Toorak Uniting Church

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Positive, not passive, peace

John 14: 23 – 29
Rev. Morag Thorne
5 May 2013

This is a passage too rich in content to fully unpack today. We must limit ourselves to just one element of it, and I have chosen to focus on peace, because I think it is a concept or quality that is often sold short in our usage.

‘Peace’ means different things to different people, and sometimes even at different times of our lives, we find our ideas will vary. Commonly, we associate peace with rest and quiet, the absence of struggle. It is a peace that allows us to rest and recover our strength to face the future. If it comes at the right time, when we are burdened and weary, this peace is a real blessing.

If that kind of peace persists beyond our need for it, most of us come to be dissatisfied within that state. It is what I think of as a ‘passive’ peace – a peace in which not much happens. Jesus was certainly not anticipating that his friends and disciples would experience that kind of peace after his death. He knew that they were immediately going to be thrust into the turmoil of dealing with their initial grief, followed in quick succession by confusion, hope, wonder and engagement with a future that none of them could have imagined.

The lectionary readings in the Easter season have addressed these momentous challenges and changes among Jesus’ earliest followers. The demands these events made on the disciples would resonate to the very depths of their faith, courage and purpose. What might be the characteristics of a peace that would equip and sustain them through such tumultuous times?

I think we must infer that Jesus’ peace, far from being a passive state in which not much happens, is instead positive, dynamic and evolving. Jesus’ peace was going to sustain his friends for the long haul. It was going to bless them with a sense of assurance and certainty, like a companion whose presence strengthens and cheers us, and gives us comfort in our most difficult or dark times.

Such a peace is deep-seated and persistent; it is the peace that is our life-line, the light at the far end of a dark tunnel, a core of certainty that remains within us when all else is uncertain and unknowable; a peace that keeps us going on the path we have committed ourselves to follow.

You will remember the hymn "When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea-billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know ( say) ,’It is well, it is well with my soul.’"

Horatio Spafford (1873) wrote the hymn after several tragedies in his family life, yet he represents peace as a river – an elemental force that is life-giving, following a course, carrying nourishment, interactive with the life and earth around it.

Some of you will know that Spafford wrote the hymn after his four daughters were drowned in a ships’ collision at sea, travelling from America to Europe. His wife was travelling with the girls, but was unable to save them in the disaster. In the two years prior to this terrible event, the family had suffered great financial loss, when property investments were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. They were further affected by the economic downturn of 1873, hence the emigration to Europe. Spafford himself was delayed by business in Chicago, so was not with the family when the disaster occurred.

We know of the faith of this couple not just from this great hymn, but from the life choices they made after the tragedy. They went on to have three more children. Of these, the only son died aged four, of scarlet fever. The following year, 1881, Horatio and Anna Spafford moved with the two baby daughters that remained of their seven children, to Israel. In Jerusalem they helped found a group called ‘The American Colony’, whose mission was to serve the poor.

The small society gained the trust of the local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities. During and immediately after World War I, they opened soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages and other forms of help for the local people. They were joined by Swedish Christians in their ministry.

Although the American Colony ceased to exist as a religious community in the late 1940s, individual members continued to be active in the daily life of Jerusalem. Towards the end of the 1950s, the communal residence was converted into the American Colony Hotel. The hotel is an integral part of the Jerusalem landscape where members of all communities in Jerusalem still meet. In 1992 representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel met in the hotel where they began talks that led to the historic 1993 Oslo Peace Accord. (Wikipedia)

This legacy was the fruit of the peace of God in the lives of two people who, without that enduring peace, might otherwise have been crushed by the burdens of their losses.

We see that same peace, that unshakeable belief in the life-giving love of God as personified in Jesus, in the many foundations and movements committed to bringing new life and hope out of wreckage, disaster and loss. Even people who do not identify as Christians have seen and embraced that commitment to generous love that is the realisation of the spirit of Jesus Christ abroad in our world. I’m sure many of you will know personally men and women who have weathered hard and harsh times, whose lives attest to the enduring spirit that sustains us and shapes our purposes.

One attribute of peace that we haven’t yet considered is ‘a sense of well-being’ whatever our situation. That is what the Apostle Paul felt, the utter conviction and assurance that led him to write: ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:39).

This gift of peace preceded the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate in a fortnight. This peace armed the faith community to believe, when the Christ of the Resurrection came to them; it equipped them for their part in the work of the Spirit after Pentecost.

When we bless each other with the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are invoking a peace that generates life, purpose and ingenuity. We are invoking a gift that continually reveals to us the grace and mercy of God, and keeps us in communion with Jesus Christ. Amen.

© Rev. Morag Thorne, 2013

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