Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Peace of Christ

John 14:27, Matthew 5:1-2, 9-10
March 26, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we continue in our study of the Beatitudes for Lent in this Table of Blessing series, we come to the famous verse in which Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Much ink has been spilled in an effort to unpack this verse, but perhaps one way to start our exploration is with some other words of Jesus, the words from John 14, a section of that gospel known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” Jesus is preparing himself, and his disciples, for their eventual separation. Let’s listen to his words about peace for them, and for us, in John 14:27.

[Jesus said to his disciples] 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.

As we continue in the beatitudes, we hear not only that famous blessing of peacemakers, but also a blessing of those who may be suffering. Listen for the blessing of Jesus in Matthew 5: 1-2, 9-10

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Usually when I want to preach on something like peace and peacemaking, I do a little word study on that word. I look at different translations and versions of the Bible, to see how the word is translated in their various theological perspectives. (You do know, I hope, that different translations of the scripture come from different theological positions?) I spend some time looking up the Greek and Hebrew, the dictionary definitions and various common usages of the word – you know the sort of thing.

And that’s what I was going to do this week, with a little sidetrack about the “Pax Romana,” the much touted era of peace in the Roman Empire which was maintained at the point of a sword and the application of violence.

But something caught my eye this week that shifted my focus. As you know, I subscribe to a number of periodicals and journals that come from a range of perspectives, including those from evangelical, theologically conservative, non-reformed, and mega-church points of view. I think it’s useful and helpful for us to hear a variety of voices so that we can faithfully consider our own perspectives. Usually, I don’t find those interpretations terribly surprising, nor all that different from the New Revised Standard Version that we use. But my email inbox this week contained an article from one of those magazines titled “3 Famous Bible Verses We Misinterpret.”

One of the verses was Jeremiah 29:11, a familiar verse to many. It’s from the prophet’s letter to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to build houses, plant gardens, and seek the welfare of the city. In our NRSV Bible, that verse reads:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Nice, yes? A hopeful promise.

But the New International Version of the Bible translates that verse:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”

The difference between a plan for your welfare
and a plan for your prosperity is, I think, significant.
Welfare, minus our modern usage, implies well-being, security.
Prosperity implies flourishing, making money, getting on, profiting.

The Hebrew word in that verse is not welfare, not prosperity.
It is “shalom,” the word for peace, for wholeness, for completeness.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, here’s Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the thoughts that I think about you, says the Lord,
thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

So what about that word, that word Jesus uses, peacemaker? It isn’t in Hebrew, of course – it is in Greek, like the rest of the New Testament. In Greek it is “εἰρηνοποιοί” – eirenopoioi – literally, peacemaker. It’s a compound word of poioi- making, and eirene, peace. Here’s what’s fascinating – that word “eirene” comes from a root word that means “wholeness,” or completeness.

Like shalom.

One Jewish scholar describes shalom as “most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, one of well‑being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace.”[1]

Its equivalent word in Greek is eirene – peace, completeness. That includes an absence of war or conflict, but shalom is so much more than that! The Jewish commentary on shalom is complex:

“The Sages went to great lengths in their praise of peace, to the point of viewing it as a meta‑value, the summit of all other values, with the possible exception of justice. Peace was the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah: ‘All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace’…Shalom is the name of the Holy One, the name of Israel, and the name of the Messiah, yet the name of God may be blotted out in water for the sake of peace…[But there are] competing values, with peace, situations in which different norms might conflict with one another.

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha taught that “peace was opposed to justice.”
He said “where there is strict justice there is no peace,
and where there is peace there is no strict justice,”
But the instruction is always to let peace temper justice.
To seek shalom.

To be an “eirenepoiois” is to be one who seeks God’s shalom, God’s wholeness for all of the cosmos. And it may also mean that the one who seeks peace is the one who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness. There is a price to be paid for this blessing of peacemaking. Certainly we can think of pacifists who have paid dearly for their commitment to peacemaking and non-violence. Certainly, Jesus paid the price of a non-violent stance for justice.

We Christians, most of us, are not true pacifists, nor in much danger of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Every now and then you hear about someone who claims to be a victim of persecution for their religious stance, but the reality is that, at least in this country, that is an extremely rare occurrence.

It is not persecution to be expected to follow the laws of the land.
It is not persecution to be expected to honor all people.
It is not persecution to be prohibited from imposing your convictions,
no matter how right you may think they are,
on everyone else in the country.
It is not persecution to be prevented from discrimination.
None of those circumstances prohibit a person from practicing their faith.

But it is challenging, to live as one of those blessed like Jesus describes. Living as peacemakers, is difficult. It goes against our nature, to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to bless them that curse us, to go the extra mile.

But to be a peacemaker is to be blessed.
To be happy.

This is both comfort and challenge.
The comfort is the assurance that we have been given this peace.
The challenge is that we are called to be peacemakers,
not simply passive recipients of the “peace that passes understanding.”

Margaret Aymer, in her Bible study on the Beatitudes[2], sums it up.
“…We are called to a cessation of violence against one another,
and … we are called to work for the cessation of all violence.
Making peace also means that we provide
for the needs of our brothers and sisters,
working for the wholeness and well-being of all our neighbors.
When we grasp the fullness of what peace,
what shalom, can mean,
we begin to see how Jesus’ seventh beatitude fits with the others,
for shalom-makers alleviate the needs of the poor
and the poor in spirit, materially and systemically.
Shalom-makers comfort those who mourn,
individually and within the community.
Shalom-makers stand with, and empower the humbled.
Shalom-makers feed those who hunger,
and quench the thirst of those parched for justice.
Shalom-makers are merciful.
Shalom-makers live with integrity.
In short, to be a peacemaker, a shalom-maker,
is to live into the heart of the Beatitudes.”

Friends, Jesus left us his peace:
not the Pax Romana, not the peace imposed and the end of gun,
but the blessing of completeness, tranquility, security
– not the world’s peace,
but the true wholeness of God’s shalom.

At this table of blessing, we receive the bread of peace – to strengthen us in answering God’s call. This table is set for you – plural – not simply for each of you individually, but for all of us together, as one body. To come together and to break bread and share the cup is to participate in the sign and seal of God’s shalom, God’s completeness, and wholeness. or at this Table of Blessing we are made one.

Come, you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Come to the table of blessing.
Come to the table of peace.

[1] Ravitzky, Aviezer. “Shalom” at My Jewish Learning.

[2] Aymer, Margaret, Horizons Bible Study, 2011, Confessing the Beatitudes

1 comment:

  1. I don't have the tools and will not try to make the time to do a deep study of the translations of the subtleties of shalom, peace and prosperity, but I like your approach. I sometimes think of the concept at play here as "thriving." It's a word I see often in child welfare work. A child or family thrives not with wealth, or even health, but the completeness, tranquility and security you put forth. I just saw a video of the Oregon coast where little trees grow out of rocks, pounded by the salty surf. They thrive nevertheless. So do the hardy plants I saw in a video about the Indiana Dunes, thriving amid howling winds, un-nurturing sands, and extremes of temperature. We can thrive, or be complete, no matter what and show that state to those around us.