One of my favourites series of films is the “Back to the Future” trilogy with Michael J Fox playing Marty McFly. In the 3rd instalment, Marty finds a way to win the day, without needing to shoot his main opponent with his Colt “Peacemaker”. Marty finds a way to win, which doesn’t involve shooting the baddie.
In the famous “Beatitudes” in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5: 1–12) Jesus talks about what it means to be blessed by God, including this lovely phrase, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I think Jesus was having a crack at the Roman Empire and their soldiers here! The Romans had a concept of Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome”. However, the kind of peace they brought was enforced by absolute violence. They imposed peace. “We’re bringing you peace, whether you like it or not!” If you didn’t like the Romans’ rule and the taxes they demanded, they had a ruthless system of enforcing their will on you. The ultimate punishment was crucifixion, but for most people in the Empire it was a system of threats. In the far-flung parts of the Empire the soldiers would often receive bribes. “Just give us a bit extra and we’ll look after you. Give us a bit extra or you don’t know what might happen.” 2000 years later the mob in America called this “Protection money”. “If you give us a share of the profits of your business, we can protect you.” Of course, what they really meant was, “If you don’t give us the ‘Protection money’ then we’ll have to send the boys around to smash a few windows, maybe beat you up a little bit, and then you’ll accept that you really do need our protection money.”
The soldiers in the Empire were very open to bribes, particularly in the outlying districts like ancient Palestine. If you tried that kind of threat against an actual Roman citizen in the Rome itself, in the centre of the Empire, you were taking a huge risk as a Roman soldier. But on the outer rim of the Empire, where most of the population were not citizens, you could threaten violence and receive bribes. The peace of Rome wasn’t quite as nice in the far-off conquered territories.
I think Jesus is actually challenging his Jewish listeners here and posing the question, “Who are the real peacemakers?” Those are the people God blesses. The Beatitudes, Jesus’ list what it means to be blessed, are the exact opposite of the dominant cultural norms of his day. Jesus flips them all upside-down. “Blessed are the meek.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” These were all qualities which were not valued by the powerful people of the world.
We have a phrase here at Saints which causes us to think about what it means to be a real peacemaker. It’s a phrase that you recite pretty much every week and often more than once a week: “Strong and Lovely”.
You can train physical strength quite easily. But there is another kind of strength, which is far more important, which comes from being “lovely”. The word “lovely” is a beautiful word, I think. It’s a slightly old-fashioned word: a bit like the word “righteous”, also in our School Prayer. So, what is this strength that comes from being lovely?
Unlike physical strength, which depends to a certain extent on being physically well and injury free, and which inevitably tapers off as you get older, being “lovely” increases more and more, the more you train for it. The more you train yourself to be “lovely” the more that loveliness will increase in you. There are some really easy ways to train for it: saying a kind word instead of a nasty one; even having a kind thought about another person instead of a bad one. In fact, it all begins in the way you think. This is one of the things we train in our Wellbeing lessons: training ourselves to think in a better way. And we do that precisely because Jesus taught it all these years ago.
So, what does it mean to be lovely? It includes the qualities which Jesus lists in the Beatitudes: being meek, hungering for righteousness: for justice in other words, being merciful, being pure in heart, being a peacemaker. I think it also includes being kind and gentle. You may not immediately think of it, but being lovely means casting aside any fear. Everyone experiences fear from time to time, but the lovely person is able to put it to one side, because they are, well, lovely.
Being lovely will give you a strength you didn’t realise you had. That’s the interesting thing about it: being lovely will give you strength.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall