Keep in mind that in John’s Gospel Jesus teaches in the language of the teachers in John’s community/church. This is how they imagined the living Christ speaking to them. Perhaps we should do the same. These are not so much the words of the historical Jesus, as they are the words of the living Christ, the universal Christ speaking to us. Christ says, “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.” I would urge you to take these words personally. This is the universal Christ, the cosmic Christ, the risen Christ speaking to you and to me. He gives us the gift of his peace. But it’s not automatic. This is a gift that has to be unwrapped, and that takes some trust and effort on our part.
The Christ says, “My peace I give you. But I do not give to you as the world gives.” What does that mean? Does it mean that Christ gives more graciously and generously and unconditionally than the world gives? That is true, but I suspect that what John is getting at is that the peace that comes from Christ is of a different kind and nature as that which comes from the world.
God loves the world. Let’s not question that. God is committed to the healing and well-being and redemption of the world. But the world is broken. Its values are skewed. And we, of course, are part of that world, and so our values get skewed. The world is God’s good creation, and we are God’s children. The light of God, which became incarnate in Jesus, is the light that is within every human being. John says as much in his prologue/introduction in the opening chapter. He says, “in him [the Word made flesh] was life, and the life was the light of all people . . . He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.” The light of Christ dwells with us and in us. The light of Christ is everywhere and in everyone. But too often that light is never allowed to shine. It gets covered up and pushed to the side by our selfish ego. We live in blindness and darkness, when we follow our ego rather than the light of Christ. And this produces a world of fear, conflict, hate, and violence. When our egos both individually and collectively as a group or community channel and mirror the fears, prejudices, greed, divisiveness, and brokenness of the world we have no peace or we have a false peace. So what is the difference between the peace of Christ and the peace of the world that is rooted in our ego both personally and collectively?
For one thing, the peace of Christ is born out of trust, rather than fear and control. In order to unwrap the gift of Christ’s peace, we must allow the Christ or the Holy Spirit to be at home in our hearts and souls. (And by the way, whether we talk about Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of Christ, or our Father in heaven, or for that matter our Mother in heaven, we are talking about the same divine reality. The one God takes different forms and functions in diverse ways, and we use different images to talk about the one God.) Trust is an important part of Christ being at home in our hearts.
In John’s Gospel whenever you see the word “believe” you can substitute for the word believe the word “trust” or the word “faithful” or use both words depending on the context, and you will have a better understanding of the meaning. The problem in translation has to do with how we use the word “believe” today in common speech. Most commonly today the word “believe” means believing something intellectually as a fact, giving assent with one’s mind that something is correct. That’s not what the word means in our sacred texts. For example, in 14:1 Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.” That does not mean believe in your mind that God is real. That in itself is not going to comfort a troubled heart. It’s best to substitute the word “trust” for “believe.” “Trust in God, trust also in me,” says Jesus. If we take this as a word from the living Christ, Christ is telling us to trust with our whole hearts in the love and grace of God that we see embodied in Jesus. It’s our trust in the love of Christ, and our faithfulness to the way of love that will dispel our fears and worries. Belief alone won’t do it sisters and brothers. Trust in the gift of Christ’s love and presence with us and in us, and faithfulness to the way of love is the kind of faith that will overcome the fears of the world. That’s what brings about God’s peace.
I heard about a successful banker who had everything he could possibly want. He seemed to have a good marriage, beautiful kids, didn’t want for anything really. Everything was going his way. Then his eldest son began to suffer from a psychotic disorder and was admitted into a psychiatric hospital. Quite suddenly, this man’s carefully ordered and managed world was disrupted. This man became angry, because it was not something he could control. He thought he had built up this barrier against all threats to his peace and his family’s peace. He was in control of his work. He was in control of his life. He thought he was in control of his family, but he wasn’t. He couldn’t control this. Suddenly, he realized he was powerless to do anything about this. It filled him with anger and anguish. But then something happened. He met other parents who were living is similar unpredictable situations. He could see how some of them, even though their lives had been upended and the future was uncertain, nevertheless, they trusted in love and they allowed their own suffering to make them more humble and compassionate. And it changed him. That man, who was all about his career and his success retired early and began investing time in his son and in others nurturing relationships of mutual care and compassion. He began working with others to create a world where there is more love and a deeper sense of community and belonging. He went form a place where he tried to maintain a kind of superficial peace by controlling as much as he could, working to eliminate all fears, he went from that place to a place where he realized that there was much he couldn’t control, and therefore had to face his fears. And face his fears he did by trusting in the power of love and friendship. He had to learn how to trust in the love and support of others.
If we want the peace of Christ then we have to look our fears right in the face, and begin trusting in the power of love. We have to trust in the support of community, because we can’t do this alone. I think one reason so many Christians today support policies of hate and exclusion is because they have given into their fears. Instead of finding healing and the power to be transformed in their churches, their churches have fostered a culture of fear. They have a faith rooted in fear – fear of hell, fear of God’s punishment, fear of losing control, fear of others. So they are willing to believe the lies and deceptions being propagated today about the undocumented and those who come seeking asylum, because they live in fear, and their fear stokes false images that foster contempt and hate. It is a sad commentary on American Christianity that so many churches and Christians are willing to believe lies and stoke hate, because they are afraid to face their fears and trust in God’s love that extends to everyone. And many popular and powerful Christian leaders are stoking that fear. If we are going to unwrap God’s gift of peace and experience Christ’s peace in our hearts and in our relationships then we have to face our fears, and learn how to trust in God’s love, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. God’s gift of peace is born out of trust, rather than fear.
A second thing about God’s peace is that God’s gift of peace is sustained by love, rather than coercive power and force. God’s gift of peace is born out of trust, rather than fear, and sustained by love, rather than coercive force. So if we are going to unwrap and experience Christ’s gift of peace, then we must learn how to love, and let go of our need and desire to exert power over others and make them conform to our wants and expectations. So many folks today want to use their power to control the circumstances of their lives. But that never works. We can’t control life. But we keep trying. How many in our country today have bought into this idea that if can just keep people out, and close ourselves within a fortress we will have peace. And yet look what is happening. Violence is erupting from within. How many people are walking time bombs just waiting to explode? School shootings are becoming so common place we don’t even pause from what we are doing when we hear about another one. And sure seems like we are about to get into another war because we think we have the right to control other countries just to protect American interests. What a gigantic ego we have. The peace the world offers is no peace at all. I am reminded of what Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will no escape.” We hunker down in our fortress, we exert force and even violence in our claim to bring peace, and in doing so we bring destruction upon ourselves.
A third thing about God’s peace when compared to the world’s peace is that God’s peace is based on forgiveness, rather than punishment. Its goal is restoration and reconciliation, rather than retribution. There can be no peace without forgiveness. Theologian Walter Wink tells about two peacemakers who visited a group of Polish Christians ten years after the end of World War II. The peacemakers asked, “Would you be willing to meet with other Christians from West Germany? They want to ask forgiveness for what Germany did to Poland during the war and begin to build a new relationship.” At first there was silence. Then someone spoke up, “What you are asking is impossible. Each stone of Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood! We cannot forgive.” Before they parted they said the Lord’s Prayer together. They came to the part about forgiveness – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us – and everyone stopped praying. Tension welled up in the room. The one who was outspoken said, “I must say ‘yes’ to you or I could no longer call myself a Christian and pray to the Father. And I must tell you that humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us strength.” Eighteen months later the Polish and West German Christians met together in Vienna to begin a process of reconciliation.
We can’t do this on our own. This is why we must allow Christ and his love to be at home within our hearts. Our ego wants vengeance. We want to make those who hurt us and the people we love the most pay. Forgiveness is not easy. It is a process we must work through with the help of Christ and the help of a community that is grounded in forgiveness, which is what the church is supposed to be. We should be learning how to forgive in our faith communities. The fact that forgiveness is so rare even in our churches is just another indication of how far we have drifted from the teaching of Jesus and the Spirit of the one we call our Lord. We have to grow a spirit of forgiveness. And we need fertile soil to do that – in our hearts and souls, and in our faith community – to grow a spirit of forgiveness.
Have you ever hit a big pothole and afterward start to feel your car vibrate and shake. You take your car to a mechanic and he says you need a wheel alignment. Your car is out of balance. This is how many of us go through life. Our lives and relationships are in a constant state of agitation and disintegration. They are out of balance. And the reason we are so out of balance is that we are governed by our ego. We get caught up in a culture of competition and rivalry. We think forgiveness is weakness. So we are constantly trying to defend ourselves and prove that we are better than others. Our families suffer. Our communities suffer. Our relationships suffer. We suffer in the depths of souls, but we refuse to admit it. The solution to that state of disruption and alienation is an alignment with the will of God. The way we do that is by allowing the love of Christ, the Spirit of Christ to become at home in our souls, in our families, and in our relationships.
If we are to unwrap the gift of Christ’s peace, first, we must trust in the love of Christ, rather than give in to fear. Second, we must learn how to practice the love of Christ, rather than try to control others. And third, we must practice forgiveness and pursue reconciliation, rather than harbor resentment and bitterness in pursuit of retaliation. For this is how Christ comes to dwell – to be at home – in our souls.
Now, briefly let me make one final point. We will never unwrap and experience the gift of Christ’s peace until we trust and are convinced that every person, whatever his or her abilities or disabilities, whatever his or her ethnic origins, culture, or religion is precious and loved by God. God’s Spirit is in them just as God’s Spirit is in us. Until we trust that we all belong, that we are all family, and accept that we all have a responsibility to care for one another, we will not know the peace of Christ. Until we recognize the dignity and worth of every person, and let go of the need to make them like us, we cannot know the peace of Christ.
O God, help us to let go of our fears, and our need to control people and circumstances, and learn to trust in the love you have for every one of us. Help us to realize that we all belong, that we are all your children and all are precious to you. Help us to let go of our need to retaliate for offenses done to us. Teach us how to practice forgiveness so that peace has a chance and so we will not be burdened with bitterness and resentment, and keep replaying these grievance stories over and over again in our mind. Show us how to love the way you love that we might pursue peace and reconciliation with those we are separated from. We ask all of this, Lord, so that Christ might be free to dwell, to be at home in our lives, our families, our church, and in our relationships. Amen.