Peace be with you
Philippians 4:4-9, John 20:19-23, April 30, 2017, Ruling Elder Michael Patton
When I told Tom I had another sermon ready to go, he asked me what it was on. I told him that I wanted to speak about peace. He said, “I hope you are coming out in favor of it.” I assured him I was.
I love so much of our worship services: The music, the lessons, the confessions, the forgiveness. But my favorite part of our worship service is the passing of the peace; not just for the hugs and smiles, but because I believe that is the time where we are truly encountering God in the most human way. But lately I have been concerned that we are acting out a rote part. We smile. We shake hands. Some of us say “Good morning.” And then we feel we have taken too long and we go sit down.
It has started to remind me of something the great theologian George Carlin mused upon in the 1980s about the word “nice”. Words were very important to George and the way many of us use the word “nice” offended him. He used to say: "freedom from anxiety, annoyance, or other mental disturbance"
What bothers me about “Have a Nice Day” is the word “nice.” Isn’t he nice? Oh, he is *so* nice! And she’s nice too! Isn’t that nice? It’s such a soft, flabby word. It’s like “fine.” How are you? Fine. No, you’re not! No one is “fine.” *Hair* is fine. How’s your hair? Fine! That makes a lot more sense to me.
How we treat “nice” and “fine” are interesting and a little silly. But what happens when we start doing the same for “peace?” Isn’t peace—God’s peace—more important than poor vocabulary and at what time the readings start?
It’s the thoughtlessness of it that grates. We come to a point in the worship of our Lord when we are commanded to offer God’s peace to our brothers and sisters, and we treat it like a cocktail mixer.
This concern caused me to investigate peace further. Like Mr. Carlin, I think words are important. So I went to Webster’s dictionary to see what its definition of peace was. This is what Webster’s says.
When I am feeling God’s peace, it is *exactly* a state of tranquility or quiet; free from disquieting thoughts or emotions. It feels warm and safe like a hug or a child’s blanket. I hope each and every one of you has truly felt at peace at least once in your life, and I earnestly hope you feel it frequently.
But we don’t feel peace frequently, do we? It is normal not to feel peace. History is riddled with wars, famines, slavery, racism, religious persecution, poverty…the list is seemingly endless. Even today in the most prosperous country in the history of the world, we are not at peace most of the time. We yell at our kids for moving too slowly getting ready for school in the morning. We get frustrated when we can’t hear as well as we used to: Stop mumbling! We worry about whether we will be able to pay our bills. We are not at peace.
The Bible also tells of the same ills of history and the present day. Adam and Eve were banished from paradise. The Flood killed most of life. Abraham was told to kill Isaac. The Israelites were slaves. And that’s just Genesis.
Then Jesus appears! The Prince of Peace! …And He’s persecuted, tortured, and killed while His closest followers were a bunch of worry-warts, afraid that they would be next. Are we sure we got that title right? Not much peace here!
And yet, time and again, peace returns and is undeniable. There is hope and a promise that we will have peace through Christ. But what does that mean? This is where peace is truly challenging.
In our Gospel reading, it said that when the disciples recognized Christ they rejoiced, to which He rejoined, “Peace be with you.” Christ could have meant that the ills which they had been suffering should not worry them; that they should not be afraid and would be—dare I say it—fine. I think He did mean those things. But I think He was giving them and us a greater challenge. Notice that he wished them peace after they rejoiced. Please look at this next picture.
I am sure most of you know that I went to The University of Iowa. This picture (courtesy Byron Houlgrave / Des Moines Register) was taken after we beat Iowa State in football (again). The players are joyously carrying the ridiculous Cy-Hawk trophy off of the field. For an Iowa fan, this is a moment of pure elation; and for an Iowa Stater, a moment of pure depression. But regardless of your thoughts on either school or the merits of football, I want you to look closely at the picture. Do these people look at peace? I know that when anyone sees me watching the Hawkeyes or the Titans or the White Sox—all of which give me greatly joyful moments—I am far from being at peace. I am worried, nervous, frustrated, angry, elated, excited. I have stuck my hand into a ceiling fan because I could not contain my emotions. I have yelled so loudly that the dog hid under the bed and my children were a little frightened. And this was during a win.
And yet the Bible tells us to celebrate and be joyful. How can both things be? I think the key is the kind of joy we are to have. Paul told the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord.
“whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
This kind of joy probably does not cause you to put your hand into a ceiling fan or yell so loudly that you scare your pets. This is not a temporal joy. This is not a fleeting joy. This is not a joy which comes at another’s expense. This is a warm joy. A comforting joy. A joy of love.
We are also charged as followers of Christ to bring God’s peace to the world. As a young man, I was angered at the treatment of Blacks in the South African Apartheid system. I cried at the injustices I saw on the news and in the films Biko and A Separate World. At one point I even seriously considered going there to fight with the African National Congress against the South African government. I have often agreed with the slogan, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
But as I have prayed and thought about what it means to bring God’s peace to the world, I find Gandhi’s admonition ever more poignant: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Or as a contemporary of mine, the folksinger Todd Snider, has said, “Fighting for peace? That’s like screaming for quiet.”
Our call is to bring God’s peace to the world. This is the peace we will receive in heaven. And this is the great challenge of peace: It is passionless. Most of us can understand, though we may fail miserably at it, that God does not want us to hate our enemies. God wants us to love all of His children. But isn’t love passionate? I am sure that I love my Hawkeyes, just as you may love the Packers or good food or learning or lofty ideals. But those are passionate loves which ebb and flow and are fleeting. The kind of love—the kind of peace—which Christ offers is this.
This is a picture of God’s peace. It is my brother, Ryan, holding my nephew, Hugh. My brother is a great lover. He loves people and learning and art and teaching and his family. He has a burning passion for justice and is incensed about the injustices of the world. And yet: Look at this picture.
At that moment, the vitriol of the election season, the worries about student loans and job security, about wars, about whiny students, the passions for high-minded ideals and the truths which can be expressed in great art: None of them exist. Ryan and Hugh are at peace.
For those of us who have children: We know this love. This love is much stronger than the one we feel for sports teams or food or politics or even our partners. Those loves may be passionate, but this is deeper. And it is this kind of love that God has for us. This is the love which can forgive anything. This is the love that causes a man to be tortured and executed on the cross for you. And this is the love which allows us to have what Paul called the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.
This is what awaits us eternally. This is what we are called to bring to God’s children. And this, most strong of all loves, is dispassionate. For it is our passions which disrupt peace.
So I ask you: Are you ready to feel God’s peace? Are you ready to abandon your passions when confronting the world’s injustices? Do you have this kind of love in your heart for your brothers and sisters? I’m not sure I am, but I am willing to try.
So I have a favor to ask of you: Next Sunday, when I am tired or worried or sad or happy, please look me in the eye, and hold my hand or give me a hug, and wish me peace.