Sunday 26 May 2019
The Gift of Peace
Revelation 21:10-14, 22 – 22:5; John 14:23-29
By Karen Hutchinson
Archdeacon of Norwich, and Warden of Readers
Context: Common Worship Eucharist in a suburban church
Aim: to deepen our understanding of the peace that Christ brings
Peace – a word we use frequently in church. ‘Peace be with you’, ‘The peace of God which passes all understanding’ …
But how often do we stop to ask ourselves what we mean? What is it we are wishing each other when we say ‘The peace of the Lord be with you’? It’s rooted in our biblical tradition – the opening greeting of the risen Christ, not to mention the countless opening greetings and parting blessings in Paul’s letters. And, of course, the promise of Jesus in today’s passage, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.’
While the Greek word we translate from the New Testament as ‘peace’ would have been strongly associated with ‘absence of war’, the Hebrew understanding in the Old Testament was much wider. Here, peace, shalom, has a more positive connotation, embracing not just absence of war but a positive well-being; a state of wholeness and prosperity that is holistic – material, spiritual, and relational.
It is this wider sense of peace that was being proclaimed when Jesus was born and is his lasting gift as he parted from the disciples, saying ‘I do not give to you as the world gives.’ Remembering this helps us to keep a balance between two false tendencies. One is to pursue ‘inner peace’, concentrating only on our interior life for its own sake, forgetting the world outside. The other is to see peace-making as being all about ‘them out there’ – the global conflicts, the public disputes. Such a peacemaker might avoid looking too closely at their own lack of peace within.
The beauty of the Christian gospel is that it holds both these together; indeed, one enables the other. As St Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, talking about the long-standing and bitter divisions between Jews and Gentiles, ‘For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.’ (Ephesians 2:14,16) In finding wholeness and forgiveness within the love of God, knowing ourselves to be loved, we are in a better position to be able to make peace with others.
We find both elements of peace in this passage in today’s readings. Jesus addresses the inner turmoil of the disciples, their fear and uncertainty, as he predicts his departure. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ Mental health and well-being issues are becoming big news these days, and rightly so, as lives are lost or blighted through inadequate treatment or resources to support those who are suffering. Schools report rising levels of anxiety and depression amongst children. And those are just the people who are willing to talk about it. How many more are hiding their struggles behind the mask of ‘I’m fine, thank you’?
Into our anxiety and our troubles, Jesus breathes peace. Not the peace that the world gives, which is dependent on circumstances, but a peace that is deeply grounded in the presence of God. ‘We will come to them and make our home with them’. Jesus uses the same word for ‘home’ as he does earlier in the chapter when he speaks of there being many rooms, or homes in his Father’s house (v.2). It’s a homely, domestic, cosy sort of a word, a place to relax, unwind, and be entirely ‘at home’. And Jesus and the Father will be as ‘at home’ with us as we will be with them in our heavenly home. So, there’s an assurance of God’s presence, not just now, but for ever.
Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, or Helper, the one who comes alongside. And this gift of the Spirit will teach and remind his followers in a way that inspires them to action. Turning to the passage from Revelation we find just such a vision. With its ever-open gates, and a welcome for all nations, the holy city is fed by a crystal-clear river, watering the tree of life from which all can now eat freely. And the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations.
I find that phrase deeply reassuring. That God knows our national divisions, conflicts and fears – and that there is a remedy. That nations can be healed, conflicts within and between brought to an end – and don’t we long for that to happen? It is a sign of hope, a vision that draws us to look outwards, to bring our faith to bear on the issues of the day and to work for peace in all its aspects, inside and out.
You might ask what you can do to bring peace if you’re neither a politician nor a diplomat in a war-torn country. Peace-making need not be about the public conflicts of the sort that feature in the news. Peace-making might be offering a listening ear to friend or family, an encouragement to get people talking to each other, an arranging of social opportunities. It might be making the effort to talk to someone who is different from you, or who has different ideas, so that you can better understand them as a person. Anything that helps us to love each other as people instead of viewing someone as ‘other’ has got to be a step in the right direction!
And in times of trouble and turmoil, remember Jesus speaking into the storm on the Sea of Galilee, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was calm.
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