Peace – as we ordinarily understand that word — is often very hard work. Whether it is the resolution of conflict between nations or ethnic groups, or an inward psychological disposition leading to deeper wellbeing, peace is usually work-in-progress. It is no secret that these two forms of peace are deeply interrelated. The crucial work of social peace (negotiating peace, organizing peace, facilitating peace, instituting peace) only maintains a superficial and tenuous harmony if there is no on-the-ground commitment to interior peace, the kind that changes lives from the inside out. Countless civil disobedience movements have demonstrated the power of non-violent action when it is steeped in spiritual intention and grounded in a peace that no oppressor can give or take away.
The peace of Jesus was a living, inner presence that challenged, changed, and empowered his followers to seek the peace “which the world cannot give.” This inner presence inevitably brought Jesus into conflict with the ambient culture of violent occupation around him. The religious leaders who benefitted from their quiet complicity no doubt had a very different understanding of shalom. Rather than a dynamic, empowering presence, “peace” meant maintaining a broken system with minimal disturbance to received tradition.
Jesus says to his gathered disciples:
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.
Jesus, knowing that his death is imminent, bequeathes his own Peace to his inner circle, who will so desperately need it in the midst of the suffering and death about to break upon them like a tidal wave.
Like most of the sections of Jesus’s lengthy farewell discourse, this specific section is prompted by a question: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” The first part of Jesus’s reply focuses on the gift of the Paraclete or Advocate, the Holy Spirit who “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The gift of Jesus’s Peace is a highly related but ultimately distinct gift. And while the gift of Peace participates in the tradition of shalom as both greeting and farewell, this Peace is a promise of ongoing presence because it harkens to the gift of Peace inaugurated by the Messiah: the righteous rule of the “Prince of Peace,” which will be eternal.
Marianne Meye Thompson notes that in this Farewell Discourse of Jesus, the world is almost always mentioned in the same breath as the promised Holy Spirit. Similarly, Jesus here explains, “I do not give to you as the world gives,” immediately following his twice-repeated gift of his own Peace. While the term “world,” or kosmos, in John’s gospel is a bit elastic in its meaning, it takes on an unequivocally threatening character in John’s closing chapters. A dense energy of worldliness threatens to obscure or corrode the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The world “hates” Jesus’s followers just as it hates Jesus. Thompson sees “the world” in the Farewell Discourse as both the “source of opposition” facing the followers of Jesus and the “arena” in which their witness to the gospel must unfold. As such, it remains a perpetual challenge for the Church to grapple with in every generation.[i]
It is very easy to be seduced by a peace that is not Christ’s, but rather a false peace that is of the world. There are at least three forms this might take:
We often seek permanent, lasting peace in places we will never find it, or will find only provisional peace: a political party, financial security, a beautiful house, a romantic partnership, a career promotion, retirement, a new ministry, a denomination of the Church, our liturgical preferences, our physical or mental talents. The list can grow quite long. It sometimes helps to honestly assess the direction in which we are seeking ultimate peace. “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them,” writes the Psalmist, and there are endless variations on this theme in scripture. Horses? No. Chariots? No. Riches? Nope. All of these will fail us. If we look to provisional or temporal things for ultimate peace, we are likely to wake up itchy, restless and dissatisfied when they disappoint us. These paths toward peace are often onramps or runways toward the Peace that is Christ’s Peace. But our trust in these things is provisional because it is light, gentle, and acknowledges human frailty – others’ and our own.
We often seek to “build” peace with the hope of arriving at a lasting, permanent solution in the sheer strength of our own efforts. As a form of service to humanity this is a noble and selfless motive. But if we are not co-creating paths toward peace with Jesus, we are pursuing the world’s peace. Participating in the Peace of Christ requires a patience and a persistence that only Christ can supply. It demands an attentive eye to recognize where Christ’s Peace is already breaking forth as slow growth unassisted by our well-organized efforts, and asks only for us to bear witness.
We often wish, aspire, or pray to arrive at an interior peace that is a “once and for all” accomplishment. If we establish the right spiritual practices with the right frequency and depth, if we follow the right Rule of Life, if we say “yes” to every opportunity to be of service, if we worship God with deep enough focus and sincerity of heart every day, maybe we’ll reach a plane of permanent spiritual peace where we no longer swear in traffic or eat too much dessert or judge ourselves for our mistakes or make superficial assumptions about people. As far as I can tell, such a Peace does not exist this side of heaven. I do believe that the Spirit works in us a slow purification of the will that renders certain habitual sins a lot less interesting than they once were. But until then, I think that following Jesus opens us to receive his Peace in the midst of our flaws, not in spite of them. We hold the treasure of Christ’s Peace in clay jars, as grateful sinners.
As recipients of the Peace of Jesus, we have been given – in trust – the defining gift of Jesus’s now-and-future reign. Hearing Jesus invite me to make use of his Peace – a Peace already entrusted to me – changes my understanding of the adventure and challenge of peace-making in a very unpeaceful world. Making peace becomes consenting to Christ’s peace-making process wherever it is unfolding. Making peace becomes receiving Peace and being Peace. Only then can Christ use you and me to give Peace – a Peace which will remain his alone, but will change us each time we give it away, and each time we pass it around in our Eucharistic feast.
I give to you the Peace of Christ – a Peace which the world cannot give.
I give you the unshakable sanity and unflappable presence of Christ.
I give the Peace that saves you and me from all inner and outer persecution and from every stone the world may hurl your way.
I give you a Peace that will never falter or fade, and will carry you all the way Home.
The Peace of Christ be with you.
[i]Marianne Meye Thompson. John: A Commentary. p. 313.
While working as a psychotherapist I would occasionally receive a profound gift, witnessing someone in the very moment of a miraculous transformation. I would watch, always amazed and humbled, as they seemed to physically lighten, their countenance brightening, their posture shifting to being more alive and vital and present, their tears often taking on a baptismal glisten. Sometimes, spontaneous laughter and joy sprung forth, and other times they simply rested in a lingering sense of surprise and fragility, as if just getting acquainted with a new way of being. But what I remember most is a particular look flashing briefly in their eyes, the look of recognition. It was the look you might see if you paid an unexpected visit with a friend. Imagine knocking on their door, and when they open it, in that very first instant, you catch a brief sparkle of recognition in their eyes.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here, and say that true healing always has a spiritual component, an experience of knowing something to be true, not with our minds but with our hearts. And this heart knowing is not like learning anything new, but more like remembering something forgotten, something that has always been true, and we realize that a part of us deep within always knew this. Maybe that’s the kind of knowing or healing those religious leaders were hoping for when they demanded Jesus tell them if he were the Christ or not. Like most of us, they may have felt a nagging, perhaps unarticulated suspicion that something very important was missing in their lives. They knew the law, they kept all the commandments, they were successful, but still something didn’t feel quite right. Their minds tried to articulate what they wanted, but their hearts weren’t ready to accept it, to recognize who Jesus was by accepting who they themselves were.
Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10
Psalm 71: 1 – 6 1
Corinthians 13: 1 -1 3
Luke 4: 21 – 30
It all started out so well, Jesus, in the synagogue, in his hometown. No doubt, the benches were full that Sabbath morning, as would have been usual. Maybe people knew that Jesus, and some of his pals, had come home for a visit. They had perhaps heard that Jesus had seen, as perhaps they had, that crazed and crazy John the Baptist down the Jordan valley. They might even have known that Jesus was just back from spending six weeks, alone, in the desert. They might have heard that Jesus had taken up as a wandering teacher and preacher, and was developing quite a reputation. They knew that something was going on out there, in the world beyond their little village on the top of a hill. But they may not have connected this kid, now the grown man sitting among them, with anything more than a wayward come home. As I said, it all started so well, and in fact, except for some mild curiosity, so routine.
But slowly things began to take a turn. It wasn’t that Jesus was asked to read the lesson from the prophets that day.We do that, and no one gets excited! No, nothing unusual was happening. There was nothing to be excited about.
Today at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist we are confronted with a scandal. In both places the original audiences would have been shocked by what Jesus was saying. They may have been listening as Jesus spoke, thinking yes, yes, I quite see that. Suddenly, they would have been startled by what they heard. Perhaps they turned to their neighbour with a quizzical look. Maybe they asked someone near them to repeat what they thought they had just heard. Perhaps they tried to clean out their ears, thinking they had misheard the Teacher. But if we read the gospels carefully, what we heard this morning is not new. Jesus repeats it over, and over. Indeed, Jesus lives it. We could even say that Jesus dies it.
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.
‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured…’
Galatians 1: 13 – 24
Psalm 139: 1 – 14
Luke 10: 38 – 42
If truth be told, I don’t much like this passage from the Gospel of Luke about Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable. I hear it as the great Martha put down, with Jesus saying, in effect, “Martha, I like your sister Mary better!”And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some people to others, And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some activities, or rather no activity, to others, or rather any activity. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers contemplation to action. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that you can only be in relationship with Jesus when you are sitting at his feet, rather than making him dinner. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that when I get busy, doing any number of things, Jesus likes me less, than when I am quiet, and still. And that makes me really, really uncomfortable, because probably like you, I have a zillion things on my to do list, and even when I am supposed to be, I can’t always be quiet and still.
But is that what is really going on here? Is Jesus really making these invidious distinctions between Martha and Mary? Between busyness and stillness? Between housework and hospitality? Between action and contemplation? That’s what we’ve been told over the years, but is it really the case?
(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
1 Peter 4:7-11
It’s oftentimes quite fascinating to read the scriptures forensically, that is to search the scriptures like a good detective. If what we’re being presented in a scriptural passage is the answer to a question, or a solution to a problem, or the right way to live and act, what’s the presenting issue? Why does this need to be said, whatever we’re being told? So in the First Letter of Peter – our first lesson today – why are we being told what we are being told? If this is the solution, what’s been the problem? What’s the “back story”?
- “Maintain constant love for one another…” (What’s that about? There’s been a breakdown in love. Love has been patchy, inconsistent, unpredictable.)
- “Love covers a multitude of sins…” (“Sins,” plural. The people around you have been disappointing and disingenuous… repeatedly, which has elicited disdain, not love.)
- “Be hospitable to one another…” (To be hospitable is to be welcoming and generous to others… especially those whom you otherwise find irritating and off-putting. Have space in your heart and space in your home for those whom you could easily distance. Be hospitable.)
- Don’t be “complaining.” (The issue here is not about expressing a complaint, a dissatisfaction, a disagreement. No, the problem is not about a complaint. The issue here is about being a complainer. Having a predisposition that someone or something is always wrong and should be different. The issue here is about a state of being: being a complainer.)
- We’re to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (So what’s that about?) Peter writes we are to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serving one another with whatever gift each of you has received…” (So each of us is gifted, but not gifted in the same ways. Our gifts are not our possessions. Our individual gifts have been temporarily entrusted to us. We are to be “stewards” of our gifts, not possessors. If we don’t learn about our temporary stewardship of our gifts earlier in life, we will learn later in life… because our gifts are fleeting. Our gifts diminish and then go away.) We’re to be temporary “stewards” of the gifts we’ve received from God. And we’re to use our God-given gifts not to lord over one another but to “serve” one another.
“Go forth with this message,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Observing Hebrew reticence in speaking the name of God, these disciples are to speak of the longed-for mercy, justice and compassion of God’s already present and gracious reign. In their own persons, the twelve are to do as Jesus has already done: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
In taking up this mission with Jesus, the twelve are called to radical dependence on the provision of God.
Clouds and darkness are round about him, * righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne [on earth as in heaven].
Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous * and give thanks to his holy [, hallowed] Name. –Psalm 97: 2, 12
If your prayer life is anything like my own, you will have found that our praying lives are often littered with ever shifting seasons, fresh insights, old wounds that continue to sting, and ever expanding and contracting horizons of the heart. Perhaps, too, you will have found that even the most familiar phenomena can take on new valences and, to our surprise, unveil themselves in a beautiful complexity to which we had previously been blind. The ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from which our gospel pericope comes this morning, has often been for me a site of this very ‘unraveling of the familiar’—a place where the real limitations of our spiritual vision meet the scandalous, expansive, sometimes terrifying truth at the heart of all things.
For many of us, the words of the Lord’s prayer contain an inestimable, unqualifiable freight. These words—so dear, so familiar, so second-nature—stir the gaze of our hearts toward the One whom Jesus invites us to name “Our Father,” and articulate in six remarkably short petitions some of the deepest content of the “hope that is in us.” And yet, as with anything we live in close proximity to, the very familiarity of these words can sometimes obscure this prayer’s true power to transform us and its radical challenge that seeks to summon us beyond our illusory sense of self-dependence.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
There’s some delightful reading in the 32nd chapter of Ecclesiasticus, one of the books of the Apocrypha, in what we call the Wisdom Literature. It reads a bit like the Miss Manners of the ancient world, with advice about etiquette at dinner parties: if there’s music or entertainment, don’t interrupt by talking; don’t display your cleverness at the wrong time; if you’re young, speak only if obliged, and then only twice; if you’re older, only talk about things you actually know about; leave on time, don’t be the last to leave; and, above all, bless your Maker, who fills you with his good gifts.
Today, Jesus continues somewhat in the vein of the Wisdom Literature with sage advice about wedding banquet etiquette. But Jesus is not just speaking in the vein of the Wisdom Literature: Jesus is Wisdom—Wisdom itself, or, Wisdom himself—well, actually Wisdom herself: Sophia. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke in referring to himself, he says “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Jesus is Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia in Greek. This identification of Christ with Holy Wisdom is especially important in the Churches of the East. You may remember the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
So when Jesus speaks, we can expect to find deeper wisdom, deeper levels of meaning, the inexhaustible, infinite depths of the holy wisdom of God. He calls this teaching a parable, which means it’s about more than dinner parties.
It’s hard to escape our very human concern with matters of rank and status. And, yet, the gospel invites us to another place, another kind of self-awareness: a place of what we might call radical egalitarianism, a state of such deep identification with Christ himself that status and rank no longer matter. We stand before God as equals.
Or sit. I’m tempted to make a wager: the table at the heavenly banquet will be round. Perfectly round. Infinitely round, infinitely commodious, and—somehow–at the same time, infinitely intimate.