Matthew 26:47-56 New International Version (NIV)
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Hi friends. It is good to be back with you after traveling last weekend to attend a wedding in Nebraska. This was the wedding of Sonya’s youngest cousin, and there are only two more single cousins in the family. All of that is to say that I don’t plan to be traveling anywhere the rest of the year, so you’re stuck with me!
We are in week five of what I had originally said would be a five-week series on my essentials to Anabaptism. And as I predicted five weeks ago, this series is going to expand a little bit. I simply could not fit today’s message into 25 minutes. So today is part 5a of my series on Anabaptist essentials!
Please note that these sermons were meant to build on one another. Individually, they may have made sense, but I believe that it is most helpful to think of them as a package deal. To put it differently, today’s sermon will only make sense in the context of some of the things we have already addressed. So far we have looked at Christianity as Discipleship, Separation of Church/State/World, Christian Service, and Money. And it was great to have the Director of Stewardship Education for Everence here last Sunday to share some thoughts on Jesus and money.
But it is especially those first two topics that make our topic for today intelligible. Christianity as Discipleship says that we are to follow the teaching and example of Jesus. Like the apprentice in the blacksmith shop, we are learning from the master, both his verbal lessons and his physical actions. The separation between the church/world/state says simply that we are called to look different from the world when the world doesn’t look like Jesus, and we are called to resist the governing authorities when they don’t act like Jesus.
So Jesus is the foundation of our faith. Christianity as Discipleship and Church/State distinctions are the first flight of bricks. Nonviolence only makes sense when the foundation and the first flight of bricks are established and you can build upon them.
In my years of ministry, I have found very few topics more divisive than this one. So that’s why we’re spending two weeks on it J. Today we are going to look at the biblical teachings on nonviolence and next week we will look at some of the challenging passages in the Bible.
Before we actually get into these texts, I just want to remind you that you are welcome to disagree with me on this issue, and we can still be friends. I’ll still call you a brother or a sister in Christ, and I’m not going to question your salvation. A good friend of mine is the supply sergeant at the local armory, and we manage to get along just fine.
My struggles are with the “kill them all and let God sort them out” crowd. I take issue with anyone whose first response to a threat, whether personal or national, is to resort to violence. But I also know that there are the “what about” questions. “What about Hitler?” “What about your family?” We will save that conversation for next week when I address some of the concerns and troubling passages of scripture.
A word about terms before I move on. I will sometimes use the words nonviolence and pacifism interchangeably. I’m trying to move away from the language of pacifism because that often brings some additional baggage that I’d like to avoid. Especially when people mistakenly make a connection between pacifism and passivity. We aren’t called to be passive in the Kingdom of God, but rather active! Bible scholar Preston Sprinkle has given a really helpful name to what we often preach in the Mennonite Church, even if it is a bit wordy. Sprinkle calls it “Christocentric Nonviolence.” I teach nonviolence of a specific kind, the nonviolence of Jesus Christ. This is not avoidance of one’s duty, and it isn’t being a yellow-bellied scaredy cat. It is about having the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and I believe in the way of Jesus.
Christocentric nonviolence says that we should fight against evil, we should wage war against injustice, and we should defend the orphan, the widow, the marginalized, and oppressed. And we should do so aggressively. But we should do so nonviolently.
In other words, Christocentric nonviolence does not dispute whether Christians should fight against evil. It only disputes the means by which we do fight.
Today I want to look at three different arguments in favor Christocentric nonviolence. Each is a different approach to understanding this teaching, and rather than looking at the many different passages that can be used to make the point, I’ll just summarize a few. We will be looking at the argument from Natural Theology, the Discipleship argument, and the Agapic argument. These are my categories for these arguments, they are not perfect, and they can be refined. But it makes it easier for me to group things together under headings, so we will do just that.
Natural Theology is theology that you do from experience or things that you can observe. You do not need a special revelation from God to do this kind of theology, though for this argument I am going to use one Bible verse to get us rolling.
In Genesis 9 we find the covenant that God made with Noah after the great flood. God lays out some rules for all of humanity in this covenant, including verses 5-6: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’”
In this passage God demands an accounting for every animal killed, which is simply a weird way of saying that we shouldn’t kill animals just to kill them. Likewise, with human beings, don’t kill humans just to kill them. But it is a greater offense to God to take the life of a human because humans are created in the image of God. All humans.
Male humans, female humans, black humans, white humans, rich humans, and poor humans. All created in the image of God. Each one reflecting in some way God’s essence.
From a Natural Theology perspective, all we need to do is look at one another to know that we should not take their lives. Everyone is someone’s child, their daughter or their son. They may have a spouse, they may have loved ones. The same image of God that is within you is also within them.
In the church we like to say that every life is precious. This is why we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and love the unlovable. Young or old, rich or poor, the lives of all people are important because we have all been created in the image of God. Many churches talk about being “Pro-Life.” For them, it means being against abortion. To Christians around the world who like to call yourself Pro-Life, you can’t stop caring about life once a baby is born. Providing adequate healthcare, nutrition, and education should all be Christian concerns because all people are created in the image of God. We cannot take the life of someone else just because they were born in a different country, wear a different uniform, or our presidents can’t get along.
I’ll be honest, the argument from Natural Theology is probably the weakest argument we can make for nonviolence, and I can’t even call it Christocentric, because there is no mention of Christ. Let’s move to the Discipleship argument. The Discipleship argument flips an old question around and asks it in a different way.
It seems like every generation likes to throw around some Christian slang, insider language that not everyone knows, but we sure do. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was “PTL.” I got a good report from the doctor, PTL! For my generation, it was WWJD. All the cool, hip Christians in my school wore WWJD bracelets. (I did not.) For those who were not raised in this culture, PTL stands for “Praise the Lord,” and WWJD is “What Would Jesus Do?”
One way we answer “WWJD” is by asking “WDJD?” What did Jesus do?
Do you remember that time when Jesus was confronted by a loud and obnoxious Pharisee and Jesus punched him right in the mouth? Or what about the time when a Roman Centurion came to Jesus to ask Jesus to heal one of his servants and Jesus said, “Ah, now we have you! Seize him, and make those Romans rue the day they ever heard the name of Jesus of Nazareth!”
No, when Jesus was confronted by people like the Pharisees who wanted to do him harm, Jesus responded by pointing out their flawed logic and often exposing the evil in their practices. He never let them walk all over him, but he didn’t resort to violence.
So far I’ve avoided quoting the Sermon on the Mount, but at one point, Jesus says that his followers will love their enemies. Recall that this is during a time when the Roman Empire was occupying the Holy Land, forcing heavy taxation and other burdens upon the people. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” every Jewish person would have thought of the Roman soldiers living among them. So when a centurion, a leader in the Roman army, came to Jesus to ask for his help, Jesus showed love, mercy, and compassion.
And in our passage for today, Jesus is being arrested after having been betrayed by one of his disciples. And Jesus says to Judas in verse 50, “Do what you came for, friend.”
Even as he is being betrayed, he still calls Judas his friend. When they try to arrest Jesus, other gospels tell us that Peter pulls out a sword and strikes one of the Roman guards. Just like Van Gogh, his ear is van gone. But Jesus replies in verses 52-53, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
Yeah, Peter, this isn’t a fight we can win. But that isn’t the point. I could call down legions of angels who would fight on my side, but that’s not how we do things.
The Discipleship argument says that we are called to live as Jesus lived and do as Jesus did, therefore we will not use violence. What did Jesus do? Oh, he used creative ways to redirect people and to expose the evil at hand, but he did not return evil for evil. And neither should we.
1 John 2:4 says, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” The word translated there as “live” is translated elsewhere as “abide.” If you find your life in Christ, you will live as he lived. And that word in Greek is “meno,” from which we get the name “Mennonites.” No, not really. But I like to think that Mennonites are those who abide in Jesus and live as he lived. And we have no examples of Jesus using violence against another human being. And no, he did not whip anyone when he cleared the temple, but we’ll address that next week, too.
We addressed the Natural Theology argument, the Discipleship argument, and that simply leaves what I’m calling the “Agapic argument.” Agape is one of the Greek words that is commonly translated as love. This isn’t the love I have for ice cream, and it isn’t the love of attraction between two people. This is the love we find in John 3:16, the love that God has for the world that led God to send his only son. Agape love is the very essence of God, as we find in 1 John 4:9, which says “God is love.” This is the way we are called to love our Lord with all our hearts, minds, strengths, and souls (Matt. 22, and others). This is the love that we find 1 John 3:16, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” And this is the love that we are to show not only our neighbors, but even our enemies (Matt. 5:44).
Agape is a self-giving, sacrificial love. If you want to know what agape love looks like, it looks like Jesus. And on this side of wedding season, I’d like to point out that what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape. Rather than hearing this as romantic love, think of it as the self-giving, enemy love that Jesus calls us to and lives out himself: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (verses 4-8).
As Christians we are called to live at peace with one another. There’s the Natural Theology argument: all people are created in the image of God. There’s the Discipleship argument: Jesus never used violence, so neither will we. And there is the Agapic argument: love is to be life-giving, not life-taking.
I know that these arguments are not without their shortcomings, and that is why these debates will continue to go back and forth until Jesus comes back. My hope today is not to convince everyone that they need to believe exactly as I believe, but to make you see that as followers of Jesus Christ, as people who put Jesus in the center, we are called to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, and to turn the other cheek. If every Christian started from that point, I believe we could reduce the incidence of war, violence, and hatred in the world today.