As we discovered when dealing with the word: love, there are also several meanings to the word peace. There is the kind of peace that a mother of three young children longs for. Some of you understand this kind of desire. It’s the kids are jumping around the house on a rainy day, screaming and yelling, knocking over furniture, asking for juice and snacks, putting all kinds of demands on you, lock yourself in the restroom for five minutes so you can get away kind of peace. This kind of peace is the absence of any distractions or demands on your time or person.
But that is not the only kind of peace we know and long for. There is also the absence of conflict kind of peace. I had an interesting discussion with a World War II veteran this week who shared with me what it was like to find this kind of peace. His unit had been assigned to go after the Eagle’s Nest in Germany. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with that term, the Eagle’s Nest was the place where Hitler was supposed to be holed up–a last stronghold. This veteran had faced the daunting task of fighting to capture this fortified, dangerous position. But before, they moved out, they received word that the war was over. Peace had been declared. “The feeling was unimaginable,” this man said. The absence of what had been brutal conflict was overwhelming. We long for this kind of peace.
There is also the feeling that we experience in the midst of conflict and strife that all will be okay. We tend to call this inner peace. I know this feeling well because I have had it numerous times in my life. The most vivid one was when I was working for the YMCA summer camp program. We had taken a group of children to a park in northwest Austin, TX. It was June of 1996, and we received word that the town of Jarrel, TX had been hit by tornadoes, and they were headed our way. Complicating matters was that the Y had hired school busses to shuttle us and several other groups to the elementary schools which served as our home bases. Those busses were busy shuttling another group, and we were without transportation. The skies darkened, and we took the kids to a ravine hoping that the storms would pass over us. I climbed to the top of a small hill and looked northward and saw a funnel cloud heading toward us. Yet, in the midst of all of this, I was strangely calm. Deep down, I knew everything was going to be okay. And sure enough, a local family saw our plight and urged us to take shelter in their house. The storms passed us by while we huddled safely there–in peace.
It is quite interesting that in all of these circumstances, we often talk about working for peace. We talk about trying to make peace happen. We broker treaties, schedule retreats, go to counseling, and all sorts of other things to generate peace. But Paul, in this list calls peace a fruit of the Spirit. This means that for a Christian, peace isn’t something that we manufacture as if we can find and assemble the pieces to make something come together in perfect harmony; instead, peace is something that naturally flows from us as individuals and is found in our congregations and churches. In a real sense, peace just happens. How can this be?
Well, it all begins with Jesus. Jesus makes a very interesting comment in the book of John. 27"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.” When Jesus says these words, he is tapping into his Jewish heritage and talking about Shalom–a deep sense of well being; a sense of being in harmony with God. This is not a simple, fleeting feeling. It is a true gift. And what is that gift.
First, let’s examine what Jesus means when he says, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” What does the world give? Remember, Jesus is saying these things in the midst of the Pax Romana–the peace of Rome. It was a grand narrative that the Roman Empire proclaimed. They were bringing peace to the world. But how? How did the Roman Empire bring their peace? How has peace been brought to the world for countless generations? Through violence. The Romans established peace by stomping out anyone who opposed them. They viciously put down any opposing army or insurrection. They crucified thousands of people. They rendered swift and merciless judgement on criminals. Their violence established peace. This is how the world establishes peace. The biggest kid on the block gets to call the shots, and if anyone dares to oppose him or her, then the consequences are severe. There is no conflict because no one wants to take on the big kid. Everyone fears reprisal. Everyone walks in lock step because to do so means one will endure the wrath of the one in charge. This is the peace that the world gives. Jesus says his peace is not like this. Not by a long shot.
So, what kind of peace does Jesus bring? Let me begin to flesh this out by reminding you of an older story–a story that is found at the very beginning of the Bible. Some of you may remember the story of Noah’s Ark. You know that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights and Noah and his family and a bunch of animals were saved by being on a giant boat. And you may remember that the boat came to rest on top of a mountain and stayed there until the water subsided. Now, I would like to read to you the ending of that story. Genesis chapter 9 starting at verse 8:
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
Now, most of us were taught that this bow is the rainbow. The rainbow is often seen as a sign of peace. Why? Well, please note that in the lesson from Genesis, the word “rainbow” is not used. The word bow is. Do you know what a bow is? No, not the bow that is put in someone’s hair to make it look pretty. This is a bow, the kind that is used to shoot arrows. The kind that in that day was used to make war. God hung up his bow after the flood. After God punished the sinfulness of humankind, there was peace.
Now, let’s fast forward thousands of years. Let’s fast forward to another hill, this one outside the city of Jerusalem. On that hill stands a man, hanging and dying on a cross. But he is more than just a man. He is also God incarnate. He is the creator and sustainer of the universe. He is one person of the Holy Trinity who took on human flesh to live among us. He lived the perfect life, following every command of God the Father, and because he was spotless and blameless, he became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That man, hanging on the cross has taken the world’s sin upon himself. He has reached into you and into me and taken our unholiness upon himself. He has reached into you and me and taken our brokenness upon himself. He has reached into you and me and taken every evil thought, word, and deed upon himself. And he is dying in our place. He is suffering the torments of hell in our place. He is taking the punishment of the world’s sin so that we might never have to face it. He is redeeming us and offering us forgiveness of sin. And not only is he doing this. No, this is just one half of the equation. The other half is what Jesus is giving to us. He is giving us his righteousness. He is giving us his blamelessness. He is giving us his spotlessness. He is making us holy so that we can stand before God Almighty acceptable in His sight. He is transforming us into his brothers and sisters so that we may receive the promises of God. He is giving us the same status that he had as sinless.
Instead of washing the world clean by a flood and destroying once again the wickedness of humankind and punishing us for our sin, God pays the price himself and washes us clean by His blood on the cross of Calvary. Instead of hanging a bow in the sky, God hangs himself on the cross in a declaration of peace. Why? Because, when you hang a bow up, the bow is still there and it can be used later. War can be re-declared. This time, the bow is broken, shattered, and a lasting peace is established between God and humanity as God pays the price once and for all!
St. Paul wrote about it this way in the book of Romans, “6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Through Jesus Christ, we have peace with God. A right relationship with God has been restored. We have been justified. We have been made right with our creator, not by any action we have taken, but by the actions that Jesus Christ has taken. And God announced this new status with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God declared that everything Jesus said and did was true; and God showed that what happened to Jesus will also happen to us. Death will not touch us. We too will be raised to eternal life.
And when we put our trust in this action; when we stop trying to make ourselves right and throw ourselves on the mercy of God and God’s action, something happens deep within us. Something happens that brings us a sense of overwhelming peace and comfort. We know that we are right with our Creator. We know we stand in God’s love–a love that will never go away. And we know that God will act to bring us through whatever trial or tribulation we will face. Even death cannot have the last say. God will work to bring all things toward the good. Such things bring us an overwhelming sense of peace deep within our hearts–even when the world rages around us. Such is the fruit that grows within our hearts.
But it does not stay within our hearts. These fruits of the Spirit also begin coming forth in our lives. Peace begins emerging in our relationships–particularly in the relationships between those who believe in Jesus. For you see, as our hearts change, we too understand that peace is not given as the world gives. We begin to understand that peace is not brought about by being the top dog and strongest, mightiest person who can call all the shots. No. Instead, peace begins to emerge when we, like Jesus take on the pain and suffering of offering forgiveness. Peace begins to emerge when we are willing to pay the price for someone else wronging us. Remember our sermon series on forgiveness not too long ago? See how the two are inter-related? When a community of such like minded people gather, there are problems. There are issues. Our human natures still bring about conflict, BUT because our hearts are willing to absorb the cost; because our hearts have the peace of Christ within, reconciliation and forgiveness rule. Reconciliation and forgiveness take center stage. The same reconciliation and forgiveness God through Jesus extended to the whole world emerges within a community of faith bringing peace between brothers and sisters in Christ.
During my sermon series on forgiveness, I told the joke about the preacher who preached on loving one’s enemies. Remember that joke? A pastor preached a sermon to his congregation on loving and forgiving one’s enemies. After 30 minutes, he asked his congregation, “Who believes we should love and forgive our enemies?” About half of those in attendance raised their hands. The preacher wasn’t satisfied with this, so he preached another 30 minutes. He then asked again, “How many of you believe we should love and forgive our enemies?” About 3/4 of the congregation raised their hands. So, the preacher preached another 45 minutes. He then asked once more, “Who believes we should love and forgive our enemies?” The whole congregation raised their hands except for 94 year old Mrs. Mabel sitting in the back of the church. The preacher was astounded. “Mrs. Mabel, how is it that all the rest of the church believes they need to love and forgive their enemies, but you don’t?” Mrs. Mabel replied, “I ain’t got no enemies!” The preacher was astounded, “You have no enemies?” Mrs Mabel responded, “No. Not a one.” The preacher was then filled with excitement as he said, “Mrs. Mabel, please come down here and give your testimony. Come down here and tell us how it is that you have no enemies.” Mrs. Mabel shuffled up to the front of the church. She took the microphone in her hand and held it close. Then she said, “It’s because I outlived all them hussies!”
I am sure Mrs. Mabel was at peace, but not because she was producing peace. She was not bearing the fruits of the Spirit. Imagine a place where such personal relationships were governed by the peace that forgiveness brings. Imagine such a place governed by a group of people who were quick to bear one another’s burdens and realize how deeply flawed one another can be. Imagine a community where the words, “I forgive you,” easily flow as they did from the lips of Jesus. Imagine a community of people who know the peace of being forgiven by God and who then extend that forgiveness to one another. Would you want to be a part of that community? Could you stand being away from that type of community for a long period of time? Would you want to stay in that community and experience it day in and day out? At its best, this community would be called the church. It would be called those who are forgiven and who forgive as Jesus did. It would be called those who produce the fruit of Peace because they know the grace of God truly and deeply. May we be such a community. Amen.