Peace for Troubled Times

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I have to imagine that every once in a while the disciples got incredibly frustrated with Jesus. Like during today’s reading. After all, at this point in John’s story it’s Thursday night, on the eve of the crucifixion, and Jesus has just told the disciples a) that he’s leaving and b) they can’t follow him. Then he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And I’m guessing their reaction was the first century equivalent of, “Gimme a break!”

Or maybe that’s just my twenty-first century reaction. Do not let ours hearts be troubled? Are you kidding? Look around! Economic woes. People out of work. A seemly endless war in the Middle East. Churches in conflict just about everywhere you look. Political fights over immigration, health care, the reform of our financial system. Oil spills. Bombs in New York and Pittsburg. And yet we’re not supposed to be troubled? For crying out loud, what’s not in trouble?!

This is what makes Jesus’ promise of peace difficult to take. Peace is just what it feels like we’re missing right now. Peace, after all, would mean the cessation of all this conflict, the end of all this turmoil, the conclusion of all our waiting and wanting and worrying. Right?

I wonder. I mean, I’ve usually thought of peace as the absence of something negative — the absence of war, or strife, or fear, or anger. And, indeed, the first definition in the dictionary corroborates this view: “peace: freedom from disturbance.” But it occurs to me on reading and re-reading Jesus’ words to the disciples that maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe peace isn’t an absence of something, but instead is its own presence. Maybe peace is something, all on is own. Maybe it creates something positive, makes something wonderful possible, not just curtails something negative. Maybe this is what Jesus means by saying, “My peace I give to you. I do not give it as the world gives.”

If that’s so — if I’m willing, that is, to question the way I usually think about peace — then maybe I should also call into question my sense of faith more generally. I think I tend to operate with a sense that our human problem is that we have within us a need, an awareness of our lack, a restlessness, a hole. You know, Augustine’s “My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in thee.” Actually, I think that’s pretty accurate. But I suspect that along with that picture of our human condition comes a correlate picture of how God responds: God fills that hole, meets that need, fills in what we lack. Okay, so bear with me, I know this is a little complicated. In one sense, I think that’s true. But I’m just not sure that means that once we come to faith everything is suddently hunky-dory, that we’re no longer aware of our need or lack or hurt or brokenness. Or, at least if I’m honest, that’s not how I actually experience the life of faith.

Do you know what I mean? Faith, when I think about it, doesn’t so much take away all the difficult things in life as makes them bearable. It’s actually a little more than that. Faith doesn’t take away the difficult things in life, it just keeps them from dominating, from having mastery, from defining who I am and the possibilities around me. It’s like these things — our needs, wants, broken places — they still are accurate descriptions of us, at least parts of us, but they no longer define us. We are more than what’s missing. We are, as Paul says and Revelation promises, a new creation. Faith makes this possible. Faith understood not as some divine plug for the hole we each carry around inside of us, but rather as a summons to be more, to live and love more, to share more because there is so much more that God desires and designed for us.

I suspect, on the whole, that there are probably two view of the religious life. Both acknowledge that this world we share is full of tumults and challenges, of sometimes seismic ups and downs. One view of the life of faith assumes that when you come to faith, things settle down, stop shaking, and make suddenly sense. The other view of faith, however, doesn’t promise an end to the tremors but enables you to keep your footing amid them.

I think that’s what Jesus is talking about. After all, the Spirit he promises comes as the Advocate — the one who takes to our defense when we’re accused — and the Comforter — the one who will not leave our side during trouble. Understood that way, there is nothing about Jesus’ words that would suggest either that he’s promising us an end to problems or that he’s inviting us to ignore them. Rather, he promises peace — not merely the cessation of disturbance but instead a confident expectation and hope about the future.

I’ve heard this next quotation ascribed to both Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther, and I’m not sure either said it, but it fits my picture of Luther so I’ll claim it for him: Once asked what he would do if he thought the world would end tomorrow, Luther replied, “I would plant a tree today.” That’s not optimism, but hope; not simply a lack of fear, but courage; not only the absence of disturbance, but peace — Jesus’ peace, a peace the world cannot give.

You’ve got your own worries this week, Working Preacher. Whether they come from home, work, or the world. I know that. Which means that what you do — proclaiming to us that peace which passes our understanding — is all the more amazing. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you. For through your work and your words, God tends our restless hearts and grants us a measure of peace.

Yours in Christ,