Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
What is the peace that God gives? What is the peace that the world gives? What’s the difference? Does receiving God’s peace mean that our hearts will be untroubled and unafraid? Is it possible to even hope for that in this life?
I had a profound experience of what I took to be God’s peace my 4th year in college. Christie was living in a rented house in Ivy. I was walking alone in the woods behind the house and I was troubled by all kinds of worries. What would I do after I graduated? How would I get by in the real world? In addition, things were beginning to fall apart in my nuclear family. Although I had no clue that my parents would be divorced within the year, I clearly sensed the tension. Then, there were the regular stresses of the papers and midterms and obligations of college.
As I walked through the woods I began praying and the world seemed to change. Each sensory experience was filled with meaning and cohesion. The birdcalls and the crunch of my shoes on the fallen leaves became a beautiful song. Everything looked luminous, as if the light this is behind all things shined through the leaves and bark and moss.
It felt as if, like in Genesis, the Lord was strolling through the forest with me. His presence was as real as the trees, even more real. Yet I wasn’t afraid. What I felt was an overwhelming sense of peace. I felt what Julian of Norwich’s words communicate: all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Or in modern terms, “I know it’s broken, I know you’re broken, but far more can be mended than you know.”
It was as if Jesus himself were standing there saying to me, “Paul, my peace I give to you.” And I received it and felt it and my heart was not troubled and I was not afraid, because I was experiencing the peace of God. And then, just like that, it was gone. And, once again, my heart was troubled and afraid, and the beautiful song became incessant noise inside my head.
I’m grateful for this experience of many years ago and I can report that I’ve had a few of these experiences since then. I hope you have too. But clearly this kind of experience can’t be all there is to the peace that God gives. There is too much life lived in the trenches in between these moments of peace. The baseline of life is not peace; the baseline of life is stress and worry and suffering. We all need help getting through the day.
I heard Jerry Seinfeld on NPR talking about what helps us get through the day – coffee!
“We all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything — social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.”
I agree with Jerry, but I’m thinking that the Peace of God may be a more substantial form of the help I need. The problem, of course, is that peace is elusive.
Becca Stevens, the Episcopal chaplain at Vanderbilt once confessed in a sermon what most of us feel.
“All my life I have searched for what is called sanctuary,… but many times it seems just out of reach. When I can’t find it, nothing seems peaceful. I can pray and my mind races, I can find an enemy in anything, and I can get frustrated by time and traffic. I can even look at a peaceful aquarium of fish and see them all mouthing the word, “Help.”
How are we supposed to find peace in this world?”
How are we to find peace in this world, and not the peace the world gives, but the peace that God gives? I think the distinction between the peace that the world gives and the peace that God gives is a helpful way into finding that peace. The peace that the world gives is the peace without conflict. The way to earn the world’s peace is to work for it. I’ll give you an everyday kind of example.
Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t like conflict. You try to avoid it at all costs. Conflict is what makes your heart troubled and afraid. You’re the so-called “peacemaker” in your family. You want just want everyone to be happy and to get along. In those rare moments when everyone is getting along, you feel a sense of peace.
But conflict is inevitable. As I heard someone say, “the definition of a dysfunctional family is any family comprised of more than one person.” So you work hard to achieve peace, a peace that lasts only as long as everyone is getting along, which is not very long. God’s peace must run deeper than that and longer than our episodic spiritual experiences.
If the peace that the world gives is peace without conflict, then the peace that God gives is peace within conflict. I think the test of a true spiritual experience is that it sends us back into the world of people. Think of Jesus’ summary of the Law: love God, immediately followed by love your neighbor. If the slightly other worldly experiences like I had of God’s peace are rooted in the gospel, then I am to be immediately returned to the world of people. And the world of people is by default a world of conflict. So the peace that God gives is a peace that must exist in the midst of conflict.
Back to Becca’s question then: how are we supposed to find peace in this world of conflict? I actually have an answer for you this morning! The answer is… acquiescence. The way to receive God’s peace in the midst of conflict is to surrender, to acquiesce and just receive it. It is to accept the reality around you. God’s peace has more to do with enduring than overcoming.
Acquiesce. In law, acquiescence occurs when a person knowingly stands by without raising any objection to the infringement of their rights, while someone else makes a claim on their rights. Consequently, the person whose rights are infringed loses the ability to make a claim against the infringer, or succeed in an injunction suit due to the infringer’s conduct. Describing acquiescence in romantic relationship, author Dorothy West writes of “… the tender understanding with which he had acquiesced to her wish not to consummate their relationship out of wedlock.” Talk about an area of conflict!
To acquiesce is to give up on your own rights, to stand by as they are infringed. It is also to give up on your expectations of how life “should” be or how people “should” act. It is to step outside the ring. To acquiesce is to give up on being the Sheriff Of Your Rights. It is to say with Bob Dylan, “Mama, take this badge off of me, I can’t use it any more.” It is to say, “Mama put my guns in the ground, I can’t shoot them anymore.” Then you’ll be knocking on heaven’s door. And everyone who knocks will enter.
St. Paul as another word for acquiescence: love. He says love is not easily angered, is not self-seeking, and does not – does not – keep any record of wrongs. One version of 1 Corinthians 13 says it this way, “love is not touchy”! It might be touchy-feely, but it certainly isn’t touchy! Cleary, the essence of acquiescence is love.
So, the answer to the question of finding God’s peace is at once the easiest thing to do – just give up – and at the same time the hardest thing to do – just give up on my rights?! Are you crazy? In fact, it is not just hard. It is impossible.
There was only One who has ever done it perfectly. When the men came to arrest Jesus with swords drawn, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” But, He didn’t appeal to His Father. Instead, He acquiesced and went willingly to his death on the cross, standing by as his very life was infringed and extinguished.
So, put your sword back into its place; better yet, put them in the ground. Then your hands will be free and open, upturned to receive the peace that God gives to you. Free to knock on heaven’s door If you’re like me, you’re still clutching your sword, or lunging to dig it up from the last time you put it in the ground. Even Dylan needed someone to take his badge off him, to bury his guns for him. Don’t worry: Jesus says, “my peace I give to you” without condition.
We can pray for what He gives, though. For, although acquiescence is counter to the world’s understanding of peace, its fruit is the peace of God that passes understanding. And the “peace of God which passeth understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.” And, although love that keeps no records of wrongs is humanly impossible, don’t forget what the Man said – “with God all things are possible.” Amen.