Peace – now there’s a difficult word to define. Not a lot of it in evidence at the moment, we might rightly think. But what do we mean by “peace”? It’s a word covering a complex range of meanings. And does it mean something different in everyday use compared to a scriptural or religious context?
One obvious meaning of peace is the absence of war. But has there ever been a time in human existence when there hasn’t been some degree of violent friction, somewhere – whether you call it a war or a dispute or a conflict it’s still the same thing – one group being aggressive towards another for many and varied reasons. Or maybe “peace” is that state of being where there’s nothing threatening, or worrying and everything seems to be holding together somehow, whether it’s international or personal. How many of us ever get to even that fragile version of peace, I wonder. Certainly the world in general hasn’t experienced much real peace. Just bashing your enemy – external or internal or whatever – into submission doesn’t create peace.
But what does Jesus mean when he says “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Remember that this is in John’s Gospel – where just about everything has a many-faceted and usually symbolic meaning. This must be something different from how we would normally think of peace, because the following sentence has him saying “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus’ peace isn’t the simple absence of conflict, or understanding it in the same way as the world defines it. When we say “the peace of the Lord be with you” do we just mean “I hope you’re OK.” Or is there something much deeper in the peace we are given by Jesus and which we offer to each other? Peace isn’t what happens to us. Peace is what happens inside us—at the centre of our being. The peace that doesn’t need understanding–the peace that comes from having God at the centre of our life. That’s the peace that Jesus offers us.
Let’s remember that in his Jewish setting “peace” would be “shalom” – something which has far wider meaning than just a surface calmness. Shalom (used casually in modern Israel as both greeting and farewell) also takes in health and prosperity, and wellbeing. Although it can describe the absence of war, a majority of biblical references refer to an inner completeness and tranquillity. We call it peace but it means far more than simply peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – the world and its people having their needs met and using their gifts for enriching others. Shalom is the way things ought to be: an inward rest brought on by the presence of the Lord, regardless of the outward circumstances.
God calling Paul to proclaim the good news is a way of expressing this shalom. In the biblical Hebrew understanding of the word, there’s a point where someone has so much shalom that it overflows and is given over to others, making them content and inwardly complete. Paul’s dedication and enthusiasm in sharing the good news about Jesus, the Lord, with others helps them to offer themselves into that completeness Paul is offering them in following Jesus. And God opens the hearts of not only the poor and disregarded people, women being definitely second class in most of 1st century culture, and slaves right at the bottom of the social heap; God also reaches out to and includes the rich – Lydia, who even though a woman must have been an independent, prosperous merchant dealing with purple cloth…very expensive stuff. God’s shalom has no boundaries.
Despite Jesus assuring the disciples that they will know his version of peace, naturally, the disciples must be worried about what’s coming up – Jesus has warned them many times that he’s not going to be with them much longer – in John’s words, he is going to the Father. And Jesus seems concerned about what’s going to happen to his followers once he’s no longer there to guide, teach and inspire them. Reflecting John’s theology, Jesus is returning to where he came from, to the relationship of love he shares with the Father. The disciples will be on their own, they think. But do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid, he says. The Father will send the Advocate, the Comforter, who will be always there to remind them of what Jesus has taught and promised.
When we hear “I am going away, and I am coming to you,” the temptation is to suffer quite a bit of anxiety. Jesus going away doesn’t fit too well with being able to find inner peace or wellbeing if he’s not there even if “I am coming to you” sounds much more positive. We might well wonder how can this mean both things at the same time? Perhaps it can; Jesus is “going away” in the human sense, in other words, he will die as a human; but Jesus the risen Christ as part of a trinity relationship will be “coming to us” in another expression of that trinity, the Holy Spirit, forever and without limit. We, like the disciples, don’t need to know how this will happen – we have and believe the promise that it will. The Comforter will be the continual presence of the Lord, offering and assuring us of the peace, the shalom of God. It isn’t the same as having Jesus physically present, of course. But without death and resurrection, going away and returning, Jesus can’t be shared. If he’s tied to a particular place in time and space, then he stays as just an event in history.
Where does that leave us in today’s world? What is the source of our real and lasting peace? How can we find the genuine meaning of peace for ourselves and then share it? When we say “the peace of the Lord be with you” are we able to get into those hidden layers of meaning; can we be filled with God’s version of peace – shalom – so much that we have to give it away? Can we believe that we’ll find the Spirit, the Comforter, alongside us and within us, just as Jesus promised; and help others to know what we’ve receive? Not to rely on an easier refuge in the world’s solutions of drugs (legal or otherwise), food, or whatever “self-help” books are currently on offer. With our abundant gift of shalom, living with Jesus’s promise of a new and better relationship with God, and God at our centre we just won’t have room to keep all of that wellbeing and wholeness for ourselves. We can offer it freely, just as Jesus offered it to his own disciples in person; becoming peace-creators, peace-makers, trying to heal the world even if we think we might be only a tiny ripple in the cosmic sense. We may not believe what we do in giving away shalom, peace, makes much difference. But even tiny ripples will eventually fill a very big space.
© Leslie Spatt 2019