If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Peaceable Mission: a sermon on John 20:19-22

At first it sounds like a simple greeting. Shlamaa. The Aramaic word was used as a greeting among the Jews, kind of like good day or God bless you. Shlamaa would have been heard as Jews greeted one another on the dusty streets or in the crowded marketplace. Shlamaa. But, coming from the lips of the risen Christ, who bears in his resurrection body the wounds of crucifixion, this greeting takes on a deeper meaning. With this word Shlamaa still ringing in their ears the disciples are sent out into the world by the risen Christ.

The sun has just set behind the purple hills. It’s the first day of the week. The disciples cringe behind the wooden door of a whitewashed house. It’s locked up tight like a sealed tomb. The lock that holds the door shut has a name---Fear. You can see fear reflected in the wide eyes of the disciples. Their shadows dance on the walls from the light of the oil lamp. The disciples fear what lies outside that wooden door. Outside that locked door are those who had a hand in crucifying Jesus. Those same hands could just as easily grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them off to the cold stone halls of a Roman court. The sun could arise on a new day with each of the disciples nailed to a wooden pole. The world outside that locked door has become a dangerous place.

The locked door is no barrier for the risen Christ. Christ appears in the midst of the disciples. The first word from his lips is meant to calm their fears. Shlamaa. Peace be with you. Then, Christ shows the disciples his hands and his side, wounds from his enemies. These wounds aren’t just signs that Jesus isn’t just some apparition. They’re signs of a strange kind of shlamaa. The piercings mark the risen Christ as the same person who had endured the cross without retaliating. He could have called down the armies of heaven against the Romans. Instead, his last words were the salve of forgiveness.

The disciples leap and shout for joy when they recognize Jesus. Then, Jesus speaks again. He repeats his greeting, Shlamaa, as if it meant more than good evening. Coming from the crucified-and-living, peaceful-and-forgiving Christ the word Shlamaa is far more than a mere greeting. His greeting sparks memories in the disciples. Before his crucifixion Jesus had promised the disciples that they wouldn’t be left like orphans. They had no need to fear. Jesus would send them the Holy Spirit. He promised, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus went on to say, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace” (John 16:33). Jesus had promised to leave them with his Spirit of peace. Now, the risen Christ has come to the fearful disciples to keep his promise.

Christ’s promise of peace isn’t just to calm their unsettled hearts. It’s the key that unlocks the door bolted by fear and leads the disciples out into the world as apostles, sent ones. Following his greeting of peace Jesus sends the disciples forth: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is Christ’s missionary charge to the disciples. As God had sent Jesus to speak the prophetic word and the good news, as God had sent Jesus to heal and forgive, as God had sent Jesus to show the way to new life and shalom, so Christ sent the disciples into the world. Then, Christ breathed on the disciples his very Spirit with the commission to be a forgiving people.

The risen Christ speaks words of peace and mission to his disciples---Shlamaa, I send you. If Christ has no problem living and speaking of peace and mission with the very same breath, why has the church separated the two? Why does the church speak out of two sides of its mouth in order to address peace and mission? Peace and mission were united in the one risen body of Christ. They came from the one breath of Christ’s Spirit. Why, then, is there such a divide in the church over peace and mission?

To be honest, there is a sharp division in the church between peace and mission. It is a real, but unnecessary division. Peace and mission have become two polar opposites, creating separate camps within the church. Somewhere along the line the church has divided itself into subcultures of peace-and-justice-people and mission- and evangelism-people. And the division between these groups tends to feed off stereotypes of one another. You know these stereotypes. The stereotype of the Christian involved in peace and justice sounds like this. Those peace people are just a bunch of bleeding heart liberals. They’re just too worldly. They’re more concerned about changing society than serving Christ and saving souls. They distort the Bible or ignore it altogether. They put peace issues above God. I can just hear them groaning when mission and evangelism are even mentioned.

On the other hand, the stereotype of mission-people sounds something like this. Those people who get all fired up about mission and evangelism could care less about the state of our world. They’re just a bunch of bible-thumping, narrow-minded conservatives, who think they have a corner on the truth. I can just hear them sneering at the very mention of peace and justice.

Peace and justice aren’t simply liberal causes. They’re integral to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mission and evangelism aren’t simply practices for conservative Christians. They express God’s heart for the world. Stereotypes only serve to label, denigrate, and place others at a distance from us. They create a pseudo sense of detachment from critical issues the church must engage in together.

Peace and mission have been separated to the detriment of both. Without peace and justice the work of mission and evangelism can easily become a form of spiritual escapism from the world’s problems, personal salvation without social transformation, saving the soul but not the embodied lives of the people themselves. The church has a dark legacy of mission and evangelism practiced without concern for issues of peace and justice. The religious underpinnings of founding of America and the heyday of the worldwide mission movement of the 1800’s were clearly tied to the concept of “manifest destiny” within Western culture. Manifest destiny began as a worldview that understood white, Europeans to be the most advanced and civilized of the peoples of the earth. White Europeans felt they had been called by God to save the souls of savages and impart their culture to uncivilized peoples. Missionaries often followed the military conquest and colonization of nations. They brought with them a Westernized version of Christianity. Christianity and conquest joined hands.

It’s this problematic legacy of mission that seems to have been forgotten by some evangelical Christians who see the military occupation of Iraq by the United States as “open season” for going over and converting Muslims. It smacks of the old alliances of church and state. Let the state conquer their land and control their bodies. We’ll convert their souls. This is mission and evangelism separated from peace and justice.

At the same time, without mission and evangelism the work of peace and justice can become simply another form of secular humanism, social change grounded in human effort, detached from the good news of God’s grace and coming reign. Some forms of liberal Christian peace and justice work lose the connection between spirituality and activism. Some liberal Christians present peacemaking in terms of partisan politics, rather than grounding it in God’s mission to the world. Peace and mission need each other to form a more holistic and authentic gospel.

There have been those instances when peace and justice were wedded to mission and evangelism. The period of the Great Awakenings in England in the 1700’s was both intensely missionary, evangelistic, and concerned about addressing social injustices. There was a fervor to “preach the gospel to every creature.” At the same time, Evangelicals established orphanages, hospitals, famine relief, soup kitchens, and worked for prison reform. It’s important to remember that the church institution of Sunday School, created by Robert Raikes in Gloucester, England, was started during this period not only with a deep concern to teach the Bible, but also to care for the needs of impoverished children. Sunday School was held on a day when they were not working in the factories.

Today, Evangelicals for Social Action, seeks to bring together the gospel with peace and social justice. This organization witnesses to Evangelicals of the vital link between social responsibility and evangelism. The Maryknoll sisters, a Catholic missionary order, stands at the forefront of linking mission to peace and justice around the world. Orbis Press, a publication of Maryknoll, publishes some of the most progressive thought on interfaith dialogue and radical peace and justice. Peace and mission can be reconciled within the church.

Even with this hope, I recognize that reconciliation is not always an easy matter. It is hard bringing together people who are at odds with one another. Even though the risen Christ commissioned the disciples to be a forgiving people and sent them forth into the world, forgiveness was not going to be easy. There was a fearful and dangerous world beyond those doors. And there was always the potential for anger and violence between the disciples and those who had crucified their beloved leader. The mission of forgiveness and reconciliation between opposing groups is not always an easy road to take. Even between peace-people and mission-people.

I am reminded of the difficulty involved in reconciling estranged peoples in a story of Lawrence Hart, Cheyenne peace chief and Mennonite pastor. Lawrence’s role model is White Antelope, a Cheyenne peace chief from the 1800’s. White Antelope followed the teachings of Sweet Medicine who said that chiefs are to be peacemakers. “They are not to engage in controversy or use any violence. And peace chiefs are to do that no matter what the cost.” White Antelope was one of the first to be shot at the massacre of Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory in 1860 along with innocent women, children, and infants. Parts of their bodies were paraded through Denver. Lawrence bears the wounds of his ancestors. One way he works to heal these wounds has been to obtain the remains of his ancestors and other tribes on display in museums and to return them to their people for burial. The project is called Return to the Earth.

Bearing the wounds of this violent history of whites against Native Americans Lawrence tells the story of an incident in which reconciliation was particularly difficult. It was on a day when a tragedy was being re-enacted. The massacre at Washita River took place at dawn in November of 1868. Colonel Custer and 800 troops from the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked the peaceful Cheyenne village on the banks of the Washita. The people of Cheyenne planned a centennial observance of their town’s history and wanted the Cheyenne people to play a part in a re-enactment. The Cheyenne agreed to participate, if the bones of a Cheyenne victim on display in their museum would be properly buried as part of the commemoration.

As the bugle sounded, Lawrence heard some commotion to his right. When he looked over he saw a small detachment of troops. It turned out that they were members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the grandsons of the 7th Calvary. He hadn’t known they were coming. They were dressed in authentic 7th Calvary uniforms, on horses, and firing blank cartridges from their rifles. He detested their presence. And he didn’t appreciate that they were shooting at his people, once again, 100 years later, and especially shooting at his own biological children. When the re-enactment ended it was time to bury the bones of the Cheyenne killed in the original battle. The soldiers saluted the coffin. Hart was furious. “How dare they do that? How dare they salute one that their grandfathers had killed.” Then, one of the Cheyenne women, following tradition, took a beautiful blanket from her shoulders and placed it on the coffin.

It was also tradition to give a coffin covering to someone at the burial. The chiefs consulted and told Hart who they wanted to receive the blanket----the captain of the regiment. “Why are they doing this?” thought Hart. He obeyed his elders. Lawrence called the captain forward and placed the blanket on the shoulders of a grandson of the original soldiers from the massacre at the Washita.

Later the captain thanked Lawrence and took off an oval pin from his uniform, a pin worn originally by members of the 7th Calvary. It was a “Garryowen pin.” “Garryowen was the name of the music played to signal an attack. It was played that morning 100 years ago. The captain told Lawrence, “I want you to take this pin on behalf of the Cheyenne people, with the assurance that never again will your people hear Garryowen.”

Can you hear the wind of the Spirit blowing across the Washita River? Listen. The Spirit of Christ still breathes the word…. “peace.”

With the marks of a nonviolent struggle on his hands and feet, Christ breathed his peaceable Spirit upon his disciples. Christ blew his sweet breath, the presence of his Holy Spirit upon them, like God breathed upon the first human, as a new creation. This was the Pentecost of John’s gospel, whereby the disciples were sent into the world as missionaries. Christ’s breath, the same breath that breathed the words of peace, empowered a new community and sent them out into the world, breaking through the doors locked by fear. Peace and mission come to us from the same source, the same breath of the risen Christ.

We, who have heard Christ’s words of peace and have felt the breath of his Spirit in our gatherings, have been sent into the world. We have been sent just as Jesus was sent with the Spirit of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. We go forth with more than a greeting, more than an inner peace to calm our fears. We go forth with an empowerment by Christ’s fiery Spirit. We go forth to share God’s healing, forgiving grace, and to be a new community on a peaceable mission to divided and violent world.

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