By Dick Barrett
This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” — Luke 2:12-14 (ESV)
What is it that makes Mennonites different from other Christian denominations? Speaking as someone who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith and was a police officer for 20 years prior to feeling called to pastoral ministry, I would say that the one thing that separates us the most from all the other Christian denominations is our emphasis on peace. In fact, throughout the history of the church, only three churches have been referred to as peace churches — Church of the Brethren, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Mennonites (Amish often included with Mennonites). But what does it mean to be a peace church? Does it just mean that over the years most of our members have refused to take up arms and participate in a nation’s military? Does it mean giving up one’s own life when threatened to forsake their faith in following Jesus in the way of non-resistance like our Mennonite/Anabaptist forefathers and foremothers? I would say it includes those things and a lot more.
The angels speaking to the shepherds thousands of years ago after the birth of the promised Messiah in Bethlehem said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to all those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah to come: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Jesus himself said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
While the angel appearing before the shepherds on that first Christmas Eve said, “I bring you good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10), the great company of heavenly host did not promise peace to all. They promised “peace to those on whom God’s favor rests,” or, as other versions read, “among those with whom God is pleased.” Unfortunately, Christmas does not bring peace to all in the time frame we now live in, the time between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming. We need to look no further than the world around us. The news tells us every day of conflict, violence and wars. Who are those on whom God’s favor rests, those with whom he is pleased? The ones on whom God’s favor rests are those who draw near to him by faith in Jesus.
Those of us who draw near to God by faith in Jesus are supposed to offer something different to the world. We do not take up arms to defend ourselves or a nation — we trust in God for our protection. We are willing to sacrifice our own life here on earth because God promises us a better life to come. But what does it mean to be peacemakers today? It means working for peace in every area of our lives — our own personal lives, our family lives, our church life, and in the lives of the communities in which we live.
Peace is not the absence of conflict; it is the ability to resolve conflict and to live in the midst of polarization. Polarization is a state in which two ideas, opinions, etc., are completely opposite or very different from each other. Dr. Betty Pries, a Canadian Mennonite conflict, change and leadership specialist with more than 25 years of experience in helping businesses, organizations and churches find peace in the midst of conflict, says, “Problems can be solved, conflict can be resolved, and polarities need to be managed and/or held in tension.” When Jesus, the Prince of Peace, lived here on earth he was often able to do all three, depending on the situation. When Jesus was talking to his disciples about his future leaving and God sending the promised Holy Spirit, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27a). The apostle Paul wrote that because we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). As a peace church the ministry of reconciliation is a deeply rooted value in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Unfortunately, we live in a time and culture where conflict and polarization seems to be the norm. Our American political system is just one example. We often bring that conflict and polarization into our homes and our churches.
But as Christians, especially Anabaptist-Mennonite Christians, we are supposed to offer something different. Many churches, even denominations, devote a year to a particular topic (i.e. Grace, Joy, Mercy, etc.). What would it look like if we in Ohio Conference dedicated the year 2020 to be a year of peace? I would like to suggest just a few examples:
- We seek to become “ambassadors of reconciliation” in all areas of our lives — our family life, our church life, our community life.
- We seek to bring to light and address abuse in all the different ways it is expressed in our homes, churches, and communities.
- We take concrete actions to address violence in our neighborhoods, in our nation and throughout the world.
- We honestly confront the militarization of both America and many other countries around the world.
- We learn to live in peace with those whom we disagree with.
For me personally, one concrete step is recently agreeing to be part of a reference group of 10 individuals from across Mennonite Church USA that will be meeting several times over the next year to discern together what it means to be a peace church in 21st century America. I invite each of you to pray and discern where God may be calling you to bring peace and to be an ambassador of reconciliation in 2020.
In one of the Names of Jesus, Prince of Peace