Acts 16.9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5; John 14.23-29
From time to time we hear about the ‘possible resumption’ of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Peace talks are only necessary, of course, when there is no peace, when the parties in question have been at war. Tragically, in the case of the Palestinians and the Israelis, the sides are not evenly matched and therefore the Israelis are most unlikely to take any such talks seriously. It has always struck me as rather tragic that a negotiated peace only becomes worthy of anyone’s attention when no one entity proves strong enough to beat its rivals into submission. For peace, as our world more commonly understands it, is what you get when one of the playground bullies gets strong enough to impose his or her will on all the other kids. It is what the ancients called the ‘peace of Rome’, the peace that arrives not by conversation and the search for common ground, but by the capacity to cower those ‘others’ one perceives as the ‘enemy’ into submission. This is what is happening in the Palestinian territories today. Palestinian homes are being demolished to make way for new Jewish settlements. If, in grief and anger, a Palestinian protests the loss of his or her home, if she or he dares to throw a rock at a tank or a soldier, it is more than likely that charges of terrorism will follow, and then imprisonment.
The Revelation of John provides the church with a wonderful vision of what God’s peace would look like. Here the peace of God is like a city with a permanently open gate, where there is light both day and night, the light which comes from the living Christ, who is also (paradoxically) the lamb that was sacrificed for the sins of the world. Through the city runs a river of life, a river whose source is that same lamb. The river sustains the twelvefold fruitfulness of a tree of life so large that it is able to grow on both banks of the river at once. Its twelvefold nature suggests that the tree of life is the people of God, founded on twelve tribes and twelve apostles, fed by the Lamb and producing, what?, ‘leaves which are for the healing of the nations’. For all nations, it seems, are present in this city. It is not a city for the strongest tribe, but for every tribe that looks to the Lamb for its light and sustenance. It is a city in which the former enmity of tribes and nations has been put aside for the sake of God’s peace, the peace of the lamb that was slain.
Note that phrase please. It is deeply significant. For both John’s gospel and the Revelation to John, the way to peace is certainly not by the sword of despotic bullies. Peace, rather, is the gift of a Lamb who is slain, a mighty warrior who is willing to lay down his great power for the sake of another kind of power, the power of love and of clear vision. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever cleaves to him in trust will not perish, but inherit eternal life, life in all its fullness. This is the paradox of the gospel of peace. Life and Peace arrive in the world not because the bully has scared everyone into submission, but because the sacrificial love of God in Christ takes root in people’s hearts. Having been so deeply loved, our fear is taken away and we are enabled to love each other as well, even our enemies, so absorbing their violence into ourselves that their violence, and ours, dies with us as we also die with Christ in baptism. What is then raised from death, in the life lived in imitation of Christ’s love, is the possibility of a negotiated peace: a peace born of caring conversation, other-centred love, and the refusal to do violence to others as they would do violence to us.
The peace of Christ is not, therefore, a magical solution to an intractable cycle of violence. It is, rather, a political and ethical practise that is given us from the very heart of our Trinitarian God. Insofar as we take this practise to our hearts, John tells us, we shall also take to our hearts the very Spirit of God, in whom we are loved by the Father and the Son, even unto the end of the ages. In that sense, the church that practices these things is capable of becoming a sign of the peace which has not yet arrived in our world – God knows! – and yet, we are promised, is on its way according to the very concrete vision and practice that Christ has shown us.
This sermon was first preached in the chapel of the Uniting Church Centre for Theology and Ministry in May, 2010.