Preached 13 May 2007 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
We all know what it’s like having folk to stay for a few days, don’t we? However much you love them, however nice they are, after a while (if we’re being honest) you’re pleased to see the back of them. Friends of ours in the Cotswolds used to say that house-guests were like fish – they went off after three days! So we made jolly sure we never stayed with them for more than a day or two!
But we know what he was getting at, don’t we? People staying with you very kindly wash things up but then put them in the wrong cupboards. They open the wrong bottle of milk. They leave the hall door open whenever they go through it and you have to keep getting up and shutting it after them. They disrupt your routines. And they create noise when you’re used to silence. They put the TV on when you would leave it off … and it’s usually sport! Ugh! They want to chat when you’re trying to read the paper. Or they’re wandering around talking on their mobile to the people they’ve left back home. So when the front door finally closes on them and their car drives away, what is it you say as you collapse into your favourite chair with a nice cup of tea: “Oh, thank goodness for a bit of … peace and quiet …”
Peace and quiet. We do tend to link the two, don’t we? In a domestic sense, we think of peace as the absence of noise, turmoil, disruptive activity. We’re having a bit of building work done in our back garden at the moment, so we have a skip in the drive, planks all over the place, a cement mixer chugging away all day, and the endless sound of picks, spades, stone hammers, … and tuneless whistling. The very antithesis of peace. Peace happens when they pack up and go home at half-past five.
And it’s very much the same on a global level. We think of peace as the absence of war, strife, conflict. Peace in Northern Ireland is the cessation of hostilities, the silencing of the guns. In other words, whether we’re thinking of it in a domestic context or a global context, we tend to think of peace in a very negative way. It is the absence of noise, the absence of turmoil, the absence of strife, the absence of disruption. But the question we need to address this morning is: Is that the kind of peace that Jesus was talking about in this morning’s reading – when he told his disciples at the end of the Last Supper, just before he set off to Gethsemane and Calvary. “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.”
Well, pretty clearly, it is not. For a start, he says it is not. His peace is not peace “as the world gives it”. Now there are two ways of understanding that statement. And the first and least obvious one to us stems from the fact that “to give peace” was the normal Jewish way of saying hello and goodbye – it still is I believe. When you meet someone you say “Shalom”. When you leave them you say “Shalom”. It’s the short form of “Shalom aleichem” – “Peace be with you” or “I give you peace.” It is, of course, what we are echoing in our holy communion services when we “share the peace”. But the point Jesus was making was that, in his day, to give peace was to give a greeting – nothing more. Shalom meant no more than “Hi! Morning, Bye, Cheerio, See ya.” People were saying to each other “I give you peace” but they were in fact giving nothing. It was just words. It was a salutation not an impartation.
So the first thing that Jesus is concerned for his followers to understand about his peace is that when he gives it to you, you do actually get something. When he says “Shalom”, some very real shalom – peace – passes from him to you. And then it’s up to you to appropriate it. More of that anon …
But the second thing that lay behind Jesus’ words was no doubt this. That at the time Jesus was speaking; the world was about 60 years into what had become known as the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. It had been begun by Caesar Augustus in 27 BC when he brought to an end the civil wars in Italy, and it would last for some 200 years. But as the Roman writer Tacitus would one day say of it: Rome “made a desert, and called it peace.” In Rome today you can still visit the Ara Pacis – the Altar of Peace. It’s an altar that Caesar built to celebrate his establishment of the Age of Peace promised by the prophets. But the truth was that the peace of Caesar Augustus was the peace of ruthless suppression, and the silencing of everyone and everything that dared to oppose Rome, or get on the wrong side of her. And, if you think about it, you’ll see that the very crucifixion of Jesus was, in fact, one terrible example of the way the Pax Romana operated.
So … I do not give peace as the world gives peace, says Jesus. My peace is not just empty words. And my peace is certainly not the eerie silence of the battlefield when all are lying dead. So what is the peace that Jesus gives … and how do we get it?
Well first, let’s look at the word itself. The Hebrew word shalom. And whereas our word “peace” and the Latin word pax and the Greek word eirene are all defined by what they are not – absence of noise, strife, conflict – the Hebrew word is defined by what it is. The Theological Word Book of the Old Testament says that its meaning encompasses “completeness, wholeness, harmony and fulfilment” and that “implicit in the word shalom is the idea of unimpaired relationships with others”. Shalom is that inner tranquillity and calm that comes from being truly at one with yourself, with your neighbour and above all, with God.
And we need to understand that throughout the Old Testament this peace, shalom peace, is understood to have its source in God alone and to be capable of being imparted by God alone. It is the blessing that flows from the special relationship that he has with his people. Numbers 6.22-26: The LORD said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ‘The LORD bless you, and keep you. The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’”’
But there was more. That blessing of peace that was to flow from God into the lives of his people in Old Testament times would, said the prophet, one day flow in an even greater way through a child who would be born, a son who would be given; who would be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Sar Shalom. A prince of whose government and peace there will be no end.
And he it is who, in this morning’s reading, stands before his followers and says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” He is giving them … he is giving us, if we will receive it … shalom. The shalom of kingdom come. The inner tranquillity and calm that he himself possesses in abundance and that springs from his total confidence in the love and goodness of God his Father, and from his perfect oneness with that God, his perfect oneness with humanity and his perfect oneness with himself.
It’s an astounding shalom that he offers. It’s a shalom that – far from being the absence of noise and strife and conflict – is most clearly seen in the midst of noise and strife and conflict. See the gang of priests and temple police bursting into Gethsemane led by Judas. See Jesus standing there, wrapped in his shalom-peace, among the smoking flares and torches, the noise and confusion, as he is betrayed by a kiss. See the panicking disciples – Peter striking out with a sword. See Jesus, reach out from within his shalom-peace and heal the one that Peter has wounded. See him being interrogated before the Jewish council, calmly answering his accusers, unperturbed. See him before Pilate, saying nothing, resting quietly in his shalom. See him whipped, beaten, mocked, nailed to the cross. And hear him – despite his very real agony, his very real distress, his very real sense of abandonment – speak out from the depths of his inner shalom forgiveness to his persecutors, welcome to the coming kingdom for a frightened thief, and comfort to his mother. See in Jesus the wonderful shalom of an untroubled heart – of a heart that is simply not afraid.
Can we know a peace like that? Can we have an untroubled heart? Can we have an inner tranquillity and calm that is unshaken by whatever noise and strife and turmoil might at any time surround us? The promise is that we can. That Jesus bequeathed it to us. My peace I give to you, he says.
Yes, but how do we receive it? Well, he goes on to tell us. Just minutes after telling his disciples “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27) Jesus says: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
“In me you may have peace.” The peace of Jesus is not like the box of Milk Tray, left on the dressing table in the night by someone who vanishes back into the darkness. The gift and the giver go together. In other words, you can receive the peace of Jesus only by receiving Jesus himself. And that’s because where Jesus is, his peace is, and where Jesus is not, his peace is not. His peace rested on his total confidence in the goodness and love of his heavenly Father. And only a personal relationship with Jesus can impart that same confidence to our hearts. It’s only when the Spirit of Jesus himself dwells in our hearts that we can have that wonderful, inner assurance that our God does indeed reign. He is in loving charge. Only with the Spirit of Jesus himself deep within us can we have the unshakeable conviction that “God is good, all of the time.” … that nothing, nothing at all, “can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” … and that, whatever our circumstances, whatever is going on around us, however bad it all might seem, “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”
Let me end with a story that Yvonne is fond of telling. In 1993 I’d had a quadruple heart bypass but my recovery had not been all I had hoped it would be, and I was experiencing more and more bouts of unstable angina. But one Sunday in the year 2000 the angina came and wouldn’t go away. Indeed it just got worse and worse so Yvonne rang for an ambulance. I was rushed into BRI and put on a heart monitor and I was given morphine but the pain persisted. That night, Yvonne went to stay with her mum and dad, but she was distraught and wondering if she was ever going to see me again. She went to bed well after midnight but couldn’t sleep and ended up just praying and praying and turning the whole situation over to Jesus. Then, just before one o’clock, “the peace of God” suddenly surrounded her, as she puts it, and she just knew everything was OK, and she went off to sleep. The next morning, when she rang the BRI, she found that my pain had gone at ten to one in the morning and that I too had had a good night’s sleep.
Such peace is not such a rarity as we might think. I have known it many times – and most particularly in my times of greatest crisis. And so, I’m sure have you. And that is as it should be. For the peace of Jesus was his parting gift to all his followers. But as Charles Ohlich says in his book The Suffering God, “God’s peace isn’t like a blanket which a father drapes over his child, but like a blanket at the end of the bed which the child must pull up.”
Yvonne pulled the blanket of God’s peace over herself that Sunday night in the year 2000 as she and I, like thousands of others, have done on many occasions. But note how she pulled the blanket up. By surrendering herself and her circumstances to Jesus in the intimacy of prayer.
Perhaps you need the peace of God this morning. It is yours for the taking. Jesus has already given it to you. But you must receive it by receiving him … opening to him your life and your circumstances … surrendering yourself to his love and goodness. To do that, is to pull over you the blanket of peace and to enjoy the tranquillity of an untroubled heart and quiet mind.
“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.”