The following is a manuscript of a sermon given at the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church on May 30, 2015, as that congregation celebrated its Annual Peace Sabbath. -Ed.
Description: In the Gospel of John, Christ tells his disciples that the peace that he brings is not of this world. This is no doubt a puzzling statement. If God's peace is not of this world, how is it different from the peace of the world? If God's peace is not of this world, is it then otherworldly and thus irrelevant? This sermon explores how a Christ-centered conception of peace might be different from the peace of the world. It also suggests that, far from being an otherworldly reality, Christ's peace should be understood as the unexpected in-breaking of God's peaceable reign.
In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John’s Gospel is well known for its emphasis on the not-this-worldliness of Jesus’ message. Unfortunately, this has led many to falsely assume that the kingdom Jesus lived and died for is an otherworldly reality. Others, who are attracted to the unequivocally earthly character of the Gospel of Luke and the fiery Old Testament prophets of justice, tend to downplay passages, such as the one I just quoted. They downplay these passages in order to shed the gospel of its more seemingly more spiritualistic and superstitious elements. Both are gravely mistaken. So, what are we supposed to make of Jesus’ claim that his peace is not of this world?
Toward the end of John’s Gospel narrative, at the climax of the story where heaven and earth finally come into head-on collision, Jesus complicates things further. When finally confronted by Pilate, the quintessential embodiment of this world’s principalities and powers, Jesus cryptically retorted, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent me from being arrested by the leaders.” “So you are a king, then!” Pilate shot back. He was notably just as confounded by Jesus’ answer as we are this morning. If Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, why was his message so threatening to the religious and political establishment of his time? Why were the religious and political oligarchy so determined to pin every possible petty crime on Jesus in order to put him to death? After all, who would care about what Jesus believed and what religion he practiced on his personal time, even if they were somewhat unique and peculiar? After all, religious diversity was widely celebrated and tolerance commonly practiced in the ancient world. Yet, if the kingdom is a this-worldly reality, why did Jesus say that his kingdom is not of this world? What are we missing?
The answer could only be that the kingdom is at once this-worldly and other-worldly. It is the paradoxical nature of the Christian gospel that confounds both the conservatives and the Social Gospelers. Here, the more skeptical among us might start to think, “Here comes another theologian who likes to speak in riddles.” Perhaps you are right. But I must in turn blame, not theology, but the faith that we proclaim. Our faith is neither simple nor easily comprehended. This is not something many pastors want to say to their congregations, because our culture of speed and brevity pressures us to often communicate in simplistic and digestible bits. By digestible, of course, I meant below 140 letters.
Although I do not frequent my Facebook page, I like to occasionally post passages from books by authors who I believe deserve our attention. The passages I post are often lengthy, because important points can only be understood in context. Careful thinking demands us to move beyond the everyday utilitarian concern of efficiency and productivity and sit quietly with ideas and meditate on their possible implications and applications. However, this requires us to be sufficiently informed about what we are thinking about, which unfortunately means struggling through a difficult book or two once in a while.
Yet, this is precisely what our culture trains us to despise. Instead, we are taught to pay attention to celebrity gossip and other trivialities. In order to keep up with our culture and to prevent people from drifting away from the congregation, the church has done what it has always done in fear: it accommodated. The church simplified its message and packaged it into digestible sound bites. This is why atheism, fundamentalism, and other forms of shallow religious consumerism flourish, while rigorous, thinking, and prophetic Christianity is on the decline.
Very often, people would tell me that theology is too complicated for “normal” people. Many of these so called normal people are lawyers, doctors, accountants, bankers, college students, graduate students, scientists, and, to my surprise, pastors. Most of us have the time and the intellectual capacity to study the technicalities of a piece of legislation, the progression of a particular disease, the ups and downs of the stock market, and biblical languages, but absolutely none for the consideration of the meaning of existence, the moral fabric of our society, and the profound wisdom of the faith that we supposedly profess. Instead, we are content to settle for a sound bite culture that compels us to compress essential and complicated arguments about healthcare, economic wellbeing, globalization, and God into 140 letters. It is no wonder that our social, political, and intellectual life is entirely reducible to entertainment, which mainly consists of gossip, hearsay, drama, pseudo-science, celebrities, and brands. If you don’t believe me, just turn on your television.
It may seem that I have gone on a tangent that has nothing to do with Jesus’ message of peace, but—as I hope it will become clear—things are not quite that simple. The struggle between heaven and earth is not one between a worldly and other-worldly reality. Rather, the struggle is between two different ways of being in the world. The contradiction between Pilate and Jesus is between two opposing patterns of life: one that is defined by the inertia of the flesh, the other by the spirit of freedom. One pattern leads to death, the other to abundant life. Reminiscent of God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew’s Gospel instituted this pattern. When I said that the kingdom of peace is at once worldly and other-worldly, I meant that the kingdom is a present reality that runs counter to the status quo or the world as it is. There is more to the story. The kingdom is also other-worldly in another crucial sense. The kingdom is a reality established by God, not human efforts. It is a reality that will only become fully actualized at the end of history. Therefore, it is important to remember that in whatever manner the kingdom is present today, it is fragile, elusive, and often mixed up with its opposite. Perhaps, this is the reason that while Paul calls the church the body of Jesus Christ, the first fruit of the new creation, he cautions his congregations to stay vigilant and “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” Christians are called neither to cynicism nor optimism.
We see the same contest in Paul’s epistles. Paul’s terminology, however, is a little different. The contest, for Paul is between flesh and spirit. He said, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Contrary to the Gnostics of his time, however, flesh does not mean body. Paul does not say we should abandon this life and our bodies in favor of inner spiritual liberation. Rather, flesh and spirit are two different ways of being in the body. In 1 Corinthians, we see Paul make the distinction between a natural body and a spiritual body. One is defined by bondage and the other freedom. Both are bodies, but they run on different fuels. This still begs the question of how Jesus’ pattern of life differs from the worldly pattern of life. How can we distinguish one from the other? Furthermore, how is this new life made possible by Christ and not our efforts?
Indeed, the new life instituted by the spirit of Christ has many identifying markers, but I will speak on only one, one that is especially crucial for us today: patience. Recall our culture of speed, efficiency, and acquisition. What we completely lack as individuals and as a society is patience. The culture of the “now” is driven primarily by fear and, more specifically, the fear of death. Seasoned journalist, activists, and preacher Chris Hedges aptly observes that “It is death we are trying to flee. The smallness of our lives, the transitory nature of existence, the inevitable road to old age, are what the idols of power, celebrity, and wealth tell us we can escape.” Escaping death entails the rejection of the contingency of our transitory lives. This rejection is the original sin against God’s divinity. It is through the perceived power of the idols of power, celebrity, wealth, and, I might add, nation that we strive to master our own existence. Today, we are mostly concerned about trying to master our bodies with fashionable diets, avoiding the risk of meeting strangers through online dating, bypassing the drama of friendship via social media, evading a hollow and meaningless life by watching reality T.V., ducking the costs of solidarity using political status updates. Through these instruments, we are promised all the benefits without the risk, while these same instruments covertly, but swiftly dismantle the basic fabric of our existence.
In the political sphere, this fear of death translates into xenophobia, permanent war, imperialism, political and economic centralization, the censorship of rebellion, the national security police state, total surveillance, demagogy, bureaucracy, political celebritism, and economic oligopoly. It is in this culture that Captain America’s romantic individualism and House of Card’s nihilistic cynicism appear to be the only two alternatives: either we fantasize that someone like Oprah will eventually notice us and inject us with the serum of unlimited opportunity in a world of hopeless poverty, or we prepare ourselves to lose our souls for the sake of wealth and power. Our desire to master our lives—and therefore, by implication, everything else—is kindled by the denial of our contingency. But this will to mastery is, ironically, what enslaves us to the principalities and the powers. The will to power is what keeps us trapped in the inertia of the flesh. If we submit to this culture, we would lose our freedom. In an attempt to save our own life, we will have lost it, as Jesus told us we would. Isn’t religious individualism just another manifestation of the will to power, a way to secure the benefits of faith without the baggage of tradition and community? Is not the love of God without the love of neighbor just a religious form of narcissism? Are we not simply creating God in our own image, if we refuse to let our understanding of God be challenged by the great theological traditions? It is not surprising that a church that is marinating in this culture—and is helpless before it—is particularly prone to sectarianism, conspiracy theories, self-obsession, which are symptoms of collective narcissism, as my close friend Matt Burdette prophetically pointed out long ago.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, I say, turns this picture upside down. Our faith teaches that the one who is truly free is the one who has lived his life solely for others to the point of losing it and in so doing was resurrected from the dead by God. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that the path to life is living for others. It teaches that happy is he who was nailed to the cross for the sake of our salvation. As Christians, we are supposed to believe that this brutalized, disfigured, and bloody man who was powerlessly nailed to the cross is the most blessed man on earth and that the happiest place on earth is not Disneyland, but at the foot of this man’s cross. Weekend after weekend, our pastors tell us that the spirit of the man who ate with sinners, preached the good news to the poor, and had no place to lay his head, while everyone else was plotting to assassinate him is the same spirit that now animates his church. We are told that this man, by losing everything, has conquered death itself. Therefore, we, as the church, are given unlimited time and eternal life.
Christians live in a different time zone: the eschatological time zone. We perceive time differently, and thus our pattern of life is defined by the spirit and not the flesh. According to the world, we must save our own lives in order to avoid death, which is the termination of time. Therefore, we are always in a rush. We rush, because if we don’t, we are afraid that we might miss something---perhaps an opportunity to get rich or a chance to counter a threat. Rushing makes the world seem black and white, because quick decisions must be made. It makes us suspicious of strangers. It compels us to sacrifice the truth in the name of pragmatism. It makes us unresponsive to the needs of others. According to our faith, however, our lives are already lost, lost to the one who has conquered death, not by rushing through it, but by taking the time to tend his flock. Christians live according to eschatological time.
In faith, we are enabled to take our time. We are, in other words, empowered to be patient. Patience is not passivity. Most of the most satisfying and worthwhile things we do require patience, like learning a new language, playing an instrument, building a political movement, and, dare I say, understanding our faith. We are freed, by the resurrection of our lord, to take the time to learn, think, to tend to the needs of others, to confront the messiness of life with confidence and grace, to bear the cost of solidarity, to have a heated argument with our adversaries, and to avoid turning to violence to resolve our differences. We are free, because Christ is risen. This serenity, beloved, is the peace that Christ gives. It is a peace that the world cannot offer, an eschatological peace that is already breaking into our world. Therefore, we must daily pray that God will grant us the strength to hope against hope so that we might be made worthy for the kingdom that is and is still to come. So let us heed our lord’s commandment: be not afraid, for the kingdom of God is near.
Yi Shen Ma is Volunteer Development Director for the Adventist Peace Fellowship.