May 22, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "The Peace of Christ"

May 22nd  |  The Reverend John Vanderzee |  John 14:22-29

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   You may recall the 2000 movie, Miss Congeniality, which continues to appear now and then on cable TV. In it the contestants of the Miss America contest, after they parade down the runway in their gowns and swimsuits, are given the chance to disclose something about themselves. Finally, in this parody, they are asked the most important question of the evening, “If there is one thing in the world that you could wish for, and you might have a small part in helping to bring about, what would it be?” One after another the contestants respond with the same answer, “world peace,” “world peace,” “world peace.” It is the expected answer, of course, the screenwriter wants to convey, and the easiest one to say without much real personal thought or reflection, and therefore, perhaps the shallowest one. 

   There’s nothing bad about wishing for world peace. We have all wished for it and prayed for it from time to time. And it’s needed now more than ever, God knows. But the Gospel reading from John has Jesus talking about a different kind of peace from what the world seeks, and what the world tries to give.

   The peace for which the world strives and what the Miss America contestants seem to be referring to is the absence of war, or the cessation of all conflict, or even the absence of those things that lead up to war and conflict:  repression, hostility, fear, anger, and the like. This is the kind of peace the world needs and for which we also long. But as much as we want it, and the world needs it, it is not, by itself anyway, the peace of Christ. 

   Peter Lockhart, in his blog on this passage from John, writes that the peace that the world gives can be thought of on several different levels. First is the notion of political or international peace which I just mentioned. Second is the idea of peace in our personal relationships. And third is the concept of inner peace or tranquility.

   Political or international peace, of course, is easier to imagine and hope for than it is to achieve. We can start by thinking about what that meant in Jesus’ time when people in much of North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe were part of the Roman Empire.  Emperor Augustus established the rule of “pax Romana” - the peace of Rome. Rome kept the peace by invading territories that were weak and in turmoil, taking them over, and ruling them with an iron fist. Peace was kept, for the most part, but it was through the use of fear and intimidation. It was the peace that Rome thought Jesus had threatened when his teaching and preaching disturbed the Judean status quo, resulting in Pilate’s emblematic and literal washing his hands of the whole thing, which led to Jesus’ humiliation and crucifixion. 

   This is the so-called peace that the world offered in Jesus’ time. But have things changed much since then? Those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties lived through the Cold War. The two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union somehow managed to keep a precarious peace by building up megatons of nuclear weapons. It was a peacekeeping policy known as deterrence. It was an uneasy peace that any moment could have resulted in the extermination of hundreds of millions of people.

   Then, following 9/11, came the misguided war on terror where the stakes seemed almost as high, although the tactics were different. Hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers lost their lives in an unwinnable war. Suicide bombers and unmanned drones superseded but did not altogether replace the nuclear threat as more and more countries became nuclear capable. Either way, military might was the preferred approach as opposed to diplomacy and education to win the war on terror.

   And now, with the war in Ukraine, we have once again the threat of territorial conquest in the person of the dangerously deranged Vladimir Putin. Despite the efforts of the United States and NATO countries to supply weapons to Ukraine, and the valor of the Ukrainian people, the war continues with no end in sight. World peace is still a distant, if not totally unattainable, dream.

   What about the second kind of peace that Lockhart says is what society can offer: the peace of interpersonal relationships?

   Is it just me, or is there an epidemic of incivility in our society? People are angry. Drivers are more impatient and reckless. I think it was George Carlin who said that “people who drive too slow we call idiots, and people who drive too fast we call maniacs.” The tenor of our political discourse is, arguably, as uncivil as it was in any time in our nation’s history. Politicians are just picking up on what they hear everywhere else - or is it the other way around? Under the previous president, this vulgarity seemed to come from the top down. And it continues. The kind of talk going on between teachers and students, parents and schoolboards, colleagues at work, and even family members is fraught with tension, animosity, and distrust. 

   Even if we try to get along with other people, we cannot control how others are treating us. Sure, we have remedies that often work, and we are encouraged to participate in mediation, anger management, conflict resolution, and the like. Quite often they are just what is needed. But they are temporal solutions. It is still part and parcel of the peace that the world offers.

   Finally, there is the solution of inner peace. Peace can only come when we begin with ourselves, it is said. We are encouraged to cultivate some kind of inner peace or fulfillment that can manifest itself in how we feel about ourselves. There is a plethora of books, podcasts, and webinars out there on finding your true self or being the best you. All this is directed at helping you find your own private sense of peace and well-being. While that may sound empowering, it turns out to be a crushing and unattainable expectation that leaves one vacant and unfulfilled. Too often finding inner peace as the world conceives of it means focusing so much on ourselves that we fail to meet the needs of our neighbor as Jesus commands. 

   There is a tremendous hunger in our world for spiritual answers. People in record numbers are searching for spiritual respite in monasteries and retreat centers all over the country and the world. More and more people are seeking out spiritual guides or directors to help them in their journey of faith. Some of it is genuine and grounded in Christian objectives and aspirations.

   But there are those who seek spirituality without the benefit of religious commitment and genuine community engagement that must come with it. When the focus is often isolated from people’s experiences of life in community and in the real world, it becomes more of an escape than a genuine spiritual awakening.

   On all these levels: politically, socially, and even internally, the peace that the world offers is limited to say the least. 

   So, what is the peace that Jesus offers? Maybe his peace isn’t the absence of something, but instead is its own presence, its own truth, something all on its own. Maybe his peace is something that can come about beyond what even the greatest of world leaders, and the greatest counselors, and the greatest practitioners of inner tranquility have to offer. Could this be what Jesus means when he says to his disciples and by implication to us, “My peace I give to you, I do not give it as the world gives”?

   When Jesus speaks of peace, he is drawing from his own prophetic Jewish heritage which teaches that peace has to do with a bold and budding relationship with God and by extension with our fellow human beings in community. It is a relationship that is not adversely negated by sin and wrong choices.

   Peace is based on a relationship which is itself based solely on the free gift of grace. 

   When Jesus speaks of peace, he is referring to the relationship whereby God dwells in him and he in God, and this has implications for Jesus’ relationship not only with his disciples but with everyone. This peace is a gift, it is grace.

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 your hearts be afraid.

Jesus kept saying it, kept repeating it that night: Let not your hearts be troubled.

“But it’s difficult to imagine,” writes Scott Hoezee, “a more troubling context in which to try to say such a thing! Jesus kept talking about peace, but all hell was about to break loose on Jesus and on his band of followers. In fact, the mayhem at hand had begun. Judas had already fled the table by the time Jesus said these words. The atmosphere was as taut as a snare drum. It was also unspeakably sad.”

The peace that Jesus was offering would have to be delayed until the promised Spirit comes.

   But then to add even more pathos, Jesus gives his disciples fair warning of his coming absence - words that they will not understand until much later:

You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’  If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  And now I told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Jesus is going away from his disciples. He must suffer death on a rough-hewn cross, descend into the land of the dead, and finally be raised again to life. The fullness of the kingdom and the peace that comes with it lay ahead when God sends the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to lead them into all truth. Jesus is reminding his disciples and us of the peace that we already have in knowing Christ, as well as the perfect peace that is promised at life’s end and beyond.

   When Jesus said, “You heard me say, I am going away and I am coming to you,” I can’t help but wonder if he meant something in addition to the obvious fact that he is leaving and coming back - dying and rising again. On an experiential and real-world level, we feel Jesus leaving and returning - coming and going - as we live out our purpose day by day. At least I do, and I would hazard a guess you do as well.  There are days, even weeks or months, when we feel Jesus is far away, absent from our daily existence. We long for his presence. We try to conjure it up, but we just can’t. We pray, and it’s like praying into the abyss. In his book on spiritual awakening, Christian Wiman paradoxically calls Christ “My Bright Abyss.”

   There are other times when he comes to us - unexpectedly and as quietly as nothing we can ever adequately describe. For me it was a sunny spring day in Cambridge Mass, sitting on a bench reading The Little Prince. It is as close to his peace as we think we’ll ever experience. It may last a moment, a day or longer. But then he goes away again, or seemingly so, until he appears again in a radically new way. We know by faith that Christ is always with us, and he is. But our experience of him is fleeting because we, more often than not, are the ones who are in fact doing the coming and going, not Jesus. This metaphorical coming and going is an inevitable if not necessary part of the Christian life. 

   We Christians walk through the ups and downs of life just like everyone else, whether through loss and grief, or depression, or economic misfortune. But in the midst of it all, we know by grace that we are not alone, our own feelings notwithstanding.

   While peace is something we receive as a gift from God, it is not an excuse for us to isolate ourselves from the world and its suffering and live in some cocoon of tranquility and serenity.

   The peace that Christ offers is something that must be shared. It is something that must be lived out. 

   Even after Jesus’ resurrection, he made several appearances to his disciples and each time he greeted them with, “Peace be with you.” In a way, we can think of it as Jesus’ final gift to his disciples - his unshakable peace. It was a peace that remained with them when the promised Spirit came, and when they went into the world to spread the news of Christ’s gospel of forgiveness.   They were met with persecution and death, but through it all, the peace remained.

   In our Communion liturgy when we offer the peace of Christ to one another, hopefully, it is more than mere words. Jesus Christ himself is in that very transaction, being passed back and forth in a handshake or a hug, a touch on one’s heart or a peace sign. It may seem small and fleeting, but it is real! It is tangible! It is a gift! 

   When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper again in a few weeks, we will pass the peace of Christ. If you mean it when you say it, it will come back to you. Like the disciples, we are still waiting the earthly return of our teacher. In the meantime, we are called to share Christ’s peace which passes understanding with one another whenever we can with words and actions.

   To our almighty and merciful God be all honor, glory, and blessing.  Amen.