12/4/16: Peace in Believing, Romans 15:4-13
Peace In Believing
First Lesson: Isaiah 11:1-10
Second Lesson: Romans 15:4-13
Rev. Scott Dickison
Regular attenders in worship here at the First Baptist Church of Christ will recognize this last verse in our passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome as the benediction Isay at the end of worship each week.
Benedictions are a funny thing in preacher circles—and yes there are such things as “preacher circles”: they’re like knitting circles but with more gossip. But there’s a certain amount of pressure when you first begin preaching to find a benediction that will become your own.
I settled on these words from Paul during my final year in divinity school when I served as a student minister at Memorial Church at the center of Harvard’s campus. Part of my duties was to help lead our morning prayer service—the nation’s longest running prayer service, you might like to know, having met every Monday through Saturday during the school year since 1638. I was tasked with opening the service with a responsive reading of a psalm, and closing our time together with a benediction. So I set out to find one that I could say each time I led the service and I had two criteria: 1) that the words be stirring enough to take us back out into the world with purpose, and most importantly 2) that it be short enough for me to memorize without too much trouble.
I didn't feel up to writing my own, which some preachers do, so I began scouring Scripture and finally landed on these words from the fifteenth chapter of Romans—a passage I wasn’t familiar with, to be honest. But I was first struck by the repetition of the word “hope”: May the God of hope…may you abound in hope.” The God of hope seems right, doesn’t it? I’m convinced it’s not just Advent that begins in hope it, it’s faith, it’s the whole of it—all of what we do here begins in hope. God is a God of hope, absolutely that’s it.
Hope is what first drew me into these words from Paul, but the words that kept me there were those that followed: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing. It’s such an odd little phrase, isn’t it? “Fill you with all joy and peace in believing?”
It’s an odd sentence in the original Greek, too. Other translations have it as “fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” Or “all joy and peace because you trust in him”—the word here in Greek, pistis, has a constellation of meanings: belief, or trust, or faith.
Paul’s hope is that as we believe, as we trust in God, as we have faith in God or live faithfully—as we let our faith in God’s promises guide and direct our lives—that living in this way will bring us joy. This is a powerful statement, because joy is not the first thing people on the outside associate with churchfolk. Not that their image is always negative—although it often is—but it’s almost certainly not joyful. But the truth is, I suspect joy is not the first thing that most of us inside the church associate with living a life of faith. Which is a shame and deserves some attention, which we’ll give it next week, the “joy” Sunday in Advent.
But today is the Sunday of peace, and so in addition to filling us with joy, Paul also hopes that our believing, our faithful living, should bring us peace. This is Paul’s hope for the church in Rome, that as they continue their Christian journey, and make their way through the trying divisions among them—Jewish and Gentile Christians learning to live and love together as one body—that in the walking they would find joy and peace. And this is very much a part of my hopes for us as we part each week: that we should continue to walk, even when at times it feels like a stumble, and that in this walk we should find these things.
But this is where I need to confess to you that of these four Sundays in Advent, this is the one I look forward to the least—not that I don’t look forward to it! But just not as much as the other Sundays.
You see, peace is just difficult to talk about.
It’s one of those words that when said from the pulpit has a way of making eyes glass-over and minds wander to shopping lists and lunch or maybe just the beehive of your thoughts; maybe all the parts of your life that are anything but peaceful.
Peace is just hard to talk about, if we’re being honest. Or even better, peace is hard to talk about honestly. It’s a word we throw around, both inside the church but also outside, so that it starts to lose it’s meaning.
On the one hand we have these biblical images of peace that are as fantastical as they are beautiful. In the passage we heard earlier from Isaiah: The wolf shall lie with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den—those are snakes. Poisonous snakes—viper’s in some translations.
As we said last week in looking at an earlier part of Isaiah, and this image of all the armies of the earth beating swords into plowshares, the danger in lifting up these of perfect and complete, even unnatural, images of peace, is that it makes peace into something otherworldly and unattainable. It absolves us of any part to play in bringing peace into the world—peace will come in the world when God sees to it, we tell ourselves, and so we should just keep doing what we’re doing, peaceful or not.
But peace always involves us. Yes, the coming Kingdom of God is something that only God will bring about finally—thank God that’s not up to us. But we have a part to play. We’re called to imagine it, to work toward it, to bring it into the world in small ways. Part of lifting up these themes of Advent of hope, peace, joy and love is certainly to look ahead with anticipation to a time when God will revealed them fully and completely, but another important reason we lift up these things is to provide a space for us to ask ourselves what we’re willing to do to make them present now? To consider what would need to happen—not just on a worldly scale, but in a scale much closer to home? What would need to happen for us to know peace in our own community? What would need to happen for us to know peace in our own family? Our own church? What are we willing to do to make it so? If the people of God won’t risk themselves for peace in the world, who will?
But there’s something else that works against us in talking about peace, and that’s that we tend to think of peace in the negative as opposed to the positive. In other words, we define peace by the absence of something as opposed to the presence of something. We think of peace as the absence of war or conflict or tension, but that’s not quite right. True peace—peace as it’s described in Scripture—is understood in the positive; it’s found in the presence of certain things. The presence of love, the presence of justice, the presence of relationship or wholeness.This is something that is difficult to conceive of outside of the spiritual realm. In the political sphere peace is defined by the absence of tanks and guns, but is peace an ash heap? Is peace a city laid to waste, or a community living under blue tarps? Is peace truly the absence of violence or unrest? Soviet Russia by this metric was extremely peaceful—but is it really peace when you’re too scared to voice dissent or speak out against injustice? Peace is not defined by absence, but by presence.
This is certainly true in the Biblical understanding of peace. In the Biblical imagination peace and salvation are essentially the same thing. The Hebrew word is shalom, and it’s hard to define completely in English, but means something like “right relationship.” The complete and total wholeness of creation, where everything works in harmony as God intended. It’s not something that will be achieved completely this side of the Kingdom of God, but is a goal to be prayed for and worked toward, and that is known to reveal itself from time to time. (1) It has to do with the redemption of all things: the healing of the earth—which requires that we confess that the world is broken.
The forgiveness of sins—which requires that we confess there is sin in the world and in us.
The reconciliation of peoples—which means we must confess we are divided.
The repaired union of God and the world, the knitting back together of the soul and the body as God intended, and the righteousness or justice of God, which finally reigns on earth as it does in heaven, as we lift up each week in our prayer together. This is biblical peace—shalom. And this is salvation.
And it’s funny, it’s not just peace that we think of in terms of absence, is it? We also think of salvation that way. Salvation, we act like, is the absence of sin, when in fact it’s the presence of reconciliation. We act as if salvation is the absence of wounds, when in fact it’s more the presence of scars—wasn’t this how the risen Christ was known to his disciples? By the marks on his hands?
Peace and salvation are marked not by absence but by presence. And we know this to be true, I think, though we often don’t appreciate it as such.
As Mitchell and Kristin have learned there are few things more peaceful than a sleeping baby—especially in those first few moments after that baby was screaming its head off and you’ve tried everything: you’ve given it a bottle, a pacifier, you’ve rocked it, you’ve read it a book, you’ve shh-ed it, you’ve done all you could and then by some miracle from God, the baby is now asleep. Your world comes back alive—this is a very good reference point for peace. But they say that whatever stage your child is in at the moment becomes your favorite and I think that may be true. It’s at least given me a different image for childlike peace. Billy and Sidney are now 3 and almost 2, and one of the things I love most about this stage is watching them play. Particularly when they’re playing outside, sometimes together, but I’m thinking especially of when they play by themselves. When they were first learning to walk and I would have them outside while I was doing something in the yard. Billy is a little past this now, but Sidney is in that sweet spot. The world is still so new to him. And I love watching him explore in the back yard. This past spring and summer, I remember watching as he would go over to touch the long, slender leaves of the lilies. Smelling the blooms on the hydrangea and the lantana that’s grown out of control this year. And of course, from time to time stumbling and falling and as I make a movement toward him, stopping to see how he finds himself face down in the dirt and grass, and then takes a handful of it, studies it, feels it, and slowly lets it fall out of his hands back to the ground below.
A sleeping child is a gift. But a child discovering the world and how he fits into it, this is a vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God.
May the God of hope, Paul says, fill you with all joy and peace in believing—giving voice to these deep ties between peace and salvation. And may God fill you with peace, he says. Not simply may God “take away” the conflict, or tension or stress or all the many, many things that are less than peaceful—less than whole. But may God work through your faith and the community in which you practice and live it to enable you to take all the disparate parts and jagged pieces of your life and relationships and arrange them in such a way that what was thought to be lacking is shown to be complete; that what was once broken would be made whole again.
May your believing not remove you from the harsh realities of life and the world, but may it lead you to work for and find peace within them. May it fill you with this peace. May your crying cease, but even more, may your imagination run wild. So that you truly may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(1) Thanks to dear fiend Garrett Vickrey for passing along this little nugget from George Mason on the link between peace and salvation.