Date: March 5, 1931?
When they that were about Him saw what would follow, they said unto Him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword? And one of them smote the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. – Luke 22:49-50
Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. – Matthew 26:52
TONIGHT I ask you to come with me to dark Gethsemane, the small grove of olive-trees outside the city wall of Jerusalem. It is the depth of the darkest night in human history, and save for the presence of our Lord and His sleepy disciples the Garden is deserted, enshrouded in the silent, gloomy forebodings of deep tragedy. But that silence is broken by the sound of marching multitudes, and the darkened heavens begin to glow with flames of flickering torches. Nearer and nearer a weird procession wends its resolute way, until suddenly we behold a band of man-hunters, led by a perfidious traitor, stampede into that solitude, surround that gentle, unresisting Savior, and lay their blasphemous hands upon His holy body. Oh, the cowardice, the ingratitude, the damning injustice of it all! A heavily armed, blood-crazed mob, under the protection of night and insolently secure in the approval of the highest churchmen, seeking one solitary individual,—and He the divine Benefactor of the human race, the all-powerful Miracle-worker, the unparalleled Preacher of grace and truth and love! And now, in this crucial moment, with a feeling of human loyalty which, misapplied though it was, we can well understand, St. Peter, mentioned specifically in the fourth gospel, impetuous, fire-breathing Peter, turns to His Lord and asks the question which has been asked down through the centuries as it has helped to form or deform history, our question for this evening: “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?”
We see that Peter, in the impulsiveness that characterized his discipleship, answers the question for himself. He takes a sword, runs in upon the advancing persecutors of his Lord, and clips off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants. Peter, with a single sword, starting a holy war for Him who could summon the angel hosts of the heavens, yea, whose divine glory and overpowering brilliancy had cast that blood-crazed mob helpless to the ground!
Now, the number of those who since Peter’s day have adopted Peter’s principles is truly legion times legion. Page after page of history bears convincing testimony to the unspeakable woe and agony that have followed all attempts to defend and spread the truth of Christ with the sword. Think of the persecutions of the Waldensians and Albigenses in the thirteenth century, who “were put to the sword without distinction of age or sex, while the numerous ecclesiastics who were in the persecuting army distinguished themselves with a bloodthirsty ferocity.” Listen to the groans of the thousands of martyrs in France on St. Bartholomew’s Eve and in the ensuing massacres, as they ring out piteously into the night of religious intolerance and bloody massacre. See the smoke of the martyr fires in the hideous Spanish Inquisition, cataloguing more than 18,000 unfortunates burned alive in only the beginning of its crimson history. Read the record of all these racked bodies and tortured souls; behold arrogant prelates moving their puppet statesmen with strings of ecclesiastical tyranny, wielding the naked sword of persecution over the lives and destinies of millions, with no prince too exalted in the splendor of his palace and no peasant too obscure in the lowliness of his hovel to escape that vengeance,—and you are face to face with the darkest and bloodiest pages in the records of church history.
But do not for a moment believe that this sword-smiting religion is only a matter of ancient and medieval history. Today, in the year of grace 1931, we think of the modern counterpart of all this in the form of political activities led by professional “reformers” operating under the Church’s sanction and with salaries paid by the Church. We think of the political lobbies maintained by American churches in the national capital and in the political centers of our States, of the conscious and defiant utterances of churchmen who still contend, in spite of all past tragedies to which this principle has given expression, that the Church must direct the political affairs of the American nation. We think of the lamentable fact that too many Scriptural texts become merely political pretexts, that too many militant clergymen are really virulent policemen, and we realize that this spirit of Peter, far from being extinct, flourishes today as one of the greatest dangers threatening the welfare of our country,—flourishes to promote bigotry and intolerance in our own lives, to make us think of the Church, as Peter did, in terms of merely human and perverted ideals.
OUR LORD’S ANSWER.
But this is the very antithesis to that divine and limitless love that filled our Savior’s heart to overflowing. His answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?” was clear and emphatic: “Put up again thy sword in its place”; and then, to tell us that the battles of His kingdom were not to be fought on bloody fields of religious warfare, He reached over, surrounded as He was by the mad killers, who thirsted after His blood, and healed the ear of wounded Malchus as a divine protest against that kind of militant, maiming, murdering Christianity. Once before, in order to emphasize the importance of this pillartruth, our Lord had issued a similar protest. He was passing through a village of the Samaritans, that despised, mixedbreed people, half Jew and half heathen. And because the people of that village did not receive Him, two disciples, James and significantly John, the disciple of love, provoked by the insult which their Master had sustained at the hands of these half-breeds, ran to Christ with the proposal, “Lord, wilt Thou that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Now, I want to read the answer of Christ especially for the benefit of you who have been harboring the sword of persecution in your own hearts and directing it against those who do not share your religious conviction, for you who hate those who are religiously other-minded. Here are Christ’s words, words of imperishable truth, “The Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”
If Christ were with us here in the United States today, His voice of warning would also be raised, we may well believe, against those aggressive interferences in the political life of the nation on the part of church organizations which have gone beyond the scope of their province in busying themselves with economic issues, with political problems, and with purely governmental questions. He would not countenance the campaigns conducted by church federations to mold popular opinion in regard to such purely partisan issues as the entrance of our country into the League of Nations or the adoption or modification of international treaties. He would disavow the outspoken pacifist tendencies of certain religious groups, the iron-fisted control which some churches wield in the petty circles of ward and city politics, the customary procedure of church-bodies in passing political resolutions or endorsing political candidates at their annual conventions, and the whole unholy relation by which the spiritual power of the Church is prostituted, its appeal to the soul materialized, and its inner effectiveness hopelessly paralyzed.
No,—His religion is a faith that is founded on love, that manifests itself in love, and that leads to love, unspeakable, indescribable, immeasurable love and compassion. We tell of human love in its noblest and most unselfish forms. We speak of that intense devotion by which a Christian mother protects her little one and shields it from threatening danger. The world is dotted with monuments to those who have followed the call of that greater love and laid down their lives for their brothers. History’s pages again and again record such confessions of patriotic devotion as that which marked Nathan Hale’s last earthly moments, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” But all of this is removed by worlds from the love that animated my Savior and brought Him down from heaven to earth. For here, as we trace the footsteps of Jesus, we see love in its highest heights and in the deepest depths of self-effacing sacrifice. No other love ever embraced the overwhelming totality of mortal men as did that unconquerable love which swept over the whole horizon of history, with the promise, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” No other love ever strained to take in all the impoverished, downtrodden, persecuted, suffering masses throughout the breadth and almost endless reach of human existence, as the love of Him who pleaded, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” No other love could forgive and forget the frailties of His feeble and failing followers, as the divine love of the Holy One of God who forgives Peter, though the cursing denial of that disciple almost breaks His grief-torn heart. No other love—and this is the greatest love—ever went out to those who hated the truth, hated the light, hated God, as did the love of Him who was branded by His enemies as a friend of sinners, who loved the whole sordid, self-indulgent world “unto the end” and in the agony of that end raised His voice to pray the prayer of unparalleled love, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Truly, this love, expressing itself and culminating in limitless self-giving when His bruised and lacerated body was nailed to a felon’s cross, comes from the divine heart of Him whose pierced hands, which never grasped the sword, reach out to us tonight to draw us, as with a huge and heavenly magnet, to the shelter of His home. His love through sixty generations comes to us, lost and disobedient sons that we are, when we plead in the words of the prodigal, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in Thy sight,” and reassures us today in His never-failing pledge, “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Wherever men have failed with the sword, Jesus has succeeded with His love. Empires that have been built up by blood and brutality now lie in hopeless ruins, covered by the debris of relentless centuries; for here is His unavoidable condemnation, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” And churches that abuse their holy offices by engaging in the mudslinging of politics, in the commingling of the affairs of the State with those of the Church are doomed to similar failure. They may continue to exist and enjoy popularity and certain preeminence; they may even heap up the prestige of wealth and political influence; but a Church which grasps the sword and permits it to overshadow the Cross has forfeited its right to existence.
MY CHURCH’S ANSWER.
It is by the grace of God that the Church to which I am pledged definitely and unalterably commits its members to follow Christ’s command and “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Our Lutheran Church in the United States entirely disavows all secular aims and political ambitions and regards every attempt to wield the sword of governmental power as condemned by Jesus. Driven to the shores of America by a sword-bearing government that prohibited the free worship of God according to the dictates of a Christian conscience, my Church has spurned all political entanglements and dedicated its energies to the preaching and spreading of the Gospel of love, which knows no violence, and to the glorifying of the Cross of Jesus Christ as the final hope of humanity. And the promised blessings of God have rested upon this quiet spiritual effort. The first theological institution of our Church was a rude log cabin in Missouri, far removed from the busy cross-roads of life; but tonight, after three generations, these words come to you from that same institution, now the largest ministerial school in the United States, with a total enrolment of more than 540 students, all dedicated to the service of Christ.
That promise of spiritual blessing is extended to you. No matter who you are (and I thank God that these messages penetrate into every stratum of American society, behind the iron bars of Leavenworth and into the presidential chambers of American colleges); wherever you are (and tonight I am thinking of you who live beyond the reach of the Church or who receive these messages on the fringe of modern frontiers, in Newfoundland, British Columbia, Alaska, in the isolated sections of Mexico, and on the islands of the Caribbean Sea); whatever you are (and I know that these words are heard in municipal lodging-houses as well as in homes that have been blessed with affluence and plenty),—to all of you and especially to those who have never taken Jesus into their hearts, but who have come to see that they need Him for their soul’s welfare, we offer and extend, not the sword, or any creed of force of any kind, but the prayerful appeal for Jesus’ sake, “Be ye reconciled to God.” Come to Him whose holy hands never clutched the sword, whose holy lips speak only peace to the contrite sinner. Come to Him just as you are, with the deep and penitent acknowledgment of the imperfections that abound in your life, but with the confident conviction that His shed blood will cleanse us, every one of us, from all sin. Come now to the Christ of Love whom you have neglected, to the Christ of Truth whom you have denied, to the Christ of Hope whom you have betrayed, to the Author of spiritual and eternal life, and from the greatest and truest and purest heart of all history, from the heart of the Son of God and the Redeemer of men, comes this beautiful promise, “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.” Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.