Sunday, May 1, 2016
Today we transition from a month-long emphasis on love of the earth and creation care to things that make for peace. The theme for May is “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” In part, this new emphasis is shaped by this month’s special offering for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz. We have been a supporting congregation of this organization for many years.
What I am wondering, as we consider peace today, is what does the word mean to you? Off the top of your head, what do you imagine or think or feel when you hear the word peace?
Today’s gospel reading comes from the book of John. We used it as our Words of Assurance after Reflecting on our Need for God. It is interesting that this text and the Ancient Word from Revelation are actually lectionary readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter. Is it coincidence that the lectionary would give us such peace laden texts on the first Sunday of “Peace Month”? or is it the work of that Advocate, the Holy Spirit, trying to teach us something about peace and peace-making?
Most often I use these words from the fourteenth chapter of John for funerals and memorial services. That seems to be an appropriate time to call forth peace, especially peace that offers comfort and soothes the grieving heart. Jesus begins his teaching, recorded in this chapter, by assuring his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In God’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3). Many a grieving soul has found peaceful comfort in these words through the centuries. And surely this one way to look at peace.
But this time, reading this text, the sentence “I do not give to you as the world gives” stood out for me. What exactly does Jesus mean when he makes that claim or what was the writer of John trying to say when he wrote down these words? “Not as the world gives” – the peace that Jesus promises is something different than what we usually think of as peace. It is other than the absence of violence or freedom from struggle. It is more than comfort and assurance. The ancient Hebrew word used here is shalom. Shalom is something like the Hawaiian word aloha. It carries multiple meanings. It can be used to hello or good-bye. In addition to peace, it carries connotations of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being. When Jesus gifts his followers with is peace, it is something more than what the world has to offer.
Robert Kysar writes that “…the peace that you and I most commonly seek – is best described as the absence of things. The absence of war, the absence of crime and strife and violence, the absence of pain, conflicts, struggles, unfulfilled desires.” In fact, he says, “It almost sounds as if the peace we seek is something like a vacuum…What we strive for is the absence of all struggle which sounds like the absence of life itself” (Robert Kysar, Preaching John, p. 108). And Geoffrey Hoare observes that “Many people yearn for peace in the world’s terms: cessation of conflict, whether psychological tension or warfare; a sense of calm or a serenity of spirit” (Geoffrey M. St. J. Hoare in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, p.494).
“No, not this,” Jesus says, “not as the world gives.” Both Kysar and Hoare insist that what Jesus offer is not cessation or absence but rather it is presence, the presence of God though the Holy Spirit. The Jesus Way will continue to be available to those who embrace it and follow it. He is not going away; he is going on ahead, and where he goes, we, too, may go, in the power of the Spirit.
In Earth Month we tried to emphasize the spiritual and theological grounding for love of the earth and creation care. God made it; God delights in it; God loves it; God cares for it and, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, we are invited to approach creation in similar ways. Love it, care for it, delight in it, even join in the ongoing process of creation. God is present with us in the world all around us; we are encouraged to embrace that presence, to live into all the possibilities it offers to us.
Part of living with God’s ongoing presence in our lives is, then, to live in peace, in shalom – in harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being – with God, with ourselves, with our neighbor, with our enemy, with all creation. Again, this is not nothing, absence, cessation; it is something, something to give our lives to as we walk the Jesus Way. Remember how Genesis gave us a vision of the goodness, the well-being, the peace, if you will, of creation when God first laid it out and breathed life into it? Now the writer of Revelation offers another vision of something similar.
Beyond the pain and struggle of life as the world knows it, there is a promised land, a new creation, a heavenly city. Yes, it’s always risky to talk about heaven. Too many of us have been indoctrinated to believe that it is somewhere out there beyond this life. “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.” But what if it just isn’t so? What if heaven is right here in our midst if we’d look more closely. “Your Beloved Community come on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus teaches us to pray. Not “just hang on; it will be over soon and you’ll get your robe and crown over there.” Nor does Jesus offer peace somewhere down the road and beyond the sunset. He offers it in the here and now.
This vision of the new Jerusalem is a poetic description of the Beloved Community, not unlike Isaiah’s dream of God’s Holy Mountain where they neither hurt or destroy because they recognize that God’s presence covers the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Jesus gifts his followers – and us – with that same presence, and he offers it now, not later.
In the vision of Revelation, ”…the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” In the middle of the vision we find the river of the water of life and the tree of life spread out on either side, offering all the nourishment we could ever need or want. Even the leaves are for the healing of the nations. The difference between the peace that Jesus offers and that which the world chases is in its great “Yes” to life. Faced with his own imminent death, Jesus says “Yes” to life. The powers and principalities have no ultimate say in his life. He is at peace in God’s embracing presence. It’s a different kind of peace – not as the world gives – and he offers it to us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen.