A sermon preached at the Methodist Church in Dale Street, Leamington Spa, on 8 April, 2018. A copy can be downloaded here.
Fifty years ago, on a hotel balcony, MLK was gunned down by a person who believed that, because of the colour of his skin, he was inferior. But much more than that, he was killed because he was a threat to the status quo. His message of equality, peace, non-violence and love, and his ability to stir the hearts of thousands in the US and around the world, were enough to make the strongest and most powerful nation on earth tremble. So the powerful did what they always do – they sought to rid themselves of the troublemaker.
It is a very familiar story to those of us who read our Bibles. But what we rarely think about is why those in power feel so threatened by the actions of people who, on the face of it, have no more power or weapons than a message and a vision. For MLK, it was the vision of the BELOVED COMMUNITY that seemed so ultimately threatening.
In 1956, he spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts:
“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.’ Acts 4:32
I spend a good deal of my time talking with folk about the plain meaning of Scripture. As you know, the Methodist Church is engaged in a debate at the moment about same-sex marriage and I have been involved in various working parties set up by the Conference to look at this. I am also Chair of Dignity and Worth, a new Methodist organisation campaigning openly for change to give full dignity and respect to LGBTQ+ people including equal marriage.
So I spend time with people who oppose equal marriage who often talk about the ‘plain meaning of Scripture’. What that usually means is that 3 verses in Romans Chapter 1 states unequivocally that loving relationships between people of the same sex are forever forbidden for Christians.
I’ve never asked, but I assume that those same people have not sold all their possessions and reject private ownership. But is there another interpretation of this text? The King Centre in Atlanta says this:
The Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.
The sharing of wealth begins by acknowledging, not only that we have something to give, but also much to receive from those who, in material terms, have nothing. The wealthy and comfortable need the poor and the marginalised much more than the other way round. Simply because they are much closer to Christ.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ John 20:19
Everyone likes peace – it’s one of those nice words.
Peace comes from PRESENCE. Jesus enters the locked room and after declaring peace, he immediately shows them his wounds. The disciples are probably stunned, shocked, confused. Jesus seeks to reassure them that it is really him, that the peace he offers comes from his own risen presence among them. He will go on to breathe the Holy Spirit upon them and so give a further guarantee of his presence around them and within them.
The peace Jesus offers is therefore not just wishful thinking or trying to stay optimistic in the face of danger or hostility. The disciples are terrified and are hiding away in a locked premises because they genuinely fear that their lives are in danger. Jesus is clearly not offering them a peace that brings protection – we know that most people in that room will end up being martyred for their faith. Yet it is a peace that allows them to face enormous odds, to be persecuted and imprisoned and yet to speak out boldly and courageously.
It is peace that POWERS mission. As soon as Jesus has declared peace, he sends them out as he was sent. This peace is not for private consumption, a warm fuzzy feeling that lets me know that I am right with God and there can relax. Too many preachers have offered an easy privatized religion that allows individuals to cocoon themselves away from the world around.
The peace we are offered are not some sort of pill that allows us to accept the world as it is. It offers a clarity of perspective, to see the world as it is and to acknowledge that it needs to be transformed. And that we are part of that transformation. ML King, in 1956:
I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.
1) If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it. 2) If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it. 3) If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace. 4) If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace. So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.
Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love, yes, the Kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace–a peace embodied with the presence of positive good. The inner peace that comes as a result of doing God’s will.
(PD. Louisville Defender, 29 March 1956.)
We are inheritors of this great tradition of prophetic speech and acts of love. So may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard our hearts and our minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.