“but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
“oh peace! Shut up!”
It’s not often that one gets a chance to start a sermon with Monty Python quote. But today it is bizarrely relevant.
“Peace I leave with you,” Jesus says to his disciples in the farewell discourse in John’s gospel, “my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”.
One of the great claims of the Roman empire was that it had brought peace to the region. For the occupants of the fertile crescent had been torn by war after war, as great empires struggled with one another – Israel, a small pawn in the middle of board swept back and forth as one mighty power after another dominated the ancient world.
The peace of Rome, the Pax Romana, may have been more propaganda gloss than reality, but it was the gift of the world. Peace, as the world gives it. Peace through strength, peace through control, peace through superior firepower.
It’s the same peace that we hear in the voice of serious contenders for the American presidency, promising to end the threat of terrorism and the refugee crisis by carpet bombing Iraq or Syria. Peace through violence or the threat of violence, peace though power.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. But I do not give you peace as the world gives it”
Not as the world gives.
The peace that Rome brought, the peace that the world gives, is peace on the terms of the powerful. Peace where the strong perhaps choose to be generous, perhaps make concessions to the weak, but continue to hold all the cards, all the power.
The peace of Jesus is not as the world gives. It is not a peace in which the powerful hold the reigns tight and keep everything in order (according to our definition of order).
The peace of God is much messier than that. It is the peace of setting free. The peace of empowering the other. It is a dangerous peace, unpredictable, uncontrolled by design.
For love never finds peace through fear, through threat, through force.
But of course, when we speak of peace it is about far more than the geopolitical considerations of conflict, war, or terrorism.
We speak too of peace within our communities, our workplaces, our families. And once again, the world has its way of giving peace. Looking out for your people, your tribe. Excluding those who are different. The ones who might be a threat to the peace of the community. Ones who look different, or behave differently, who worship God differently, or worship a different God. One who speak another language, or hold different values.
But the peace of God is not given as the world gives. It is the peace of hospitality, the welcoming other the other, the stranger, the different. It is the peace that Jesus lived, eating with outsiders, outcasts; and also with the privileged and powerful. “For Christ”, the Apostle will later write, “himself has brought peace to us. He united those who were divided into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.”
And when we speak of peace, we might too think of an inner peace, a sense of wellbeing, of satisfaction with life. And here too the world offers peace in a very different way.
Some voices would make peace something that can be bought: if you just had the things that you needed, the right clothes or gadgets or physique, then you would fit, you would be comfortable with your life, you would find that peace which comes from not needing any more.
Of course, we know that to be an illusion spun by the world of advertising; and perhaps we go in a different direction: peace through being connected with your inner self, your own spirituality, your own sub-conscious. While religious observance may continue to shrink away in our society, spirituality remains strong, as people seek out spiritual peace outside of the constraints, as they would see it, of institutions or organised religion.
A peace that seems too often to be characterised by the needs and wants and comfort of the individual; my spirituality, my self-actualisation, my path.
But once again, the peace that Jesus offers is not as the world offers. For those who seek inner peace, he does not prescribe the pathway of individualism, but of community; not the pathway of self-fulfilment, but of discipleship; not the pathway of comfort, but of consolation in trial, as Paul describes the opening of the second letter to the Corinthians: “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ”
And of course, if we speak of peace we must also reflect on peace with God.
How does the world offer peace with God? Some, of course, do so by denying the reality of God at all, destroying even the possibility of peace with that which is not.
Many choose instead the peace with God that comes from redescribing God. “I like to think of God…” the sentence begins – and ends by describing a God who just seems to fit seamlessly with the way things already are. Peace by recreating God in your own image: peace, but at the expense of growth. For if God is no more than I imagine God to be, how can I be challenged to be more than I already am?
Or perhaps instead, the world would push God off into the infinite distance – “we can’t know anything about God, God is so completely other”.
The peace that Jesus offers, once more, is not as the world gives. For he came to show us the reality of God, and to make that reality knowable, approachable – but containable.
The peace with God offered by Christ is not the peace of perfection, not the peace of absence, but the peace of grace: the peace which comes from knowing your weakness, knowing your failure, knowing your sin, and knowing that, with it all, you are still held in the loving care of God.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”
Peace is what we want, it is what we need. As a world, as communities, as individuals within ourselves and in our relationship with God.
It is peace we strive for, at least on our better days.
And it is peace that Jesus promised.
But are we ready to let go of our own understanding of where peace might come from, and receive the gift that is offered?