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The Power of Peace
Advent II

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
December 6, 2015

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be…

The Power of peace is personal to me. It has gotten me through some of the darkest times of my life. Very early on I learned that having wise words to fall back on in times of crisis could really help me get through. I carry these words of Jesus in my heart: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid.”

Every week a new crisis, a new horror in our news. Is there anything in the teachings and example of Jesus worth talking about more than these terrible stories? How can peace be powerful in a world that sometimes feels so insane?

For two weeks now we have been talking about power. The power of gratitude fills us with the strength to face challenges whenever they arise. The power of hope gives us vision for the long haul so that immediate      struggles are put into perspective. Now we will focus on the power of peace. What’s so powerful about peace? Why did Jesus say the Peacemakers will be called Children of God? And what does John the Baptist have to do with peace?

In the tradition of Luke’s Gospel John the Baptism was Jesus’ older cousin. John’s father Zechariah encountered an angel of the Lord who told him:
          “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your                     wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You                            will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he                      will be great in the sight of the Lord…. He will turn many of the                       people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of                          Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their                          children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make                          ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-17)
His mother was Elizabeth, and John leaped in her womb when Mary came to share the news of her pregnancy. So they would have been close to the same age.

Historians have clear evidence that John’s movement coincided with the Jesus movement, and many thought John was the coming Messiah, but each of the gospels explained his lesser role in their own way.

Whoever John was, he was clearly something of a wild man. He ate locusts and wild honey. He dressed in animal skins. He baptized outside the city at the River Jordan. He rejected the central power of the Jerusalem Temple. He emphasized “repentance” for the “forgiveness of sins”

What is repentance? In Greek the word translated repentance is ‘metanoia’ that literally means ‘beyond mind’ (like ‘metaphysics’ is ‘beyond the physical’). John challenged folks to break with easy religious beliefs, to change their minds and transform their hearts.

Forgiveness of sins was only possible, according to Temple theology, by God’s help through ritual sacrifices and official prayers. But sin means simply ‘to miss the mark’ or to fall short of perfection. John challenged folks to turn around and allow God’s forgiveness to cleanse them as the river Jordan symbolically cleansed them so that they could change their lives.

Jesus chose to be baptized by John. In Mark’s Gospel that moment was the real beginning of his ministry. In Luke and Matthew’s gospels his ministry began with his birth and in John’s it began with the creation of the world. But Jesus clearly embraced John’s belief in metanoia and his rejection of the Temple cult.

But again, what is so powerful about peace? We live in a world so full of wars and terrorism and violence and guns. They have the power to terrify us, destroy us, force us to live in fear. Aren’t assault rifles more powerful than peace?

Isn’t peace just a habit of weak people? President Jimmy Carter was always seen as a weak president because he refused to declare war in the Iran hostage situation. And yet it was the thing he was most proud of in his presidency.

Isn’t peace just a habit of the heart that allows mystics to be mystical? Practicing meditation and daily prayer has certainly strengthened my ability to respond peacefully in a crisis. How could someone like John the Baptist represent peace? I see myself as more a John the Baptist kind of personality—all fiery and passionate, so this question is personal.

John was described as “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
         Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s paths straight.
         Every valley shall be filled,
                           And every mountain and hell shall be made low,
         And the crooked shall be made straight,
                           and the rough ways made smooth,
         And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Peace brings harmony and balance to the world. Peace is ‘shalom’ in Hebrew and it means more than just peace. Shalom comes from the root for wholeness and completeness. It is related to ‘shelemut’ meaning perfection. Peace means all things are well. As my friend and Holocaust historian, Miriam Zimmerman says,             “there is calm, security, prosperity and a general feeling of                                     physical and spiritual well-being. It does not just mean the                                   absence of war or strife… “All that is written in the Torah was                                     written for the sake of peace”

John’s message came from the prophets before him. He is quoting Isaiah who also said, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”(Isa.2:4)

Jesus continued in this tradition: “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt.5:38-39) “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Matt. 5:43-48) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9) He walked to his death without raising a hand to fight. And he told his followers to put their swords away for “those who live by the sword will die by it.” Wherever he went he entered with “Peace be with you,” and departed with “Go in peace.”

Early Christians interpreted Jesus’ teachings as meaning pacifism—peace in action! Tatian, in his Address to the Greeks said, “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command... Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.” Aristides said in The Apology, “Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.”

Hippolytus of Rome wrote: “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be        rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.”

After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted in A.D. 312 and began to conquer "in Christ's name," Christianity became entangled with the state, and warfare and violence were increasingly justified by influential Christians. Some scholars believe that "the accession of Constantine terminated the pacifist period in church history."
But there are many modern peaceful and pacifistic Christians. The Quakers, The Society of Friends has one of the most aggressive lobbies in Washington working for peace. In their early days they quietly protested against the terrible practice of death by hanging to children who stole bread to eat. They sang with them and sat with them in their cells. Their actions eventually brought an end to this brutal practice.

Martin Luther King Jr. followed Jesus’ teachings on pacifism in his work.

Robin Myers, in The Underground Church, suggests that every Christian baptism should include a promise to live as a peaceful pacifist! He quotes Thomas Mann, “War is a coward’s escape from the problem of peace.” Why can’t we get reasonable gun legislation passed in this country? Myers says, “Because war is big business and corporations are now more powerful than governments, what other nonprofit but the church (with millions of members meeting every week) can possibly make a dent in the business of war?”

The power of peace is in its centering strength. I remember a scene from “The Long Walk Home” about the Montgomery Bus boycott of 1955-56…in which a teenager has learned MLK’s practice of non-violence and is confronted by several other white teens who proceed to beat him up. Each time he falls he stands up again. He shames them by his courage. It is only one act of non-violence but it speaks for thousands more that eventually changed the laws and brought about the Civil Rights Legislation that exists today. That work is far from finished. “Black lives matter” and the movement continues to take to the streets to demand change. Some are impatient and think that violence will bring change more quickly. Jesus insisted some 2000 years ago that violence only begets more violence.
Closer to home I remember my first time appearing on behalf of low-wage workers at the Airport Commission in San Francisco. 100 workers were seated behind me, hoping that my words would help. The Commission of eight officials were seated on a high platform, 20 feet away, requiring a microphone to be heard. Our petition which was late on the agenda when we arrived was suddenly moved to the first. I was asked to be the first speaker. My stomach was in knots. I recognized the fear in me. But I knew I could depend on the Spirit of Peace and clarity to get me through. I have no idea what I said exactly, but after several other speakers, we won the day.

Each of us is filled with the power of the Prince of Peace. Our job is to choose to acknowledge its presence. When we breathe in that centering power that changes lives, we experience the repentance, the metanoia, the beyond mind, way of being, that allows us to be who we are fully created to be.

Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. As we prepare for the birthday of the Prince of Peace, may we remember that we too are God’s children. We too are called to be peacemakers. And we have the power to live that peace, moment by moment, every day.