Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Strange Peace of Christ

John 20:19-23
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 18, 2004)

Some of you have heard me speak before of William Wilberforce. He is one of the great heroes of History. Wilberforce spent his life pursuing two great goals: abolishing slavery in his country of Great Britain and reforming the nation’s manners, making the country gentler and kinder. He approached these goals with utter tenacity, in spite of setbacks and difficulties. On his death bed, Wilberforce learned that slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire. (This came some twenty years after a battle he'd led the previous two decades to bring an end to the slave trade within Britain itself.)

Wilberforce's years of fighting for right paid off just as he breathed his last. The source of Wilberforce’s fierce, tough tenacity was Jesus Christ. Wilberforce was an ardent, passionate follower of Jesus. Once, a smug young believer, evidently thinking that there was something missing in Wilberforce’s faith asked him, “Have you found peace?” Wilberforce replied, “No, I have found war.”

Anybody who has ever let Jesus Christ take control of their lives knows exactly what Wilberforce meant. When we accept the fact that we are sinners who live under penalty of death and that only Jesus Christ can set us free to be God’s people for all eternity, we do have peace. We have peace with God. [Romans 5:1] But it’s a strange peace. We see this in today’s Bible lesson.

Set the scene. It’s evening of the very first Easter. Jesus’ first followers are quaking in fear behind locked doors. Now that the Passover has passed, they wonder whether the Roman and Jewish authorities will come after them the way they went after Jesus. Mary Magdalene has come to them with the unbelievable report that Jesus has risen from the dead. Suddenly, Jesus appears among them. His words are interesting. Twice, our translation quotes Jesus as saying, “Peace be with you.” But that isn’t completely accurate. You see in the original Greek in which it’s written, there is no verb in Jesus’ greeting. When that happens, the Greek language usually is making a declarative statement. Jesus would be declaring a fact: You have peace or Peace is yours.

The disciples might have wondered whether Jesus’ recent experiences with death and resurrection had caused Him to take leave of His senses. There was a reason that they were behind closed doors, after all. The Romans and Jewish leaders had executed Jesus and weren’t likely to take too kindly to them either. They were learning what Wilberforce learned nineteen centuries later—and what you and I can sometimes learn: dare to follow Jesus Christ and it just might put you at war with the world!

Jesus Himself had warned those who follow Him that this would happen. He said that He had come with a sword, one that would tear families apart between those who loyally followed Him and those who went their own ways apart from God. Just the night before His own execution, He told the disciples, “In this world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” [John 16:33]

The moment you and I try to follow Jesus in our every day lives, some sort of war will be round the corner. A manager in a large corporation once told me, “Mark, if I try to enact my faith at work, I won’t be able to provide for my family. Every single day, I’m ordered to do things that I know are unethical. I’m not even talking about sharing my faith in Christ. I can’t even live it.”

A political office-holder confided to me, “Every politician gives lip service to God and loving our neighbor as God teaches. But if you don’t look out for yourself, you’ll get destroyed.”

More than one teenager has told me, “If you don’t act hard, everybody will dump on you.”

None of that may seem very peaceful to us. And yet, Jesus’ words are right there in our Bibles. He says to all who follow Him: Peace is yours, You have peace. What do we make of that?

First of all, I think we need to redefine peace. We tend to see peace as a trouble-free existence. No problems. No strife. No traffic jams. No unpleasant disagreements. We should know better.

Scientific experiments often create perfect, stress-free environments for lab animals and you know what the result is. Without some external challenge to lift them outside of themselves, they start picking fights with each other. This is true for we human beings, too. One of the books I’ve been reading lately is the second volume of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People. I was interested in reading about an era of British history I really didn’t know about: the reign of Charles I back in the 1600s. When Charles came to the throne, people were questioning the need for a king and how the people themselves might have a say in national decisions. Charles decided that this would be a good time to lay low, to virtually do away with taxes and disband the Army. Charles thought that if he placed no demands on the people, he could win them over. But it backfired on him. A civil war happened and in the end, Charles was beheaded. Churchill, considering how Charles never challenged his people and tried to create this low-stress, no-hassle environment writes very insightfully:

"In later years..., all England looked back to these placid [times] as an age of ease and tranquility. But man has never sought tranquility alone. His nature drives him forward to fortunes which, for better or for worse, are different from those which it is in his power to pause and enjoy."

In fact, trouble is underrated as a force for good. We need a certain amount of trouble in our lives. Pastor Gerald Mann tells of presiding at the wedding ceremony of a young woman from a wealthy family. On the night of the rehearsal, the dad asked if Mann would like to go to the local airport with him. The enormous wedding cake was arriving from a distant city via private jet. So, Mann tagged along for the ride and watched as this cake was carefully taken from the jet and placed in a waiting car.

Piling out of the jet and supervising the operation was a slight woman who obviously knew exactly what she was doing. Mann later asked her how she got into this business. She said that as a young wife and mom of three girls, in her early thirties, her husband died. She didn’t have an advanced education and had no idea what she would do. In the midst of thrashing and praying about this, she was invited to a wedding reception. She probably hadn’t wanted to go, but did. The cake was beautiful to look at, but tasted awful. She knew that she couldn’t do much. But she could make beautiful cakes that tasted good.

That was the beginning of a business she enjoyed and that provided for her family. Her success began in a time of trouble that set her to praying. She learned the truth of what Saint Paul writes in the Bible, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” You see, when we’re weak we go to God for strength, insight, wisdom, forgiveness, and the power to go on. That’s why the woman with the successful wedding cake business told Gerald Mann something we should all remember: Trouble is a trigger.

I think that woman was right! Trouble can set you to doing things you never realized that you could do. I believe that even in heaven, God will give us perplexing assignments that will cause us to grow. It’s possible to have trouble and still be at peace!

Peace is not the absence of trouble. Peace is having Jesus at the center of your life, fortifying you to face life’s troubles and to share Jesus’ love with others even in the midst of trouble. One of the songs we sang earlier, It is Well, was inspired by the experience of a Christian missionary in Africa. He and his family had worked for many years to serve the people there and to share Jesus’ love with them in whatever way they could. But there was an uprising and he and his family were threatened. He made arrangements to send his wife and children back to their native country while he remained behind, continuing to serve folks and share Jesus. As his family boarded the ship, someone asked if he might not reconsider and go back home as well. “No,” he said, “it is well with my soul.” That man had peace. He was in the center of God’s will for his life. He was showing Jesus to others and no matter what happened, he had peace.

I don’t understand The Lord of the Rings very well. I do know that J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the books on which the movies are based, described them as “Catholic,” conveying central truths of Christian faith. This was powerfully portrayed for me in one scene from The Two Towers. Gandulf, a sort of priestly wizard, comes face to face with a king Theoden, who has come under a sort of demonic spell. Gandulf, who has already come through what seems like hell and back, wants to free Theoden. Theoden resists at first and you can see Gandulf’s pain in this contest. But ultimately, Theoden is set free and he becomes once more, the man he was made to be. My son Philip tells me that in the book, Gandulf simply takes Theoden into the sunlight and that revives him.

When we cast the light of Jesus into people’s lives, some will reject Jesus and us. But others will soak it up. A few years ago, some of you will remember, I sat with a Muslim acquaintance at a funeral home. His brother-in-law died and he asked me what I believed happened to people when they die. I did the only thing I know how to do: I told him about Jesus. I said that Jesus died and rose, that He gives new lives and peace with God to everyone who follow Him, and on our deaths, waits to usher us into God’s presence forever. As I left, my acquaintance shook my hand and said, “Thanks, Mark. I don’t know what it was, but when you were talking earlier, it made me feel better.”

The Gospel of John particularly emphasizes that our mission as followers of Jesus is to simply bring people into the presence of Jesus—whether in our words, or deeds, or living. Exposed to the light of Jesus’ love and goodness, they’ll cast one of two judgments on themselves.

They may run from letting God, the world, or themselves see that they’re faulty human beings in need of a Savior and so condemn themselves to life without God.

Or, they’ll run to Jesus and let Him lighten their ways through life all the way to eternity. Our call is simply to be faithful to Christ, irrespective of others’ reactions. [See John 3:16-18 for more on this.]

Peace is not the absence of trouble. Peace is having Jesus at the center of your life, fortifying you to face life’s troubles and to share Jesus’ love with others even in the midst of trouble. Maybe that’s why, just after telling His disciples, Peace is yours, Jesus breathes on them and tells them:

“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

This past week, you know, my wife flew to Florida to visit our daughter. The flight down and even the landing were a bit turbulent. But she and our friend Pat arrived and had a good visit. Our rides through life may get bumpy. But even then, we have peace. Even then, we can share the peace of Christ with others as we live for Christ, serve in Christ’s Name, and invite others to know Christ too. Today, ask Christ to fill you with His peace and then, filled with His Spirit, invite a spiritually-disconnected person to know Jesus. They may say no...but like you, they just might also say Yes! And whatever they say, Jesus says, “Peace is yours! You have peace!”