Sunday, December 18, 2011

What did the angels mean by “Peace on earth?”

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”--Luke 2:14, King James version.

This Christmas I was asked to speak about the birth of the one who has been called the “Prince of Peace.” As many of you know, my wife Jill and I met at a peace parade in Pasadena that took place on Palm Sunday, and we are both peacemakers at heart. In fact, we affirmed at our wedding that “the Prince of Peace brought us together for purpose larger than either of us can imagine.”

Peacemaking is at the heart of the Gospel. When Jesus made his triumphant march in Jerusalem on a donkey, he was fulfilling a prophesy by Zachariah which said that the Messiah would come and end all war. Just before his death, Jesus told his disciples, “My peace I leave you, not as the world gives you peace” (John 12:27).

Today we are hear to celebrate the birth of this Prince of Peace. But what Jesus mean by peace? How does the peace of Jesus differ from the “world's” notion of peace?

When the angels announced the birth of the Savior by proclaiming “Peace on earth,” they were expressing a vision of peace and of society that was totally at odds with the views of the Roman empire, and of many people today. The Roman word for peace, PAX, is related to the word “pact,” a peace treaty. For the empire, peace is simply about the cessation of war. As the Roman historian Tacitus said, “The Romans create desolation and call it peace.” The same could be said for every empire, including our own. The Hebrew word for peace SHALOM is much deeper and richer than this imperial notion of a peace treaty. Shalom comes from the root meaning wholeness and implies health, well-being, and social harmony. Peace is usually coupled with justice. In the Beatitudes Jesus says: “Blessed are the shalom-makers” and also “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.” In the Bible, shalom and justice go hand-in-hand.

So when the angels announce that the birth of Jesus will bring “shalom,” it means a world of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

There are basically two aspects of peace—inward and outward. Inner peace means more than just feeling good. You can feel good and still not have true inner peace. Many Germans felt peaceful inwardly during the Nazi period. They were going to church, doing their jobs, and being “good Germans.” But they weren’t at peace with God.

To be truly peaceful inwardly means living in harmony with God’s will. The Italian poet Dante said it beautifully: “En su voluntad esta nuestra paz.” “In Your Will, O God, is our peace.” When we live in harmony with God’s will, we are living a life of love, service, and joy. We aren’t thinking about ourselves. We aren’t resentful or angry. We feel a sense of “rightness,” of being where we are supposed to be, doing what we are supposed to be doing, with people we love.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus talks about this inward peace when he says: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” Those who are pure in heart are free from mixed motives, from the kind of selfishness that leads to conflict and war.

In his epistle, James explains that wars are caused by our selfish desires. “You want what you don't have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can't get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don't have what you want because you don't ask God for it.” (James 4:2)

James goes on to say we don’t know how to pray for what is truly good for us, like wisdom. To learn how to pray rightly, we need to take time to be still and listen to our hearts, to what Quakers call the Inward Light. When we take time to be in holy silence, and let go of our desires and agenda, we allow space for the Christ child, the spirit of compassion, to be reborn in our hearts. This leads to what Paul calls “the peace that passeth understanding.” This spirit of peace is beautifully conveyed in the song, “Silent night.” I love the words: “All is calm. All is bright.” That’s what inner peace feels like.

Peace is more than a good feeling, however. As Pastor Paul Kim explained last week, Jesus commands us to be ethical. And he gave us two ethical commands that relate to peace: LOVE YOUR ENEMY and PRAY FOR THOSE WHO WRONG YOU.

If we follow these two commandments, it would seem we couldn't possibly go to war. In fact, we have no choice but to pursue peace actively.

These commandments seem clear, though by no means easy to follow, but many Christians have felt differently about applying them. Augustine made the argument that some wars are just, and thereby opened the door for endless “defensive” wars. Other Christians like Reinhold Niebuhr argued these commandments are intended for individuals, not for nations. According to these so-called Christian realists, Jesus’ commandments regarding peace are impossible to follow in this fallen world. They are simply ideals to be aspired to.

This is not the way early Christians interpreted these commandments, however. Until the time of Constantine in 300 AD, most Christians refused to serve in the Roman army. They refused to light incense at the altar of Caesar or the war gods. And they paid a heavy price for not pledging allegiance to the Roman empire. Many went to prison, or worse, were tortured and killed. One of my favorite stories is about St Martin, the patron saint of pacifists.

While Martin was still a soldier in the Roman army and deployed in Gaul (modern day France), he experienced the vision that became the most-repeated story about his life. One day as he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens he met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me." (Sulpicius, ch 2).

After having a conversion experience and being baptised, Martin determined that his faith prohibited him from fighting, saying, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." He was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response to the charge, he volunteered to go unarmed to the front of the troops. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was released from military service.[5]

As you know, I went to jail along with 14 others who oppose the endless “defensive” wars we are fighting throughout the world. When I was arrested, I had a taste of what it was like when early Christians and early Quakers went to prison cheerfully, singing hymns of praise to God. When I was handcuffed and taken to jail, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, I felt a sense of joy, of peace, because I was following my conscience, no matter what.

There are many ways to create peace or shalom. We create shalom when we visit the sick, help the needy, comfort the afflicted, and work for justice. I hope that each of you finds your own way to bring peace and reconciliation to your family, to your community, and to the world. This is how we can best celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.

I'd like to end with a beautiful song by the great Quaker African-American activist mystic teacher Howard Thurman, who taught at my alma mater, Boston Univesity. Here is how Thurman sums up the message of Christmas:

"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart."

1 comment:

  1. I loved this posting - thank you Anthony!