May 9th, 2010 6th Sunday of Easter

Today’s Gospel reading needs to be heard in context. It takes place at the last supper. Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to be betrayed. He has even revealed Judas as the one who is going to betray him, and he has told Peter that he, the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church, is going to deny him three times. But, right after all this bad news, Jesus sets out to comfort his followers. He promises that, even though he is leaving, he will return, and he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, who will be with them forever. Because of this, he tells the disciples, they should not grieve that he must leave them. Listen again to Jesus’ words of comfort: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. Now, for me, the interesting part of this is that he says: I do not give to you as the world gives. How DOES the world give? And how does this compare with the way Jesus gives?
Well, I think that we know the answer to that. Anything we get from the world is only temporary – it will not last. No matter how we cherish it, it will eventually be no more. Great civilizations vanish, so why then would we be arrogant enough to think that the things we have will last? Listen to a poem by Shelley, which says it far more eloquently than I could.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
But what Jesus gives us, that peace that passes all understanding, that we will have forever, if we but listen to him, if we but keep his commandment.
In many churches, either after Communion, or at some other point during worship, there is often something called “passing the peace”, when members of the congregation shake hands or hug, and say something like “Peace be with you.” Some people are uncomfortable with doing this, while others rejoice that they are able to take part in such an expression of Christian love. But, for the sake of those people who may be uncomfortable, I have decided not to do it as a regular part of worship, even on those days like today when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I do stand at the exit after worship, and shake hands with those who wish to do so, and I think that by doing this, we are sharing God’s peace. But I have often wondered what we mean when we offer each other peace? What kind of peace are we talking about? Are we talking about an absence of conflict or war? Are we talking about some kind of ethereal, mystical peace, in which everyone sits quietly together, naval-gazing? Or is the peace that Jesus gives us something completely different?
I think that the peace Jesus wishes us is a peace that allows to be still, and to listen to the voice of God, as Elijah finally did. There is a story about a rich man who wanted a picture painted that would depict peace. So he commissioned an artist, and told the artist nothing more than that. I want a picture that shows peace. And he left it to the artist to figure out how best to depict it. So the artist painted a picture of an English country-side – all green, with a soft blue sky. There were a couple of clouds drifting overhead, and a cow grazing in the field. The rich man looked at it, and said, “That’s not what I want. I want a picture of peace.” So the artist went away and thought some more. The next picture he brought to the rich man was of a mother holding her baby. The baby was sleeping, and the mother was looking down at the baby with a gentle smile. Surely, thought the artist, this picture will satisfy my patron. But no, this was not what the rich man wanted either. So the artist returned to his studio, and this time, he was not happy with his job. He couldn’t figure out what the rich man wanted. He thought, and he thought, and he paced up and down. Finally, he prayed about it. Then he went to his blank canvas and began to paint furiously. A couple of days later, he brought the finished painting to the rich man, who studied it carefully. Then he said, “This is exactly what I wanted. Finally, you have captured the essence of peace.” And what was the picture? It could have been painted in my home province, as it showed a storm dashing against a cliff beside the sea. Black rain clouds were being blown furiously by the wind, and lightning was flashing in several places. The waves were crashing furiously against the cliff, and whitecaps were everywhere in evidence. But if you looked carefully, right in the middle of the picture, under an overhanging rock, there was a small seabird, safe and dry in her nest. The bird was totally at peace, even with the storm raging all around her.
And this, this is the peace that Jesus wished for his disciples, and that he wishes for us today. This peace, even in the midst of turmoil, even in the midst of horrible things happening all around us, this is the kind of peace he means.
After all, most of us are not going to have the opportunity to live in the country, where all is placid. And, even if we do, we soon realize that country life is not all that peaceful. Animals need to be fed, fields need to be plowed, crops must be harvested – no, country life is definitely not as peaceful as the first painted claimed. And any of us who have lived with babies can attest to the fact that the peaceful moments are few and far between. Babies cry. They cry to be fed; they cry to have their diapers changed; they cry because they have a pain in their bellies; they cry because they just don’t want to be put down. Those wonderful, peaceful moments when the baby is sleeping in his mother’s arms are few and far between.
So rather than wish us the kind of worldly peace that the first two paintings showed, Jesus gives us a peace that will always be with us. In the middle of turmoil, in the middle of any kind of trouble, we know that we have a rock to shelter us. We have someone who will care for us as the shepherd cares for his sheep. When a storm comes, the shepherd gets his sheep under some like of shelter. Likewise, the mother bird will gather her chicks under her wings at the first sign of danger. This is an image which has been applied to God in both the Old and the New Testaments, and I believe that it is one of the most powerful ones.
There is a hymn which isn’t used very often any more, but it is still in the Book of Praise, and I’d like to quote some of it right now. The chorus of it: We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll, fastened to the rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love. Many of these old hymns say exactly what needs to be said. It is in the Saviour’s love that we will find peace, not in any of the things of the world. We think, Gee, if I had some more money, I would be at peace. Or, if I were healthier, I would be at peace. Or, if I had were in – or out of – a relationship, I would be at peace. We look for peace. Many of us pray for peace – peace in the world, and peace in our hearts. But maybe we are not looking for the right kind of peace. Maybe we are looking for a worldly peace, rather than the peace that Jesus promised.
In Hebrew, the word SHALOM is often translated simply as peace, but it actually means much more. It refers to a kind of wholeness, a completeness, and this is the kind of peace which Jesus promised. It refers not only to the absence of war, but to the absence of the very causes of war. Imagine a world in which there was no intolerance, no prejudice, no injustice. How, then, could there be war? It refers not only to an absence of pain, but to an absence of the causes of pain. Forget popping painkillers – with this kind of peace, you won’t need them. Doctors can put away their prescription pads, because we won’t need them.
Listen again to his words: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. Jesus is the one who gives us this peace. By allowing Jesus into our hearts, we will be a part of this peace. And this peace can be part of churches. But it isn’t always. At one time I was part of a congregation which was not at peace. Members of the congregation fought with the minister and among themselves. There were definite camps within the church, and it reached a point where the church eventually closed. Do you think that this congregation allowed the peace of Jesus Christ to be part of congregational life? I have also been a member of a congregation – a mush smaller one – where love was the element in every single event. Every Sunday worship, every annual meeting, every social event – they were all shaped by the love these people shared. These people had accepted the gift of peace given by Jesus.
This peace can be a part of our personal lives. But it isn’t always. Husbands and wives can snap at each other. Parents and children can snap at each other. Siblings – well, we all know the story about Cain and Abel, so we know what siblings are capable of. But Jesus offered us – individuals, families, and congregations, his peace. All we have to do is to take it, to accept it.
And once we accept this peace, then we will share it. Note, I did not say We will WANT to share it. I said we WILL share it. There is a quote from Martin Luther that I think is appropriate here. “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?” Have you ever felt a rock that has been in the sunlight all day? It does radiate warmth for some time after the sun goes down. Just so with us and the peace that Jesus gives us. A Christian who has lived in the sunlight of God’s love, in the joy of God’s peace, will radiate God’s love to others, will radiate God’s peace to others. But we can’t radiate God’s peace and love unless we first experience it ourselves. Like the rock in the sun, we need to soak up the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s love and peace into our very souls. And when we do this, then we can give it to others. Like the rock, we will radiate. Think of the children’s hymn This Little Light of Mine. I think that this is what that hymn is really talking about. As Christians, we can and should share the light of God’s love, the light of God’s peace with others. As Christians, if we have accepted it already, then we have no choice but to share it.
We can find this peace, without even looking too hard. Because it is all around us. It is found in living a life of faith, in walking in accordance with the words of Jesus Christ, in placing our trust completely in God. We may live in a world of turmoil, but, like the little seabird in the painting, we can be at peace with God. We can be at peace with each other. But better than the bird, we don’t need to huddle in a nest, waiting for the storm to pass. Because we know that, once the storm does pass, then we will have the wonderful gift of God’s peace with us forever. Thanks be to God.

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