Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh
This is a sermon about preaching peace —
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ, who is the most high. – Peter, Acts 10:36
There was an actor in the third century, a comedian named Genesius, from Ethiopia. The emperor Diocletian hired him to put together a play mocking Christians. Genesius was happy to apply for this job. Like a good actor, he did his research: visiting the house churches, running through the catacombs, attending secret worship, listening to the women. He joined the table fellowships. These are the love feasts, with God as the host, where people of all different types come together for a big meal, make a mess, make friends, learn a lot, pray a lot, help each other, confront each other, feed each other. He joined. The warm welcome. The healing. The food. He joined all of it.
When it was time for his play to go up, he was ready. He had prepared: a mockery about Baptism: this was an easy one to make fun of. Washing, but not exactly washing, dunking, but not exactly dunking, transforming, but not exactly transforming. He put up a big show. An actor dressed up like a priest got ready to pretend to Baptize him. But all of a sudden, Genesius was struck by this realization of how true it was for him, how much he needed it, how hungry he was for it. He fell on the floor at the edge of the stage. The other people were putting on the play around him, and they were like, come on now Genesius! Get up. Get up now. Like good comic improve people, they tried to make his collapse into part of the comedy.
When Luke wrote the passage in the Book of Acts that we are studying today, they were well aware that the Easter church was preaching peace, in ways that nobody else was doing. They came out of the context of the powerful equality that the early church was founded on. In this sense, it was understood by everybody: that God had made of one blood, all the nations, as Luke wrote in Acts 17, that nobody was better than anybody else. And it was the foundation of the church, to share everything they had: to give all of the things that each person possessed into the central collection, and share them back out, as Luke wrote in Acts 2. This radical equality, and radical sharing, which marked the early church, would have been stunning for Genesius, and it would have gathered him in to its very heart. It’s likely, that Genesius wasn’t very good at sharing previously. And it’s likely, as a Roman citizen, that Genesius thought he was better than other people. If he had really lived in these early churches he would have begun to learn of its fundamental message of equality. And not only that, but this religion was fun, to make a mess at a table, share food with new friends. Likely too, they really liked him: I am sure he was as funny at church as he was on stage. Everybody loves a comedian.
In early America in the communities of enslaved people there was a similar church. Dr. Barbara Holmes has written about it in her book Joy Unspeakable. During the African diaspora, in suffering that has no words, she describes how prayer led people to God, though they were strangers to each other by virtue of language, culture, tribe. And yet, she documents how in the three times of the most extreme sorrow: in the middle passage, on the auction block, and in the Hush Arbors, people found their way to the heart of God, and God reached their holy heart directly to their souls.
It was these Hush Arbors that I want to speak about today. These prayer and liberation circles, for people living in chains, were the place where Easter came alive. It was this: in the middle of the night, after backbreaking work, abuse of bodies, heartbreaking separations, that people sometimes would steal away to an old tree. And people would understand there: of God’s mercy for them, God’s will for courage, God’s promise for freedom. It was everything about the preaching peace that Peter talks about.
When Luke wrote about Peter’s speech, they knew how important it was to set it in its context. Peter, they say, is speaking to the Roman General Cornelius, telling the General that Jesus is here to preach about peace. He tells him that Jesus rose from the dead to bring a message of nonviolence, of the wild and freewheeling equality that you almost can’t even describe properly. And for the General to hear about peace, when his whole life was about the military, well, I can’t even begin to describe that to you.
Gandhi believed in this preaching of peace, as he looked at it from his perspective in India. And he saw that it was the early enslaved people who got the churches back to the original meaning they had had when Jesus first organized them. In early America, enslaved people listened to the gospel of the slave owners, and then put it through the prism of their own experience: living through deep suffering in antebellum society, enslaved people realized something that the slave owners did not realize: that Jesus himself was among the disinherited: a Jew in a Roman colony, and a poor man in a land of opportunity for rich people. They claimed that theology for themselves, and brought Christianity full circle back to the church the way Jesus started it, before 313 when the Romans took it over and merged it with their colonialism.
Howard Thurman was one of the theological founders of the Civil Rights movement. He was a professor at BU, he was Martin Luther King Jr’s professor. And he was married to a woman named Sue Bailey, who was brilliant, well-organized, and tireless. It was Sue Bailey Thurman who got the Thurmans and a delegation of early civil rights leaders an invitation to travel to India to meet Gandhi. Gandhi and a delegation of his Dalit, the folks in India who are the very poorest of the poor, greeted them, showed them India, spoke about nonviolence. And when it was almost time to say “goodbye,” Gandhi asked them to do him a favor. He asked Howard Thurman to sing them a song. Thurman said, “Well, I am not a singer, but what song do you have in mind?” and Gandhi said, “Were you There when they Crucified my Lord.” Howard and Sue and their group of leaders sang this song, for Gandhi and his team of Dalit. When they finished, it was stunned silence. Gandhi and his community knelt in prayer, and prayed in complete stillness. And Thurman and his community knelt too, holding that same prayer, from different cultures and religions and languages. They stayed in complete silence, wrote Howard Thurman, for four minutes.
Gandhi knew that this song was uniquely about the African American experience of God: of suffering, of enslavement, of courage. And he knew that it said something the whole world needed about Easter: that God is there with the ones who suffer, holding them, weeping, staying.
Genesius, you will recall, is flat on his back at the corner of the stage. His fellow actors are pretending that his collapse is part of the show. After a few minutes they stop being able to think of funny things to fill in. They are wondering what to do. And then he sits up. And he says, “I have been researching in the churches, in the catacombs, at the tables. This is a place of the truest truth I have ever known. This is true for me. I believe in this.” He described how he was seeing angels. And he said they had a book, and his sins were written in it: the sins of being a part of the wealthy class, the community that had forgotten about the enslaved people, that was taking their wealth and forcing their suffering. He said he had come to believe in this God, this God of the angels.
He called for the priest actor to Baptize him for real, right on that stage. The actor! And the Emperor Diocletian is furious. It was supposed to be a joke. His comedy, flipped upside down. And now it was so serious.
Genesius was Baptized that day. And he joyfully went to church from that day on. And he shared what he had. And he began to preach the peace that Peter preached to the Roman general Cornelius.
Genesius was martyred for his conversion. Gandhi was too, in his own Hindu practices of preaching the peace.
And we, who join our prayers together on Easter, have the most powerful challenge: to remember this: that Luke wrote of a Christ who rose from the dead to preach peace, and the church which sprung up inspired shared everything that they had, and met everyone that they could, and fed them, and laughed with them. This is the message of Easter this year: a table full of crazy new friends, and a tree arching over your deepest humiliation and blessing you, and a song which knows that Jesus was here in the hearts and bodies of the most disinherited, willing them to keep trying, willing them to believe their better life was coming, on earth as it is in heaven.
I invite you to it. And in conclusion, I would like to sing you Mozart’s Alleluia, from the Exultate Jubilate.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.