here? Well, again, He says:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called ‘Sons of God.’”

Of course, if that was all we had to go on, we could make this say whatever we wanted it to say. As a professor at my Alma Mater likes to say, “A text without a context is a pretext for whatever you want it to say.”

Now, looking at the text itself, we have already discussed what the term “peacemaker” would mean to the OT ear: One who promotes shalom, but this is not enough to make a decision on precisely what this shalom means.  So, all I was left to consider in this small verse, before I pulled back my lens to look at the surrounding context, was the terms “blessed” and the phrase “Sons of God.”

"Blessed" is easy enough. First we must note that Jesus does not say, “Bless those who are…” He says they are blessed. He gives a whole list of attributes of the blessed: meek, poor in spirit, mournful, and so on. One might think that this sort of person should be pitied so that our job would be to go and bring them blessing, as to lift their spirit, but indeed Jesus is saying, “You need to be like these people if you seek to be a part of the blessed community yourself.” The word “blessed” here has a deeper meaning.

It is a term of commendation or praise. Jesus is saying, these are the people who will be honored in the end. Now, just as the list of being meek, poor in spirit, mournful, and so on are not what we think of as blessed, this was especially counter to the ideas of the Greco-Roman world of that day. Being proud, self-reliant, and regretting nothing, that was being blessed. But, Jesus subverts those thoughts and says that the truly blessed are the humble. He is cluing us into the fact that this is what we are to seek by the grace of God.

What about “Son’s of God.” For the OT believer, being the child of the Father meant inheritance. In that world, there was no such thing as a self-made man. Everything one had was given to him or her by inheritance from a patriarch. Being called a “Son of God” meant having what belongs to the Father. Moreover, it was understood that to be a child of God was to be a child of the King. This was about being heirs of the Kingdom. Again, we run into the sticky language of the political realm.

Regardless, what we learn from this term is this: That those who inherit the Kingdom of God in the end are the same as those who here and now work to establish God’s peace. So, peacemaking, whatever it might be, is of utmost importance.

Now we have established our terms: Jesus says in essence, “Those who will be eternally honored are those who establish or, at least seek, shalom, that is work for peace wherever and whenever they can, to bring harmony to disharmony wherever it might arise. Their reward will be the inheritance of the Kingdom of God.”

So, we see that this statement has a lot of weight. There is a lot at stake here.

Once I had explored the meaning of the small verse in itself, I wanted to look at the greater context. First, I of course noted that this belongs to a list, "The Beatitudes." What is interesting about its place in this list is the fact that it is a sort of transitional verse, or a unique saying within the list. The first part of the list is a list of the attitudes of the blessed: Poor in Spirit, mournful, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful and pure.

Then we get to v 9, the one description of the“action” of the blessed that the Jesus puts in this list: The blessed will be about “making peace.” This is not just an attitude or disposition, but a description of the work that the blessed are all about.

Again, this highlights the weight of the verse.

The "blessed" statements that follow v 9 are the results of such a life of embodying the beatitudes up to this point, and it is about persecution. Being the sort of humble peacemaker Jesus describes will bring about the scorn of others. Jesus says, nevertheless it is worth all the scorn. In fact, the scorned are blessed to be so.

Again, this is a weighty goal.

To pull back our zoom a little farther, as I have already noted, the verse is within the context of The Sermon of the Mount. The first thing I noted is that Matthew just prior to this Sermon categorizes Jesus’ sermons. In Matthew 4:7, the Gospel writer informs us that from that moment on, the moment when Jesus begins His earthly ministry, He preaches on the “Kingdom.” His sermons are Kingdom sermons. This is political. His messages are about God’s Kingdom as opposed to the ways of earthly Kingdoms.

So, the sermon opens with the disposition of the people of God, the Beatitudes vv 1-12, then Jesus speaks to what He envisions this will look like when lived out by a community, vv 13-16, which I will speak to in a moment. Then He goes into the body of His message, which is all about various details concerning the way Kingdom life will look like in the everyday.

I noted that we do not find the beatitudes just anywhere in the Sermon, but in the introduction. An introduction for ancient sermons sets the tone for the rest of the discussion. So, what does the introduction tell us all this is about? Well, again, first we are given the beatitudes, then Jesus gives an example of what this will look like when lived out on a large scale (the city upon a hill) which we will talk of in a moment, and then the introduction ends with this, which I think sums up what Jesus will be driving towards throughout His discussion:

Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Just as the author said earlier, the sermon is about living out a Kingdom life, being examples, and, therefore, heirs of the Kingdom. By this time in my study, I realized that I was to, if I was going to be true to what I was hearing Jesus say in Matthew 5:9, discuss the political. So, in my message, I shared all of what I have spoken of so far, and that is heavy stuff. So, I wanted to have a moment to catch a breath.

So, before we discussed what “Kingdom Life” is about, I noted that to understand Kingdom we would need to discuss the world. Jesus is, as we have already mentioned, challenging the way of the world: Jesus is saying, the world around you will say, be proud, be self-sufficient, have no regrets, but the Kingdom of God is different. To have a bit of reprieve  I thought I would make my illustrations on the ways of the world a bit silly at first.

So I noted that my wife and I recently discontinued our cable subscription. We simply found ourselves watching less and less TV and did not feel our use warranted the payment anymore. But, we still have our outlets of entertainment. We have kept our Netflix account and we both enjoy podcasts and both love to read. Another outlet I love is the educational programs on YouTube, one of my favorite being Varitasium. It is just a science channel. On this channel, the host once discussed the topic, “Why are trees so tall?”

Surprisingly, it turned out to be a very interesting discussion. The host of the show pointed out that the trunk of the tree is a very inefficient system. A mature tree will grow so that 10 to 20 meters of the trunk has no limbs, which means no leaves, which means that for much of the tree, there is no system of life development. The canopy supports the life of the tree.

For an individual tree, it would be much more beneficial and efficient to be short, to start having branches closer to the ground, much like a bush. So, why not? Instead, they grow as tall as possible. The reason is trust, or distrust. A tree is at a disadvantage if the tree next to it is taller. So, all trees grow as tall as possible, to the point where growing another foot is too costly to the overall system. All trees would benefit, be much healthier, if they were all shorter, but a tree cannot allow its neighbor the chance to be taller, because that neighbor would then steal the sunlight and its offspring would come to dominate the forest.

The host then compares this phenomenon to human life and activity. Have you ever traveled by airplane and had to check a bag. If you have, you will have experienced the example the host gives. Wherever you are in the world, the situation at the baggage collection carousel is always the same. The people who get to the baggage claim area first crowd up to the carousel so that the people behind them cannot see. Why? Distrust. If all people stood back just three feet, everyone would be able to see, and no one would be at a disadvantage, but instead of putting oneself at risk for being stepped in front of, people just take advantage and block others.

These are just silly examples of something more serious. We live in a world of distrust. Distrust and fear crept into our world right after the first sin. You remember the situation: Adam and Eve sin, and when God shows up, they are hiding, trying to cover up in fear. “We were naked (in other words vulnerable) and, as a result, afraid.” Distrust leads to fear of the other. This causes relational problems and erodes peace.

Soon after the fall, government arises, in part as a system to prevent humans from destroying each other out of distrust. Government arises as a necessity, first in areas where supplies are limited.  In these areas, if one person or a group of people were to take advantage, then many others would suffer. Government, at its best, comes along as a means to prevent such, to set up laws to protect resources, and even though governments can turn sour, God honors the idea of government, because we need something in play to protect us from ourselves.

Of course, God is the only sure protection. Because world leaders do not have perfect insight to the future, laws will always have flaws, people will always figure out how to take that extra foot and cheat others. This threatens society, and humans cannot help but fear each other. We are always on our guard, and often our first recourse to any threat, instead of our last, is violence. Even leaders are susceptible to fear and often the government that they lead to protect us instead becomes their means of looking out for self and insulating themselves from the ills the rest of society suffer.

Practically speaking, because distrust is a part of the natural order, Governments will always be dealing with tensions and fears, and sadly, sometimes succumbing to them. So, we see on the news all sorts of things we as a nation do (and indeed at times should) fear. And this leaves us with one final truth: Even when we do our very best, the nations of the world still need hope beyond ourselves if we are to have true, full hope.  The nations need to know that there is something greater to fear than fear, and that is God. Fear leads to violence, and there must be a group that shows a better way. It is a way the government cannot practically fully demonstrate, because they have no means to promise final hope.

We must put God first, because, in the end, He is the surest hope for peace we will have. Incidentally, that is why Christ says later (in Matthew 10) that He did not come to bring peace, but a sword. He is not trying to contradict Himself, but is instead cluing us in on the fact that even greater than His calling on us to be peacemakers is His bringing us to God. Choosing God might bring you into disunity with others and disestablish a peace that was there, but so be it, because we are after a deeper peace that depends on our submission to God. Even greater than worldly peace is being right before God. The end goal is God’s way.

Now, with all this in mind, I want share the part of the Sermon on The Mount’s introduction that I have been holding onto, the part that, at least for me, brings all of this talk of politics and peace into focus:

Matthew 5:13-16

 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

What does salt do? It cuts that which is bitter. It brings flavor to the flavorless. Jesus is saying that His people, the church, are made to bring flavor to situations in the world that are tasteless. Where there is fear, we bring God’s hope, His flavor. But, if we allow fear to drive us, and we forget to be promoters of hope, bringers of peace, we will have lost our saltiness, our purpose. While the reaction of the world around us to fear is violent, ours is to be subversively peaceful.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

What does light do? It rids areas of darkness. This is what we do, but if we in fear hide our light, we deny our Kingdom purpose. Even while the world in fear resorts to violence, we have the opportunity to not fear, because of who we are, and we can promote peace.

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

This is Jesus’ political vision for the church. He is not saying that the church will run governments or be a “part of the system,” but He is nevertheless saying the church will be political. We, the people of the Kingdom of God, the church, will live in a way that no other community can, because we have the light of God. We will be a cultural, political alternative to the ways of the world, and people will take note, and some will even turn to God.

Make no mistake, Jesus is indeed calling us to shalom, this is about peace in our own hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our churches, peace as we live and move and breathe together, and this is because we are to be a testimony (Paul calls us ambassadors) to the way of The Kingdom of God. Our political calling is to be different from the world, to show others a better way, and in this way, we might just be able, through the grace of God, to lead some to ultimate peace, which for the individual is reconciliation with God. Jesus says when we live as we are supposed to live, people will turn to God.

Why? How? How are we to live with such hope?

We have the distinct privilege of having a hope that the world cannot see. We have the freedom to be different, because we are Sons of God: Heirs of a Kingdom that cannot be attacked. Our hope cannot be threatened by the fears of this world.

Think on the privilege of the church as representatives of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom of hope, so that, even in light of all the fears of the world, we can live as peacemakers, for whether we live or die, we are heirs of a Kingdom that is everlasting. What threatens the world cannot threaten us. Ours is a nation without boarders. We have no political center that can be destroyed here on earth as to throw apart our Kingdom. It includes people of all nations, and it is ruled by the one who sits enthroned above the earth so that no nation can threaten it because it transcends our boarders.

In light of this truth, we are to live as a community, a family known as the church, that, despite what the world does around us and the fear that others perceive, we promotes peace, we pray for our nations, our leaders, and our fellow man, but no matter what goes on in the world, we are to keep our hope in Him and live as no other community can live, in hope and, therefore, peace! For, again, whether we live or die, we belong to Him

I hear some people say, “The church should have nothing to do with politics,” but I say that we must; for we are the only group who can always speak from a place of hope and never fear. This is not a call to get muddled up in the world’s debates. This is a call to live an alternative life of hope and peace to show the world a better way, the Peace of the Kingdom. Be Peacemakers!