(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on August 23, 2015)
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)
I’m not an organized person by nature, but the requirements of life force me to try and look like one from time to time. So I create these spreadsheets for our planning for Sunday mornings, and they look so beautifully confident, like a solid record of discerning God’s direction that can be trusted.
I have this deep-seated fear that for TRULY organized people, their spreadsheets actually are just that: beautifully confident. But for pretenders like me, I know it’s all a sham. I know I’m not really that together. I know, for instance, that the original spreadsheet that was carefully laid out in April got changed a few weeks ago when I set the spreadsheet aside and spoke on a different topic…and that this current spreadsheet is just a slapped-together copy and paste, where I shifted everything down one week.
No prayer. No discernment. Just copy, move down a week, paste.
So, that creates a little, I don’t know: doubt? concern? wondering? when I look at today’s topic on the spreadsheet. The spreadsheet’s supposedly beautiful, confident discernment says today is the day God led us to talk about peacemaking. Peacemaking. Today. On the day where we are having a business meeting that more than any in my memory, reflects our tension, disagreement, anxiety, and lack of peace.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
I want to live into this. So even with my little humorous introduction about whether God can really lead through copy and paste on a spreadsheet, the truth is, I think this is perfect timing and exactly what we need today. We do need to live into the goal of trying to live at peace with everyone.
But IS it possible? And what DOES depend on me, on you? And what exactly does it mean to live at peace?
In general, in the past, I’ve had one of two extreme reactions to this verse. When it’s “perfectionist me” reading Romans 12, panic ensues. I become convinced that it ALL depends on me, I MUST make peace happen. And if anyone is annoyed or mad or thinks differently or doesn’t want to do what I want to do, this lack of peace must be my fault… I have failed to be faithful to Christ.
Or the other extreme, when I’m feeling like the rest of the world is filled with horrible people, then I feel like I have done EVERYTHING. POSSIBLE. to live at peace, but clearly it is impossible because no one else is even trying. I’ve done all I can do. I haven’t failed…everyone else is just WRONG.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
The heart of this verse, the meat of the sentence, the ideal thing we are asked to work for is to “live at peace with everyone.” The qualifier, the caveat, the realist part of the verse reminds us that peace with everyone might not be possible, and that all you can do is your best to do your part. You can’t control what others might do that will break peace.
And this is difficult.
It is difficult to hold on to the ideal desire, difficult to take actions that attempt to live at peace with everyone. So many times, we have had peace with others broken. Broken by cruel words and actions, broken by abandonment, broken by disagreement, broken by different goals. If I apply this directly to the issues we are considering tonight at business meeting, it is so difficult to hold on to the ideal of finding peace that includes everyone, because positions, goals and desires seem mutually incompatible.
But I think this verse pushes us to try. I think Paul’s words in Corinthians, that we are called to be “ambassadors of reconciliation”, I think that pushes us to try. And most of all, I think Jesus Christ, the one who tore down all of our dividing walls, the one who suffered on our behalf in order to bring all things into unity under his headship…I think Jesus Christ calls us to try to live at peace with everyone, with each other…even as we despair of seeing how it could possibly be.
I promise I will address the realist side of this, and that I will address some very practical actions we can take that work toward living at peace.
But first, I think we have to talk some about what this ideal of “living at peace” looks like and means. Sometimes we think of peace as if it means the absence of conflict. Theologians, philosophers, Hebrew linguists, and social scientists all challenge that idea.
Peace is a concept that is relational, that involves interaction with one another. You can send fighting children to opposite ends of the room, placing them each in a time-out chair, and you have stopped the conflict…but you have not achieved peace.
You can break up Yugoslavia into Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and the other Balkan states…you can create separate governments and borders and checkpoints, gathering like-minded ethnic groups together…but history tells us by doing so, you have not achieved peace or even stopped the conflict.
Peace is embrace of the other; peace is Shalom, living in right relationship with others and with God. Peace demands the challenging work of finding a basis for a relationship that exists through differences, not just ignoring or silencing differences. And this is quite a difficult row to hoe.
Too often in Christian circles, we are aiming for something quite a bit less than the biblical ideal of peace. Sometimes we aim for side-by-side niceness, not addressing our differences, not naming the reality in the hopes that we can just avoid conflict. Sometimes we passive-aggressively shut down any voice of dissent to achieve a fake unity. True peace is really hard, and it requires a lot of work, a lot of effort…and most of all, it takes Holy Spirit-infused love and wisdom.
If you look at the context earlier in Romans 12, you can see I’m not just basing all of this on word definitions.
Listen to verses 4-6a.
“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” (Romans 12:4-6a, TNIV)
Here is a metaphor that supports the concept of “peace” as unity while different. Paul has spent a good portion of this letter to the Romans talking about the vast differences between Jews and Gentiles, but how all are brought together in Christ. So this metaphor of different body parts with different shapes and different functions making up ONE body…this metaphor is underlying the concept of living in peace.
Paul is not blind to the difficulties. Unity is not found in doing the same thing or being the same shape; unity is found when every single part of the body is obedient to Christ, faithfully doing exactly what each is equipped and called to do. This kind of unity-through-difference is the relational foundation of the peace we aim for in verse 18.
Or listen to the first sentence of verse 16. “Live in harmony with one another.” Harmony by definition is not sameness. Sameness is unison; harmony is when different parts come together to make something beautiful.
So this is the hard relational work of peace that we are to make our ideal. We don’t give up on that goal just because it is hard to achieve. In our differences, how do we find a way to each faithfully follow Jesus and cooperate together to become one body, moving as Christ desires? “Live in peace with everyone” is our goal, even on this day where it seems impossibly hard.
Having stated the goal…and hopefully having agreed on what we are aiming for…now we can talk about the realistic part.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
Here’s the hard part: It may not be possible. We may not be able to sing the harmony part that is ours in the group we are in.
When I was in seminary, I took a huge risk and auditioned for an a capella singing group on campus called “The Matz”. Getting to sing with them during my last year, rehearsing twice a week for an hour and a half each time, was one of the most fun experiences of my life.
We had this one song that was based on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Our director changed the words, and made it “The Rhapsody of a Seminarian,” and it was full of inside jokes that made all the other students laugh and people outside scratch their heads.
If you know the song by Queen, you know the section where they sing/scream a series of “No’s!” Our director arranged these “No’s” for our song, too, so that we each had a different note to sing to make the harmonies come together. We could never get that section to work. We all dreaded the “No!” section, because it seemed to cause us to train wreck every single time.
We would each individually work on our parts, and when we were solo, doing it all alone, we could all do it. But when you put us together…something about hearing the discordance and tension that came when other people’s parts clashed with our own…we just all lost our way and the whole thing fell apart.
What the NFC elders are proposing tonight is to see if we will approve trying to stay together and in community as a Yearly Meeting, even though beliefs and actions are causing discordance and tension.
When someone else believes and acts so differently from what I believe, it may cause me to lose my way. That might make living at peace with everyone impossible.
When our own past hurt is great, when we’ve been wounded because of difference, it may make living at peace with everyone impossible. But the question being asked is if we are willing to try.
So what’s left is the practical. What actions can we take that give us the best chance to “live at peace with everyone”?
In many ways, I see this boiling down to the “as far as it depends on you” phrase. And unlike what I mentioned earlier about me in my worst moments… “as far as it depends on you” is not a phrase that gets me off the hook, or that allows me to put the blame on others and their inability to live in peace. It is not a phrase that I can use to be in denial and think that I’ve done everything to work for peace, but others are only putting in 50%.
“As far as it depends on you” is one of those biblical phrases that is best understood as demanding from me sacrificial obedience for the sake of others. It echoes and reverberates with Jesus’ words to “go the extra mile” and “turn the other cheek”.
Different verses from Romans 12 can suggest some practical ways to aim for living at peace with everyone.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12, TNIV)
Hold on to hope of peace, without giving into despair. Ask God for patience when you feel attacked by others. Be faithful in prayer, regularly and consistently asking God to shape you and others for the good.
“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (Romans 12:3, TNIV)
In times like this where conflict seems to be destroying peace, our natural tendency is to assume that we are in the majority. We tend to keep ourselves in circles of similarity, which can lead to assuming that people who are different must be the minority and must be wrong. To aim toward peace means choosing to resist assuming most people think like me.
Our church is quite diverse in so many ways. In dozens of conversations over the last month, I’ve personally experienced the wide range of thought. If we are going to live at peace with everyone, in harmony in the midst of our differences, I believe we are going to have to resist thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. I believe we are going to have to choose humility, and not assume that we are always on the correct side of every difference that exists in our community.
In addition, we will need to find the courage to act and speak what God is giving us to do.
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” Romans 12:6. And then Paul goes on to list several possible gifts, and says, “If you have this, then use it in the body of Christ.”
We are going to have to figure out how to speak, and figure out how to listen to the perspectives and leadings of others. We need boldness and courage to speak our perspective, and we need grace and humility to listen to others’ different perspectives.
“I messages” are practical ways to do this. They aren’t just psychobabble. Using an “I message” is a way to own your perspective as your own, to speak how “I see” this issue rather than how “You should” see this issue.
“I believe the bible teaches a Christian should never fight in a war” is an “I statement” that works toward living in peace with everyone. It’s a statement I can own, but it recognizes and gives space to the fact that other Christians do not believe that. It works toward living in peace much more than the statement: “The bible clearly teaches a Christian should never fight in a war.” Do you see the difference? The first is bold to state how I see a truth. The second assumes that how I see it is how everyone should see it, leaving no room for difference.
Some people seem to resist this because they think, “Isn’t God’s truth always God’s truth? Doesn’t using an ‘I message’ mean I’m giving into a relativistic view of truth?” I don’t believe that to be true. God’s truth does exist, but human history shows time and time again that human beings don’t always accurately understand or reflect it. To use an “I message” acknowledges our human fallibility, but it doesn’t diminish the absoluteness of God’s truth.
When we are offering our perspective on truth with an “I message”, we share our different perspective and try to remain in relationship, rather than just stay silent and try to be nice. We offer someone else the opportunity to see things differently and perhaps change, just as we get the opportunity to see God’s truth in a new light when we listen to someone else.
But it’s risky and difficult and potentially harmful to give an “I message” on issues we really disagree about.
As I’ve listened to people this week, I’ve heard some people who have been wounded when they’ve offered their perspective. When someone works hard to courageously give an “I message”…for instance, to say “I believe the bible teaches that marriage should be between a man and a woman” it is not helpful to think or say “that is unloving,” or “that person is a bigot.” To “live at peace with everyone” “as far as it depends on you” means respecting people who are willing to name a position for themselves that is different than your own, without vilifying them.
Or to use an example from the other side, if someone is brave enough to risk saying, “I think room can be found in the bible to affirm a committed, same sex relationship” it is not helpful to say that person does not respect the authority of the bible. They may have a very high respect for the bible’s authority, but interpret it differently.
I want to do all I can to aim for living at relational peace in the middle of our diversity. Part of me trying to do that is to say these things to help give us guidelines for safety. When we share our views, we can give “I messages” instead of blanket statements. And when we listen to others speak, we can receive without attacking, as a way to “Honor one another above yourselves.” (Romans 12:10).
There’s one other thing I’ve been reminded of in the last two weeks.
When I have taken the time to seek others out and listen to their pain…when I’ve acknowledged their pain and their hurt, and not ignored it or explained it away…that listening and validating has gone a long way toward helping relationship grow even where disagreement is present.
Perhaps that experience is reflected somewhat in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Even if, for example, the other person is mourning what you are rejoicing in. We can still acknowledge another person’s pain.
I remember Bob Hampton years ago talking about going to another member of our church after a presidential election. The candidate Bob preferred had won, but the other person in the church was grieving. Bob went to his friend and said, “I know this must be hard for you.” He mourned with his friend, and it cemented a friendship that had very different political perspectives. What a great example of doing everything you can to live at peace with everyone.
Both Katie Comfort and Twila Tschan have given me things to read this week, things which challenge me to look at conflict as an opportunity for positive transformation to occur. I’m digging deep and holding on to that thought, working to hold on to the hope that our conflict can bring positive transformation that can lead to living in peace.
I know in many ways today, I’ve gone “where angels fear to tread.”
I may have angered some of you, or this may feel like I’m advocating for a position. I can say to you with all sincerity that the position I am advocating for most strongly is for us to be obedient to Jesus first and foremost, and that obeying Jesus is our best hope for finding unity in our differences.
I can say to you with all sincerity that I love you and I love this church, and that I am trying to live into my responsibility to be a servant and a steward and a leader for this community. I will not always get it right. But I will always do my best to demonstrate my love for you and to call us to the difficult road of obedience to Christ.
Help us, Lord Jesus.