One way or another, whether its anxiety about war in Europe, rising COVID cases, exploding inflation, the mental health crisis among teens, a personal tragedy or loss or something else entirely, these days, all of us are in search of a little peace: whether it’s a little peace and quiet, a little peace of mind, or just a moment of peace, or maybe just inner peace. Basically, all I’m saying is we want to give peace a chance.
But if you actually manage to find peace before you rest in it, you’ll discover you have the right to assemble with it, but, if things get out of hand, you can be arrested for disturbing it, likely by a peace officer who would then take you to a justice of the peace, where you might overhear hear them saying, to a couple and their friends, “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”
Sometimes though you need to speak your peace, and so instead you hold peace talks where you come up with the terms of peace as part of a peace plan and then sign a peace treaty and pray for world peace before dispatching some U.N. Peacekeepers and, depending on year, you might just win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet in the midst of all those peaceful, easy feelings, there will always be that person somewhere between War and Peace, who warns there can be no peace without justice, because we must know justice first in order to know peace or that person who warns that if you want peace, prepare for war, that peace only comes through strength and might and we should seek peace at any price.
After so after imagining all the people living life in peace, I think of victorious General Ulysses S. Grant, in the wake of civil war, declaring, “Let us have peace.” But I have to wonder which peace and whose?
There are so many different peaces, so much talk of peace and the search for it. But for as saturated as our world is in the rhetoric and idiom of peace, we aren’t actually much closer to finding or achieving it. Sometimes just the word ‘peace’ can spark debate and political division. And so peace has remained elusive, contradictory, and confusing for our societies and ourselves.
And so I found myself this week returning to Jesus words in John’s gospel, “My peace, I give to you. But I do not give you peace as the world gives.”
It struck me, that for the most part, the peace offered by the world, whether individual or societal, doesn’t actually give us anything. Rather, it’s all about taking things away. The peace offered by the world ultimately and eventually boils down to absence. To find personal peace, for example, we have to let go of things. Peace is the absence of stress and noise and worry and control and other things harrying the soul, and untold numbers of books, meditation practices, and long walks in nature attempt to help us get there.
To find societal peace, we have to avoid conflict, war, and crime. Peace is the absence of violence, and untold numbers of attempts to come up with acceptable terms to make that happen has filled up reams of newspapers, policy reports, international summit agendas, and reasons to wage war.
The peace the world promises so tantalizingly is all about absence and about removal, and so sometimes in the name of peace, truly awful things are justified. In the name of peace, we have the largest prison population per capita in the world, to remove dangerous criminals; in the name of peace, immigrants and refugees are removed or detained indefinitely. In the name of peace, we ignore suffering so we can avoid the anxiety and worry that interferes with our need for personal peace. The greatest justification for war is peace.
If we can just get rid of this, that, or the other negative thing, the world suggests, we can finally, maybe, have peace. But of course that reduces peace to something situational, temperamental, and fleeting.
But Jesus calls out to us in the midst of that elusive search for peace, “My peace, I give to you. But I do not give you peace as the world gives.”
That peace is not a search. It’s not an exercise. It’s not a thing to acheive. Rather, it’s a gift of God.
It makes me wonder whether we’ve simply misunderstood and confused peace for other feelings, lesser ones. When we subtract stress, noise, and worry from our personal lives, maybe what we end up with isn’t peace, but tranquility and rest. When we subtract conflict, war, and violence, maybe what we’re left with isn’t peace, but security.
Now to be clear. There’s nothing wrong with security. And there’s nothing wrong with tranquility and rest. Both are basic human needs and desires. It’s just not peace.
At least not the peace that Christ gives.
Because the peace Christ gives isn’t about absence. It’s about presence.
Remember, Jesus is giving his disciples peace in the midst of what will be, by the world’s definition, the most unpeaceful time of their lives. Jesus is going to be arrested. He’s going to jail. He’s going to be prosecuted. He’s going to be executed. There will be no shortage of violence, no shortage of confusion, no shortage of stressful situations,.
When Jesus tells the disciples not to let the hearts be troubled or afraid, he is doing so in the midst of one of the most heart-rending, troubling, and terrifying moments of their lives.
The peace Christ gives doesn’t take those situations away. It assumes those things will continue to happen. The peace Christ gives comes from not being alone in the midst of it and it comes from God being in the midst of everything the world throws at us to disturb and trouble us, it comes from God walking alongside us through it in love, even in the midst of our own shortcomings or our failures.
The peace of Christ is the promise that God’s home, as the text says, is not in some rose-colored, far-off plane of existence, but is right here, among us, with you and with me, in the mess of it. Or to put it another way, when God is with us, God is at home, no matter how messy the house is.
That’s what it means after all when Jesus says he will send the the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. That word, the Advocate, comes from a Greek word, Paraclete, a word that literally means to call close to one’s side. That gift doesn’t mean they will never face problems again. Jesus doesn’t promise them or us a divine cosmic handyman or genie in a bottle or holy clockmaker or heavenly chessmaster. He promises them the Paraclete, the Spirit, the one who will always be close at hand with them, walking through whatever trauma we’re facing, never abandoning, never forsaking.
And so ultimately, the peace that Christ gives us is an active one, a present one, a creative one. It’s not a peace borne out of absence, of withdrawal, of cessation. The peace of Christ is not a call to retreat, but a commission. To look out at the world, our city, and our community, and to see where there is suffering, to see where there is pain, and to know that it is our call to be present in the midst of that, to go with them, to stand with them. It’s not to go and try to fix, but to go and offer our love and presence.
That is the peace we exchange each Sunday in worship. It is not a peace that promises things won’t be difficult or messy. It’s peace that promises resilient presence in the midst of it all. It’s the peace of community. The peace of coming home to God and God coming home to us. It’s the peace of God which passes all understanding. And it is the peace that sends us out from this place to love and serve the Lord.