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A Call to Discipleship & the Pledge of Nonviolence

Reflections based on John 1: 35-42 & the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    "John stared hard at him and said, "Behold the lamb of God.í  Hearing this, the two disciples of John followed Jesus."  Then Andrew, one of the two, brought his brother Peter to Jesus.  The Gospel of John says that "Jesus looked hard at Peter" before giving him a new name as his new disciple -- "the rock."

    John the Baptist didnít know all the details as he stared intensely into the eyes of Jesus.  But he knew that this was the Messiah, the long awaited one.  And that this Messiah would somehow become Godís sacrificial lamb.  "Behold the lamb of God" was not a cute phrase, an idle remark, but a recognition that Jesus was to become the "suffering servant" Messiah so vividly described by the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus would become the living human expression of Godís unlimited love, to the point of giving his life completely in the service of God and Godís people.

    But Andrew didnít know any of this when he left John to follow Jesus.  He just sensed that this was the right thing to do, so much so that he brought his brother Peter to meet Jesus.  Jesusí hard look into Peterís eyes must have communicated something deep, something like "are you ready; are you ready for the big time; are you ready for the roller-coaster ride of your life?"  Peter didnít know what lay ahead, but he responded to Jesusí invitation.  But he was probably quite puzzled about what Jesus meant when he changed his name to "the rock".  "What am I getting into here?", we can hear him musing.

Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthday we celebrate this week, was not unlike Peter as a new preacher in Montgomery, Alabama, at age 26.  It was early December 1955.  Rosa Parks had just been arrested for not giving up her seat on the city bus.  As a result of her arrest, a bus boycott had been called by the local NAACP and young Martin was asked to lead the effort.  His name wasnít changed to "Cephas", but he would become the rock of the civil rights movement.

    In 1957 , he was elected president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the vanguard of the nonviolent struggle for justice in the South.  This contemporary "lamb of God" was spit upon, ridiculed, jailed, fire-bombed, yet he kept on moving -- across the South, then on to Washington for his famous "I Have a Dream" in August of 1963, and then to Oslo, Norway, where he was hailed by the world as the Nobel Peace Prize recipient for 1964, somewhat as Jesus was hailed as he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey on that last fateful journey.  The more threatening Jesus became to those in power in Jerusalem, the more they plotted to end his life.  So too for Dr. King.  The closer he got to Washington, the more dangerous he became to those in power.

    Dr. King left that moment of glory in Oslo and responded to Godís call to become an even bolder prophet for justice and peace.    His vision and struggle was expanded to include all victims of poverty and violence.  It was his "Poor Peopleís Campaign"  headed toward Washington and his condemnation of the war in Vietnam that probably led to the fatal bullets on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.  Dr. King didnít know his commitment to justice and peace would make him a "lamb of God" like Jesus, but he embraced the call from Jesus to live his faith as fully as he could, each day, no matter where it would lead.

    But we are not focusing so much today on the end of the journeys of Jesus, Andrew and Peter, and Dr. King, as on their beginnings.  This is comforting because it is where most of us feel we are, more at the beginning of discipleship.  Like Andrew, we want to know a little more about Jesus before accepting his call.  "Show me where you live," Andrew asks Jesus, wanting to see how and where he lives.  "What kind of a life are we talking about here, Jesus?", we can hear Andrew asking.  Well, the life of Jesus and the life of his first followers and his more recent followers like Martin Luther King, show us that compassionate presence to all around us and a courageous commitment to challenge injustice and violence are central to this Christian life. 

    One expression of this compassionate nonviolent way of living is the "Family Pledge of Nonviolence" which is being offered to families not just in our place of worship today, not just in our city or even our nation.  This "Pledge" is being translated into many languages and is beginning to be offered  to families all over  the world.  It is being offered not just to families in the traditional sense, but to all kinds of families -- your work family, your worshipping community family, whatever group of persons you live or work with closely.  This "Pledge of Nonviolence" takes the Gospel and discipleship right into our homes, into the places and moments of our daily living, just as Jesus was showing Andrew.

    The 7 components of this "Pledge of Nonviolence"  begin with respect -- respecting ourselves and others.  Respect means building others up, not tearing them down.  It means avoiding hateful words as well as physical attacks.  This call to respect others is not limited to family members, but must embrace all peoples.  Dr. Kingís "dream" is a beautiful expression of this component of the Pledge.  He repeated his "dream" in his last Christmas sermon --

"And so today I still have a dream.  People will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers and sisters.  I still have a dream today that one day every person of color in the world will be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; and everyone will respect the dignity and worth of each human personality..."

    The second component of the Pledge urges us to communicate better, to work at solving problems peacefully, and to find safe ways to express our anger.  Dr. King was a model at trying to find peaceful solutions to social problems.  We can use his example by trying to negotiate issues whenever possible in our interpersonal dealings at home, at work, in school, within our worshipping community.  And, like Dr. King, we can turn our anger into positive energy and let go of the hate and desire for revenge that so often gets added to our anger.  "Hate is too great a burden to bear", Dr. King reminds us.

    The third component of the Pledge  asks us to listen carefully to others, especially to those with whom we disagree.  Careful listening and attending to the feelings and needs of others and not just our own is quite difficult.  But careful listening is a marvelous daily discipline and a way of becoming more attuned to the voice of God in our lives.  Jesus calls us daily as he called Andrew and Peter.  We have to be open and attentive to the voice of Jesus coming through the people we interact with each day.

    Forgiveness is the fourth component of the Pledge.  We  are called here to apologize and make amends then we have hurt others, to be willing to forgive when we have been hurt, and then to let go of those grudges that we so often carry around with us for months and years.  Jesus is the ultimate model of forgiveness, forgiving even those who executed him.  Dr. King was similarly challenged because of all the prejudice and hate that was thrown at him.  His words, then, have  special credibility --

"It is impossible even to begin the act of loving oneís enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us... Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning..." (STRENGTH TO LIVE, pp. 42-43).

"A fresh start... a new beginning" -- thatís the blessing of forgiveness.  It brings release and freedom, healing, a chance to move on, and perhaps even a deeper relationship.

    Component #5  of the Pledge asks us to respect nature, to take better care of the earth and its resources.  One of the biggest obstacles to living out this component of the Pledge is the affluent and wasteful lifestyle so pervasive in our country and much of the so-called "developed world."  We are addicted to things.  We are obsessed with having more.  Dr. King felt this deeply and called for a "radical revolution in values" to save our society.  His prophetic voice  was clear and strong in his famous 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech:

"We must rapidly begin the shift from a Ďthing-orientedí society to a Ďpeople-oriented  society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable to being conquered..."

ĎThing-orientedí living threatens not only the quality of our lives and society, but threatens all life and the earth itself.  We are called to respect every living creature -- "All Godís critters got a place in the choir!"  We respect nature when we reduce our consumption, plant trees, cultivate gardens, recycle.  The opportunities are unlimited.  The stakes are huge.

    The sixth component of the Pledge encourages us to play creatively, to play for fun and not just for winning, and to avoid entertainment that makes violence look exciting, funny, or acceptable.  This is quite a challenge, because much of what many of us enjoy is violent, like some of the sports, movies, videos and games we play and watch.  And so much of our entertainment is focused on things, instead of people.  Dr. King was right.  We are becoming a Ďthing-orientedí society.  What used to be the most social experience of daily living -- the evening meal together -- is now an endangered species.  Rarely does the whole family gather for dinner.  And sometimes when they do so, it is on TV trays in front of the tube.  "Family nights" are a thing of the past, because our schedules are complicated or we are too tired to do anything but vegetate in front of our electronic toys.  Letís resolve this morning to turn off these toys at least one night a week and enjoy the company of family and friends the way we used to do when life was simpler.

    The last component of the Pledge of Nonviolence challenges us to be courageous, to confront violence and injustice wherever we find it.  Dr. Kingís life presents a powerful model of such courage.  And while we may not be called to copy the deeds of Dr. King, we are called to copy his courageous spirit.  We can challenge prejudicial jokes or remarks.  We can sometimes intervene to stop a fight.  We can take to the streets with others to reclaim our streets and neighborhoods.  We can challenge the pervayors of violence on TV with letters and calls to the networks, to the producers, and to the sponsors.  We can work for gun control.  And in our daily lives, we can try to put into practice the words and example of Dr. King -- "to meet physical force with soul force." 

    But Dr. King didnít have this powerful "soul force" at the beginning of his ministry.  He had to become the courageous Dr. King we celebrate today by responding each day to the challenges God placed before him.  So we donít have to feel so overwhelmed by his example and so inadequate to the challenges before us.  We can go back in todayís Scripture reading to Andrew and Peter at the beginning of their discipleship.  We donít know where this call to follow the nonviolent Jesus will lead.  We donít know all the implications of trying to live out this "Pledge of Nonviolence."  We donít know what opportunities for courageous deeds will be presented to us down the road.  But we do know that Jesus is calling us this morning.  He is showing us where he lives; offering us a "Pledge of Nonviolence"; and giving us a glimpse of what we are in for as his followers.

    So it is in a spirit of humility and hope that we implore Godís help to embrace this call to follow the nonviolent example of Jesus in our everyday lives.  Together we pray:

"Loving God, you sent Jesus to show us how to live nonviolently.  Jesus, you listened carefully to everyone.  You cared about the feelings of others.  You forgave those who hurt you.  Your heart went out to people no one else cared about.  Jesus, send us your Spirit to help each of us be truthful whenever we speak, loving whenever we act, and courageous whenever we find violence or injustice around us.  We make our Family Pledge counting on your mercy and love to help us live it faithfully."