Forty-five years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his now-famous speech at Riverside Church in New York City, declaring his opposition to the war in Vietnam. One year later -- 44 years ago today -- he was murdered by an assassin.
It is fitting that these anniversaries occur this year during the week we commemorate the death and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
Dr. King’s Riverside speech is frequently quoted, with his scathing political indictment of the war and the systems of exploitation and oppression that led to it. But how often do we remember that he began that speech by noting that while the Nobel Peace Prize was “a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before,” it was not the most important thing. He continued by saying that:
This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all … Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
Dr. King was able to be the leader he was, take the risks he did, and ultimately make the final sacrifice, because he knew who called him and who he followed. He knew that the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus was a living presence in his life and gave him the hope to follow.
For him, as well as us, believing in Jesus means being a follower and a disciple in bringing the kingdom he lived and taught. By raising Jesus, by vindicating his life and death, God vindicated his message – the kingdom he proclaimed has come and will come. And because God raised Jesus from death, his living presence continues among us and we are empowered to follow him and to live the kingdom. The resurrection is the event on which our faith and hope depends.
That faith sustained Dr. King, and it can sustain us.