Breaking Down Barriers to Peace (Romans 15:1-14)

Some of us who have been following the tweets of Bana Alabed, a seven year old Syrian girl living in Aleppo, have been emotionally impacted by the ravages of war as told by a child. Late last Sunday night she tweeted that her house had been bombed. She said, “Tonight we have no house, it’s bombed and I got in rubble. I saw deaths and I almost died.” On Monday her mother posted an update that her family was on the run. What is their chance of survival? Not very good. When we hear and see these first-hand accounts of the devastation and deaths caused by war we realize how broken our world is. On this second Sunday of Advent we pray for and hopefully will commit ourselves anew to work for peace.

Our scripture text today from Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks to this longing for peace. Prior to this passage Paul has been dealing with tensions in the fellowship, offering instruction on how these tensions should be resolved. Hear once again he urges them to live in harmony with one another. He wanted the church to be a model of the future age when justice and peace would prevail in all segments and sectors of human life. In the OT text passage from Isaiah for this Sunday in Isaiah 11, the prophet paints a poetic picture of how he envisioned such a time. Isaiah says that the one who will fulfill their hopes for peace will bring justice to the poor and he will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, that is he will equalize things out and those who have been beaten down will be lifted up. One of Jesus’ favorite sayings in the Gospels is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. All violence will abolished. They will not hurt or destroy on the Lord’s holy mountain, says the prophet. The prophet’s vision of peace cannot be dislodged, it cannot be disconnected from justice. So peace and justice go together. Any peace without justice, without fairness, without healing and liberation for all the people is a false peace.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he urges them to live in harmony, to be at peace, and to be a model of what a world filled with God’s love and a world doing God’s will would look like. I think there are some things that stand out as barriers to peace that Paul would like to see toppled.

One barrier to peace is unforgiveness. Now Paul doesn’t specifically speak about forgiveness in this passage, but he does hold up Christ as our model and he says that Christ did not please himself but sought the good of others and was even willing to bear the insults of others without any bitterness or resentment or need to retaliate. In Luke’s version of the passion story Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  

There can be no pathway to peace – in our families, in our communities, in our societies, and in the world – unless there is forgiveness. Someone has to say, “I am willing, we are willing to absorb the offense without responding in kind, without becoming bitter and resentful, without hurting you in return.” Forgiveness is not a simple act, it is more like a complicated process. Forgiveness does not mean there will be no consequences. There may still be consequences and working through those consequences may require multiple acts of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not automatically mean there will be reconciliation and of course, reconciliation can take different forms. Forgiveness may not be enough for peace to result, restitution may be required. So you see, forgiveness is not a simple process, but it is a necessary process. Forgiveness does not automatically result in peace, but there is no peace without it.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the genocide. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.”

Vanier said, “I understand. I understand.” What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she got caught up in a world of hate and depression. Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengence’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness. The first step.”

I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady has had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace, finding peace within herself and finding peace with others.

A second barrier to peace is the pursuit of power. There are some people who will sell their soul for a seat at the table of power. This will always be a barrier to peace, whether in the international and global arena, or within our own families. Jesus, again, is our paradigm. He is our representative and example. Paul says that Christ did not please himself, he emptied himself of all need for control and power. He did not need homage or accolades or praise. He did not need to control anyone or anything. God has never been about control. God loves freedom too much. God is present with us and the rest of creation, but God doesn’t control us or anyone or anything else. Paul says Jesus became a servant on behalf of the truth. Jesus never pursued power; rather, he spoke truth to power, which of course, ultimately landed him on a cross.

What do you think it means to be a servant on behalf of the truth? In Ephesians, which has been attributed to Paul, the writer says, “Speak the truth in love.” How do you do that? That is something that is very heavy on my heart right now. How do I speak the truth in love? How do you speak truth in love? It helps to remember who we are? We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, who are called to be servants of the truth.

Jesus resisted all temptation to acquire power and he often spoke truth to power. He tried to teach his disciples what was really important. On one occasion James and John came to Jesus seeking positions of power. They apparently imagined God’s kingdom like they thought of worldly kingdoms (like us they were very slow to catch on). So they ask Jesus if they could share the platform with him, sitting on his right and left. One version of the story says that they sent their mother to make the request. Jesus rebuke’s them by saying, “You know that the rulers of the world aspire to lord it over others. But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to be great or to be first among you, must become the servant of all.” Mark’s version of this story emphasizes service to all – all people without distinction. And that brings me to a third barrier to peace.

A third barrier to peace is exclusion and discrimination. Discrimination and exclusion can, of course, be expressed overtly, or they can be expressed in more subtle ways. I get the sense that possibly some form of this was finding its way into the Roman church. Paul makes a special point to affirm the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan to bring peace to the world. He quotes four Hebrew scriptures to make this point. Two from the Psalms: “I will confess you among the Gentiles”; and “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the people praise him.” He quotes one from Deuteronomy: “Rejoice, O Gentiles with his people.” And he quotes one from Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

It’s not possible to recreate the historical situation, so we can only guess what was going on. I wonder if perhaps there were some Jewish brethren who, in very subtle ways were saying to the Gentiles, “You know, we were God’s chosen first. We have priority.” Paul reminds them that it was God’s plan all along to bring everyone together. If God blessed Abraham and Abraham’s seed it was for the purpose of extending the blessing to all people, which is what the Abrahamic covenant says, right. “From you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Paul argues earlier in this letter in chapter 5 that Christ as the representative human being through his act of righteousness or justice (which I interpret as a reference to his life that culminated in his death) justification and life comes to all.

Apparently, this is how Paul’s followers understood him, because the writer of Ephesians says that God’s plan in Christ was “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth” (1:10). The writer of the book of Colossians, which also bears Paul’s name, says that through Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven (1:20). So God’s plan according to the Pauline tradition is to bring together, to reconcile, to unify, to make one all people and creation in Christ. Christ is the symbol here for the means and way all things will be brought together. In other words, when we can love like Jesus, when we can trust like Jesus, when we can live like Jesus, then we can all be brought together as one, reconciled to God and to one another and to all creation.

Paul wants the church at Rome and all churches to live in such a way that in their life together they become a foreshadowing, a harbinger, a preview of God’s future kingdom, God’s world of justice and peace. Paul believed that the church should be living right now the peace and justice that will prevail in God’s future world.

So, if a local church and the church universal is supposed to model for the world, that is, give the world a taste of God’s world of peace and justice to come, then we all, I think, would have to admit that we have for the most part failed haven’t we? Many churches reflect more of the culture around them, the biases and mores of the day, than the values and qualities – the peace and justice – that mark God’s future world. However, that is no reason to quit or despair or give up the dream.

Martin Buber was a great Jewish philosopher and a deeply spiritual man who lived in a different age. He died in 1965. He said, “I do not believe in Jesus but I do believe with Jesus.” What was he saying? He was saying, “I don’t believe the same things about Jesus you Christians believe, but I believe in living the way he lived and loving the way he loved.” What if the missionary endeavor of the church in the West took that approach? Instead of insisting that peoples of different cultures and religious traditions believe what we believe about Jesus. What if we rather encouraged them to live and love the way Jesus lived and loved? I wonder if we would have had a much more positive influence. Gandhi taught that our distinctive religious traditions were given to us not to convert the world to our particular religious tradition, but to bless the world.

Last week I shared a story from John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God, about the time his father who was struggling with dementia “blessed” the car salesman (and if you missed that story the sermon is posted on my website if you want to read it). Here is another story he tells about his father during his father’s last days on earth. The people that visited his father most frequently during his father’s final days were a Muslim couple, Sylvia and Boshe. His father’s vocation involved working to provide relief for refugees. Years earlier when this couple had escaped from war-torn Bosnia, his father helped them find sanctuary in Canada. They referred to him as “father” because he had been so central to their birth into freedom and safety. Dr.Newell says that his father had always been a deeply compassionate man, but (and this will sound familiar) he had also been a very conservative man in his religious beliefs. So, while he worked with refugees the world over, at the end of the day, he thought they would be much better off if they adopted his Christian beliefs.

Dr. Newell says that even when his father was in the latter stages of dementia, he loved to pray with the people visiting him. Somehow, his words would flow when he prayed, even though in ordinary speech he would struggle for words. One sunny afternoon, Dr. Newell, joined this Muslim couple in a visit to his father. Dr. Newell asked his father to pray. They were seated in a circle and joined hands. His father prayed, “Without You, O God, we would not be. And because of you we are one family.” Dr. Newell looked up and saw tears streaming down the faces of Boshe and Sylvia. Dr. Newell says, “They knew they were one family with us, but they had never heard my father say it. His religious ego had now collapsed. The barriers had broken down.”

I dream of a world like that sisters and brothers. Can we do anything to help bring it about? Sure we can. One, we can commit ourselves to a process of forgiveness. Two, we can daily practice being a servant of all people. And three, we can recognize and admit our own tendencies toward discrimination and exclusion, and work toward inclusion, welcome, acceptance, and unity, not by focusing on beliefs that divide us, but on the compassion and love that can bring us together.

Our good God, there is too much hate, too much injustice, too much prejudice, too much ego, that divides us and even threatens our survival as a species. Cast these demons out of us, O Lord. Help us dream of a world of peace and justice. And empower us to work toward its realization – by forgiving, serving, accepting, and welcoming all who would come to the table to talk peace and work for justice. 


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