Peacemaking: Talking the Talk; Walking the Walk

Please raise your hand if you like peace...Now, keep your hand up if you are OK being tasked with the job of peacemaker…nearly everyone has their hand still raised. And that makes sense—who doesn’t like peace!? So when we hear Jesus telling us in our Gospel passage this morning that peacemakers will be blessed, well, that sounds good to us. And of course, this message is especially appropriate today, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. As we mourn and remember those lost, we also celebrate that peace came—at least for a time—and we focus on how we can make and maintain peace today.

OK, now raise your hand if you like the idea of being poor, in mourning, meek, reviled, and persecuted…well, I don’t see any hands going up now (and you’ll notice I haven’t raised my hand either!) It’s easy to hear about peace, but the trouble is that Jesus’s message today involves a lot more: we’re told: “blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted.” Not so popular or pleasant!

And I have bad news: it gets worse! Our reading today is from the Gospel of Matthew; we call this “the sermon on the mount” because Matthew tells us that Jesus preached this on the side of a mountain. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear a very similar sermon, although we call that one “the sermon on the plain”, because Luke tells us that Jesus was preaching not on a mountain but in a flat, open place. And that difference shouldn’t surprise us, because this was probably one of Jesus’s boilerplate sermons, something he would have delivered in every town he stopped in. He probably gave this sermon dozens of times in many different settings.

But Luke’s version isn’t just different geographically. On top of the blessings, Luke’s version has Jesus going one step further: “…woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. ‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26).

So this not sounding good. Those who are seemingly blessed—the wealthy, the comfortable, the respected—are warned, put on notice that they are on the wrong path. Meanwhile, those who are seemingly not blessed—the poor, the meek, the persecuted—are told they are on the right path. This doesn’t sound easy or pleasant at all. Do we really want to be “blessed” the way the way that Jesus is talking about?

One hundred-four years ago, there was a man who had to ask this same question for himself. His name was Adolf von Harnack. He was a German theologian. He had been teaching for decades as a leading voice of the “liberal theology” school of thought. Now, liberal theologians were not just theologians who happened to have some liberal views on society or politics. This was a specific school with a particular way of thinking. Liberal theology was focused on historical criticism and analysis of Scripture, with the idea that you could extract a core message from Jesus’s teachings that could be carried into 19th and 20th century enlightened European life. In this way, liberal theologians believed, Christianity could be made a modernizing force for progress and prosperity. My guess is that many folks here at St. Mark’s can find something to like about this view of things—and maybe some of you have even heard of or read von Harnack.

In the summer of 1914, von Harnack would have known that war was on the horizon. The empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia were on a collision-course over the small nation of Serbia. Everyone in Europe knew that if these two empires began to fight, it could drag the rest of Europe into the conflict as well, due to the treaties and alliances between the nations.

For decades, von Harnack had been talking the talk about Jesus and his teachings. Von Harnack had spread the idea that modern Christians should figure out Jesus’s core message and try to live it in the modern world. Now he had a decision to make: was he going to walk the walk of being a peacemaker, as Jesus had instructed? Doing so might mean he’d have to risk all the “blessings” that Jesus has warned us about: von Harnack might lose his wealth, his privilege, his comfort. He had to decide whether he’d be willing to test Jesus’s claim that being poor, reviled, and persecuted really was a blessing.

But in this moment of decision, von Harnack lacked the courage of his convictions. He had talked the talk, but he wouldn’t walk the walk. Indeed, in October of 1914, he signed a document called “the Manifesto of the 93”, in which he and ninety-three other German intellectuals—including a total of eleven theologians—actually defended Germany’s invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands, and even went so far as to try and justify the killing of civilians. Von Harnack had the chance to be a peacemaker, but it seems that he really didn’t want to be “blessed” in the way that Jesus called for.

Of course, it’s easy to stand where we are, knowing how many millions would die in the First World War, and criticize von Harnack for his lack of courage and conviction. But as we hear, “blessed are the poor…blessed are the mourning…blessed are the meek…blessed are the reviled…blessed are the persecuted”, it’s fair to ask: how, exactly, is this “Good” News? It seems like everyone loses!

But this brings us, if we can meditate on Jesus’s sermon for a moment, to a deeper understanding of Jesus’s teachings:

Jesus’s way of life is not a self-help scheme—that’s immediately obvious. Jesus’s way of life is also not a political program. Jesus’s way of life is certainly not an investment strategy—if you spend your money the way Jesus recommends, your quarterly dividends will be very poor indeed! Jesus’s way of life is also not vague do-goodery.

Jesus’s way of life is a radical action of opposition, of defiance: it’s a refusal to accept “the way things have always been”. I think Jesus rejects the supposed blessings of wealth, comfort, and respect, because he knows that these advantages only seem to benefit a tiny elite, while the rest of humanity is condemned to poverty and misery. Jesus isn’t interested in any blessings of this sort. For him, the whole world is meant to be blessed.

So, to return to the question I keep asking: do we really want to be blessed? I think our answer is split: yes, we do want to be blessed—but only with those “blessings” that Jesus warns us against: wealth, comfort, and respect. We want to benefit from “the way things have always been”, and maintain what we have gained. That’s what I think we want for ourselves and our families.

But God’s blessing is quite different. God is up to something strange, inconvenient, and kind of troubling. God’s blessing is not the offer of an easy or pleasant life, but rather a life oriented towards truth and justice, compassion and humility.

If that’s right, then to seek God—and to seek God’s blessing through Jesus—means to challenge “the way things have always been”, and to challenge the idea that things have stay just the way they are. But it means even more than this, because if we have been trying to benefit from “the way things have always been”, then challenging that means challenging ourselves too. We find that our immediate, superficial self only seeks these easy and superficial “blessings”, and so God calls us to seek and find a deeper Self within and past that superficial self, to find a Truer Self deep within. There we might find a hunger for the deeper blessings of truth, justice, compassion, and humility.

So we are really talking about two different kinds of blessings: the superficial blessings—and we might want to put scare-quotes around these “blessings”—and the deeper, truer Blessings—with a capital-”B”—that God calls us to. In seeking God’s blessings, the ones Jesus is telling us about, we have to challenge everything—including especially ourselves!—to discover our own truth and the truth God is proclaiming in Jesus.

This Good News is open defiance to “the way things have always been”, a call to a radically renewed life. But this raises further questions for us to face today:

  • How can we find our truer self within the superficial one?
  • How can we bear this Good News into the world today?
  • How can we hear God’s call to turn everything upside down?

104 years ago, Adolf von Harnack had a choice. He had a chance to be a peacemaker. When the moment of decision came, he couldn’t walk the walk. Today, we don’t face the prospect of a massive war in Europe—hopefully. But we do face all kinds of challenges and crises: climate change and others kinds of environmental pollution, the rise of authoritarian politics, growing inequality, and we also do face wars today, in which people are dying every day—wars that could grow bigger and bigger. Just like von Harnack, we talk the talk—every Sunday we gather and praise peace and justice and love. But can we walk the walk? I hope so!