Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Gift of Peace

Joel 2:21-27
John 14:23-29

This discourse is addressed to the collective “you,” not the individual “you.”  It is addressed to the community.  Jesus loves the community that has formed around him and he expects God to honor their requests just as God has honored his requests.  If the disciples love Jesus, they will do what he asks.  That is the sign of a loving relationship—that we honor one another’s requests.  The way of Jesus is love—love for God and love for one another.  The way of Jesus is building authentic community.
By the time that John’s gospel was written, the people who followed Jesus no longer were welcome in synagogues.  The Church was homeless.  There is an implication that the home that Jesus builds for the disciples is their gathering.  Where two or three are gathered, Jesus is there.  Along with the huge loss of a place in which to worship, and a people with whom to worship, the followers of Jesus lost access to the Torah, and the rest of their scriptures.  The Holy Spirit was being sent to be their teacher and guide, to place God’s Word within the gathering.  And this word was to bring them peace.
But this peace was not the kind of peace that the world in which Jesus and his disciples experience, the Pax Romana, which was a very effective maker of peace—if you were Roman.  It was a peace purchased with the might of an exceptional military that dominated the western world by making other nations servant states and ruthlessly crushing resistance.  It was peace at the end of a sword.  Roman emperors claimed to be demigods, the representatives of the pantheon of Roman gods.  Jesus countered every claim of the Roman Empire with the sovereignty of God.  God also offers peace, but it will not be a peace that is purchased with violence or coercion.  It is a peace that is only possible through love.  That peace is learned and practiced in community.  
Is it possible for us to be a laboratory for peace?  The Church is given to the world as a demonstration of the viability of the peaceable Kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  Believe it or not, love and peace are gifts from God, freely given.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, writes that the Holy Spirit grows love and peace within us, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Our obedience in following the way of Jesus grows love and peace within us, along with patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and joy!
We say in our new welcoming statement that we are a community that follows Jesus.  So what can we do to be obedient to Jesus as a community that follows him?  
  • Listen for and to the Holy Spirit
  • Commit to love one another and respect one another
  • Gather to worship—the building is not the church, the assembly is the church
  • Lay down our need to be right or to prevail in order to serve one another
  • Practice living without anxiety or fear
  • Be honest about who we are and what we need

A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman and political activist who lived at the turn of the last century, wrote that, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”  I believe all of this and I believe it is really important for us as a church to learn the way of peace together as a witness to the world.
And I learned something about personal peace from one of my students, Melinda Giese.  Melinda is serving her first internship as a minister in an urban church that has a ministry to the homeless population in Tacoma.  Melinda’s most recent paper examined a conversation she had with C, a heroin addict who sometimes sleeps in the doorway of the church.  C was going to enter treatment the next day in this conversation, not for the first time.  In the conversation, C mentioned that she had gone to church earlier in the week.  Melinda gave me permission to share part of that conversation and her own reflection with you.
C said, “I wasn’t planning on going but then I found myself outside that church around the corner from here and I heard the preaching outside, so I went in.  It felt good.  I know God always wants me to come back and that he sees me and everything I do.  You can fool other people but you can’t fool God.  And I know he keeps after me even though he sees my sins.  I know I should go back to the Lord.  
Melinda replied, “You might find some peace there too.”     
And C responded, “Oh no, I already have that.  Every night when I go to sleep, I know I’m saved. I couldn’t stand it otherwise.”
Melinda wrote her honest reaction, “I feel irritated by C and C’s theology.  At the rate she is going, she is going to die on our porch of an overdose, enjoying the peace of being saved.  What is the good of that?”  Then Melinda spent a good part of her reflection paper wondering about a faith that gives C peace, but doesn’t help in any other part of her life.  And Melinda admitted to her irritation at having to clean up spilled liquids and trash at the door of the church before worship on Sundays that C and her friends leave behind.  
This is what Melinda wrote that changed how I look at the gift of peace:
When C said, “Oh no, I already have [peace].  Every night when I go to sleep, I know I’m saved,” my internal voice said, “But we’re most likely going to find your dead body on the porch some day!  How can Jesus not offer you more than this??!”  Her model is not mine and in the moment, I reacted because I thought her model must be wrong.  
But the thing she said she had in her life was peace, which also happens to be a fruit of the spirit.   “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:11-23).  In progressive Methodist churches, having a particular faith experience of salvation is not emphasized.  Some people in our churches have had dramatic experiences with Jesus like Paul on the road to Damascus and others have had unfolding experiences with Jesus like the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Both experiences are completely valid journeys of faith.  As an overall guiding principle, we tend to look for the fruits of the Spirit in our lives.  For me, this principle also extends to those who have no affinity for Jesus whatsoever.  If the fruits exist, then the Spirit is present.  In C’s case, based on her faith story, she has received the fruit of peace.
My theological reflection friend pointed out, “Melinda, you go to bed worried sometimes. How well does your theology stand up to going to sleep on a piece of cardboard on Tacoma Avenue?  Your theology doesn’t always allow you to go to bed at peace in your own home in the suburbs, let alone on the streets in Tacoma.”  Point well taken.  After many hours of reflection, I believe my theology was inadequate to this situation.  From everything I have observed so far, it is quite possible that C does not have the inner or outer resources to seek treatment or transformation.  If she were able to access these resources, I would honestly see that as a miracle.  In the place she is, the best thing Jesus may have to offer her is the peace of knowing she is still accepted and loved and has a place in heaven, even in her addiction and all the issues that are connected to that.  And that is a gift of grace and I can see it as such.  In fact, her gift of peace is a gift that I do not have in nearly as much abundance as she does.  In a do-over of my comment about “Maybe God also wants you to be well,” I would say instead, “I am glad that God has given you the gift of peace.  That is a wonderful gift to have.”  
There is a weakness in my theology of transformation which is that Jesus transforms, but you also have to cooperate with the grace that leads you into transformation.  It’s hard emotional and spiritual work to move past our selfishness, blindness, fears and shame.  As we change on the inside, we also make changes in our lives that are not easy either.  I think that the desire and the strength to do this work is also grace but the amount of work that we do may blind us to the grace that is present.  
When we have witnessed transformation in our lives, there is a tendency to think, well, this was possible in my life, what is wrong with you that you can’t DO this?  This may creep into 12 step programs as well.  Look, if YOU would just WORK the steps, your life would be transformed!  And now, I can judge you if you can’t manage this.  The antidote to this judging is to hold onto the idea that the love and grace of God unfolds uniquely in all our lives.  The grace that brings transformation is not the template for what “should” happen in anyone else’s life, it is simply one example of grace.  While it is hugely powerful and changes lives for the better, it is still just one way.  When I pray for C, I ask that God give her as much healing as is possible for her and remember that God works however God works.
May God grant each of us individually and as a community the grace to follow Jesus with as much love and peace toward one another as we can hold right now trusting that we will grow in our capacity for compassion.  May it be so!

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