Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9
Our nation is facing two defining issues in our time: racial reconciliation and sexual integrity. God is calling us today to guard the sacred boundaries he wisely created in order for our manhood and womanhood to flourish in sexual integrity. And God is calling us today to destroy the evil barriers we have invented that enforce racial superiority. God’s boundaries are wise; our barriers are wicked.
The horrible shootings in Charleston demand that we take a clear stand for racial reconciliation. And the Supreme Court decision on Friday demands that we take a clear stand for sexual integrity. On both issues, there is no place to hide, there can be no neutrality. Every one of us will take a stand, for or against Christ, because our King has clearly spoken to these issues. He himself is the real issue-within-the-issue.
Today I want to speak to you about racial reconciliation. Next Sunday I will speak to you about sexual integrity. Then after that, we will return to the Gospel of John. But as for racial reconciliation, I want to begin by defining the matter in a gospel-centered way. There are two opposite errors I reject. On the one hand, there is bias, prejudice, hatred, stratifying human worth according to racial categories, as if one race were dearer to Jesus than another. On the other hand, there is inclusiveness and equality and celebration, but without Jesus at the center. And because Jesus literally deserves always to be at the glorious center of everything, then both the bias that leaves Jesus out and the inclusiveness that leaves Jesus out – way down deep the two are united against the Savior of the world. The gospel is not a compromise, a middle ground, between the opposing positions of this world. The gospel is a third way altogether. Why do I insist on putting Jesus always at the center of everything? For one simple reason. I am a Christian. I believe that God created all of reality for the glory of his Son. And when we believe that and adjust to it, our own reality becomes more humane. The defining centrality of Jesus and our own wonderful flourishing united as one go together. Why then did God create the races? Not for us to divide against one another and thus leave Jesus out, not for us to unite with one another but leave Jesus out, but God created the races and loves and delights in all races and ethnicities and cultures, to display the glory of Jesus in the beauty of our humanity. Racial reconciliation is a magnificent topic. Let’s get better at it.
As I address this important matter today, I am aware of my inadequacy. To make matters worse, I am a sinner. So the chances of me getting this exactly right are zero. But then we are all sinners. Every one of us has fallen short of the glory of the racial reconciliation Jesus died for. Let’s all admit it. Let’s all come before the Lord now not with boasting, not with blaming, but with the empty hands of faith, open to receiving his grace for our need. But let’s also comfort our hearts that, in approaching this weighty matter, we have a great help and advantage – the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. We therefore come with confession of our failings and with confidence in him. We want to be a church, we demand of ourselves that we be a church, where sinners can come together with Jesus at the center, and we are happy and safe and united because we allow nothing of our own into his place of sacred centrality.
We all saw two things in the recent events in Charleston. We saw the ugliness of violence, and we saw the beauty of forgiveness. A friend tweeted on Friday morning, “In Charleston Satan wanted to start a race war, but God started a revolution of reconciliation, forgiveness and repentance.” I believe that is true. God is able to take Satanic evil and bend it around for his glory and our joy. Let’s just make sure that every one of us is advancing God’s revolution. Don’t get left out. Get involved. God is moving to make the real Jesus non-ignorable through the beauty of racial reconciliation.
But what does that look like? God has shown us what it looks like in Charleston. God has given us a front row seat to see the power of the gospel on clear display. Our friends at Emanuel AME have shown us what New Testament Christianity looks like under fire – literally. If our brothers and sisters there at Emanuel had hated and cursed Dylann Roof, it would have been understandable. We would not have blamed them. But neither would we have seen Jesus in them. We would not have been stunned and moved and rebuked and helped. But for our friends in Christ to face the murderer of their loved ones and say to him, “I forgive you,” “We have no room for hate,” “May God have mercy on you” – that peacemaking is not of flesh and blood. It comes down from above. It’s what only God can do. And it’s the only future of the human race. Surely we can see that God is moving in Charleston. Let’s linger for a moment. Let’s learn from it. We don’t want to lose our opportunity. It might not come again in our generation.
So we come to our text today. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The Beatitudes define the true followers of Jesus. Many people use his name. But who are his true followers? The Beatitudes show us. There are verses in the Bible that I believe the devil loves. The words of Jesus can be twisted to serve purposes opposite to Jesus. For example, Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). How many times have you heard those words quoted to endorse truths that have nothing to do with his truth? Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). How many times have you heard those words used to justify what Jesus himself did judge? And so it is with “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Our Lord was not endorsing any human political utopia. He is building his own kingdom, and he’s inviting us all in.
We know what the Lord meant by his Beatitudes. His purpose is clear in Matthew 4:17, which defines the context for the Beatitudes: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Rising up like a prophet from the pages of the Old Testament, Jesus calls us to get ready, to start changing, because the promised days of glory are finally breaking upon us. Jesus is himself the kingdom of heaven. But precisely because he is so magnificent, some would use him for their own purposes. So he tells us up front, in Matthew 4:17, that he is not available for our kingdoms. He is calling us to surrender to his kingdom. The Beatitudes, then, are his way of saying to us all, “Here is what repentance looks like. It looks like poverty, mourning, meekness, longing, mercy, purity, peacemaking, suffering.” I don’t see “winning” in his list.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” is our King calling us to adjust to the new world he is creating here in this exhausted, brutal world we have created. His new world is what we at Immanuel call a gospel culture. It is a world of shalom. He died to get us into his new world. Here is the price we pay. We repent of every desire to settle the score with every person who has ever harmed us. Forgiveness isn’t how we earn our way into his world; forgiveness is how we prove that we have entered his world by his grace. “Blessed are the peacemakers” does not diminish justice. The Bible is clear. God has put his sword into the hand of the state. God has given society the responsibility to punish criminals. God does not set justice aside. He is the God of justice. But our Lord is calling us as individuals to forgive the unjust who shoot us and rob us and mistreat us. When we forgive, we are not trivializing the wrong done to us; we are just saying that the punishment it deserves is in the hands of God. And God is saying that our forgiveness is more powerful than any payback.
In our world today evil seems unstoppable. It seems that evil can run a mile while good is still tying its shoes. But something came into this world 2000 years ago from far beyond this world. The Son of God brought in the kingdom of heaven, which will have no end. Evil has met its match. At the cross of Christ, evil made its big play, and it looked like the victory of everything unjust and inhumane. But at his resurrection, Jesus proved that he had overcome all evil forever. The cross and the resurrection are how his new kingdom works. Now we know how we will overcome today. From his cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). He did not say that when it was all over and he had had time to recover from the humiliation of it all. No, from within the pain, before his enemies had any change of heart, Jesus prayed forgiveness down on them all. His apostles taught us that, at the cross, God did nothing less than this: “He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross” (Colossians 1:20, NLT). If the cross took evil and made peace, then our hope can never be defeated. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14), and no power on earth can stop it. Evil is unwittingly helping us get there. So, in this Beatitude Jesus is not calling us to hurl ourselves into a lost cause; he is calling us to join him in his victory. His resurrection proved that forgiveness is the greatest power in the universe. Animals never forgive. People rarely forgive. God wonderfully forgives. When we join him in his mercy to the undeserving, everyone can see that God is with us.
That is why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” That is a Hebrew manner of speech. The Old Testament refers to “a son of strength,” meaning a strong man (1 Samuel 14:52). It refers to “sons of wickedness,” meaning wicked people (2 Samuel 3:34). Therefore, “sons of God” means God-like people. To make peace rather than scream for blood – that is when we are most like God. There is nothing degrading in following Jesus. To follow him through his death into his resurrection is to become magnificent, like our friends in Charleston. Those saints are suffering, they weep, they have to think things through at a deeper level than ever before. But it is obvious that they are displaying God’s heart before our whole nation with non-ignorable beauty. Charles Cooke tweeted about Emanuel AME this past week: “I am a non-Christian, and I must say: this is a remarkable advertisement for Christianity.” When the true followers of Jesus show up, it’s obvious who really represents God. When we make peace by the power of the gospel, everyone can see it isn’t us. They can see we aren’t making this up. When the Lord prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, it moves people to tears, because they’re finally seeing Jesus. This is one reason God allows us to suffer injustice. He is giving us the privilege of participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus as divine power creates out of human evil a better world. How else can our generation see his glory?
Race has long been a dividing line in our nation. Race has been the basis for systematic exploitation and humiliation and abuse. Our nation has made progress in recent decades. But even if Dylann Roof had never opened fire, it would still be obvious that we are not yet the people God calls us to be, for his glory. There is still too much distance, too much aloofness, not enough emotional identification, not enough joy and rejoicing over one another in our differences. It has never entered many minds that the races are, in the eyes of God, so many facets of his wisdom (Ephesians 3:10). And so I want to say today to all my friends who are different from me in race, culture and ethnicity – I rejoice in you. I’m so glad God made you. You enrich me. When I see you, I see Jesus in a new way. And I ask you to forgive me for falling short of creating more shalom for you in Christ. The Bible says that, in Christ, God has created “one new man in place of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). If we ever take God’s new “one” and turn it back into our old “two,” that is a sin against the blood of Christ. May we never do so! May we at Immanuel Nashville always be obvious as a prophetic sign of that future multitude from all nations and peoples and tribes, standing before the Throne and before the Lamb, crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10).
And let me say to every white supremacist and every racist everywhere of every bias – if you hate any part of the Body of Christ, you hate me, because the Body is one. If you shoot them, come shoot me too, because the Body is one. If you hate us, then you hate Christ himself. And everyone who picks a fight with him ends up either damned or converted. Don’t damn yourself. Come join us in the peace that Christ is making.
Racial reconciliation in the gospel is an issue where every one of us must take a stand. Every one of us will either be for Jesus or against Jesus. It’s in the Bible, and it’s not going away. There is no neutrality. And the time is now. What we saw in Charleston was God opening a door to new blessing for us all. Some will choose not to walk through that door. Others will not even see that it’s there. But I believe our response here at Immanuel Nashville will be different. I believe we will rejoice to walk through the door of reconciliation, for the glory of Jesus. I doubt we will be given another opportunity of this magnitude for years, and maybe never again. So here are two things every one of us can do, trusting in the Lord, and for his glory alone, to be peacemakers in our generation.
One, the Lord is calling every one of us – and this applies to every one of us equally – he is calling us to forgive everyone who has ever harmed us in any way. His new kingdom starts deep in our hearts. And by now we all know it simply is not possible to get through life in this world without being body-slammed by human cruelty. We get angry, of course. But the Bible says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). The Bible says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). The kingdom of heaven is not imposed from outside us; it grows out from within us. And what helps our hearts to forgive is not willpower but vision – the eyes of our hearts seeing beyond the injustice into the eyes of Jesus himself and his love for us and his promises of eternal shalom. The harm you suffered – you didn’t deserve it. God hated it. And God will judge it. But at the same time, the privilege of forgiving real injustice and becoming like God himself in making peace – you don’t deserve that either. But you can have it. God will put his beauty upon you as you open your heart to his wonderful love for you. Then your heart will be free, and everyone will see that you are a child of the Father.
Two, the Lord is calling all of us to open our homes. Hospitality and generosity always follow the progress of the gospel. Practice radical hospitality, for Jesus’ sake. Don’t wait for your church to organize it for you. You don’t need that. You just obey God. If you have any space at all, even a single room, you can begin. When was the last time you invited to your table someone unlike you? When was the last time you received into your space and treated like royalty and fed like a duke someone who doesn’t move in your social circles? When was the last time you gave a place of honor and comfort to someone so socially distant from you that your usual friends might ask you what’s going on? The Bible says, “He preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17). God reaches across barriers. God ignores expectations. God brings peace where the status quo doesn’t expect it and wouldn’t risk it. So, what are you going to do, to surprise people with care and dignity that will make it obvious that God has come to town?
Wouldn’t it be a privilege to become the most forgiving and the most hospitable people our city has ever seen? The tired and typical patterns of “church” will make no impact on our world today. But a radically forgiving, radically hospitable church – only God can create people like that. And we will be amazed at how God will display his glory through us to our angry and violent generation.