Sermon on Peace
The first Sunday in Lent, 2008
Christmas cards often celebrate Jesus’ birth with the word “Peace”. They make me ask myself, has Jesus really brought peace to the world?
It would be nice to think that Jesus’ coming into the world brought peace. But it is not obvious that it did. Wars and wickedness have persisted since he came. So I wondered whether there are any Biblical grounds for thinking his coming would bring peace. I found two passages linking his coming with peace. The first is in Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of a messiah. (Is. 9: 6-8a) (New International Version)
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders, and he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”
The second Biblical text linking Jesus birth with peace are the words of the heavenly host at the time of his birth, as reported by St Luke (2: 14), who told the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”
These writers clearly associated the coming the Messiah with the advent of peace on earth. But has the coming of Jesus brought peace? Several writers, such as Richard Dawkins, have reminded us recently that Christians have been the source of persecution and war. Sometimes Christians have fought against Christians: most recently the Protestants and Catholics have fought each other in Northern Ireland. To convert heathen tribes such as the Saxons in early medieval Europe, Christians offered them Christianity or death. To cleanse the church of perceived heresy, Christians tortured and killed those whose views differed from their own. To protect the Holy Lands from infidels, Christians fought crusades against Muslims.
Can we really believe that Christ’s coming brought peace to the world? This is the question I want to consider this morning. Sceptics would point to the facts I’ve just listed as providing overwhelming evidence that it did not. On the contrary, they would say, Christianity has been a source of dreadful and unmerited suffering.
We have seen that the Bible links the Messiah’s birth with an increase in peace. Does it explain how the Messiah will bring this about? Indeed it does. It focuses on three areas: peace in the world at large, peace between individuals, and peace for the faithful. At first it seems that they are quite distinct topics, but we will find that they are closely related.
First, then, has Jesus brought peace to the world at large? Isaiah promised that the Prince of Peace would establish universal peace. As we heard in the first reading, with God’s help he would create a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem of faithful people, blessed by God, living in peace (Isaiah 65: 17-25. Cp. Is. 11: 1-9). In chapters preceding this passage, the author described the iniquity of the people of Israel and the need for God to intervene if his kingdom was to be established on earth. Here are a few verses from ch. 59 that express the author’s concerns:
We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away…
The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. …
He put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies..
The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins. (vv.11, 16, 17-18, 20)
Thus the prophet promises that God will come in power to defeat his enemies and establish an eternal kingdom of peace for the righteous.
Now we face the first problem. When Jesus, the Messiah arrived, he did not behave as the author of Isaiah had prophesied. He did not kill God’s enemies, but let them kill him. He did not establish peace on earth, but, as we will see, a division between those who follow him and those who oppose him. So what are we to make of Isaiah’s prophecy?
According to the gospels, Jesus, like the rest of the Jews, continued to believe the prophecy, and, knowing that he was the Messiah, he believed that he would fulfil it. But, he said, he would do so some time in the future. He did not know exactly when, but he thought he would come again in power to punish the wicked and reward the faithful quite soon. The early church’s faith that Jesus would conquer evil and establish a new kingdom of everlasting peace is described in detail in the book of Revelation. We have no evidence that Isaiah’s prophecy will ever be fulfilled, but the church continues to hope and believe that one day it will be.
However, there is some evidence that Jesus did not think that peace in the world would be established by force. When Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messiah, he did not come on a warhorse but on a donkey, as a symbol of peace. And he did not destroy his enemies, but instead he wept over Jerusalem, saying “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19: 42) If the people of Jerusalem had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, and lived in obedience to him, they would have enjoyed peace. But they did not understand that, and instead treated him as an enemy of peace, and crucified him.
It is not hard to see what Jesus had in mind. When people honour Jesus, they set aside their greed, and ambition and pride, which are the chief causes of strife, and, following his lead, they live godly lives of love, truth and forgiveness. Unconverted people are prone to hurt and exploit others, no matter how firmly they are governed. As more and more people become disciples of Jesus, peace within communities and between states will increase.
It seems unlikely, however, that the whole world will convert, and even converted people have lapses of anger that hurt others. Will the world ever enjoy perfect peace? It would, if Jesus’ rule were complete, as it is in the New Jerusalem described at the end of the book of Revelation. The possibility of the kingdom of heaven on earth can and should inspire Christians as the ideal society that God wants to create. I’m reminded of how a vision of the New Jerusalem inspired Christian to keep on the straight and narrow way in John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress. Christ will build the new Jerusalem here through his disciples, not I think by descending from the clouds with hosts of armed angels in chariots of fire, but by his disciples’ acts of mercy, forgiveness and love. The people of Jerusalem did not understand this. Nor, alas, do many people today.
But just a moment. Is it true that Jesus’ disciples bring peace on earth? In the gospels Jesus is reported as saying: “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father…” an so on. (Matt. 10:34-6) Jesus taught his disciples to expect the same sort of hostility and violence as he received. In his farewell discourse, according to St John, he said: “Remember what I said: “A servant is not greater than his master.” As they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:20). To use John’s metaphors, those who prefer darkness to light will try to extinguish the light of all who illuminate and challenge their dark deeds.
When Jesus said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, it seems that he thought the way to establish justice is by force, just as Isaiah had said. Indeed force can establish peace of a sort, and nations use their armies and police forces for that purpose. In speaking like this, had Jesus in fact abandoned any other path to peace?
Well consider another of his sayings, also reported by St Matthew. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9). He went on to say that his disciples should not retaliate when people harm them, but continue to love them. He said: “You have learned that they were told: “love your neighbour, hate your enemy.” But what I tell you is this : Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on good and bad alike,..” (Matt. 5: 43-45).
Just as God loves wicked people, so must we, forgiving them even when they harm us. Of course they might not love us in return, but continue to persecute us. Such, it seems, is life. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, Christians do not enjoy a very peaceful life with family and neighbours who do not share their beliefs.
Then in what sense, if any, did Jesus bring peace on earth? He has not, as yet, brought universal peace between nations, or peace between neighbours. What he has brought, however, is peace in the lives of his disciples. This is the third kind of peace discussed in the Bible. What it shows is that every stage of Christian discipleship is marked by increasing peace of mind for the disciple. Let me briefly indicate what I mean.
As you know, people today are encouraged by advertisers to be selfish, and encouraged by counsellors to be ambitious, yet Jesus was selfless and lived and died for others. The conflict in people’s lives between their natural desires and godly inclinations is resolved when they sincerely repent of their sins and submit to God’s will. As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters. You must choose just one, or remain torn between two. Those who decide to submit to God find peace from a divided heart. However, they might then feel guilty for having acted so long contrary to God’s will. They find peace from this guilt through faith in his forgiveness. So instead of being at war with God, his disciples are peaceful followers of God, walking in his ways.
Having set out on the path of discipleship, people often find the going difficult, and they fear that they will lose their way, or lose their courage and strength to continue.
Disciples overcome their fear of straying from God’s paths by finding that Jesus is always with them, to guide, strengthen and comfort them. When they pray in faith for his help, and then wait for it, it is given. This experience, repeated again and again, creates a sense of peace and even joy, knowing that you are never alone, but that the spirit of Jesus is always with you, to support you along the way. St Paul put it this way to the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)
Finally, when people discover Jesus’ will for them, they find that it is characterized by peace. In some pagan religions, I’ve been told, people believed the essence of god was to be discovered in wine, women and song, in some sort of Dionysian ecstasy. The characteristics of Jesus’ will, however, are well summed up in St Paul’s list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which begin with love, joy and peace (Gal.5:22).
I once saw the passion play at Oberammagau, and the strongest impression I had of Jesus throughout his ordeal was of his peace. No matter what was happening around him, whether he was being defamed, mocked or scourged, he remained peaceful, knowing the he was with God and doing God’s good will. On occasion he may require us to act vigorously, but because his will is always good and loving, it is always at peace.
If the Bible finds the peace of God to pass all understanding, you will forgive this feeble attempt to analyse it. But let me conclude by relating the peace that Christians enjoy with God to the other two areas of peace: peace between neighbours and peace in the world. Christians can enjoy peace with God, but they will only enjoy full peace with their neighbours when their neighbours have become disciples too. And the world will enjoy peace only when Jesus’ sovereignty is respected by all people. That is what the Book of Revelation understood. In the new peaceful Jerusalem, it says, God dwells with men and women: they are his people and he is their God (21:3). There is no sun to light the city, but it will be alight with the glory of God in his son, the Lamb, and all the nations will walk by his light (21:23-24).
We enjoy an imperfect glimpse of this heavenly city in the fellowship of our church, when it is faithful to Jesus.
This is the first Sunday in Lent. Let us commit ourselves afresh to our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we can increasingly enjoy his peace, and brighten our family, and neighbourhood and city with the light of his love.