Peace the World does not Give

Faith is difficult in our day, and part of the difficulty comes in language. Episcopalians tend toward a particular kind of language “nerdery.” Imagine if I were to greet someone new, a visitor walking through our big red doors, and they asked where the restroom was. I could say, “that’s easy, just make your way from the west narthex, past the font, through the nave. When you get to the chancel steps, genuflect if you’d like, then turn right, pass through the other narthex, and you’re there. If you get lost, ask an acolyte or the crucifer. Why use a common word like “church,” “entryway,” or “altar server” when old english and latin are at your fingertips? We Episcopalians have to be very careful about insider language. It’s easy to get sucked in.

But the difficulties of language don’t stop with the strange ephemera of our denomination. Today we don’t agree on basic terminology. Last week, I preached and I rejected the narrow definition of what “pro-life” has come to mean in our politics. What was surprising was that no one threw tomatoes. I was ready last week for some strong pushback, for some angry tweets. I got some pushback. What surprised me was how much the sermon was re-shared, watched online, how many folks were hungry to hear words I had spent so many years avoiding saying. Many Christians want to re-define the debate, want to let go of the old meanings. How we define the words of faith matters.

We often don’t take the time to define words in church. We think of their meaning as “self-evident.” We use shorthand. That’s dangerous. I can tell you, a church must be explicit that we include LGBTQ+ people. Words like “welcoming” are not enough. Many churches call themselves “welcoming” but they do not welcome LGBTQ+ folk. Our dismantling racism leaders at Holy Communion in recent days have been talking about how differently white folks and black folks hear the word “diversity.” What do we mean by the term? Heck, across this country we don’t even agree what the word “Christian” means. Language can be very tricky, and language can be very important. Today Jesus picks on a particular word, an important term, to redefine. That word is “peace.”

“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives.” Jesus’ words this morning come from the farewell discourse. After the last supper, Jesus sits the disciples down to give a final teaching, promising them them the Holy Spirit. He prays they will be one. And Jesus says, “my peace I leave with you. I give to you not as the world gives.”

In this passage I have particularly easy time putting myself in the role of a disciple, because Jesus speaks to one of my deepest longings: “Peace” he promises. I can be a bit of an anxious person, many of us can. These are anxious days. Peace Jesus promises. I long for that peace.

Ronald Rolheiser, the Catholic theologian reminds us longing itself can be holy. Longing drives us beyond ourselves. But longing can also be dangerous. St. Augustine warned that sin was “disordered love” or we might say, “disordered longing.” Sigmund Freud talked about the “fire without focus that burns at the center of our lives.” Disordered longing can drive us mad, but longing, properly focused, can drive us beyond ourselves, can drive us into the arms of one another. Longing can drive us to the Transcendent, to God.

Jesus wants to focus his followers longing. He wants to give them peace, but for their sake, for honesty’s sake, he must redefine the term. He must re-orient them, give them new direction. Jesus does not give peace as the world gives peace. Jesus’ peace is not the world’s peace. When Jesus promises peace, it may be a different gift than the disciples first imagine.

This morning, I want to try and define this peace of Jesus, this peace our Savior promised, Christ’s own peace, not given like the world’s. This peace I would argue is one of the central teachings of Jesus, it is the truest object of Christian longing. Our former presiding bishop always re-translated the word Jesus used for “peace” to the Hebrew: Shalom. I would argue living a Christian life means longing for, working for, building shalom.

I want to talk about the two traditional paths, interrelated and ancient Christian ways of focusing the holy longing, of pursuing peace. We might call those paths respectively: “the path of justice,” and “the path of contemplation.”

The path of justice.

Peace was a common word in the time of the Gospels. Politicians often proclaimed the “Pax Romana.” Rome billed its rule as the end of war. No one dared challenge the might of the Roman military. But what Rome called peace, was awful for Rome’s subjects. Folks like the disciples, fisherfolk, shepherds, craftspeople, had to pay exorbitant taxes to keep up the armies. And they were treated as less than citizens, their lives were seen as expendable, they had no vote. Romans might have talked of peace, but the people experienced it as repression.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of San Diego a new beautiful building, a whole new graduate school opened on campus. I was a theology major, and I remember the week of the opening, one of my professors, Maria Pilar Aquino, a premier voice in Latin American Feminist Liberation Theology, was spitting nails with anger. The name of the school was the “Institute for Peace and Justice.” She was furious. “They got it backward.” She said. “You can’t have peace before justice.” Without justice, there is no peace, no matter what you call it.

Think of the chants we’ve heard so often in the streets of St. Louis these last five years. “If we don’t get no justice, then you don’t get no peace.”

In his speech accepting the Nobel Prize, Dr. King famously prophesied: “We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path.” Peace is not negative, it is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. As San Oscar Romero, the martyred bishop of El Salvador preached, “Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.”

The path of justice, since the times of the early church, has been a defining path for Christians. This path focuses on the tension between the so-called peace the world gives, and the peace of Christ. To be a Christian peace-maker is to put justice first, not try to include it as an afterthought. The peace of Christ often lights a fire in the hearts of Christians, pushes them to the streets, to the legislature, to the governor’s office, and when that fails, to the courthouse. Christians long for, work for, agitate for a different peace than what the world offers.

The path of contemplation.

The second path to peace is interrelated with the first: we’ll call this the path of contemplation.

I quoted El Salvador’s Sainted Archbishop Oscar Romero a moment ago. In addition to his tireless work for justice, his pleas to the military to “stop the repression,” his ceaseless visits to the poor farmers, to the women and children who were victims of massacre, in addition to his work for justice, Romero was famed for his practice of prayer, an hour each day spent in quiet contemplation.

When you visit Romero’s little house, the three room home at the cancer hospital he chose over the Archbishop’s palace in the capital, you can see the rosary beads that Romero wore out by praying so often. There is a story that in a Q and A, someone once asked Romero: “with all that is going on, with the death threats, and the political organizing, and the preaching, with all that busyness bishop, how do you find time to pray for an hour a day?” Unblinking Romero answered him: “on the busy days, on the anxious days, I need two hours.”

Contemplation isn’t all about navel gazing. Prayer, meditation, scripture reading, silence, they aren’t meant to be self-centered activities. Now, they can become problematic. Any contemplative can tell you, one of the thoughts you need to let go of in approaching silent prayer is “gosh, I’m doing so well by sitting on this cushion right now, aren’t I so spiritual?” The contemplative has to let go of that thought because it won’t lead to the peace of Christ. Self-aggrandizement never does.

Sometimes Christians committed to justice dismiss contemplation, prayer, all that quiet, as a waste of time. But, the point of silence, the hope of quiet prayer, for Christians pursuing peace is less about the moments spent in prayer than the rest of the moments in the day. Making room for quiet, for calm, for rest, to be alone with God, it turns out, it’s important for our longterm health. Folks committed to justice can wear themselves out quickly. Without quiet, we lose perspective. This is a debt that accumulates. If we forget to turn off the radio for awhile, if we spend every free moment scrolling through the “news feed,” constantly angered by some new indignity, if we don’t put it down regularly and find some time in silence, we can build a debt.

If we stay angry at the news, at the political leaders, at the state of our world. If we stay in that place all the time, if we don’t also make room for quiet, for prayer, for time with God, for peace, we will pay the price. Likewise, if we don’t put down our work every once and awhile. If our minds are constantly occupied by budgets, and deadlines, and charts, and the next project. If we don’t lay it all aside from time to time, we will pay the price. We will sleep less. We will become less ourselves.

The Episcopal priest and Buddhist teacher Alan Watts said famously, “[humanity] suffers only because [they take] seriously what the gods have made for fun.” Even in the midst of the fight. Even when the stakes are high. Especially when the stakes are high, we need perspective. Make time to rest, to pray, to find silence, to reconnect, to have fun, to receive the gift of peace.

“Peace I leave with you. My [own] peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives.” Do we know what Jesus means by that word “peace?” How do we define the word? How do we know peace? I talked about two paths, but that metaphor is a bit deceptive. You can’t really walk on one and not the other. If you want peace, work for justice. But if you don’t take a break every once and awhile. If you don’t find silence and solace, you will burn out. Both paths lead us, gently, toward a new sort of peace.

As you walk out of church today, take a look at the old sign in our front lawn. You’ll see the protest chant I mentioned before re-written. I didn’t come up with the re-write. I’m sure I saw it on a bumper sticker somewhere. “No Justice, No Peace” has been written “k-n-o-w justice, k-n-o-w peace.” Sometimes the bumper sticker definition is all you need. Know justice. Know peace. Know the gift Christ gives, not as the world gives.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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