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Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Know Jesus, know peace. No Jesus, no peace.
OK, that last one isn’t from the Bible, but it carries the sentiment that Jesus = peace. Along with Gandhi and Dr. King, he often makes a trinity of great peacemakers. We even call him the Prince of Peace. So what gives with this passage? Is this just a bad day for Jesus? Maybe he got up that morning on the wrong side of the straw mat, or an ox cart just cut him off in traffic. This just doesn’t sound like him. It’s almost like there are two Jesuses sometimes, the one who talks inspiringly to the crowds, telling them of a God who loves them without exception and the one who gathers his disciples in a small circle to smack them upside the head, metaphorically speaking, with exasperated sighs like, “How much longer must I put up with you who have so little faith?”
There must be something about the stress of his situation that helps Jesus to see that his disciples need more instruction. They need to know that the kind of peace that the kin-dom promises does not come without conflict. Peace does not come without conflict, and I think that Jesus has been overhearing some things he doesn’t like from his disciples, ideas of Jesus bringing the kin-dom, where the ideals of love and peace suddenly take charge and end all conflict. Jesus reminds us in this passage that our ideals of love and peace cause division, they don’t cure it. The baptism in fire that Jesus evokes is a fire of love and peace. The kind that he wishes were already kindled is the love that a mother expresses when she fights for her transgendered child’s right to privacy and equal rights, or the kind of love you can see in the eyes of Khizr and Ghazala Khan as they risk the public spotlight to speak of their son, Humayun, an Army captain killed in combat. It is the kind of love that seeks peace in the face of violence, that works for peace in the midst of despair, that demands a paradigm other than, “might makes right.”
Peace, Jesus teaches his disciples, is a choice, like love is a choice. It is a direction in which we point ourselves. And it does not come without cost, like all choices. If you choose to be responsible, you give something up. If you choose to be selfish, you give something up. And if you choose to be peaceful, you will give up unity, at least the false unity that comes with the kind of peace Jesus claims not to bring. If we have unity only from giving up, or “oneness” that is based on one way of seeing that togetherness, then we don’t have peace, we have surrender. Peace comes not from an absence of conflict, but from the presence of justice.
This is part of what makes following Jesus so challenging. It doesn’t mean just adopting new beliefs, or accepting some assertions about Jesus, it means a new way of living. As David Lose says in his commentary on this passage, “To be a follower of the one who accepted and even honored the disreputable meant that you needed to do the same, rejecting the easy temptation of judging others and instead inviting them into our lives. To be a follower of the one who preached love and forgiveness was to practice the same, particularly when it comes to those who differ from you even, and maybe especially, in terms of what they believe.” Such choices will get you kicked out of your clubs, ostracized from your so-called friends and they certainly make for awkward dinner conversations. I’ll bet that few of you think of the Thanksgiving dinner table as the place to create peace…mostly because of Uncle Frank. What a jerk. But it is. According to Jesus, it is precisely where a piece of peace breaks through, not peace in a moment, not the artificial peace that we often think of…that’s just lack of conflict. Peace doesn’t happen in an instant. And peace does not come without cost. It does not come without division. And, perhaps most importantly for us to understand, it does not come without conflict. If we want our faith to matter, and I think that we do, especially in an age of plastic faith, then it has to shape our work, our families, our money, our free time…even our stress. Please don’t hear this as just another obligation…you know, another thing to put on the list of responsibilities. No, it is much deeper than that, for this takes a shift in the way that we see the world around us, the way that we live, even what we value. It takes re-training, a recalibration, a re-volution in our way of being.
But I want you to know that this is not some far off fantasy. Right now United Campus Ministries is starting up a new semester, with the prerequisite shift of students and mission and issues. It is preparing itself to be a space where young people, having their minds stretched and pulled by higher education, will get to apply those same critical-thinking skills to their lives, a process that often involves conflict and division. And the little blue house will be a place that reminds them to make a choice as that happens…to choose the ways of peace and kindness, which will not eliminate the conflict, but instead will give them new skills and values with which to engage the conflict. I’ll never forget how the students reacted to the conflict of a “restorative therapy” speaker being invited to the TU campus. Instead of angry picketing, they proceeded with a silent protest. Instead of retreating into their own building, they sought out meetings with the other campus ministries who brought the speaker. Instead of giving into their anger and hurt, they sought a way to bring justice and to be peaceful. They learned this…on the job. And across town at the Coffee Bunker, a group of veterans and supporters are scheming ways to deal with the conflict of returning vets, but not just the physical and psychological issues, also the moral injuries that have come with the learned values of combat, which no longer apply in this context, but which keep them from dealing with conflict appropriately. For these men and women, seeking peace has been defined as an end of combat until the next engagement. But they are learning how peace might mean feeling secure, or trusting people, or being able to live from love not anger. And then, all across the city, there are multiple meetings and town halls, clandestine gatherings and public forums around the issue of race, police interaction and violence. Some of these meetings are not focused on a path of peace, but most that I have attended have no interest in more violence. They seek instead a way that we can all live together by dealing with the conflicts of our past that we continue to ignore and seeking a better tomorrow, one with peaceful conflict that might allow us to live fully and wholly together.
It is no secret that we face a rough ride in the fall. Our public discourse is apt to get ugly and mean. And part of our task as we expose ourselves to the sound bubbles that are our coffee conversations, our Facebook pages or our Twitter feeds will be to remember, to remind ourselves, to re-kindle the fire that sees division as a piece of peace, not a threat to it. Learning to engage in healthy dissension, in vigorous and responsible conflict is a mark of a serious, mature practice of faith. And we need serious and mature practice right now. The stakes are too high. Surely we realize this? We know what to wear when the dew point is high and the heat index rises, don’t we? We know to carry an umbrella when the radar shows a storm front on it’s way, right? What more indications do we need to forecast a bumpy road ahead, and a struggle for what we really value? And if we can see those signs, then how much more do we need to dress ourselves appropriately, to wear the clothing of our faith, to be dressed with compassionate love, gracious humility and hopeful peace?
Jesus knew that as he walked towards Jerusalem, the road would get harder and more conflicted and, eventually, much more brutal. When he wished that the fire might be kindled already, that division would be at work, it was so his disciples would be ready to accept the cost of peace that was coming. We, too, in a different way, will have to be ready to accept the cost of peace over the coming months. We have to be willing to let our theology shape our politics, instead of the other way arouns. We will have to bolster ourselves, to discipline ourselves, to resist the urger to strike back and instead to speak with calm resolve, with intentional harmony and to train ourselves to see the tiniest of shoots breaking through the dirt, the beginning of the olive branch in the middle of the fertilizer. We know the forecast, my friends…we do not have peace coming. We have division and fire and conflict. So our task is not to find peace, it is to be peace. For there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.