“Peacemakers”Dr. Brett Patterson Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18; Matthew 5:9 Year C - Third Sunday of Advent
In 1219 in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, a simple man, dressed in a brown wool robe, stood barefoot before the Sultan of Egypt to plead the cause of Christ. The man was St. Francis, and he had come a long way from Assisi, Italy. In the days before this encounter, Crusaders (who had sailed from Europe to Egypt to launch this war against Muslims) had clashed on the battlefield with the sultan’s army. The fighting had been fierce and bloody; thousands had died. Francis had spoken out against the war before the battle had taken place, but the troops and the cardinal in charge had dismissed Francis’ warning. When the soldiers had returned from the warfront, smaller in number, many wounded and in pain, others scarred by the horrors of the battlefield, Francis had not gloated; he instead had mourned with the soldiers. He had come to Egypt for missionary work. He believed that the carnage he had witnessed only confirmed the need to reach the sultan with the Gospel.
At that point while Francis was considering what he could do, two knights who had been captured in the recent battle brought a peace proposal from the sultan to the Crusaders. The Crusader leaders argued over what their response should be, but ultimately rejected peace for a war of conquest. Francis then took it upon himself to reach out to the sultan. Putting their lives on the line, Francis and his friend Illuminato left the relative safety of the Crusader camp to pass through the lands scarred from recent battles. Sentries on the other side quickly descended on Francis and Illuminato and eventually brought them to the sultan, most likely hoping that Francis was bringing a positive response to the sultan’s peace proposal. Francis said that he came to the sultan as an emissary of Christ, showing his true loyalty. Over the course of the next few days, Francis and the sultan Malik al-Kamil had a lengthy conversation.
Unfortunately, we do not have a record of what these two men discussed specifically, but the fact that they could have such a conversation in the midst of the war surrounding them was a miracle in itself. In the end, the sultan honored St. Francis for his visit, and before they parted, the two shared a meal together. Can you imagine what this would have been like, these two men sitting down to eat together? The vast majority of Christians who had come down to Egypt came to kill the infidels; they demonized the sultan and refused to see him as a person whom God loved. Francis, though, had modeled another way, a way patterned after the words of Christ. Francis read the Gospels and was drawn to the central theme of peace. He strongly believed that Christians were called to be peacemakers in this violent world.
We could turn to many different passages in the Gospels to develop how central the image of peace is in the lessons of Christ. The most obvious comes in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This verse comes in the middle of a passage that is commonly known as “The Beatitudes,” a series of verses that outline the values that God affirms in His Kingdom. We often note the poetic beauty of these verses, without fully comprehending the full effect of them. What sort of people belong to the Kingdom of God? What does God value? Christ says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Happy are those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are persecuted because of righteousness.
If you did a survey in our society asking the public which things bring happiness, these probably would not even make the top ten. There is a common assumption in our society that the pursuit of happiness means the acquisition of a larger house or a sportier car, the admiration of a larger crowd of people, the devotion of a sexier partner. Our capitalist economy thrives off of a survival of the fittest mentality, so few would speak of the advantages of those who are in need, those who are incomplete–those who are poor in spirit or those who mourn or those who hunger for righteousness. Few would cast their lot with the meek or those who are being persecuted, even for righteousness sake. We want to hang out with the successful; we want to befriend the wealthy; we want to find those who know how to party. Christ, though, is reminding us that God praises different goals and values in His Kingdom. If we are to belong to God, if we are to be God’s children, then we need to unlearn that values of the world and take up the path that Christ lays before us.
It is in this context that we hear “happy are the peacemakers.” And it is here that we find the gracious blessing, “for they will be called children of God.” We in the church have frequently heard the phrase “children of God.” We just naturally assume that we are God’s children and often lose touch with the magnificent grace that God shows in claiming us as His children. We who had disobeyed and jumped toward sin; we who had shown in our actions, that we valued things in this world more than we valued our God. While we were yet sinners, God the Father sent His Son into this world, and Jesus gave himself over to be the sacrifice for our redemption.
In this season of Advent, we look forward to the Incarnation, that miracle of miracles. Jesus came to live among us to show us what God values. Jesus came to save us from this world of sin and violence. After his death on the cross, his resurrection marked God’s creative power. Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection affirmed the power of the words he preached in the Sermon on the Mount. Those who wish to follow him are to take up this life; we are to be meek in a world where others seek to dominate; we are to seek to be pure of heart rather than famous; we are to hunger and thirst after righteousness rather than a larger bank account; and finally we are to be peacemakers in a world of conflict, hatred, and violence.
The Apostle Paul affirms Christ’s message of peace in his letter to the church in Philippi: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” This instruction comes near the end of the letter, which has given us an image of Christ’s surrender. Chapter 2 describes how Jesus emptied himself, taking on the role of a servant, so that he could bring about our salvation. We are to follow in his lead, rejoicing in the Lord always. We have no need to resort to violence, for we do not live under a spirit of fear or anxiety. If we are close to our Lord, often seeking his presence in prayer, then we will live a life of thanksgiving, knowing that God is in control. This assurance will provide an anchor, guarding our hearts and minds. We will live in the peace of God.
We will not find such peace until we repent, though. If we are still cut off from God, tied down by our sins, disobedience, and selfishness, then our lives more than likely will be dominated by division, hatred, and coercion. John the Baptist’s call to repentance is still fitting for us today. God calls us out of our patterns of violence, to give our lives to others. When the crowd asked John the Baptist what repentance meant, what they were supposed to do, he told them that they were to reverse those unjust practices that they had designed for their own benefit. He told the rich to share their goods, the tax collectors only to collect what was due, the soldiers not to use their power to extort money out of others. John warned that we need to repent now, not to delay, for the Messiah is coming, and he will separate the wheat from the chaff. If we repent, though, there is good news. There is transformation.
Such new life in Christ resembles the vision of Jerusalem in Zephaniah 3. The Lord has taken away our punishment and has turned back our enemies. We understand that we are not to become depressed, for the Lord is with us. He takes “great delight” in those who repent. He gathers us together and leads us home. At this point, we will understand Isaiah 12: God is our salvation. We will put our trust in the Lord and will not be afraid of what may come in this life. We will not find such transformation on our own, only in the Lord, who is our strength and defense. We will lift our voices in song, praising the glorious works of our Lord. Then we will lay down our lives for the Lord who has called us by name. We then will find the life that Paul describes in Philippians, and peace will rest upon us.
When we return to the example of St. Francis before the sultan, a peaceful conversation in the midst of the horrors of the Crusades, we find a wisdom that many do not acknowledge. There are those who would have labeled Francis a madman. Yet Francis threw all his passion into finding an alternative to the death and destruction of warfare. He saw the suffering and vowed to do what he could to stop it–one little man in a country that was not his own facing forces that were so much larger than he was. It was a dangerous prospect for him to walk across that battlefield to find the camp of the “enemies.” He and his friend Illuminato faced their fears, though; they knew there was a distinct chance that they would not return, yet Francis encouraged them both to trust in Christ. Francis went as a follower of Christ to spread the Gospel of peace.
Those among us who analyze situations may say that Francis providentially met another man who would have preferred to end the conflict through negotiation rather than violence. If Francis had found a different man on the other side, he could have easily ended up in prison and might even have found martyrdom. Would we even be telling his story if that had happened? There are those Christians who have died for their faith over the centuries; the stories of these martyrs still convict us today. Will we be as enthusiastic in seeking peace if there is the possibility that we could die because of our efforts to swim against the tide? Francis had spent years training to be a knight; before he surrendered his life to Christ, he had fought on a battlefield. He knew the horrors of such conflict. Knights faced their fears of death on the battlefield; Francis now believed that Christ was calling him to face those fears to different ends. He believed that Christians were to do all they could to invite their enemies to the peace table.
We should pause to understand what this peace means. It is the peace that God is bringing to this world through Christ. God brings justice, knowing the true scales by which to judge the nations, but God also brings mercy and transforming love. We know that none of us should be sitting at this table, that none of us should be enjoying peace. We must confess that we are not the source of reconciliation; we have fought our own wars, bringing grief to others. We only find peace when we come to the Messiah; this is the lesson that we rehearse each year during Advent.
We live in a violent world. And Christians have divided over the years about how we are to live in this world. There are some Christians who would argue that peace is a nice dream, yet if we are realistic, we know that we are going to have to fight our way there through stubborn and wicked people. These Christians speak about fighting “just wars,” yet if we look at the characteristics of a just war; we learn that even these Christians affirm that war should only be brief and that peace is the ultimate objective.
In the church, we have an ongoing debate between just-war proponents and pacifists. Whichever side of this debate we choose to stand, we cannot ignore that Jesus has called us to be peacemakers in this world. If we are his disciples, we will not be forcing others to conform to our wishes; we will be looking for ways to build bridges whenever we can. We will be willing to put our lives on the line, as Jesus did, as Francis did, if it is necessary to save others.
There is no hope for this violent world, apart from the message that we preach during this Christmas season. God is on the move, redeeming this fallen world. Violence is the greatest sign of our brokenness, of the presence of sin in our lives. Human history is marred by one travesty after another. Yet into this world, God sent his only Son.
Today if we are to honor the reason Jesus came into this world, then we are to do all that we can to find peace with those around us and to support peace around the globe. We are to overcome evil with good. Only then will we understand what it is to belong to God’s Kingdom. Only then will we understand how blessed are the peacemakers, the children of God.
About the writer: Dr. Brett Patterson is a South Carolina native, having grown up in the Lowcountry and pursued a B. A. in English at Furman University. After receiving an M. Div. from Duke University, an ordination from the Baptist Church of Beaufort, and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, he taught biblical studies, theology, ethics, and church history at Meredith College and Anderson University. In 2009, through encouragement from the CBF of SC, he entered into full-time church ministry. He and his wife Stephanie currently serve as pastors for First Baptist Church of Lake View, SC. He is particularly interested in ecumenical efforts and in theology and the arts.
Scripture and Music
Year C – Third Sunday of Advent
Joy to the World
How Great Our Joy
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
How Great Our Joy (arr. John Rutter)
Shepherd s Pipe Carol (John Rutter)
Ubi Caritas (Maurice Durufle)
The Joy of Mary (Don Neuen)
Ave Maria (Franz Biebl)
To Him We Sing (Robert Young)
How Great Our Joy
Rejoice Greatly (Handel)
In the Bleak Midwinter
O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion (Handel)