Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Peace That the World Cannot Give

Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year C
Acts 16.9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21.10, 22—22.5; John 14.23-29
Sunday, May 1, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

“Peace I leave with you. My own peace I give to you. The peace that the world cannot give, I give to you.”

Now, admittedly this is not exactly the way Jesus’ words are translated in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. Nor will you find his words rendered quite this way in any of the available English translations of the Bible. But this is the way I remember it – undoubtedly a paraphrase I heard years ago. And frankly, one that, for me, adds clarity to the seemingly awkward version in today’s Gospel. These words of Jesus, at least my remembering of them, providing his promise of peace to his disciples, is one of my favorite passages. It is one that gives me great comfort and cause for hope.

“Peace I leave with you. My own peace I give to you. The peace that the world cannot give, I give to you.”

But what specifically is Jesus talking about in promising to give his peace to his disciples? Especially the “peace that the world cannot give.” There is a pretty broad range of meanings of that one word “peace.” According to Merriam-Webster, peace is “a state of tranquility or quiet,” that is manifest in varying ways. On a large scale, it is thought of as a period of mutual concord between governments. At a more localized level, it is a freedom from civil disturbance or a condition that provides a state of security. Between individuals, it is harmony in personal relations. And for the individual, it is a freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions.

Of course, the word Jesus would have used was “shalom,” which has an even broader and deeper set of meanings. This Hebrew word means peace, harmony, and tranquility, just as its English counterpart does. But shalom also carries the meaning of prosperity, welfare, wholeness, and completeness. These are all included in Jesus’ understanding of peace. Not just harmony and tranquility, but a richness, a completeness, a wholeness that cannot be found in this life.

Jesus is talking about a harmony, a richness, a wholeness that can only be found in our relationship with God. A peace, a harmony, a wholeness, that can only be fully achieved through our salvation whereby we are reconciled with God. But we cannot do that on our own. We need a messiah to help bring about that reconciliation and salvation. The Old Testament understanding was that the messiah would be one who brings peace and salvation. That salvation would be the means to peace, on a broad scale, and on a personal level.

When Jesus says to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he is first and foremost talking about the salvation that they would receive. He says this mere hours before his own death. Mere days before his resurrection. The means by which he would provide for their salvation and the salvation of all humanity. The salvation that would be, and is, marked by eternal life. When he says “Peace is my gift to you,” this is really just another way of saying, “I give you eternal life.” Eternal life, whereby we are completely reconciled to God, and God to us. In which our relationship is made complete, bringing ultimate harmony. And in eternal life, in harmony with our God, where our very selves are made whole and complete. The ultimate in shalom.

However, the peace we seek is not just something in the future, in the life to come. While maybe only experienced in its fullness in the new life we will enjoy after our deaths, there is still something of this peace to be had here and now. Jesus is offering that peace even now through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promises his Father will send. In describing this, Jesus uses the language of God dwelling with us. God will come and make his home with those who follow him and love him. And this will be accomplished through the sending of the Holy Spirit to be a teacher and guide following Jesus’ own departure. The Holy Spirit who dwells in us. In this, God is not just making his home with us as Jesus promised. God is making his home in us.

So, when we talk about Christ’s peace, we are talking about the eternal life we are promised at the end of the ages, following our own death. But we are also promised Christ’s peace hear and now through the Holy Spirit, which we receive at baptism. So, where is this peace, how is it manifest, in our daily lives? I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s hard to find that peace in amongst the craziness of everyday life.

As I was reflecting on, even struggling with, this idea of Christ’s peace being present in our everyday lives, I began thinking about and reflecting on another time when I sought to intentionally focus on experiencing the peace of Christ. One of the required classes during my first year of seminary was called “Spirituality for Ministry.” We studied, explored, and practiced various spiritual disciplines, such as different methods of prayer, meditation, and the like. For the class, we were required to do a final project involving a spiritual practice. I decided I would do a silent retreat and reflect on its impact on my spiritual life.

The concept behind a silent retreat recognizes that our lives are filled with so many things that distract us from really being able to focus on God. There always seems to be something distracting us from the peace Christ offers – day-to-day responsibilities, other people, the constant noise of life, especially in our technological age. We get so use to it that we aren’t even aware of its presence. Until it is gone. Such as when there is a power outage, and you suddenly realize how quiet it has become. Or when you’re able to get out into nature, far removed from all the noise of city life. God’s voice gets drowned out by the noise and distractions in our day-to-day lives. By spending a period of time, a number of days, in silence without talking or having others talk to you, you can begin to focus on God’s voice. You can begin to hear God’s voice in a way that you aren’t always able to otherwise. At least, that’s the theory.

For my retreat, I booked a room at New Melleray Abbey, a Roman Catholic Trappist monastery outside Dubuque, Iowa. I entered into my retreat thinking I would spend three glorious days experiencing God’s peace. No one else to talk to me. No one for me to talk to. It would be a time of nonstop prayer, worship, meditation, walking in nature with God, just being in God’s presence. Nothing to distract me from just being with God. Boy was I wrong!

One of the greatest revelations during the course of being silent for three days was that I became much more aware of my own thoughts and internal dialogues. Not having anyone else (other than God) to talk to during that time, I became much more focused on the content of my own thoughts and was amazed at how much internal dialogue actually goes on in my own head. How pervasive, how persistent, those voices really are. This was rather disturbing at first, as I realized that a lot of my internal dialogue is of a judgmental nature—judgmental and critical of my own thoughts, actions, and behaviors; and how judgmental and critical I can be of other people, of situations.

I found very quickly that it was difficult to maintain my previously identified goal for the retreat of seeking God’s peace, as the Holy Spirit seemed to have other plans for our time together. However, I did realize that when I became aware of critical or judgmental thoughts and feelings, one thing I could do was to acknowledge them for what they are, gently push them aside, and then use those moments of self-awareness to turn to God and ask for God’s grace to fill those negative moments with positive energy and love, and to also use those moments to pray for myself or for others about whom I may have been thinking. In this way, I could begin to redeem the negative energy of such thoughts for God’s purposes, while at the same time creating time for God. And in so doing, I began to find and rest in the peace of God that I so desperately sought.

As I discovered while on retreat, it’s not just the external noises that get in the way of experiencing Christ’s peace. When I was able to essentially remove myself from all the external distractions, new ones presented themselves. Well not really new ones. They were there all the time. It’s just that I could not hear them amid the other noise and distractions of life. But I also discovered that if I stuck with it, the peace that Jesus promised did present itself in surprising ways. In grace-filled ways.

The good news is that while we may not always recognize it, Christ’s peace is still with us. It may not be readily perceptible, but it is there. Just as Jesus promised to his disciples. The ancient Christian mystics talk about God at work in our deepest self, when we are completely unaware of God’s presence. Even when we think God may have abandoned us and be absent from our lives. No he is still there, working on the very depths of our souls, making his peace felt in subtle, even imperceptible ways.

I know how un-peaceful my life is at times. How un-centered, unspiritual, my life can seem. I know the chattering of the voices in my head. But then I hear Jesus’ promise of peace. And I know the peace of Christ is indeed with me, helping to anchor me, to give me some sort of balance, to be a calming influence on those interior voices. I shudder to think how much worse it would be, how much more un-centered, how much more untethered I’d be if not for that peace – even if I don’t always feel it in perceptible or tangible ways.

This is where I take great comfort. Knowing that Christ’s peace is always there, even if I can’t always perceive it. Christ’s peace. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God making his home in me. The peace that the world cannot give. That only he can give. Lifting me up, strengthening me, helping me withstand and face all the other distractions of life.

As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “Let the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body” (Col 3.15). The peace that the world cannot give, which only Christ can give, is ours by virtue of being the Body of Christ. It is a sacred inheritance that gives us strength, gives us comfort, and gives us hope in the fullness of peace that is sure to be ours. May you find the peace of Christ that you are looking for. The peace that he promises to you. The peace that is his gift to you.

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