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May 26th, 2019
The word in Greek for peace is eirene.It means the absence of war, at least in the classic Greek. But it was used to translate the Hebrew word shalom, and in the process of language influencing language, eireneslowly showed the signs of shalom, which means something much more like wholeness, or right relationship. In the New Testament, the word eireneis not primarily associated with resolution of political conflict, good health, personal well being or even prosperity. It is associated with words like love, grace, glory, honor, righteousness and mercy. It is about you and your state of being, it’s about your relationship– in this case, to God.
Maybe this seems like a strange week to think about peace, for there’s been little peace as we’ve tried to calm down our pets during the last week of endless sirens and thunderclaps, or comfort children…or even ourselves. We’re all still pretty tired from a relentless week, from a scary and late night last night, even as we’re probably not ones who have lost houses and possessions, nor sat and watched as the flood waters inched towards our houses. We’ve all lost some portion of our sense of “peace” after days and days of wind, weather and water. PLUS we had an earthquake in there, right? I mean, when do the locusts arrive? Combine that with the threats of war, Constitutional and political crisis, the unknown impact of tariffs, churches in conflict, a broken immigration system, and what seems like another shooting every day and peace seems a LONG way off, probably just as long as it did for the disciples.
It is likely that we define peace the way the disciples do in this passage, as something external. This entire chapter in John’s gospel is the disciples reconciling the news that Jesus is leaving them, the source of their peace departing. Jesus tells them he’s not leaving them alone, and he sets before them a path to peace, while trying to emphasize that this can’t reside in him alone, they must internalize it. Thepeace that Jesus leaves is a gift of God, and it comes in the form of a process in which we give over to God a certain amount of control of all the things that we worry about. It’s a peace that recognizes our own limits to what we can affect or achieve on our own, placing ourselves, our loved ones, and our future in God’s hands.
Often that is a difficult task at best. How do we seek stability within the chaos, knowing that an end to the chaos is unlikely? Chaos is, at least in one way of looking at it, the natural state of things. Life is always in flux, moving, shifting, bending the rules with which we think we control the life around us. So when we look for peace only in the absence of chaos and conflict, we will find little peace. That’s what I think Jesus means when he says, “I don’t give as the world gives,” a phrase that actually, in Greek, says, “I don’t give as this systemgives.” The Greek word kosmosis always translated world, but really means the systems in place that shape our world. And our systems thrive on chaos, they need it…they seek and protect and even create it. Our systems commodify peace, selling it to us with the promise of a war that will produce it, a candidate who will provide it, or a product that will create it. It’s always external, waiting for conditions to change out there. But the peace that Jesus leaves is internaland it comes in a certain way.
First, you love Jesus. Now, not in a church camp, sing-songy kind of way, but by loving the things that Jesus stands for – compassion, justice, hope, trust. If you love those things, you love Jesus. And if you love Jesus, then you “keep” his “word,” meaning that you do the things that a love of compassion, justice, hope and trust would haveyou do. If you want peace, act peacefully. If you don’t know how to do that, then step one hasn’t happened yet, Jesus says. First you love me thenyou follow my instructions…for if you don’t love me you won’t really follow my instructions. They are too hard. If you don’t seek peace, you won’t find it. If you don’t follow the things that Jesus followed, you won’t find the peace that Jesus found.
Of course, the catch is that it can be very hard to know exactly howto show compassion or to seek justice, it’s a challenge to hope or to trust, particularly in a world so hopeless and untrustworthy. And it’s not like you can text Jesus when you’re stumped. So the formula has some addendums. First, we are not alone. That’s a really, really critical one. We are not alone. We have each other and we have been sent the paraclete…not the parakeet, the paraclete. I mean, a parakeet would be cute, but not super helpful during moral dilemmas. The paracleteis the Greek word for the Holy Spirit, at least from the way that our tradition has built this word up. It means consoler, counselor, or helper and the theological idea is that the Spirit resides with and among us to help us figure out how to live out the word that Jesus has left us. So, love + doing + help from the Spirit = Peace.
Jesus asks us to dohis word, not to listen and understand, but to do. For there is something in the practice of caring, in the discipline of loving someone or something you don’t wantto love that re-wires us and trains our hearts and minds for something new. Jesus, you might have heard, acknowledges that there are other voices. He says there are words that aren’t his, and the way that we love him is not to say those words, or offer endless praise songs, or get the right Hebrew phrase tattooed on our forearm. It is to behim – not in the sense of miraculous and larger-then-life, but in the sense of being like him as much as we can, pursuing justice and seeking peace. This is what I think Jesus means when he says, “Knock and the door will be opened.” He doesn’t say, “Stand there and pray really hard and the door will be opened.” He asks us to DO, to work for, to seek, to create, to hope and even to long for what we want in an assertive way that knows we are worthy of it. And the door will be opened.
Peace is not something you can achieve on a situational basis. You cannot decide to just turn it on when you think you need it and ignore it the rest of the time. Faith is the same way. You have to practice it, use it, and engage it…or it’s like me baking a cake, pretty much a complete gamble. Peace has to come from within, it cannot be generated by our situations, but must be generated despiteour situations. We can see this in discussions about the reduction of nuclear weapons, discussions which never include trying to reduce the things that make for war.
As the great Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote, “We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds- our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uprootwar from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.”
Uprooting is precisely what Jesus is up to with his work. He does not promise us that our faith life will end our suffering, nor will everything in life suddenly calm down and make perfect sense. Instead he offers us a way to keep steady during the tremors, a practice to help us keep our footing as the chaotic waters rush by us. Jesus gives us his peace for us to use, not to hoard or admire, but to use. It really is one reason that we start each service by passing the peace. I know that this sometimes seems more like a social engagement time, just a moment to say hi and then move on, but the practice is that we say, “Peace be with you,” and someone responds, “And also with you,” as a mantra of sorts…a social mantra said not in the embrace of meditation, but in the wide-eyed gathering of all of us, each bringing our own chaos to the mix of church and stating to one another what it is that we seek – peace. It may seem just a couple of minutes of small-talk, but particularly when we take the time to look in one another’s eyes and actually “stick to the script,” what it really does is defy the system of our own time, it reaches into the chaos and claims a solid rock on which we can stand…it asserts that in the end everything will be OK, and if it’s not OK, it’s not the end…it lays a claim on our hearts and minds in the search for peace, which we both give and receive in that simple moment.
Peace is a beautiful thing to seek…a challenging, elusive, frustrating thing that requires us to know ourselves, to learn to find our centers, developing an eye for the invisible and an ear for the silent, seeking the influence and guidance of the Spirit that works on us somewhere other than our rational mind, and remembering, always remembering, to breathe. The beauty of the physics of peace is that there really is no equation…working the equation is the equation…for there truly is no way to peace, peace is the way.
Peace be with you…