Sunday, December 14, 2014

O That You Would Reveal Your Joy

Thirty-three years ago we lived on 620 Lincoln Road, just north of Lititz, Pennsylvania. We were expecting a first son (born the following June), and I remember playing a record of Christmas music over and over again: “Freude, freude, grosse freude.”
 
The theme of joy—“O that you would reveal your joy”—is one of the most basic of all human desires. As a young man C.S. Lewis was an atheist, convinced by the loss of his mother to cancer, by the cruelty of children in the schools he attended, and by his experiences in the trenches of the First World War that God could not exist. If there was a God, that God must be cruel and unloving.
 
But throughout his life Lewis had glimpses of joy and beauty. In music and stories, in landscapes and walking tours and friendships, he kept experiencing glimpses of joy, so beautiful as to break one’s heart. Through long conversation with his closest friends, who happened to be Christians, he came to realise that God is the source of all real joy, and that we are created to live for God here, in the hope of eternity with God, bathed in joy and delight beyond human description.
 
We heard the text from Mary’s song in Luke 1. I will mention also Isaiah 61 and Psalm 126. Through these Scriptures we approach the theme of joy and we learn something of the joy that God wants to give us. As an old hymn puts it (#267 in the old brown Mennonite Hymnal):
My God, I thank Thee, who hast made The earth so bright,
So full of splendor and of joy, Beauty and light;
So many glorious things are here, Noble and right.
 
I thank Thee, too, that Thou hast made Joy to abound;
So many gentle thoughts and deeds Circling us round,
That in the darkest spot of earth Some love is found.
 
I thank Thee more that all our joy Is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, That thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, And not our chain.
 
I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou hast kept The best in store;
We have enough, yet not too much To long for more:
A yearning for a deeper peace Not known before.
 
 
It is not only that we want God to reveal joy to us, but also that God desires even more deeply that we find the fullness of joy promised to us as we approach eternity with God in Heaven.
 
We being with Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
These verses are familiar to us from Jesus, who read this passage from the prophet Isaiah in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4). You hear how the prophet proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favour”, the Jubilee Year described in Leviticus 25, when all wrongs are made right, when all injustices are overturned, when justice and peace rule in the land and we all know joy.
 
You notice who is to receive justice and joy in this passage. It is “the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, all who mourn, and those who grieve in Zion.” Note this progression well. The coming joy is not promised to those who are “at ease in Zion”—that is, to those who have joy already on this earth, but to those who are in trouble, who are consumed by sorrow and grief. We will return to his point.
 
Isaiah gives this prophecy in the context of the Return from Exile. I am presently reading Ezra and Nehemiah, and I am impressed with how difficult it was for the Jews when they returned from Exile. They were again the Promised Land, but they knew hardship and sorrow. To them, broken even when they could see God working—to them in their grief and pain God promises full joy through the Spirit of the Lord.
 
As a side note, which I will not try to work into the larger sermon this morning, I like the way that the principle of Jubilee—complete equality and justice for all who participate—was echoed in the founding of Steinbach. From an Internet search:
Most settlers accepted the scattered farm pattern inherent in the section survey, but the Mennonites were permitted to establish their traditional farm-operator villages, which characterized their Russian colonies. Twenty farmers lived in the village of Steinbach, tilled strips in the various parts of the village lands, and shared in the community pasture. Only the outside boundaries of the village land pool were determined by the section survey. The original layout of Steinbach was in lots called Feuerstatten, 2 1/2 hectare (6 acre) strips about 70 meters (225 feet) wide running off a wide main street, which had been hacked out of the poplar bush. The strip-fields proved to be unsuited to mechanized farm practices, and by the turn of the century many of the East Reserve settlers began reverting to the original township-plan homesteads, causing most of the farm villages to dissolve.(Map source: John Warkentin for article entitled Mennonite Agricultural Settlements of Southern Manitoba, in The Geographical Review Vol.49, No.3 1959. HRB Map # 059.)
You see, the original lots had equal access to the water supply (the Steinbach Creek—or Stony Brook). Each lot had equal access to the different kinds of soil. Communal fields supplemented the individual lots. Now that original pattern was swallowed up by the patterns of the larger Canadian society within 25 years, but the basic idea is good: That everyone has an equal opportunity to access the community’s resources.
 
We continue with Psalm 126
The Psalm is called a “song of ascents”. That is, as people went into Jerusalem (a city built on Mount Zion, so that entering it one ascends) they sang this Psalm as well as the others around it. It makes sense that the people would use these Psalms especially at the great festivals when Jews would come to Jerusalem to worship together.
 
The first verse suggests a similar context as Isaiah 61: The people come together to worship after the Exiles have returned to the Land of Promise. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” The last two verses give the pattern that is expressed by the Restoration of the people to Judah and the rebuilding of the Temple: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”
 
You hear the principle that is stated here? Those who go out weeping return with songs of joy. When you plant with tears, you harvest with joy. Sorrow is, it seems, the necessary prelude to joy. This theme is stated so often in Scripture that we may conclude it expresses a fundamental reality of life. Notice also that you do have to plant, even in sorrow, in order to reap. Those who sow the seed of faith—acting in the way that God calls them to—even while weeping return with joy and a harvest.
 
What Does This Mean?
The truth is, of course, that one reason we desire joy is that we live in so much sorrow. All around us are those who “go out weeping”. I think of one of my students and his wife, who were expecting their first child. Two weeks ago they found that the wife delivered her baby, but without joy. Last weekend we went to the funeral and grieved and wept with them.
 
At this point we cannot reasonably ask them to grasp the joy that lies ahead. For the moment, they experience Christmas as the time when they sow with tears and go about their lives with weeping. But it is precisely people in this kind of circumstance that our passages address. They are in the place God uses best to discover the source and power and glory of joy. Not right away. Not in a simple easy manner—“Just thank God and it will be alright.” They sow their seed with tears watering the ground where they plant the seeds of faith, but when those seeds grow they will yield a harvest of joy.
 
We could use many other examples—from the terrors of ISIS to the generalized violence of our own society, in which police in the US have become so often the agents of death instead of peace, order, and good government. In each case the point holds: We sow seed of faithfulness to God in the context of our sorrow and our tears, and those seeds yield a harvest of righteousness and joy.
 
I believe that this idea is pointing us towards Heaven, or more precisely to the New Heavens and the new Earth. This desire for joy is actually the desire to be in the fullness of God’s presence forever.
 
The Trouble with Heaven
Wayne Martindale (an English Professor teacher at Wheaton College) has said that he often asks his class for volunteers of those who would like to go to Heaven in the next two minutes. He rarely has any takers! He observes that our churches are full of people who say they want to go to Heaven, when what they really mean is they don’t want to go to Hell. Sometimes Heaven sounds like a church service that never ends. We will be before the throne and before the Lamb singing and praising, world without end, Amen! We don’t like our worship services here to last much over an hour; why would we get excited about being forced to spend an eternity in one endless boring church service, so that we don’t even get to go to a good Sunday dinner?
 
Think of the descriptions that we get in Revelations—a city with streets of gold, and this city is 1,400 miles long, wide, and high. Martindale quotes Joni Erickson Tada as saying that it sounds like an incredible huge Mall of America! But of course these descriptions are meant to symbolize perfection and beauty and fullness of God’s presence.
 
The gold streets let us know that heaven is more beautiful than anything we can imagine. The huge cube is meant to remind the reader of the cube at the centre of Solomon’s Temple, the Holiest of Holies, where God himself dwells. Except that in this case God is fully present in every part of the city that symbolizes the New Heavens and the New Earth.
 
What’s really going on behind these descriptions, what they are trying to point us towards using the language and symbols of the people who lived in New Testament times, is a real place that is better and more wonderful than anything here on earth. I suspect that we will have real work to do there. Lois will have a garden that she can spend eternity puttering around and rearranging, making beauty that glorifies God in ways we can’t even think of now. I may get to really write that book I’ve been working on. Roy will finish a few more histories of those funny people back on earth we called Mennonites.
 
But of course my descriptions here are also symbols, a feeble effort to suggest how good and wonderful heaven is. Work and play and joyous celebration will merge together in a pageant of beauty and delight that gives praise to the God of all Creation.
 
What’s Stopping Us from Wanting Heaven?
The truth is that we sometimes don’t really want this promised glory and joy because we have our little pleasures and joys here in this life. If I went to Heaven now, I would miss getting to play with my grandchildren, and that would indeed be a real loss. Never mind that the joy of Heaven is so far beyond even my grandchildren to be that I would never miss them, I don’t want to miss this earthly joy!
 
As long as life goes along fairly well, and we feel like we can make things good for ourselves here, we don’t really want anything more. Only when what we have here is taken from us do we begin to realize that there is more waiting for us, and we begin to reach out to receive God’s glorious gift. As long as we have enough money to pay for what we want, we think we can bring the joy we seek. We can’t.
 
Last week I was talking to a close friend. She had to have surgery for a serious back problem, and after the surgery some amniotic fluid must have leaked into the brain. She told us that the resulting headache was like nothing she had ever experienced. Her husband got her in to the emergency room, and she lay on a hospital bed in more pain than she could imagine. She thought, “This must be what it feels like to die.”
 
As she lay there, thinking that she was probably dying, she started to pray. “God, if you want to take me now, I’m ready. But please be with my husband. It will be so hard for him.” As she prayed this, she told us she was filled with peace.
 
She looked down to the foot of the hospital bed, where she saw her husband’s head bowed as he massaged her feet. Later she asked him if he was praying. He told her, “Yes. I was letting you go.” And he also had peace. In incredible pain they both were ready for whatever God brought them. Guess what God brings: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”
 
Does this make us “No Earthly Good”?
Sometimes people avoid thinking about Heaven, because they don’t like the idea of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” Of course we should not go around with our heads in the clouds, unaware of what is going on around us. Rather we should live for God here and now. That is precisely what looking forward to Heaven enables us to do! It is the promise of an eternity of joy and delight that enables us to rise above the pain and heartache of life in this world. We can live for God now because we know that we will live with God forever. The reality of Heaven is a reality that changes the way that we experience life on this earth.
 
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that we are sown a perishable or mortal body, and that we are raised with an imperishable of immortal or incorruptible body. You notice that we will have a body. The body of the resurrected Christ—able to be in two places at the same time, to pass through locked doors and walk on water, yet able also to eat fish and bread, and solid enough for Mary to grab his feet—this resurrected body is the promise for all of us. We are told that Jesus is the first fruits of our inheritance: We will be like him.
 
Wayne Martindale cites an image for the way we will be in heaven that I find quite useful. He compares our present form with the acorn and our resurrected body with the full flowering of an oak tree. No one looking at an acorn would guess how majestic and full it will become after it is buried in the ground to grow. But all the potentialities of the oak tree are in that little nut.
 
You and I are the little acorn nuts; and you and I are destined to be as fully different from ourselves now as an oak tree is from the acorn; and you and I have all of the potential within us that will be revealed in our resurrection bodies. All of the love and joy of Heaven is potentially present in us now. What waters the acorn and helps it begin to grow into the oak tree? Our tears. Our sorrows. Our pain and grief.
 
Can you imagine what this church would be like if we began to tap into the potential love, joy, peace, and goodness that we will have in Heaven? Wow! This would be a place where people would be overwhelmed with the sheer goodness of people around them. I think that’s what Paul is describing when he talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.
 
Mary’s Song
With this in the background, hear Mary’s Song from Luke 1.
“My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
 
When we are hungry and humble, when we fear God and no one else, when we give ourselves to God without reservation, God gives us peace and joy, a real foretaste of Heaven.
 
Steinbach Mennonite Church
14 December 2014
O That You Would Reveal Your Joy

Texts:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
Luke 1:46b-55

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Fall

Christians don’t take the doctrine of sin seriously enough. We say that we believe in Creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We say that we believe in the Fall, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” We say that we believe in sin and redemption: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” 

But somehow we don’t take sin seriously enough. We don’t really believe in the Fall. Except as words on paper or answers to a catechism question. 

Here’s what sparked these thoughts. Every so often one or another of my friends goes off on a rant for or against Climate Change (anthropogenic global warming, if you like). Or on a rant about scientists (untrustworthy). Or on a rant about Christians in Texas pressing to include the Bible’s influence on the US constitution in history texts. 

In the rants a fault line becomes evident: Christians believe (or are thought to believe) that God is in control of this world, so we don’t have to worry about what will happen to it. Non-Christians believe (or are thought to believe) that science is God, and that they will pervert any scientific research in order to get more grant money. Now this is a silly fault line I know. Caricature on caricature, so that neither side can see themselves in the other’s descriptions. 

But the rants sparked a puzzle for me, thinking and living (or trying to) as a Christian. If sin is real, then everything we do is influenced by our pattern of self-will. (By sin, I mean simply that we want to order our lives for our own benefit, with ourselves at the centre, and without reference to God—or anyone else if possible. Sin is finally simply selfishness and pride.) 

Now if sin influences everything we do, why would we expect Republican lawmakers to be any less selfish than Democrat lawmakers? (That’s another part of the caricature: That somehow Republican and conservative equals “Christian” and that Democratic and liberal equals “non-Christian”. Of course that is nonsense. Christians are followers of Christ, not of any party or party line.) 

If selfishness and pride influences everything we do, why would we assume that the business-owners pressing for business-friendly legislation have anyone else’s interests at heart? Why would we assume that my desire for cheaper gas prices at the pump is anything other than simple selfishness? If sin is real? 

The same concern applies to scientists: Certainly we can expect that they will routinely skew results to make themselves look good and benefit themselves. Or would, if they could get away with it. But the scientific community is such that others are ready to pounce on discrepancies and falsehoods. More than any other purely human community, I suspect that scientists compel honesty of each other as a matter of survival. Willful blindness (sin) continues in the whole, but with more checks on it than in many other areas of life. 

That’s the core of my rant. Here’s the application. If God is real, I can have confidence in the future of the planet, which God cares for constantly. But Christian belief is clear in this area: God made us the planet’s gardeners or caretakers. The Fall of humanity from the original Garden includes the Fall of the whole planet: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 

Is the planet warming because of human activity? If sin is real, it just might be. God tells us that our self-centredness has placed the whole of creation in bondage—the very creation God gave us to be caretakers. God made us gardeners, and we have made trash heaps for ourselves instead. 

Okay, I’m preaching, and my tone is overdone. I’m just trying to take the doctrine of sin seriously and ask what it means for the whole of life. I can listen and learn from anyone who pushes back against my rant.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Confessions of an African Mennonite

Introduction
I am an African Mennonite. It happens that I am also White—my grandparents moved to Zimbabwe in 1921, and my parents moved back to Zambia in 1946. I grew up in Zimbabwe and was baptized into the Brethren in Christ Church (the part of the Mennonite family I come from) in 1964. I went back to Zimbabwe in 1972 as a young man just out of college, and then again from 1988 to 1992 with my family. I have lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for about 22 years. It is the place I came to faith in Christ and the place where my heart is at home. We have Paraguayan Mennonites and we have Mexican Mennonites in our church—many of us now Canadian. Well, I am an African Mennonite, white skin and all. This morning I speak on behalf of my Mennonite brothers and sisters across Africa. My experience is limited to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and even there I speak from only my perspective; but I will say what I can as clearly and honestly as I can.

Confessions
1) To be an African Mennonite is to come from the largest Mennonite family in the world. A few examples (taken from Mennonite World Conference’s web page):
·         The BIC in Zimbabwe has roughly 50,000 members and the BIC in Zambia roughly 20,000.
·         The Mennonite Church in the Congo (DRC) has about 235,000 members.
·         The Mennonite Church in Ethiopia has almost 240,000 members.
·         Not to mention East Africa (another 100,000)
Compare these numbers to Canada (just under 140,000) and the USA (about 390,000).  There are roughly 530,000 Mennonites in North America and roughly 700,000 in Africa. We are certainly a major part of the Mennonite family.

2) To be an African Mennonite is to be proud of my African heritage. I remember listening to the wife of our bishop in Zimbabwe after she attended Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg in 1990. She described many good things about Canada and the USA, and then said, “But those poor people. Their old people have to move to special homes because their children cannot take care of them. I am so glad that God has blessed us so much in Zimbabwe that we can take care of our old people until they die!” This sense of community is captured in the well-known proverb: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” A person is only fully human in and with and through community. 

3) At the same time as we rejoice in our heritage, to be an African Mennonite is to be profoundly broken.  This is what most people think of when they think of Africa. That’s why I mentioned my pride in Africa first. We are more than our brokenness; but we cannot escape from our problems. In Zimbabwe about six years ago, the economy had become so bad that prices in the shops doubled from one day to the next. Finally the government abandoned our currency, and today shops use whatever international hard currency the customer has, most often US dollars. 

The roots of such dysfunction include corruption and tyranny. To be an African is to know that my people have done and continue to do such things. As a White Zimbabwean in my roots, I know how the Whites set the stage for the problems of the present government. So deep are our problems that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring the depth of change needed to overcome them. 

4) To be an African Mennonite is to know that the whole of life is completely integrated. Physical and spiritual always go together. So we know that when there are physical or political problems, the solutions include the spiritual as well. And we know that when there are spiritual problems, the solution includes physical changes in the way that we live with each other. Life is an integrated whole, not compartmentalized the way that we often do in Canada.

I remember a youth gospel team from Lobengula Church. They travelled into the Matopos to preach to people in the villages. The people refused to listen, saying, "we have to plant our fields!" The young people agreed and helped them cultivate the ground and plant their fields; then the villagers were ready to listen. Life is a whole, physical and spiritual together.

5) To be an African Mennonite is to belong to the larger body of Christ represented in many different churches. When Mennonite World Conference was held in Zimbabwe, we invited the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Matabeleland to greet the assembled body, because we know that Catholics and Mennonites, Methodists and Baptists, Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans and Pentecostals are all part of the body of Christ. 

That same Archbishop visited the University of Winnipeg shortly after Mennonite World Conference, where he was invited to address the university community on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. I was invited to have lunch with him, and when he learned I was BIC, he said, “I could have been a BIC minister, but the Catholic school was about a mile closer than the BIC school.” As I listened to his presentation after our lunch together, I realized he was right: He could have been a BIC minister! African Mennonites are very much part of the whole church of Jesus Christ. 

6) To be an African Mennonite is to be deeply grateful for God’s work in and through our part of the global Christian family. Just as we connect with other churches in Zimbabwe and the whole of Africa, we connect intentionally with the worldwide Mennonite family. The current president of Mennonite World Conference is Danisa Ndlovu, my bishop from Zimbabwe. Twenty-five years ago, the then bishop from Zimbabwe, Steven Ndlovu (no relation to Danisa) was the Vice-President of MWC. We are proud to be Mennonites, at the same time as we are one part of the whole Christian family. 

7) Perhaps most importantly, to be an African Mennonite is to be deeply committed to following Christ in this world. Because we live in a broken world, we carry our cross daily, even as Jesus called us to do. Although we have not always lived up to it, our commitment to peace and justice is firm and unwavering, rooted in the very nature of the Christ who saved us. 

Bishop Danisa Ndlovu has written up the story of his own father’s death. As he visited his father in the hospital, where he lay dying from wounds inflicted by Mugabe’s soldiers during the early 1980s, Ndlovu tells how he was filled with a desire for revenge on his father’s tormentors. His father, lying on his deathbed, managed to whisper his last words to Dan, “Don’t, Dan. Don’t.” Don’t hate; love. Don’t seek revenge; seek peace and justice. Don’t be overcome by evil; overcome evil with good. 

Often we have failed; the stories of our failures are there. But at our best, we witness to the power of God to transform everyone. Africa gave me my own gift when we left Zimbabwe in 1992. I was struggling to come to terms with leaving, as I attended my last conference at Wanezi. Shadrack Maloka preached the closing sermon at the conference, calling on us to follow God’s will in our lives always. Then he started to sing, “Mayenziwe intando yakho.” Soon the whole congregation was singing with him, and I sang along: “Let your will be done.” Africa’s parting gift to me was to embrace God’s will on that day and always, so that I am grateful beyond words to God for his good gifts to me through my life as a White African Mennonite.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bees Won’t Stay by a House Where There’s Hating

Texts
Revelation 7:9-17—The Great Multitude in White Robes
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12—The Beatitudes

Introduction
These are familiar passages. I have worked with them often enough before, and I am sometimes tempted to think that I know what they are saying. But in fact in every new reading we hear God speaking in new ways, so we walk through the passages together in order to see where they take us.

Revelation
Revelation 7 is one my favourite chapters. As the angel shows John the truth behind the daily events he knows in the world around him, we get a glimpse of where history is going. In Genesis we see the way that God scatters the nations and then begins to work in one people (Abraham and his children) on behalf of all peoples (Genesis 11-12). Pentecost shows the grace that was present in the destruction of Babel, gathering people together and revealing the gospel to them each in their own language. But it is left for John to portray the full glory of Babel restored:
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 

This is a wonderful picture, although the elder’s explanation of the vision reminds us of the suffering they experienced in their lives:
These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

We have here both the glory that waits for us, and the pain within which we live. For John’s audience, this was the torment of bitter persecution. Christians were led into the arena and given a choice: Sacrifice to Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord”, or die. One such was an old man named Polycarp. On account of his advanced age, the officials did not want to kill him and pleaded with him to renounce his allegiance to Jesus. He replied with these words (as told by F.F. Bruce), “The old man made his noble confession: ‘Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my Saviour and King?’” He was burned at the stake.

We do not suffer this kind of persecution. Indeed, there is a general feeling in our culture that no one should ever suffer. Often we hear someone who has walked through great loss say something like this: “We need to take steps so that no one ever has to face what we have experienced again.” I appreciate the compassion of such people, and they have done great good in our lives. But there is a basic problem in what they say: Life is such that we will always suffer pain and loss. Indeed, pain and loss are vehicles through which God brings us grace and strength.

1 John 3
Turn to John’s letters. You know that these letters are concerned to show that true Christian faith is fully in Jesus, the Son of God. The way that John begins the first letter, deliberately echoing John 1, shows his concern to lift up Jesus. The way that he does so focusses especially on God’s love, so that the verse, “God is love” is found in John’s letters. The verses we read express John’s thoughts well.

In these verses, John lifts up a series of ideas that lead to glory.
·         God’s incredible love for us is visible in our identity: “children of God.”
·         This identity places us at odds with the world. This recalls John’s consistent position that “the world” means “whatever in this world is opposed to God”. Because it is in continued opposition to God, the world—seen also in the cultures in which we live—also is against us.
·         Being children of God means that we become like God.
·         We are not always like him now because “we see in a mirror darkly”, but when he appears we will be like him fully, because we will see him clearly.
·         This hope leads us to seek purification, cleansing now, to be like him. 

Purification requires pain. It is hard to take the impurities out of metal, and requires great heat and purification. It is hard to train the athlete to reach the highest levels, and requires great stress and the pain of strict training. It is hard to purify our very selves, and requires the presence of Christ leading us through the training grounds of this life. 

Matthew 5
So we come to the beatitudes.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

We will not go into these in any depth, except to note the inversion of all that we might expect. The source of power is weakness. The place we find joy is mourning. The righteous are those who know their spiritual poverty. Most importantly, the source of peace and joy and greatest blessing is the experience of persecution. We come closest to God when we are forced to hold this world lightly and accept our inevitable movement beyond this world. In short, the path to experience the power and glory and greatness of God is to embrace the weakness and fragility of the cross. 

The Myth of Redemptive Violence
A Christian Peacemakers’ Team member recently was present near the battlefront, as American air power drove back the forces of IS(IS) from the Azridis and Christians huddled together in the mountains near Kurdistan. He observed his own internal conflict at rejoicing over the success of a military response to the devastating fighting in Iraq and Syria. It is deeply ingrained in us that violence in the right cause is good. We respond to pain by fighting. 

But even in this situation, where violence is most easily justified as response to evil on a scale we rarely see, even in this case we see the limits of our ability to fix what is wrong in our world by fighting it. Consider the actions of the Islamic State. In the years following Desert Storm, the forerunner of the present Islamic State had trouble gaining traction in Iraq, especially as many of its leaders were killed in continued fighting. One result was an influx of new leaders in about 2010, so that now the primary people who have led the current fighting are old officers from the Iraq military. In a sense they are secular Muslims who are using a militant movement to pursue their own agenda of revenge against the West. 

The truth is that you can never bring lasting peace by crushing someone. The seeds of World War 2 were sown by World War 1. The second war in Iraq (Desert Storm) grew out of the first invasion of Iraq more than 20 years ago. Repeatedly we experience the way that violence gives birth to violence. 

The same pattern is true on a personal level. You know the pattern that people have often observed: the boss at work shouts at an employee; the employee goes home and argues with his/her spouse; the spouse turns the bad feelings into excessive discipline of a child; the child kicks the family dog; and so it goes. Similarly we notice the way that abused children grow into adults who abuse others. Violence gives birth to violence. As a beekeeper in a story I’m reading puts it, “Bees won’t stay by a house where there’s hating.” 

We want peace and harmony. We like the song:
I’d like to build a world a home and furnish it with love.
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
I’d like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company.
I’d like to see the world for once all standing hand in hand,
And hear them echo through the hills for peace throughout the land.
It’s somewhat clich├ęd, but we want peace and harmony. The passages we read show us the way. The way to peace and harmony, the way to the world that we want is following Jesus on a path of persecution and hardship. The way to peace is to accept violence without returning it or passing it on. This is hard to do! 

The Path of Peace
In Revelation 7, those who stand before God in victory are those who accepted the violence of this world into themselves. In 1 John 3, those who become like God are those who keep their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus and imitate him. In Matthew 5, God’s blessing comes to those who embrace the peace and love of Christ, even when the world is against them. 

Even those who are committed to peace can be surprisingly militant. Recently I wrote a review of a book in which an OT scholar named Eric Seibert works with OT passages that embrace violence. He argues that we need to read such passages resistantly and not accept their call to violence. While affirming his basic thoughts, I wondered what grounds we use to evaluate these problem passages. This past week I received a response to my review. The responder basically questioned my own commitment to peace so vigorously that I felt attacked. Even we who are committed to peace can sometimes be combative. 

I want to be careful in my response to follow the path of peace. I want to curb my own tendency to fight or run away. I want to engage in a lifestyle that embraces the way of Jesus. I know myself well enough to be quite sure that I do not and cannot live this way consistently. So I look back to the passages. 

Revelation 7 encourages me to embrace conflict in my life with the presence of Christ, whether it goes well or not.
1 John 3 reminds me that I can live with God’s love when others speak or act against me only by keeping my heart and mind fixed firmly on Jesus.
Matthew 5 makes clear that the life God blesses flows out of engagement with God.

Even more than I want to follow the way of peace, I want to follow Christ. Only as I am filled with the Spirit of Christ, am I able to walk in the way of Christ. 

Conclusion
Today is All Saints’ Day. I think of the saints throughout time and around the world. I think of my bishop (Dan) from the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe. In the 1980s Zimbabwe went through a time of real trouble. It was after their Liberation Struggle, to gain their freedom as a country, had ended; but the new government chose to inflict violence on those who had not voted for them. As part of this crackdown soldiers were posted in the area where Dan’s parents lived. His father owned a store there, but a curfew made it impossible for him to restock his shelves. Then one day some soldiers came by and demanded beer from him. He had none. So they filled his mouth with bottle caps and beat him around the mouth with their rifle butts. Because of the curfew his family was not able to take him from their home to the hospital for several weeks. By the time they were able to move him, gangrenous sores were eating away his mouth, and in fact he died in the hospital from the results of his injuries. Dan was finally able to visit his father in the hospital, and he told me that he was filled with rage against the soldiers who had beaten his father so badly. “I imagined myself standing with a machine gun and lining their children up against a wall and gunning them all down.” His father could hardly speak, but saw the anger in his son’s eyes and recognized the revenge he wanted to take. He spoke his last words to his son: “Don’t, Dan. Don’t” 

Don’t hate. Love.
Don’t kill. Give life.
Don’t return violence for violence, but accept even other people’s pain into yourself, seeking the peace of Christ for them and for yourself.
 
I know that this counsel is idealistic, and the experience of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria shows how difficult it is to live a life of peace. I do not try to reconcile these problems, but simply affirm my desire to embrace the triumph of suffering we find in Jesus. At the end of all things I want to be in that wonderful multicultural crowd singing before the throne of God.