At the Wednesday Eucharist this week, in our discussion of the weekly readings, we ended up in a deep and important discussion about the word “peace.” I had planned to focus on this image of the ‘refiner’s fire” in my sermon, sharing with you something I learned this week about how there is a tradition that a silversmith knows the silver has been purified when he can see his own reflection in it, and how, by extension, God knows that we have been purified when we reflect the image of God in which we are created.
But this conversation convinced me that peace was where I needed to go, instead. When I sat down to write my sermon later that week, I couldn’t recreate the path we took through these readings to that conversation. The word peace comes up only once in our readings, I did discover that some people call the second candle of the Advent wreath the “peace” candle, so I could claim that as my reason—but that really isn’t how I got here. So I’ll just be honest and say that I’m not sticking very close to the readings this week, and let it be.
Most of us, when asked to define “peace” will jump to an idea of “world peace,” a time when there is no war or violence or disagreement anywhere in the world. A time when there is no suffering or conflict and everyone is happy and content. World peace is one of those phrases we toss around without really thinking about what it really means. What would it take to achieve a real, lasting peace all around the world? There is an old episode of the X-Files when Agent Mulder somehow traps a genie, who of course offers him wish fulfillment in order to be released.Mulder attempts to be noble and unselfish, so he says, “World peace.” He immediately finds himself completely alone in the world. The genie cynically tells him that the only way to achieve pure world peace is by eliminating everyone else.
But I believe even that is no guarantee, because how often are you conflicted even within yourself? Our own scriptures tell a story that at the time when there was just one man on the world, he was not at peace, and as soon as there were two, there was conflict.
When we speak of peace in the sense used in the Bible, it is more than just a lack of war or hostility.It’s not just “peace” in the sense of no more war between nations. In Greek the word is eirene. We might interpret it as serenity or tranquility. That feeling we get when we sit beside a lake on awarm summer evening as the sun sets. That inner quietness, and sense of“all-rightness.”
In Hebrew, the word is shalom. Shalom: that state of wholeness and balance that has no space for violence or war. A way of being in the world in which violence is not simply absent, but non-existent. Not because there is no one else around, but because we no longer see anyone, not even a stranger, as our enemy. Instead we treat every person as our neighbor. Someone we are called to love.
In an article by Morris Williams on the topic of peace, he points out that so often, in this world, we use “peace” to indicate the lack of a storm, but in God’s terms, peace comes not in the absence of the storm but in the middle of it.
We don’t achieve peace on our own. There is a reason it is in the list of the Fruit of the Spirit. We need God’s help to remain open to shalom, that inner balance that keeps us from losing our way when the storms are raging all around us.
In leading us into a place of shalom within and between ourselves, the Holy Spirit doesn’t ask us to deny “reality”—it just shows us that the world’s definition of ‘reality’ is not everything there is. As Williams says, this kind of peace doesn’t deny that there is a problem, it just refuses to become part of it, to be overwhelmed by it. Peace says that we need not be defined by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Peace is tied with hope because it sees that there is something beyond this present moment, a time when reconciliation will occur and there will be no more division and sadness.
The peace of God that grows in us includes a sense of tranquility or being undisturbed, a sense of restfulness and quietness, but it also suggests reconciliation. Not that there is no hostility, but that hostility has been overcome. It is God’s peace,which—we read elsewhere in the Bible—is past human understanding. It is a quality so mysterious that it is often misunderstood as something else. In the words of a favorite hymn, “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing—the marvelous peace of God.”
We are often in situations where we feel ‘unsettled’ or conflicted within ourselves. This is true. But the peace of God comes from the knowledge that no matter where we find ourselves,we are not alone. Peace comes from the awareness that God is with us at every moment,in every place. As we move through this season of Advent, it is good to be reminded that the One for whose arrival we are waiting and watching and preparing, the One we call the Prince of Peace, Jesus, has another name. One we usually only use at this time of year: Emmanuel. God is with us.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.