What we’ve heard these past few Sundays from Jesus basically amounts to his last will and testament. Along with his loving farewell to the disciples he has outlined the one condition for their lives: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you.” The disciples ask, “Who will take care of us?” Jesus responds, “I will not leave you orphaned….the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, whom the Father will send in my name, will be with you forever, and will teach you everything.” And then perhaps, the greatest bequest Jesus makes to them – and us – is his peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Peace…peace…let’s stop to consider that word, because it is, I think, a kind of batón—that is, a word that we often pass back and forth without ever really grasping it. The peace of which Jesus speaks is not just an absence of conflict or even a bit of restful quiet. He is talking about something much greater—a great and weighty presence, rather than the mere absence of ugliness which usually defines “peace” for us. The English language doesn’t really have a word that properly conveys what the peace of Jesus is about, but some people use the Hebrew word “shalom” to express it. The root of “shalom” means “whole, complete.” In other words, a filling up of something, the fulfilling of something—rather than an absence of something.
Jesus points out that the world cannot give such shalom. He is not condemning the world but pointing out the limitations of looking only for “peace” in things outside of ourselves. The world floods us with its facts. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to go with the flow even when the currents don’t serve us well. When good things happen, it’s “heaven”; when bad things happen, it’s “hell.” When the world strikes out at us, we strike back and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar. Instead of being whole, most of the time we are in pieces, and we see the world in pieces, full of darkness at one moment and full of light the next.
The challenge to us is try and find the peace of God even in circumstances that are painful rather than joyful. The peace that Jesus offers is the sure and certain hope that even in our darkest hours we will not be split in two. The first step to achieving this is the realization that to lead a full life we must be willing to accept the inevitability of both pain and joy. We fool ourselves if we think our main goal on earth is to find bliss. Yes, God wants us to be happy, fulfilled, but not at the expense of truth. In our culture we’ve learned to put on a good face when things are rough in our lives because we either don’t want the attention or want to avoid judgment. But God is truth, and God calls us to be real.
To fill ourselves with God’s peace, we must first empty ourselves of our earthly gunk: our belief that the accumulation of things will make us happy, that the one with the most toys wins, that it’s all just a game. Everywhere we turn, we are encouraged not to follow the deepest yearnings of our souls, that are with us from birth, but rather the vain and shallow impulses that the world feeds us. We surrender to the culture of commodity. We give it a false claim upon our souls. How then, do we open ourselves to the peace of Jesus? We trust. Trust that God’s will and our deepest desires are one and the same…we trust that God’s will and our deepest desires are one and the same. We trust that in emptying ourselves of the clutter of cultural expectations and judgment, we can make room for the flow and fill of eternal love and peace that Jesus promises in today’s gospel. And we acknowledge that following God’s will, and acting upon our deepest desires, require all the courage of which a human is capable.
How easy it is to wrap ourselves in the white noise of other people’s judgments while forgetting God’s fundamental acceptance of who and what we are! How easy it is to forget not only that God loves us, but that God IS love. To the extent that we embody love and acceptance for ourselves and for others we are the embodiment of God—we can be vessels for love, vessels of peace.
There is peace, too, in the act of emptying ourselves of ourselves to make room for the Holy Spirit. Emptying ourselves of the odd notion, drummed into us by other people, that if we’re “good” we’re worthy of love and of God’s blessing, and if we’re “bad” we’re going to hell. Jesus didn’t say this. The peace and love that passes all understanding is universal, freely given, and indivisible; it is not earned, it is not something any human being has the power to be worthy or unworthy of. Jesus said, if you love me, you must love one another and yourself. In loving yourself you will repent, forgive yourself and forgive others. It’s pretty basic.
The peace that Jesus offers is a profound and inward peace that sees with unflinching clarity the tragic and terrible things that are happening and yet is not shattered by them. It is a peace that allows him to concern himself more with his friends, with their frightened and troubled hearts, than with his own wretched death. It is a peace that the cross cannot kill, because it is a peace that is not of this world.
When we glimpse the wholeness of God in others, we recognize it immediately for what it is, and the reason we recognize it, I believe, is that, no matter how much the world shatters us, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us. It is what the Book of Genesis means, I think, when it says that we are made in the image of God. Just as God created us, and the heavens and the earth, the sun, moon and stars, living plants and creatures of every kind, God created peace. Sometimes even in the midst of our confused and broken relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God, we catch glimpses of that holiness and wholeness that is not ours by a long shot and yet is part of who we are.
I close with a piece of wisdom from Mother Teresa: “If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself.”