Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Not the World's Peace

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

It can be a hermeneutical stretch to let two passages of scripture from different books of the bible, written by different authors to different communities in different times about different things, talk to each other, but every once in a while the same Holy Spirit that inspired both of them opens up for us a dialogue that leads us into a deeper appreciation of each. Today, when I read the lessons appointed for Tuesday in the fourth week of Easter (Acts 14:19–28 and John 14:27–31a), I hear a conversation that gives me encouragement and hope and challenge.

Jesus says to his disciples, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives." Five different times in John's gospel account Jesus offers his peace to the disciples. Most familiar to us are the words he speaks to them when he meets them behind locked doors on the day of the resurrection and then again a week later when Thomas was with the other disciples: "Peace be with you," he says to them. Funny enough, today's reading from John 14 is the first time Jesus offers peace to his closest followers, and, when he introduces this concept to them--the peace that he has for them--even from the very beginning he offers an important caveat: "I do not give to you as the world gives." The Contemporary English Version renders this verse as "I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid." Jesus' words of comfort are built on this offer of peace that only he can give--not the peace the world can offer.

In an ancient tradition of the church, we make our way through the Acts of the Apostles as we make our way through the Easter season. In today's reading, we read about an episode in which Paul was persecuted for preaching the way of Jesus. His opponents from nearby communities came to Lystra and stirred up a lynch mob to attack Paul. They dragged him out of the city and, in the ancient custom of their people, hurled stones at him because they understood him to be guilty of blasphemy. They injured him so badly that they thought he was dead, and they left his body there. When other disciples came to retrieve his lifeless body, Paul stood up and carried on, heading to the next town where he would share the good news of Jesus.

When Paul had finished his work in Derbe, he turned around and went back, first to Lystra, where he had been stoned, and then on to Iconium and Antioch, where the instigators of the lynch mob were from. At each point along the treacherous way, he stopped to encourage the disciples, "strengthening their souls," by telling them, "It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God." And I wonder how those words sounded to the other disciples, who, like Paul, faced arrest or torture or even death for following Jesus. And I wonder how those words sounded to Paul's opponents, when they heard him declare that the way that leads to the kingdom of God must go through the very persecutions to which they were subjecting him. And I wonder what the disciples who were with Jesus when he offered his peace to them thought about what Paul had to say, and I wonder what Paul thought when he heard Jesus say to the first disciples, "My peace I give to you, but I do not give to you as the world gives."

The peace that Jesus offers to those who follow him--to you and to me--isn't the sort of peace that the world gives. It is not a relief from trouble. It is not the removal of pain. It is not the absence of conflict. In this life, that sort of peace is fleeting. It lasts only until the next challenge comes our way. Instead, the peace that Jesus offers us is the well-being and right-situatedness of knowing that our Lord and Savior is with us in our suffering and that, by accepting the suffering appointed for us, we walk with him into the kingdom of God. As followers of Jesus, we claim that peace for ourselves, and we are comforted not knowing that the path ahead of us is devoid of challenge but knowing and trusting that the hardships in front of us--the burdens we bear for the sake of Jesus--are how we find our place in God's kingdom.

Like Paul, we are called not to run away from that suffering but to turn toward it, to endure it, and to embrace it for the sake of the gospel. "It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God," he tells us. If we are truly following Jesus, we will encounter persecution. Jesus, who healed lepers and let the ritually unclean people touch him, has something to say about access to health care for society's outcasts. Jesus, who ate with tax collectors and sinners, has something to say about accepting drug dealers and prostitutes into our midst. Jesus, whose family fled to Egypt when Herod was searching for him and who offered salvation to a Samaritan woman and her village, has something to say about providing shelter to the refugee and making a place for foreigners in our community. And Jesus cannot be the only one to say those things.

We must stand up and say those things with him. Even though they will not be popular, we must proclaim that truth to the powers of this world. We may lose the love and affection of friends and family. We may lose people in the pews and dollars in the offering plate. I doubt they will throw literal stones at us, but we may be run out of town for stirring up trouble and for speaking political, social, and economic blasphemy. But the way that leads to the kingdom of God leads through conflict and strife and persecution. The way that leads to true peace--true rightness with God and with all of God's people--takes us to those places of hardship. But we do not go alone. Jesus himself goes with us. And it is his peace that we have every step of the way.

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