This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beatitudes". See series.
The troops the United Nations deployed to the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan look like they could be soldiers from just about any nation. In a sense, they are. Multinational in nature, armed with the latest weapons, and marked by distinctive blue helmets, their purpose is "to help countries torn by conflict create conditions for sustainable peace." They are not called "soldiers" but "peacekeepers." Were they what Jesus had in mind when he uttered this beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God"? Who can hope to be a peacemaker in a war-torn world like this?
Peace is a goal.
Peace doesn't just happen; we make peace. In that sense it is a goal—something we desire, something we strive for. In this beatitude Jesus doesn't bless those who have a peaceful disposition, as good as that might be. He doesn't say, "Blessed are those who are peaceful." The focus is not on the personality but on the action of the person Jesus describes. Those who are blessed are those who "make" peace.
When the United States first entered World War I, the president of Columbia University in New York City sent a questionnaire to the entire faculty asking them what they proposed to do to help with the war effort. One member of the faculty, a pacifist, sent it back with this answer: "Mind my own business." That may be what a pacifist does. But it is not what a peacemaker does. A peacemaker knows that dealing with the conflict is his business. Peacemaking is not a passive characteristic. The language Jesus uses is active; a peacemaker is one who attacks the situation, who confronts it head on.
First Peter 3:10-11 quotes the Psalmist and says that whoever would love life and see good days must "seek peace and pursue it." Hebrews 12:14 echoes this thought when it says, "Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord." Ironically, the word that is translated "pursue" and "make every effort" in these passages is used negatively in other contexts to speak of persecution. It means to chase after something. It's the word Jesus uses in Matthew 5:10 when he says, "Blessed are the persecuted." It's possible that both Peter and the writer of Hebrews were being intentional in their choice of this word because their original readers were the objects persecution. It would have been natural for them to want to fight back. All things being equal, the pursued would rather be the pursuers. So the writer of Hebrews and the apostle Peter give them this counsel: "You want to pursue something? Pursue peace." But I think his use of this language tells us another important thing about peace. In using this language, these writers, like Jesus, are giving notice that peace is elusive. It doesn't come easily or automatically; it must be actively pursued.
In the fifth century, the monk Telemachus, who had been living by himself in the desert trying to devote himself to God, decided that he really couldn't serve God without serving other people. He abandoned his life of solitude and traveled to the city of Rome, arriving just in time to watch a victory celebration where Gothic prisoners were being forced to battle one another to the death as gladiators. Ironically, Rome considered itself a Christian city by that time, but the churches emptied to see this bloody spectacle. When the monk saw the crowd of 80,000 roaring for the blood of the two gladiators as they fought each other, he was horrified. Telemachus leapt into the arena and placed himself between the two men, pleading with them to stop the conflict. Furious over the delay in their entertainment, the spectators stoned Telemachus to death. Three days later the emperor declared him a martyr and did away with the gladiatorial contests for good. Telemachus had achieved his goal.
The days of the gladiators are long past. But what about us? Where is our arena? Where do we carry on this work of peace making? In Mark 9:50 Jesus says, "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other." Be at peace with whom? Be at peace with the lost? Be at peace with your persecutors? No, simply be at peace with each other.
Maybe you've heard the old joke about a man who was stranded on a desert island. He lived alone there for several months until, finally, a search party found him. When the rescue boat arrived, the captain noticed that there were three huts on the island. "What are those huts?" the captain asked. The castaway pointed and said, "That's my house and that's my church." "What's that third one over there?" the captain asked. "Oh, that's where I used to go to church."
While Jesus' words may have implications for the world stage, the primary context for peacemaking is the realm of personal relationships. Our arena is not the United Nations but the local church. The apostle Paul echoes Jesus' command when he says, "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:2-3). Notice the tools of a peacemaker Paul lists in these verses: humility and gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another. There is more to making peace than simply finding a skilled negotiator. Peace is a goal—it is our objective.
Peace is also a gift.
Ultimately, what Jesus is talking about in this beatitude is not a matter of technique. It's a matter of grace. If we intend to seek peace as a goal in the life of the church, we must work backwards. We don't begin with peace as a task—we start with peace as a gift.
This was implied in Jesus' words to the twelve disciples in Mathew 10:11-13 as he sent them out to the towns and villages of Judea to announce the coming of the kingdom: "Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you." We tend to think of Jesus' words in these verses as a mere formality. It is true that the custom of greeting one another with "Shalom," the Hebrew word for peace, was already a custom in Jesus' day. The early church took Jesus literally and pronounced these words as a greeting. But was Jesus so concerned about etiquette that all he meant by this statement was a lesson in politeness? As if Jesus were saying to his disciples, "Now make sure you say 'bless you' whenever someone sneezes!" The language Jesus uses makes peace almost tangible. Peace is like the dove—it can be released and it can return if it finds no place to land.
Jesus sent out the apostles as agents of a particular kind of peace—agents of grace. In this sense their message of peace differed from one a diplomat might carry. The apostles' message was not a call to make peace but a call to receive peace. The apostles' greeting really amounts to an offer of peace made on God's behalf. This is something you also see reflected in the apostle Paul's greetings in his epistles: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2). All throughout the Epistles you hear this refrain: grace and peace, grace and peace. We hear these two things linked so often in the salutation of Paul's letters that we are lulled into thinking it is only a matter of form, but for Paul these greetings are theologically loaded. Peace is a function of grace. And grace is a gift from God. This connection provides a clue as to why there is so little peace in some of our churches today. The absence of peace is indicative of a lack of grace. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that we don't believe in grace. We do. We sing about it; we preach about it. I'm not even saying that we don't understand the concept of grace. We understand it as a concept when applied to ourselves. We know the gospel. We know that we owed a debt to God and that God absorbed that debt at great cost to himself by sending Jesus Christ into the world to die for our sins. It's this idea of being a community of grace that we struggle with.
In his book What's So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey tells of a friend who overheard a conversation between two passengers on a bus. One of them, a young woman, was reading M. Scott Peck's popular book The Road Less Traveled. The passenger across the aisle from her asked about it. "What are you reading?" he wondered. "A book a friend gave me. She said it changed her life." Now she'd really gotten his attention. "What's it about?" he asked. "I'm not sure. Some sort of guide to life. I haven't got very far yet." At this point the young woman began flipping through the book reading off the chapter titles—Discipline; Love; Grace—until the man stopped her. "What's grace?" he asked. "I don't know," the woman replied, "I haven't got to grace yet."
That's our problem too. We strive for peace but fail to find it because we fall short of grace. We don't know how to be at peace with one another, because we haven't got to grace yet. Peace, like grace, is a gift. And like grace, it is always costly, but not to the one who receives it. It is the giver who must absorb the cost. We know this instinctively. That's why we struggle with it. We know that by making peace with others, we are relinquishing our claim on them.
Peace is a work of God.
A skilled diplomat may be able to negotiate a cease-fire. He or she may even be able to negotiate an end to hostilities. But peace is something God must bring to pass. Jesus alludes to this in the second half of this beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." In the Scriptures this designation as "sons" is often used in a descriptive sense. To call someone a "son" was to say that there was a likeness, usually reflected in behavior. Why are the peacemakers blessed? Not as payment for their efforts, as good as that may be, but because of their position—because of what peacemaking says about them. Peacemakers have a family resemblance to their heavenly Father. Their actions mark their identity as sons and daughters of God. This is also the secret to their success. For them, this work of peacemaking is merely an extension of the Father's work. Because they approach relationships with a sense of God, they can concentrate on making peace without having to worry about protecting their own interests.
Allen Keiswetter served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. In 2002, as the Palestinian intifada continued to rage, an Israeli official visiting Washington told Keiswetter that there was one way to make progress toward peace: "The solution to the whole thing is to redefine 'sovereignty."
This Israeli official's comment is telling. Not just for the crisis in the Middle East, but for conflict in general. In the end most of our conflicts come down to this. We experience conflict because we are unwilling to relinquish sovereignty. The peacemaker's secret is to redefine sovereignty in the light of Christ. The peacemaker's primary concern is no longer one of control and personal interests. When we know our position before God, we can leave it to God to settle our accounts. So the peacemaker no longer asks, "Who will redress my wrongs," or "Who will look out for my interests?" The peacemaker already knows the answer to that question: God is sovereign.
A primary example of this in the Old Testament was Joseph. Though Joseph was verbally harassed by his brothers and sold by them into slavery, he ended up the second most important person in all of Egypt. After many years of hardship and blessing, Joseph was reunited with his family through a series of divinely orchestrated events. By then the tables had turned. Joseph was no longer the little brother. He was Pharaoh's second in command; he was now the one with the power. Joseph had so much power, in fact, that he could crush those who hurt him, the way you and I might squash a bug and not even think about it. When their father died, his brothers worried that Joseph would do just that. They worried that he would use the opportunity to take revenge on them. So the brothers concocted a story about their father's last wish. Genesis 50:16-17 reads: "They sent word to Joseph, saying, 'Your father left these instructions before he died: "This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly."' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father." Overcome with fear and racked with guilt, Joseph's brothers threw themselves at his feet. "We are your slaves," they said. They once made Joseph a slave; now he was given the chance to do the same to them. But with his enemies groveling at his feet, Joseph chose the path of reconciliation. "Don't be afraid," Joseph told them. "Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen. 50:19-20). This is one the most astonishing statements found in Scripture. It is surpassed only by one other: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Of course, we could probably be just as generous with our enemies, if they were groveling at our feet, too. The trouble with most of us is that we haven't had a chance to see the tables turn. It is so hard for us to take a step towards our enemies. We prefer revenge to reconciliation. That's what makes Jesus' words superior to Joseph's. Joseph uttered his forgiveness from the comfort of Pharaoh's throne. Jesus' words were uttered from the agony of the cross. As for Joseph's question, we all know the answer. No, Joseph isn't in the place of God. He made the right choice when he left final judgment in the hands of God. But what if Jesus had asked the same question? What if, in the bleeding agony of the cross, as his enemies mocked and his friends forsook him, Jesus had asked, "Am I in the place of God?" The answer would still be "No." For though he was God in the flesh, Jesus was not there on the cross in God's place. He was there in our place.
On April 9, 1865, after four years of Civil War, more than 630,000 deaths, and over a million casualties, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at a farm house near Appomattox. The two adversaries met and talked like friends for almost half and hour before Lee, feeling awkward, brought up the subject of his surrender. Grant explained the terms, and Lee asked if his men could keep their horses, explaining that they would need them for farming once the war was over. Grant agreed, and when he learned that Lee's men had been without rations for several days, he arranged for food to be sent to the hungry Confederates. The terms of surrender were so cordial that some referred to it not as surrender but as "The Gentlemen's Agreement." These were gracious terms—but not nearly as gracious as those offered by Jesus.
"Father, forgive them," Jesus says. Not because they deserve it. Not because they understand what they have done. Not even because they want it. They don't—not yet. Jesus says: Father, forgive them not only for their sake but primarily for my sake.
These words are a prayer, but also more than a prayer. They are an offer of peace to all who are still at war with God. They are a promise that if we surrender, we will be given the best possible terms. They are a promise that if we surrender to Christ, God will not treat us as the defeated, but as the victors. Not as enemies, but as sons and daughters.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.