Proper 17 (22), Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
3 September 2023
I think you know that I am a Christian pacifist. When we were still in Abbotsford the local legion padre was a retired Anglican priest. A great guy. One year he asked to have the legion service combined with our Sunday service. It was an honour to be asked. I also think that he wanted to connect with the wider community.
I declined with apologies. I said, “Art, I am a Christian pacifist, and while I know that this is not part of the confessions of the Lutheran church, sadly it’s not going to work. We are honoured by the request, and I mean no disrespect.”
Even if you are not a Christian pacifist as I am, there is something problematic about mixing the power of the state (as it is represented by the military) with the church. At what point do we begin to equate the cause of the one with the cause of the other, and at what point will we no longer be able to tell them apart?
Again, I say this with the greatest respect for the sacrifice and service of those who have served in the past or who currently serve in our military.
At the beginning of the current war in Europe, a colleague from Winnipeg posted a very fine photograph of two Ukrainian soldiers in uniform in a church. They stood near a votive candle stand and were bathed in ethereal light that shone down upon them through windows the photograph did not reveal. The scene was moving, even more so in those early days of the war, and as someone who dabbles in photography I can say that from a technical point of view the photograph was very good work.
The caption under the photograph read, “You won’t see a better picture today. God bless you, our defenders.”
The problem for me was the context: Blessing the work of war on the Facebook page of a minister of the church.
It was very much like the blessing of weapons and troops by clergy during Word War I. And, aside from the fact that these public blessings always neglect to speak of the victims of war,1 in fact they speak as if there were no victims but only glory, the problem with the blessing of weapons and the blessing of war is that when we bless our wars, we create God in our very own image. And when we create God in our own image we rob God of the ability to save, for the god we create in our own image is smaller than we are and that god has no saving power.
The God who became human in Jesus did become like us (in every way but did not sin – Hebrews 4) but did so in order that we could become like God. (Athanasius, 4th century) Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection is God’s saving work.
In this Jesus showed us what God is like. When we see Jesus we see God. Jesus’ glory is revealed in ways we would not image. Peter certainly didn’t. God’s glory is revealed on the cross. Jesus lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13). In the first letter of John we read what this means for the church, what it means for those who follow Jesus, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16) That means the mark of the life of a Christian is not that we are willing to kill for the right cause but that we are willing to die for the Kingdom of God. Being willing to die and being willing to kill are two very different things.
To understand this is important, for it keeps us from creating God in our own image.
When a few verses earlier Peter had confessed Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus had answered Peter, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” When Jesus now announces that he must ‘undergo great suffering …, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” Peter rebukes him, and says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” There is no doubt in my mind that what Peter says to Jesus, he says out of love. But it turns out that he does not understand the love of God. And so Jesus says to him, ‘Peter, you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.” He says, ‘You are creating a messiah in your very own image.’
A few verses earlier, when Jesus had confessed Jesus as the Messiah and Son of the living God, the mind of Peter had been guided by the mind of God. Here now, Peter is guided by the way we have organized the world, a world of violence and of winners ans losers.
Peter’s rejection of the cross is in line with his raising of the sword at the arrest of Jesus and the severing of the ear of the slave of the high priest. Jesus says to Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”2
The neuroscientist Paul MacLean referred to self-preserving behaviour patterns, aimed at our survival as originating in our reptilian brain. This is where violence begets violence and the spiral never ends. However, MacLean did not regard the reptilian brain as the only part of our brain, only as the oldest. It works in conjunction with other parts of our brain which are able to overrule it.
While the human capacity for violence has not changed, the place of the church in the world has and the church – all churches – struggle to understand their place and their calling in what is often called a post-Christian world. And often, I think, our desire to be relevant wins out over our desire to be faithful. Because in a post-Christian world we believe that relevance justifies our existence. This can be seen in all church bodies, liberal or conservative.
Russel Moore, editor of Christianity Today reported recently that a number of pastors had told him the “same story” about members of their congregations mistaking the Sermon on the Mount, which includes Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek, as liberal talking points.3
In so-called liberal churches like ours we have a tendency to give our ascent to anything that seems to express our liberal values, forgetting that liberal values are about individual rights. And so we forget to assess issues theologically and simply assume that God would agree with us. By doing so we create God in our own image. And when we do that, we give up the unique voice of the church.
Take for example medical termination, or MAiD. Our denomination has given broad ascent but neglected to ask about who may be harmed, about what constitutes the value of human life, about whether severe illness or infirmity affects our vocation as God’s people (because Christians believe that our life is not our own but belongs to God), and whether a rejection of infirmities that come with a human body ironically has something to do with our society’s denial of death. On the one hand we erect suicide fences on our bridges, on the other hand we want to make it possible for people suffering from mental illness to direct others to administer their death.
The point here is that this is another place where the church sounds like everybody else, which precisely is Simon Peter’s problem in today’s reading.
It is concerning when the church has nothing unique to offer to the world’s problems.4
Do not misunderstand me: It is not that we may not reach the same conclusions as the world. That is possible. The point is that whatever conclusion we reach – and not all of us will reach the same conclusions – our conclusions should be informed by the truth of God in Jesus.
Returning for a moment to the question of Christian pacifism, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that “Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but rather because faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent.”5
So even those who believe that some situations require a violent response, can do so only with lament. If a Christian were to go to war it cannot be for the sake of nationalism, for the followers of Christ are committed to the reign of God before they are committed to the nation.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul reminds us that the Gospel does not function according to the logic of the world. He writes, “22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (chapter 1)
That means that if the way we read the scriptures only ever affirms us and affirms what we believe already and never questions our assumptions, there is a fair chance we do not read the Bible right.
Gerhard Tersteegen (whom I mentioned last week), in a hymn about the Christian life from the year 1738, writes in verse three,
If the path goes against our inclination,
it is right and good.6
In Jesus God offers something new and Peter is about to find out. It is more than any god created in our own image could ever do. It is what Paul tells us about in our second reading, a life that is grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
1 The theologian Jonathan Tran recently wrote: “We can be wrong even as our grievances are right. English has a powerfully apt phrase for this: “miscarriage of justice.” Things can start right and still go wrong. Getting clear about justice matters, and it entails coming to terms with our tendency toward self-deception – a tendency that doesn’t leave you alone when you’ve been wronged. Perhaps the aggrieved can save themselves from themselves by acknowledging that it is often the aggrieved who are most vulnerable to self-righteousness. Perhaps the just remain just just insofar as they begin there.
Every political cause wants to see itself as just, and this desire tempts self-deception and self-righteousness. These temptations only get worse once you throw God into the mix. The United States initially called its response to 9/11 “Operation Infinite Justice.” If your cause is not only just but infinitely so, then your cause will be infinitely justified, as if licensed by God. The 9/11 terrorists killed 2,977 people. Perhaps only scales of infinitude can account for the 387,073 civilians the United States killed to right that injustice.” Excerpt from: Getting justice and getting it right, Stanley Hauerwas’s The Peaceable Kingdom at 40, in the August 2023 issue of The Christian Century, Published on 2 August 2023
2 Matthew 26:52. In Matthew’s account the disciple who drew a sword is not named. The evangelist John, however, says that it is Simon Peter. (John 18:10)
6 Geht’s der Natur entgegen,
so geht’s gerad und fein;
die Fleisch und Sinnen pflegen
noch schlechte Pilger sein.
Verlasst die Kreatur
und was euch sonst will binden;
lasst gar euch selbst dahinten,
es geht durchs Sterben nur,
es geht durchs Sterben nur. For more on Tersteegen, see here: https://hymnary.org/person/Tersteegen_Gerhardt