On Sunday, 24 April, Chris Ferguson delivered the sermon below at the St. Matthäus Church in Berlin, Germany, as part of a series entitled “World Value” sponsored by the church, Diakonie and Brot für die Welt.
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
In the name of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
I bring greetings from the World Communion of Reformed Churches and from our President Rev. Dr Jerry Pillay. The WCRC is a family of nearly 240 churches in over 110 countries representing more than 80 million Christians. We are fully and actively part of the ecumenical movement that seeks to witness to and build up the unity of the oikoumene as the one body of Christ. We confess that that “the earth is the Lord’s with all its inhabitants” (Psalm 24). We confess in common faith statements like the Accra Confession that “Jesus is Lord!”—even in a world that obeys other masters.
Being a Communion means we are wherever members of our family are affected. We see ourselves when refugees are received and loved, when the rights of the displaced are defended. We see ourselves in poverty and dispossession; in the suffering of people in politically-motivated, religiously-justified, economically-profitable wars and violence. We see ourselves as a part of the system that seeks to protect the earth and the planet and those caught in the system that destroys it.
We see ourselves as a world communion present in every part of that picture: the part that suffers (we remember I Corinthians 12), as well as accomplices in the systems that cause and profit from the suffering. We are part of the church wounded and part of the church serving.
We are part of the church even more specifically with names and addresses: we are part of the National Evangelical Synod of Lebanon and Syria, suffering and loving and serving in Aleppo, Homs and the Bekka Valley. We are part of the Korean Christian Federation in North Korea and also part of churches in the South: the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea, the Prebyterian Church of Korea, and the National Council of Churches in Korea. And we are punished with them by the government in South Korea for daring to speak with North Korean Christians to build a path of reconciliation and hope while politicians escalate tensions through military and economic provocations. We are with you in Europe as you struggle with secularization, as you seek to faithfully respond to the needs of those displaced by the world disorder—a disorder created and profited by Europe and the Global North.
In Latin American we face the devastation of earthquakes. As part of the Latin American Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church in Colombia we accompany the dialogue for peace and insist that there will be no peace without changes in the world economic system or without respect for the righteous of all including indigenous peoples. In Asia, we see our families being sold into sexual and economic slavery, denied all basic rights. Our family is in the picture as the Ecumenical Bishops defend human rights in the Philippines, seeking negotiated peace and work for interfaith understanding in Mindanao; when tribal people suffer persecution in Myanmar; when Dalits and Tribal people are marginalized and oppressed in India. In Africa we are there as land is grabbed, corruption soars, wars rage, inter-religious conflict abounds, diseases spread—and as hope is forged, alternatives built, faith expands. In South Sudan those on every side of the conflict include confirmed members of our communion.
I bring greetings from your Reformed family that is present in every part of the suffering world. From a faith perspective and a political perspective we are part of this one world. The planet and all her people are faced with a massive threat to life itself. Twelve years ago, the Accra Confession shouted that we live in a scandalous and unsustainable world. It is now even worse. We can neither deny nor exaggerate the extent of the crisis. We are fully part of it. We suffer in it and some of us even owe our comfort and luxury to it. The inequalities, injustice and levels of human displacement and violence and militarization and ecological destruction have never been greater.
The Reformed tradition, I would say the whole Protestant tradition, requires us in the light of Scripture to abandon any narrow individualistic focus and urgently address the crisis in its entirety. We make two all-embracing confessions: the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. Jesus is Lord. Either we mean it or we don’t.
Such confessions from our story as a people of faith were made in times of crisis, struggle and violence, and the context was always prophetic. Such confessions always contain a yes and a no. To say that in ancient Babylon, Assyria or Egypt that the earth belongs to our God affirms a living God, a God of Life. That’s the yes. It says for all to hear that the earth and people do not belong to the war gods, to Moloch or Baal—that’s the no. For the martyrs of the early church to say Jesus is Lord was to say yes to love and justice and equality and freedom. To say Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar isn’t; he isn’t God, doesn’t own people, can’t enslave and oppress.
The Reformation tradition brings confession of the living God into the present tense, to embrace the yes and no now. The urgency of our crisis requires us to bring the Reformation into the present tense.
An international group of theologians lead by Prof. Ulrich Duchrow among others have put forward a bold a proposal called “Radicalizing the Reformation.” In five bi-lingual books they work through the challenge to address the current global crisis of modernity—civilization in its economic, political, military, cultural, ecological, social, patriarchal and religious complexity in light of the liberating Word as revealed through the Bible. Reformation in the present tense must do the same.
Today this service of worship seeks to focus on peace with justice as we bring the reformation into the tense present.
Under the watchword of Matthew 5, “Blessed are the peace makers.” I want to focus (in keeping with the Reformed tradition’s strong emphasis on the Psalms) on Psalm 85:10-11.
This is a text that speaks to and from a people in crisis, a text mostly likely in the post exile time. This was a time where religion was detached from justice, compassion, truth, and there was deep poverty, injustice, war and violence. God’s people were remembering God’s liberating action and grace, and they plead to see the same real, historical manifestation of justice, peace and wellbeing in their time that God gave to their ancestors.
This context speaks to ours. In verse 8 we are forced into the present tense. We are told that God speaks peace as people turn to God. The language here entwines and tangles the actions: the consequence of turning to God by repenting from injustice and violence and lack of compassion is Shalom—peace and wellbeing, wholeness and harmony. We turn to God, the Psalm says, by seeking peace, and the consequence of seeking peace is to reencounter God. To reencounter God is to build peace. (This is later echoed in Matthew 5: peacemakers as children of God.) To confront the situation of crisis, to turn to God, requires us to repent. To turn to God in our hearts means not just internally but rather with our whole being.
Verse 8 makes it clear that the theatre of our relationship to God is peace and wellbeing for the whole world, the whole community. God speaks peace as we turn to God.
Verse 9 locates God’s salvation on earth. Salvation here is deliverance, deliverance from bodily harm and suffering. This sign of God’s presence (glory) dwells in the land. (Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) Faced with crisis, the concern of God and of our turning to God is so that God’s presence dwells in the land, and that means nothing less than peace and wellbeing for all that comes with fearing God; that is as we will see walking in God’s way which is truth, justice and compassion.
With verse 10 all the power and hope of turning to God collide, entangle and enmesh! Heaven meets earth, God meets human. Mercy/Love merge with Truth/Faith and both take in Justice/Righteousness as they embrace Peace.
Here the full force of what it means to turn to God in the midst of a crisis facing the whole of our civilisation comes raining down upon us. All the four concepts are complex and comprehensive and embrace both the personal and social. They embrace the relational and the structural. They embrace the political and the spiritual. All four!
They are all about God’s real presence in the land; so all are about the here and now. And all four concepts are also shown through the Bible to be hard to translate into English and I understand into German. Moreover, translators of every generation don’t agree how to deal with whether to put the meeting and kissing described in the past, present or future tense, although they all agree that it has to do with the tense present, here and now, on earth and heaven. They all agree it is both a gift and an imperative for action, personal and social, spiritual and ethical.
So, in turning to God, God speaks and God’s presence shines forth among us. This means steadfast love and truth meet and justice and righteousness embrace. This has happened, is happening and will continue to happen—all these realities of God and our faithful relationship with God relate to each other and intensify each other in a growing spiral.
John Calvin writes in his commentary, “…let us rest contented with the natural meaning of the passage, which is that mercy, truth and peace and righteousness (justice) will and do form the grand and enobling distinction of the Kingdom of Christ…some parts stand for the whole….there is in these four concepts the all the ingredients of…the Kingdom.”
Key for us is the fact that not only in this Psalm but throughout the Bible these four concepts define each other.
Chesed: steadfast love, also translated as grace, goodness, mercy, compassion, grace, covenant love, loving-kindness is inseperable from our knowledge and relationship with God and means does more than required, and it applies to both God’s Chesed and our own. Both. It is always used to help define truth and justice and peace, and truth, justice and peace are used to define it.
Emeth: truth, living the truth, doing the Truth, expressing the authentic, the real. Not just accurate reporting. Also translated as faithfulness, entwined always with justice and peace.
Tsedeq: justice/righteousness, fairness, the ethically right, doing the right thing in the right way. Always paired and defined with Mispat, setting things right. There are not two concepts in justice/righteousness, one material and one spiritual. There is just one. When in doubt in English we use “justice” and know that it means justice/righteousness and is a twin of Mispat. It can’t be separated from Shalom and God’s gift and our imperative. Both.
Shalom: peace, love/mercy, truth and justice all entwined; social, personal, spiritual ethical; structural and relational; absence of war and violence, presence of well being and harmony. Not a fixed utopia in the future but a constructed gift, constantly built and nurtured by God’s action and human action.
Verses 11, 12 and 13 pull this amazing paradigm for our response to the life threatening crisis all together—a proclamation of hope, our human turning to God, our embracing of the God who is inseparably the colliding together of his actions and ours in mercy, truth, justice and peace. Verse 11: “Truth springs up from earth and justice comes down from the sky”… on “earth as it is in heaven.” And verse 12: “Earth will be a good place to live through God’s gifts.” And finally: Justice will be the path that those who turn to God follow.
Abraham Heschel the great U.S. rabbi summarized the core of faith and faithfulness to God with the story of God’s obsession. Heschel said that when God wakes up in the morning the first thing God asks is what is it in my creation that needs mending. At the heart and center of all that is God is Tikkun Olam—mending the world, repairing the breach. Living with God is what Psalm 85 bring us, grasping the full extent of the crisis of the whole world and connection peace with justice and God’s action with our responsibility.
The scripture as our guide in the tradition of the Reformation in the tense present shows we must work for peace and that means mercy, truth and justice here and now. Mercy, truth and justice entwined with and for peace.
There is no which comes first. It is an entangled whole. A spiral just as knowing God and doing justice is one single unbroken act like breathing in and out…it isn’t breathing unless you do both….
Reformation today requires applying the critical biblical-theological imperatives to the crisis that threatens the life of this planet and all the people—all creation. This is a crisis of modernity and the civilization built on pillars of economic injustice, inequality and oppression supported by political and military violence and coercion. The very, very few benefit at the expense of the planet and the very, very many. This is scandalous and must be changed. In his 95 Theses Luther begins with Matthew 4:17: “Repent.”
To be peacemakers we must grasp the Reformation impulse. We see the crisis as a whole and repent. We turn to God. Where to start? The renewal of the church and the transformation of the world. Like Heschel. We focus on the Reformation tradition of return to Scripture to address the crisis as a whole. Mending the world is what is called for in our turn to God.
The story is told that when Michelangelo had completed his statue of David someone who was so overwhelmed by the beauty and the natural lifelike appearance asked, “What is your technique? What did you do to achieve this miracle?” “It is no miracle,” Michelangelo said, “I simply took my chisel and chipped away everything that didn’t look like David!”
Today in our crisis in the tense present we take the powertool of the Bible read critically and in context and chip away everything in our church and world that does not look like love, truth, justice and peace embracing and spiralling forward to mend the world.
Our chisel will do away with human trafficking, will destroy dispossession and will demilitarize conflicts, will stop Germany, the US, Canada, the UK, South Africa and others selling arms, will disarm the nuclear arsenal. It will demand that for every refugee loved and embraced, we actually stop the civil war in Syria and apply international law. Our sharp chisel will see the chips of injustice fly away as we build peace by aggressively suffocating the flow of arms and promotion of military solutions. We will chip away at structures of banking, trade and taxation that grow inequality and destroy the poor. In the spirit of the Accra Confession, we challenge all that threatens the life of people and planet to instead transform it.
And this is what it means to turn to God in our hearts…and then in the midst of the tense present:
“Mercy and truth meet. Justice and peace kiss…”
As we share God’s obsession to mend the world.