Peace (and Nonviolence) (John 18: 33-38)
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”
Jesus is quite precise, My kingdom does not have its origin in this world, if it did my followers would fight to preserve it… The fact that it’s not from this world doesn’t mean it’s not in this world. Coming from elsewhere means it’s something different and his followers are called to something different. Following Jesus means being a part of something different from any kingdom of this world… Different in a specific way. Today’s lesson highlights a key way in which following Jesus means being different from the rest of the world.
Who knows what Jesus last command to his disciples before taken away by Roman soldiers was? Here’s a clue… it relates directly to what I have just read.
“Put away the sword!” You see Peter had just responded to the arrival of the Roman guard like most people would. It was a classical ethical crisis. If the German army or some other totalitarian regime from our recent memory, say the Japanese army, arrived to take away your loved one, how would you respond? Peter drew his sword… to defend the one he loved. He had a sword. That’s interesting… We know Peter never quite understood what Jesus was on about… Instead he acted like a normal human being. Jesus response to Peter’s action was swift, “Put down your sword”. Jesus was not just saying, “Not now Peter, this is not the right time”. As he says to Pilate, it is a part of what it means to be his followers and participant in his kingdom that his followers don’t take up arms to defend it. It’s a kingdom of arm-lessness. Nonviolence is at the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus… to take up your cross and follow Jesus
I did some research this week. I discovered it was awfully hard to find a hymn about peace in the Church Hymnary. There are some about psychological peace – peace in our hearts. There are some about peace at the end of time in the final kingdom. But there are very few about peace and reconciliation following Jesus now. There are very few about the kingdom of God as a place of peace and non-violence now. Non-violence barely features. There are plenty with military images, some really revel in those images to the point that it’s easy to forget that they can and must be interpreted metaphorical. Why is the hymn book like this?
My theory is this. The hymn book was written in a kingdom that needed people to take up arms to defend it. In all sorts of ways it could not afford them to hear Jesus telling them to put down their swords or guns. An alliance had been formed between the church and the kingdoms of this world – the British Empire in particular, but we see the same thing in America, sending its sons to defend democracy in Afghanistan.
They say we learn our theology from our hymns. I wonder how many of these hymns are familiar from your childhood “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war…Stand up stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross, Soldiers of the cross arise, gird you with your armour bright, Fight the good fight, with all thy might, Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armour on.” The list goes on and on… yes there are hymns that say something different. One says
“Make me a captive Lord, and then I shall be free; force me to render up my sword and I shall conqueror be”
But these hymns are very much the minority… And I think you know which ones are the well known ones, among those who grew up during two world wars.
Did you know that all extant Christian writings (all the writing we still have) before the 4th century reject the practice of Christian’s killing in war (that’s the first 300 years of Christianity, nearly as long as from the Reformation to today).
You might say… Well, that makes sense. Christians are hardly going to fight for the empire that’s persecuting them. But if you read what they wrote… it’s not simply a matter of expedience… they see it as a matter of principle not to take up the sword. It just wasn’t compatible with being a follower of Jesus (thanks to examples from Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship) … Tertullian, for example asks
“if we are enjoined to love our enemies, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate. Who then can suffer injury at our hands?”
Clement of Alexandria says
“If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are his laws?… Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. To him that strikes thee on the one cheek, turn also the other”
“If you love merely those that love you, what do you that is new?”
So what changed for the church… Last week I talked about how in the middle of the 4th Century the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it the official religion of the empire… and the Christians looked at each other in astonishment and thought gosh God is doing a new thing. We must join in this new wave of the Spirit. Now God is working through the government making a Christian empire.
Up till that time Christians had to make a choice… either they would pledge allegiance to Caesar and declare with everyone else that Caesar was Lord or they would confess that Jesus was Lord… and this wasn’t just a matter of being loyal to their private religion. This was a conflict of morality and lifestyle. Caesar commanded them to kill their enemies. Jesus commanded them to love them.
Here’s how Tertullian put the question that faced them:
“Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”
But when the church got into a position of privilege in society everything started to look a bit different, faithfulness to Jesus starts to look… naïve. Lee Camp says we start saying things “We must do whatever is necessary in order for the good to win”. In this new perspective our task is ‘to do whatever is “necessary” in order to preserve and uphold the good.
But being a Christian doesn’t follow that logic at all… we worship a God who went to a cross rather than kill his enemies to ‘uphold the good’. We are not following the good… we are following the man on the cross.
Pilate next question is “So you are a king?” Jesus says: “You say I am a king” One translation puts it even more directly, “King is your word.”
Jesus is the strangest king… king of a kingdom with no army and no police force. King of the future. A future from elsewhere. Jesus says “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth.”
It seems to me that if we are to be the church here. If we are to say yes to following Jesus, building or no building, minister or no minister… we engage the world first of all by bearing witness to the truth… our mode of operation is not a desperate or despairing struggle to make the world a better place and make sure history turns out all right. We simply bear witness to the fact that God has already interrupted history in love, in the life of Jesus and that is the future among us. History will turn out alright. We simply respond to it, demonstrate it in our life together and in how we relate to others. We simply bear witness and look different.
It’s a key element of what it means to say yes to that question we are asking ourselves. Do you want to be the church here?
My commitment to non-violence has never been seriously tested… I don’t know if yours has. All I know is that when the time comes I must bear witness.
Bruce Hamill (St Clair 6.12.09)