Religion that Leads to Peace by Rev. Randy L. Johnson

This past Thursday, the New Year’s Eve edition of the Peanuts comic strip had Charlie Brown in a philosophical pose while engaged in conversation with Linus. Charlie Brown says, “Well, this is it…” he continues, “The last day of the year, and I did it again.” To which Linus responds, “Did what?” Charlie Brown answers, “I blew another year!”

On this first Sunday of the new year, none of us wants to feel like we “blew another year!” As a church we are in the middle of a program year where we have adopted as our theme: “We Make the Road by Walking.” This theme reminds us that we are on a journey together and that we walk by faith not always knowing exactly where God is taking us. Like the Wise Men, we walk together and we do our best to follow the light which God provides for us. Along the way on this adventure of faith, we encounter challenges and opportunities beyond our imagination.

The one thing we can be assured of as people of faith is that as we walk together we will not just blow another year if we seek on our walk to follow Jesus. This is our stated mission as a church – our purpose is not a destination, not to arrive at some point of spiritual perfection or pain-free living. Rather, it is to be disciples of Jesus, seeking to follow him as faithfully as we can step by step each day.

One reason we follow Jesus is that we believe that he offers the best chance for peace, both peace in our individual lives and peace for our world.

So how is it that we experience greater peace as we follow Jesus on the road ahead in this new year? First, Jesus offers us a religion that leads to peace through a secure, personal relationship with God. In his book, We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren suggests that the story about twelve-year-old Jesus at the Temple provides us with helpful insight into how Jesus understood God and his relationship with God. McClaren wrote, “By the age of twelve, Jesus saw God in tender, fatherly terms. He saw himself as God’s child.” As an affirmation of this, at his baptism, God pronounced Jesus as his beloved child.

When we follow Jesus we accept a new identity as a beloved child of God. This simple yet profound truth is what provides us with inner peace and the power to be peacemakers in our world.

We see this truth illustrated in the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are prone to think that our heroes were always strong in self-confidence and secure in their faith. But, as a young boy Martin’s sense of self-worth was challenged when he saw “Whites Only” signs, was teased and called names by other children, and even lost his best friend because of his race. In his pre-school years, Martin’s closest playmate was a white boy whose family owned a store across the street from the King home. In September, 1935 the two friends entered school- separate schools, Martin noticed. He attended a school where there was not a single white child. Then the parents of his best friend announced that Martin could no longer play with their son. “But why?” Martin asked. “Because we are white and you are colored,” they responded. Later that evening around the dinner table, Martin shared with his family what had happened. After recounting the history of slavery and segregation in America, his mother counseled Martin with these words that he never forgot: “You must never feel that you are less than anybody else. You must always feel that you are somebody.”

In a similar way God comes to us and reminds us that no matter what wounds we may carry, no matter how others may have treated us or how often we put ourselves down, we are God’s beloved. To each one of us the Spirit of God comes and says: “you are a child of God; you are somebody.”

Now I know that there are times when we might question whether God really loves us. When I was a child, one of my pastimes was playing on the teeter-totter in a nearby school playground. You recall how a child would sit on each end of the board and bounce each other up and down. Sometimes the one who was down would stay there and leave their playmate stuck up in the air yelling to be let down. But the cruelest of all was watching your playmate getting off the teeter-totter and running away and being left alone up in the air only to come crashing down to the ground with a painful bump.

Sometimes we may feel that God does that to us. We trust God to be there for us through all the ups and downs of life. But when life takes a turn and leaves us with bumps and bruises it may feel like God has walked away from us leaving our lives to come painfully crashing down.

The peace that Jesus offers is not the absence of conflict or pain. Rather the peace Jesus offers means that in the midst of pain, even though we may feel lonely, we are not alone. This peace involves both presence and a promise – the presence of Christ’s Spirit within us, the presence and support of God’s people around us and the promise that this presence and support will provide the resources and strength we need to be faithful no matter what challenges or conflict come our way. Bottom line, we can trust in Christ’s presence and in the prayers and support of one another to see us through. This is the key to inner peace.

But this inner peace is not the only gift that Jesus offers us as we follow him. The other gift is hope for peace in our world. When the people came to John to be baptized they not only wanted to experience personal peace through the forgiveness of their sins and a restoration of their relationship with God. They also sought out John to see if he was the Messiah, the One who would lead them in battle over their enemies and restore the kingdom of their glory days as a nation.

Today, there are still many people who look to religious leaders to lead them to build earthly kingdoms where they can enjoy power over their perceived enemies. There is a movement going on right now in our own nation that is enlisting hundreds of right-wing Christian pastors to run for political offices. The hope is to restore America to its supposed glory days by imposing so-called Christian values on local communities across the country. Over 400 pastors have signed up and are already using their pulpits as platforms for securing their political victories. This flies in the face of separation of church and state and in the face of the path to peace which Jesus leads us to follow.

As McClaren puts it in his book, when Jesus was baptized by John, it was not under the sign of a lion or a hawk but under the sign of a dove, a sign not of war and violence but of peace and nonviolence. As followers of Jesus we are called to be engaged in the community not to gain power over others but to serve as peacemakers. Our goal is not to build a Christian nation, but to help create communities where all people are treated with love and respect and are empowered to experience true peace. The word for peace, “shalom,” in the Hebrew language means more than absence of conflict. When a Hebrew greeted a neighbor with “shalom” it meant working together toward all the things that make for peace such as healthy relationships at home and in the community, working for economic and social justice, seeking harmony with the earth and all its peoples.

We see this kind of peace illustrated in the ways John the Baptist called the people to live as a sign of their repentance and baptism. John called those who had two coats to give one to the poor; those who had food to share it with the hungry; those who were tax collectors to no longer charge more than what was justly due; those who were soldiers to not abuse others with their power; those who were business owners to pay fair wages. Such actions for peacemaking are part of a larger vision of a just world where all God’s children have the opportunities and resources needed to thrive.

We see Jesus throughout the gospel of Luke also engaged in such actions that make for peace: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, lifting up the poor, reaching out to people who felt that their lives didn’t matter. At the same time Jesus confronted the political and religious establishment for ignoring the needs of the whole community and for failing to help lift the burdens of those who were suffering.

This is the path to peace we are to follow as disciples of Jesus: serving those considered the least and the lost and confronting those in power who fail to work for the common good.

Our service and our work for justice put us in partnership with people of many faiths who also choose to walk the path of peace for our world.

In this spirit, I invite you to start this New Year on the path to peace by taking one easy step: please join me and Leah at the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. Day annual community breakfast and day of service on Monday, January 18. Participating in this event is one way we as people of faith can join with other partners who seek to create a community of peace and justice here in the Saint Cloud Region. On that day, when we unite our many, diverse voices and hands as one, we will give public witness to the whole community that all true religion leads to peace. Amen!