What do we want? Peace!

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent and so we light the second candle – the Candle of Peace. Peace, surely one of the most intangible of concepts and yet something for which humanity has yearned through the ages. In what subsequently proved itself to be a vain hope, the phrase describing the First World War as the ‘war to end all wars’ spoke for the desire of most of humanity, especially those directly seared in its line of fire. The failure of that war-ceasing role of the so-called Great War focussed humanity’s efforts on global peace-seeking and peace-making in subsequent decades – Peace Keeping Forces came into being and international organisations were established to forestall even if not to prevent future wars – such as the League of Nations, then the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. Popular engagement in the debate interrogating war surged such as in the anti-war protests in the time of my youth – ‘what do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!’ and the culture responded with examples such as John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a chance’, Peter, Paul and Mary’s ‘Song of Peace’ or Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’ which saw many of us Baby Boomers feeling ever so meaningful sway to lyrics such as:

Now I’ve been crying lately
Thinking about the world as it is
Why must we go on hating
Why can’t we live in bliss
‘Cause out on the edge of darkness
There rides the Peace Train

Mind you, every aspirational concept has ever had its cynics and Peace has been no exception. Attributed without proof to Thomas Jefferson was this classic:

Peace is that brief glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading.[1]

There have also been some who developed a whole anti-pacific ideology such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who in 1909 wrote his Manifesto of Futurism, a founding document of fascism:[2]

We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill …

But for the most part, Peace has been a secular grail for humanity; what of its religious equivalent? Our readings this morning have had something to say either directly about Peace or alluded to it.

From Psalm 85:

I will hear what the Lord God will speak: for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful ones, whose hearts are turned to him. [85:8]

From Peter’s second letter:

Therefore beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace. [3:14]

From Isaiah 40, there is the hint of the peaceable kingdom which the prophet first described in Isaiah 11:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. [40:11]

Our gospel reading from Mark referred to ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ [1:1]. Why should it be ‘good news’? Clearly because the coming of Jesus spoke into human pain and brokenness, bringing a divine peace in place of a worldly discord.

Each year, at the season of Advent, a peace-seeking spirit soars within us. We will send cards to one another which may well say ‘Peace on earth, Goodwill towards all’ and ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ knowing that the birth of Jesus presages a time of peace, a healing for our worldly pain – or as we sing carols such as ‘O Holy Night’:

A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn

A world at Peace – ever a dream but also a light on the horizon that has encouraged peace-building efforts. Peace-building requires an open, truthful interrogation of brokenness in our world. As an example, Thom Morgan, a fellow member of this congregation works with the Sydney-based Institute of Economics and Peace which, for the past fourteen years, has produced a Global Peace Index monitoring 163 countries. The purpose of the Index being to:[3]

present the most comprehensive data-driven analysis … on trends in peace, its economic value, and how to develop peaceful societies.

In its most recent report, it found a worrying decline in its peace-measuring index, stating:

The results this year show that the level of global peacefulness deteriorated, with the average country score falling by 0.34 per cent. This is the ninth deterioration in peacefulness in the last twelve years, with 81 countries improving, and 80 recording deteriorations over the past year. The 2020 GPI reveals a world in which the conflicts and crises that emerged in the past decade have begun to abate, only to be replaced with a new wave of tension and uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such reports are not meant to depress us but encourage us to be involved in the Peace Train:

Yeah Peace Train Holy Roller
Would everyone jump up on the Peace Train
Come on the Peace Train

In just such a manner, the lighting of the second Advent Candle is an invitation for us to think about the Peace Train which Jesus has invited us to board. Think of these words from 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors …

Our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus offers us a time to raise our hopes about the possibility of peace but not just because of the warm imagery and rhetoric of the Babe in swaddling clothes lying in the Manger but because of what that miracle of Emmanuel – God with us – set in train two millenia ago. The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, God made Human, commenced a journey which lasted some thirty plus years until it ended at the Cross, and was then followed by the Resurrection. As we reflect on ‘Peace on Earth’, we would do well to think about these words from the Lord’s Servant canticle [based on Isaiah 53]:

He was pierced for our sins:

Bruised for no fault but ours.

His punishment has won our peace:

And by his wounds we are healed. [53:5]

These words from the Hebrew Bible foretold what Jesus would do by his willing sacrifice of himself. More than the peaceful simplicity of the nativity scene, it would be through the gruesome drama of his crucifixion followed by the glory of his Resurrection that Jesus would give us a peace beyond anything the world could ever know by itself. With the Cross looming just days away before him, Jesus told his disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  [John 14:27]

What is this Peace Jesus leaves with us? In the Bible two key words for Peace appear. The Hebrew word Shalom, [שָׁלוֹם‎] is defined as:

a state of affairs, one of well‑being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect.

In the New Testament, a new element was introduced into the concept of Peace. In NT Greek we find the word eiréné [εἰρήνη], being defined as having a number of characteristics including at a basic level peace between individuals and within society, but adding in a much more profound concept of a ‘tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ.’[4] This salvific element transcended, but did not exclude, mere mortality’s hopes for Peace, bringing with it the additional eternal promise expressed in Revelation:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. [21:4]

This new Peace of Jesus was proclaimed into a world which was itself seeking a sense of worldly peace. Though it wouldn’t enter the language for another two decades after Christ’s crucifixion when Seneca would first use the term Pax Romana, the idea was a key component of the Roman enterprise; indeed the Ara Pacis (the Altar of Peace) was consecrated in Rome a decade before Jesus was born (in 13BC) in honour of Emperor Augustus’ campaigns in Gaul and Spain – war efforts, badged in the name of Peace, to expand territory.

The Roman expansion of territory would also include Palestine bringing with it the promise of an imposed peace and security at the cost of subjugation to the Roman imperium. This cost was not easily accepted by many in Palestine, there were efforts to overthrow or at least subvert Rome’s authority. Some expected that Jesus would expand God’s territory in the name of Peace by violent overthrow of Roman authority. That was never his plan. His plan was, as this morning’s psalm said – ‘to speak peace to his people’.

So as we gaze upon this second Advent Candle, the Candle of Peace, let us consider how this season may help us better understand what Peace means for us, what it expects from us, in particular how the words we heard from Peter’s second epistle may apply to us:

Therefore beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace. [3:14]

By such a call, along with the invitation to be a part of a divine ministry of reconciliation, we are not called to be passive bystanders at the almost inevitable crashes of the world’s peace train but, returning to the words of the song:

(to) come and join the living
It’s not so far from you
And it’s getting nearer
Soon it will all be true

Oh Peace Train sounding louder
Reside on the Peace Train

It will all be true if we ‘strive to be found at peace’ by Jesus and reside on his Peace Train.

May the Peace of the Lord be always with you. Amen.

[1] The following website discusses the origin of this quote: Peace is that brief glorious moment in history…(Spurious Quotation) | Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello 

[2] V. Greene, Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Guggenheim Museum, NY, 2014

[3] GPI_2020_web-1.pdf (economicsandpeace.org)

[4] Rev Debra Aiken, Psalm 29:11 – God Promises You Peace — Tell the Lord Thank You