The innocent always suffer. It was 1943; and Great Britain was in the midst of a terrible war, a war they feared they could lose. But war had not yet reached a tiny remote, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland, until it did in a big way. On this day, a group of soldiers brought 80 sheep to the island. But they weren’t actually soldiers, they were scientists. And they had come to this island on a secret, deadly mission. They wanted to see if their anthrax bombs were as lethal as they believed. If they were, the next step was to drop anthrax on German cities. The scientists were wearing cloth overalls, rubber gloves, and gas masks; but that hardly seemed like enough protection. They launched the anthrax by mortar and watched the effects. At first, the sheep showed no signs of infection; but when they did, they experienced a horrifying death. But while the experiment was a huge success in regards to the war, the thought of dropping anthrax of Germany was ultimately too dreadful even to consider. But not because it would kill too many people, but because it would leave the German countryside infected with anthrax for years and years to come. In fact, the island upon which they conducted the experiment had been so badly contaminated by anthrax that it was proclaimed off-limits. Locals were not allowed on it. Tourists were told to keep away. Boaters were prohibited from even getting close. And this was the case, not just until the end of the war, but for the next 5 – that’s right, the next 5 decades. In 1990, scientists finally returned to the island to scrape off the topsoil, cart it away someplace to be burned, and to spray the remaining soil with a flood of formaldehyde. And to all of that, I want to say, what a waste of good sheep!
Read the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, and you will be bowled over by Jesus’ emphasis on peace and non-violence. You will be bowled over by it because we don’t usually talk about it. Matter of fact, we tend to pretend that it’s not there. But peace is a major component of Jesus’ kingdom vision. Consider these verses:
- Mt. 5:9 – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
- Mt. 5:21-22 — “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
- Mt. 5:28-42 — “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
- Mt. 5:43-48 — “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But how do we get peace? Scot McKnight begins our conversation with this important point: “Peace is a result and not a goal.” Peace comes as a consequence of investing in loving relationships, in pursuing justice, and in doing good in the world. Now, when we talk about peace, we usually mean inner peace, a complete lack of anxiety, a sense of all-is-well. But when the Bible talks about peace, it refers to something much bigger. Now, it is not that the Bible isn’t interested in us experiencing inner peace, but that is secondary to his real purpose. His is a big peace. He wants there to be peace on earth. He wanted there to be peace among peoples. He wants there to be peace between warring factions. He wants there to be peace within families. He wants peace to flood over his people like a river. Peace is integral to God’s kingdom, and peace is one of the reasons we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth. The longing for peace is also why we pray for all people to have the necessities of life, “Give us this day our daily bread” (not, “give me”).
Now, when Jesus spoke of peace, he used an Old Testament word with which we are all familiar, the word, “Shalom.” We think of “shalom” as wholeness, but wholeness implies that everyone around you has enough and implies that love is flourishing and that goodness abounds towards everyone. Shalom is loving God and loving others and experiencing the joy that comes from that love. And when Jesus spoke of peace, he was envisioning a whole community that was committed to peace and peace-making. Read the verses in Matthew 5 again. They don’t speak of that peaceful, easy feeling. They speak of Jesus’ followers being peacemakers in the midst of strife and division and conflict. They speak of us offering forgiveness, offering hope, offering reconciliation, offering love, offering grace, and offering peace. And since Jesus calls us to follow him, then it only makes sense that the one who came to reconcile God and sinners would want us to invest in seeking to reconcile with everyone who takes issue with us, even if they are our enemies, even if they persecute us, even if they are seeking our harm. Jesus and peace go together just like Jesus and reconciliation go hand-in-hand.
Again, from Scot McKnight: “Jesus dreamed of a society that in its soul was shaped by loving God and loving all others, by justice for all and by giving peace a chance. Peace flows from those who act justly and who behave lovingly.” If the church would give itself to following Jesus by focusing on justice and compassion and love, loving God and loving others, then we would see Jesus’ peace begin to flood over all the world.
No one (in my knowledge) has made this call as clear and as important as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Let me just quote Bonhoeffer and let him speak for himself. This is what it means to be a peacemaker. Bonhoeffer writes:
“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies.
At the end, all his disciples deserted him.
On the cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers.
For this cause he had come,
to bring peace to the enemies of God.
So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life
but in the thick of foes.”
“The command, ‘you shall not kill,’
the word that says ‘Love your enemies,’
is given to us simply to be obeyed.
For Christians, any military service, except in the ambulance corps,
and any preparation for war is forbidden.”
A third time:
“Christianity stands or falls
with its revolutionary protest against violence.”
“The followers of Christ have been called to peace.
And they must not only have peace, but make peace.
And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult.
In the cause of Christ, nothing is to be gained by such methods.
His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves,
rather than to inflict it on others.
They maintain fellowship where others would break it off;
they renounce hatred and wrong.
In so doing they overcome evil with good
and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.”
One word summarizes all that Bonhoeffer said here: “Wow.” Bottom line: I need to think deeply—very deeply—about all of this. I also need to confess that, for the most part, my Bible only has a chapter 5 in Matthew’s gospel as a way to get out of chapter 4 and into chapter 6. Those words are hard to hear; but if we are going to follow Jesus, maybe we need to start listening.
What is a Christian? A Christian is someone who follows Jesus by being a peacemaker even when the cost to do so is overwhelming. Does that sound impossible? Absolutely. But that is not the question. The question is: does being a peacemaker sound like Jesus? It absolutely does. There’s a great benediction at the end of Hebrews that ties everything up nicely. The author writes (Heb. 13:20-21):
“Now may the God of peace,
who through the blood of the eternal covenant
brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus,
that great Shepherd of the sheep,
equip you with everything good for doing his will,
and may he work in us what is pleasing to him,
through Jesus Christ,
to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen”
Why was the story of the Scottish Island so hard to hear? Because according to Hebrews, WE are the sheep!