Today is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, a day commonly observed as Peace Sunday in the Episcopal Church. That's because our collect for today addresses God as the One who governs “all things both in heaven and earth” and asks that we be granted God’s peace in God’s time.
Talking about peace in church may seem like a no-brainer, but actually to do so is a challenging task. For example, although we Episcopalians are a peaceful lot, it's probably a bad idea to try to preach about peace in church on Super Bowl Sunday. And as the 49ers face off against the Ravens, it's probably an even worse idea for a Californian to do so in the presence of a large number of mid-Atlantic football fans. But before you jump to conclusions, please remember that I'm from Los Angeles, not San Francisco, and we Angelenos have never happily rooted for Bay Area teams especially since the Raiders hightailed it back to Oakland in 1994. The only way I'd pull for the 49ers, Raiders, Giants, or Athletics is if they were playing the Taliban. And I assume Washingtonians would say much the same about Baltimore and the Ravens, especially since they’re really still the Cleveland Browns in disguise.
We all probably agree that there will never be peace on the gridiron. In fact, peace on the playing field is the last thing we want. Something about us loves loyalties, rivalries, and contests. I can’t imagine a satisfactory way in which the playing of the Super Bowl could end with a group hug and the singing of “Kumbayah”. But as closely as sports mirror reality, they are not the thing itself. Some atavistic part of us yearns for blood on the playing field. But another part of us yearns for an end to war in all of its forms. Even as we prepare to watch the Super Bowl, on this Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the church urgently prays for God’s peace to obtain in the world.
What does it mean for us to pray and stand for peace? As an Episcopalian, I start by admitting that we inhabit a comprehensive church, one characterized by a wide range of views on the subject. There are Episcopalian pacifists. There are Episcopalians in uniform. As the inheritors of the Church of England’s established church tradition, American Episcopalians have long understood the important role of the military in our national life and have supported ministries to men and women in uniform since the nation’s founding. At the same time, we have consistently raised up leaders who have opposed war in some or all its forms, many sharing the pacifist views of our Quaker brothers and sisters. Anglicanism will never be of one mind on questions of war and peace. But that does not mean we have nothing to say on the subject.
One way in to thinking about peace is to attend to what Jesus says as he returns to his hometown of Nazareth in this morning’s Gospel. As Luke tells the story, Jesus has gone home to Nazareth after an early series of amazing public healings around Galilee. As he reads and speaks in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus is challenged by his former neighbors. Luke tells us that “they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” and asked, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Translation: We know this man. Others may think him a powerful healer and teacher, but we know that he’s really just little Jesus from the carpenter’s shop. Who does he think he is?
Jesus responds with one of his most famous sayings: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” And then he goes on to say something which sounds pretty benign to us but actually enrages his listeners:
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. [Luke 4:21-30]
Jesus’s reference to the Sidonian widow and the Syrian leper makes the people of Nazareth so angry that they drive him out of town to the brow of a hill so that they might hurl him off a cliff. “Sidonian” and “Syrian” don’t sound like fighting words to me. What is the big deal with those names?
The big deal, of course, is that Jesus is speaking positively about people the Israelites have identified as “the enemy”. The prophet Elijah came to the widow of Zaretphath in Sidon, the home town of the Philistines. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, cured Naaman of leprosy, and he was a General in the Syrian army. The Philistines oppressed Israel in its early days, the Syrians later on. For the Israelites, both the Philistines and the Syrians were the enemy, the oppressor, the collective representation of evil. To say that God accepted them was an insult. To say that God might have preferred them was an outrage.
Jesus then compounds the offense by tacitly comparing himself to the prophet Elijah, whose ministry was seen as a pattern for the Messiah, the hoped-for king who many believed would return and restore Israel to its greatness and banish Israel’s enemies—Philistines and Syrians then, Romans now--forever. Here was Jesus telling them that the real Messiah would exercise compassion, not vengeance, that messianic ministry might even include reaching out to and embracing the enemy. It’s a short step from saying “God loves Philistines” to “God loves Romans” to who knows what that would be today.
Jesus’s experience in Nazareth has much to teach us about our own attitudes to war and peace. For those of us who follow Jesus, the primary problem is neither with the technology nor the tactics of warfare. For those of us who follow Jesus, the real problem is our human tendency to define others as our “enemies”. For Christian people, there can never be an “us” and a “them”. For Christian people, even the people who oppose us and our values continue to share our humanity. We are under orders never to stigmatize them as evil or less than human. We are under orders to love them as we love our neighbors and ourselves.
The great Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that in questions of justice and mercy, we tend to ask God for mercy for ourselves and justice for others. We can hear in Jesus’s synagogue remarks a similar critique of human folly. The popular messianic hope of his day expected the intervention of a God who would be merciful to Israel and cruel to everybody else. Before we smugly nod in knowing judgment of them, couldn’t we say the same thing about ourselves? The basic tribal loyalties that bind us together as human beings—religious, ethnic, racial, class—are the same ones that betray us in our larger social connections. Niebuhr also said that human beings are better in their intimate relationships than they are in their social ones. I’m a lot more compassionate with my family and friends than I am with the people “out there”. We empathize with those we know. We distrust those we don’t.
As followers of Jesus, you and I will always be called to stand for peace. For some of us that will mean questioning, perhaps opposing, war in its many forms. For others of us that will mean faithful military service. The real question for all of us who follow Jesus is this: how do we live expansively into Jesus’s vision of God’s love and mercy and grace? As Jesus implied in the synagogue, so he proclaims today: God’s love and mercy and grace are for everybody. You may have an adversary on the playing field, but there are no real “enemies” in life. God loves Israelite, Philistine, Syrian, and Roman alike. God loves American, Taliban, Palestinian, and Israeli alike. There are no special categories of human being, good or bad. The root of our war and peace problem lies in our tendency to try to put people into categories in the first place. But no category ultimately describes the complexity of any human being. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Paul. [Romans 3.23] And all are precious, created in God’s image and redeemed on the cross. Only the vision of divine love and grace as lived and proclaimed by Jesus has room to accommodate what seems to us a paradox. We’re all sinners and we’re all beloved. One statement can be true only if both are true. That is the case without exception.
Later today many of us will watch what happens on the playing field. Right now we prepare to share this meal, the Eucharist. It is the sign and symbol of something deeper going on in the world than what we see on a surface of labels and categories. At his table, Jesus gathers everyone in unquestioning, radical hospitality. As we come together around Jesus’s table, let’s remember that the one who calls us to this meal is the same one who forgave those who took him to the cross. God’s mercy and grace are finally bigger than our ability to comprehend them. All we can do in response is resolve to accept and extend them, and then gather at this table to give thanks. Amen.