The Revd Brutus Green
Imagine for a moment that your life is perfect. The little conflicts and problems are ironed out. Your relationships are at their best. Your liver no longer aches; your shoulders unhunch; your skin is as taut as a teenager’s; your boss has lost his voice. Forever. And the bank balance is smiling with surplus. The sun is shining, it’s a bank holiday weekend, and today; today you have to do nothing. How do you feel? Peaceful?
Our entertainment industry, books, films and the like, mostly describes the path through conflict that leads to perfection and peace, rather than peace itself. No one wants to know if Val Kilmer really ever was Tom Cruise’s wing man again; if the improbable relationship between the wooden Keanu Reeves and perky Sandra Bullock lasted beyond the second date. Has nobody else noticed that you never get the same Bond girl twice? What happens to these beautiful women? Why is no one making a film about them? In any case, there isn’t really a market for what is presumably quite a limited, slow paced genre examining what ‘happily ever after’ really looks like. I imagine it would probably feature Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, with a soundtrack by Justin Bieber and Michael Buble.
Well. The book of Revelation has a bit of a go this morning. The first thing we are told is that there is no temple - which I guess means no more church. An encouraging start. The reason we are given is that God is right there, and he instantly vanquishes darkness. We are told again and again that there will be no more darkness and no night; that nothing unclean or accursed will be found there. It all sounds uncomfortable to me. Perhaps it’s the way it chimes with The Heaven’s Gate Cult or the Branch Davidians, or the sleep deprivation torture of the Communist Show Trials.
At the same time, though, we’re unable to let go of that need for the sense of an ending. In films we long for a sense of resolution - the bad guys must be killed or locked up, the couple must kiss or get married. We strive for that infernal word, popularised by Friends, ‘closure’. There is a deep human desire for submission and the renunciation of freedom. Quite frequently we find ourselves longing for it to all be over. When we talk of the dead ‘resting in peace’, when we speak of ‘having made our peace with it’, we are talking about this sort of finality, where no matter what’s going on at least we don’t have to worry or think about it anymore. So when Jesus promises “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives I give to you” is this the sort of peace he means?
Well I was discussing this with some of you on Tuesday and the first thing that was decided was that this peace is not the absence of conflict. As someone who goes to great lengths to avoid conflict, this is very disappointing. Just one bad-tempered look can have me opening my cheap-one-way-flights app, which is especially problematic as some of our musical director’s looks can be quite ambiguous. But Jesus is addressing his disciples on Maundy Thursday shortly before his arrest, trial and execution. One could hardly suppose he is promising them an easy life. But neither I think is he suggesting, as we often assume, that they will have peace of mind - calm amid the turmoil. They are on their way out to Gethsemane. Jesus is about to weep tears of blood, to wrestle within himself the impossible path set before him. This is not peace of mind. This is the agony in the garden. For us also there are difficult decisions and compromises. These are decisions which can be life-defining - what takes us from being the crowd of consensus to people of conviction; people of character. To slip through life in an easy state of mind is a failure to love - because it’s a failure to appreciate the validity of different opinions, and to wrestle like Jacob with the angel to discover the truth and the best path. But if it’s not the avoidance of conflict, nor peace of mind, what is this peace that we are given?
Perhaps one way to think about this is to consider the peace that belongs to Jesus in Gethsemane. We cannot doubt, as a human, that body and soul he is troubled, but his prayer is: ‘yet not what I want but what you want’. ‘Thy will be done.’ His peace is in obedience to the Father, just as at the beginning of today’s Gospel we are told ‘Those who love me will keep my word’. This is not the obedience of submission though, like in cultish or authoritarian systems. God is not some monstrous overlord who tells us exactly what to do. The freedom that is God’s and ours is already set up in this passage with the promise of the Spirit who leads us through God to do new things in each generation.
The obedience is rather more like humility. Humility often sounds a bit like low self-esteem, or chronic niceness. We expect people to talk gently about flowers, while anxiously checking on the ice caps on their iPads. But it isn’t necessarily so. Humility is more like the ability to deflect concern, of others and our own, away from ourselves towards the needs of others. Like Jesus, here, putting all the world before himself. It’s a sort of genuine self-deprecation; and I would say that the humblest people I know are also the funniest.
We often try to negotiate peace like a game of Risk, protecting our own and making alliances. Promising not to attack Africa in return for security in South America. We think we can control the peace in our lives. But if our peace is bound up in our own health, security and status, we will not have the peace the Christ is offering. Christ’s peace is in the belief that there is nothing more important than loving and serving others. And this love and service can never be taken from us. It’s not that this will be easy necessarily, without conflict; but while what we have, our powers and position, our sense of well-being, can all be taken from us, what we have given away cannot; it has already been given away.
But there is more to it than this. Jesus is saying something about God: that if you trust God, that final sense of peace cannot be taken from you. For all the slings and arrows that life is heir to, while you trust in God, there is a promise that God will claim you as his own. That what he has loved he will welcome back. This is the door of faith if you like; not the promise that you will be kept from evil or that you will face life and death with an easy heart; conflict and dis-ease are marks of the world; but you belong to God always and he will never abandon you. Your eternal soul already owns its peace.
Bob Dylan wrote:
In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
"Come in", she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm".
This could be about Christ, it could be about his ex-wife, the point is that love offers us a port from the storm. At our best we achieve it temporarily for those near us in this life. God promises it for eternity.
I have a friend who’s a judge who once said to me that if ever there was peace in Jerusalem and Jesus hadn’t appeared he would stop believing in God. Jerusalem, which could be translated ‘city of peace’. Any peace in this life, between people and nations or in your heart is finite and slippery. At its worst the peace of this world is a sign of humanity’s greatest evils, of authoritarianism, fear and oppression. The final peace we are promised stands beyond us, beckoning but never reached until we find ourselves in the New Jerusalem. It’s not that we should hate the word, but that perhaps, incongruously, we should strive for peace, trusting only in that final peace which in this world is always beyond us. But still we pray:
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen.