July 10, 2022

July 10 Worship

Today's message was about peace. It was the third of a nine-sermon series on the Fruit of the Spirit. We opened worship by praying the Prayer of Saint Francis, and our first hymn contained the line, Your words to me a full of joy, of beauty, peace, and grace; from them I learn your blessèd will, through them I see your face. After the sermon we also sang Let There Be Peace on Earth.

Here is a video of the complete service (click on "read more"), and beneath that is a transcript of the sermon.

Fruit of the Spirit 3: Peace

Seek peace and pursue it. 
 —Ps 34:14 & 1 Pet 3:11

Paul tells us in Galatians (5:22) that the fruit of the Spirit is… peace. And what a wonderful fruit this is. Who doesn’t want the tranquility that comes with knowing that they’re right with God. Who doesn’t pray that there’ll be nothing on their conscience at night so that they can go to bed in blessed quietness, sleep tight, and have sweet dreams. Surely this is what the psalmist means when they tell us, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (4:8).

I’m sure that’s exactly what they mean. But this is not how peace is usually talked about in the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, shalom (שָׁלוֹם), isn’t just the absence of conflict; it’s also justice and wholeness. If there is an absence of war, but the presence of inequality or oppression, then there is no shalom; there is no peace.

And peace in the New Testament is similar. The Greek word for peace is εἰρήνη, and it’s used at least a hundred times in the Christian Bible. There are a lot of Greek words that might have different nuances such that they get translated in more than one way into English. But this isn’t one of them. I know of no other English word that’s used to translate εἰρήνη. It’s always peace.

But this doesn’t mean that the New Testament usage of the word for peace has no nuance to it. That’s because it always does. It never means simply the absence of conflict. It always means more.

And the first thing I want to point out here is the way peace is used in both this morning’s psalm and this morning’s reading from the New Testament. Remember, Hebrew poets never rhymed. The main thing that characterizes Old Testament poetry is repetition. The poet—often a psalmist—says one thing, and then makes a parallel statement that means the same thing. And so when we read in Psalm 34:14, Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it, we should interpret that second statement to be a reiteration of the first. To shun evil and to seek peace are basically the same thing here.

And that’s the exact thing the writer of 1 Peter wanted us to understand when they quoted Psalm 34 in today’s reading. I think we get hung up on the wrong kind of evil in our culture. We hear about it through the filter of the religious right. But when the Bible talks about it, it’s much more likely to be talking about injustice or sowing discord. And that’s exactly what 1 Peter talks about in today’s scripture reading. Here we read about people living in unity and being kind to one another—something the scriptures speak of with one voice.

So before I go any further, I want to mention the origin of the Greek word for peace. It’s thought that its root is εἴρω—a verb that means to join or fasten together. I think this helps us understand what’s behind the whole concept of New Testament of peace—the sort of peace Jesus told us to make in the Sermon on the Mount, and the sort of peace Paul wrote about when he mentioned the fruit of the Spirit.

And this brings us straight to the point that I’ve been making since the beginning of the sermon series—a point that I’ll probably continue to make till the end. This fruit of the Spirit isn’t a gift we passively receive—something that allows us simply to lie down and sleep in peace—but a responsibility, a charge from the Holy Spirit to share the riches of our relationship with God with the world around us.

If others know us by our fruits, and the fruit of the Spirit is peace, then just as we are empowered to choose the ways of love (whether we feel love toward others or not), and just as we are empowered to choose happiness (even when we are faced with difficulty), we are also empowered to be peacemakers in the Name of Christ.

I’m reading a book right now called Dovetail. So far, it doesn’t appear to relate to the fruit of the Spirit. But it still reminds me how it’s impossible to separate the different fruits from one another. They’re all related, and you can’t really produce one of them without also practicing several others. And nowhere is this clearer than with the fruit of the Spirit which is peace.

We all know that Isaiah called Messiah the Prince of peace. But did you know that, four times, Paul calls God the God of peace? If we’re made in God’s image, then, how can we sew discord or treat each other unkindly? How can we ignore the call to forgive and work together. So if the fruit of the Spirit is peace, how do we share it—or, in the words of our Lord, how are we to be blessed peacemakers, children of God?

The prayer that we prayed together to open worship today gives us some ideas—an outline, basically—for how to spread the gospel of peace. Peace is a thing, a presence all its own, and this is a prayer in which we ask to be instruments of the peace of Christ.

We live in a world filled with so much hatred. Politics in this country seem to have gone beyond the pale. We no longer debate, it seems; we hate. But disciples of Christ do not return hate for love. When and where we encounter hatred, we respond in love. We refuse to fall into the trap of demonizing those who disagree with them, but find in our supposed enemies a common humanity.

Part of the hatred, of course, is exaggerated. And many people willingly buy into the exaggeration. They gleefully let a chip get placed on their shoulder, and they carry that chip around. We meet the perceived injury with our own accusation, our own hurtful words. But disciples of Christ do not return injury for injury. We meet it with forgiveness. We look beyond the hurt to a place inhabited by empathy and compassion. And there we find peace; there we find Christ.

The world has lost its moorings. People of faith—in the United States, at least—are reduced by about 1% every year. These are not just people who stop going to church (or temple or mosque). These are people who, when asked, respond that they have no relationship to any faith whatsoever. I believe firmly in everyone’s right to their own beliefs—or even to no faith whatsoever. But the void that’s being created is being with leaders who preach politics, churches that condemn those that disagree with them, faith expressions that discourage dialogue. In a world where doubt seems to rule, we are called upon to keep the faith—not through the peace of easy answers, but through the hard-won peace of a faith that asks questions, a faith that welcomes strangers and questioners and those who have been condemned by a faith is not filtered through love.

Into situations of despair, into dark places, into sad dwelling-places, we, as followers of Christ, are called upon to send peace. When there is no end in sight to warfare and no solution to an ongoing problem, we do not lose hope. Through kind words and material demonstrations of a peace that surpasses understanding, we help people pass through the tunnel of despair.

When truth is hidden—often intentionally—we shed light. Because it’s the fruit of the Spirit that is peace, we look to the Holy Spirit for courage and inspiration to speak truth to power, even when our voice shakes. One voice is a light in the darkness, and one candle can light many others.

And though it was joy that I talked about last week, it can’t be denied that happiness is a component of peace. Choosing one solution in a swamp of unsolved problems can set us on a course that leads to joy—not an ecstatic jumping for joy, but a peaceful assurance of wholeness.

I hope you can see that peace isn’t just a word. It’s not an independent concept. It’s at the center of movement in the life of a Christian. We receive the grace of God—the unconditional love preached by and shared by Jesus of Nazareth, the love shown to us on the cross. In the place of peace that that grace delivers us to, we bless those around us with love: We love God; we love our neighbors; we even love our enemies—not by pretending and not by denying the feelings in our hearts, but by choosing to treat them lovingly.

Peace is at the center of our witness as Christians. It’s what we receive from God and it’s what we share with others. The peace of a great empire usually has as its foundation a power so strong that others are afraid of it. The peace of God’s kindom has as its foundation a power that unites all people under the banner of love. Thus the pax romana was destined to come to an end, while the peace of Christ will endure forever.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening, Jr.