2 Peter 3:8-15
The Power of Peace
With just three weeks to go until Christmas day I wonder how excited you are feeling? I must admit to feeling very excited but then I always do which is surprising given how much there is about Christmas that should really put me off. For one thing I really dislike shopping of any kind except when food and wine are involved. All my attempts at getting the family to buy just one present each have come to nought with cries of “scrooge” and “killjoy” which means I am condemned to tramping round the shops in desperate hope of inspiration.
Then there’s the commercialisation of the season, at its most crass in the awful ads you get from the supermarket chains at this time of year – all cute children, snow scenes and carol singers. My son, who has a keen eye for the absurd, has just emailed me with an ad from Iceland which features this year’s big treat, a hoisin duck Christmas tree. This consists of three hoisin duck-filled samosas arranged in a Christmas tree shape and joined together with a satay stick. Now please forgive me if you are merrily snacking your way through a box of these delights but who on earth dreamt that one up?
For all this I love Christmas and always have. For me it’s the cosiness of the whole thing – the blazing fires, the friends and family, the lovely food and drink. The Germans have a wonderful word for this kind of thing – “gemultlikheit”, which is all about a sense of belonging and cheerfulness and above all the absence of anything hectic, offering as it does the possibility of spending time with those you love most.
In Christian terms the anticipation we feel at the coming of Christmas reflects the excitement we feel at the prospect of what we term the “second coming” of Jesus. For our faith is one full of hope, a hope made manifest in the life, death and (above all) resurrection of Jesus which carried with it the promise that God will bring history to a close in a mighty act of recreation which will establish His reign of justice and peace – the coming of what Jesus called “the kingdom of God”. In the second letter of Peter we hear of nothing less than there being a “new heaven and a new earth” while St. Paul refers to us all being transformed at the last “in the twinkling of an eye”. Now it really doesn’t do to dwell too much on the specifics. As the great New Testament scholar and recent Bishop of Durham Tom Wright puts it, these are no more than “signposts pointing into a mist”. What these phrases do however is to embody a hope which amounts to a simple act of trust that there is indeed meaning and purpose to life and that one day all will become clear to each and everyone one of us. The difficulty of course is that, unlike Christmas Day, we have no idea when this great awakening will happen.
As we go about our frantic preparations for Christmas the obvious question arises as to how we should prepare for this eventuality or, as the second letter of Peter puts it “what sort of people ought we to be?” Of course the answer at one level is obvious – we should be good people. We should, self-evidently, manifest God’s truth and justice in our lives. We should be “without spot or blemish, living lives of godliness and holiness” all of which, I fear, sounds rather daunting. However, the second letter of Peter also uses a word which is, I believe, the key to answering the question of the sort of people that we ought to be. That word is “peace” – a word used so much in church that we can easily overlook its significance.
In Christian terms peace is not an absence of noise or activity. It is something much more positive than that – it’s living life at depth, having time to savour its richness, it’s living the abundant life which Jesus refers to in John’s gospel and that he said was the whole point of his mission. Living in peace means living in real confidence and real trust and in having this deeper, richer experience we come to know God’s presence – “Be still and know that I am God.” And the effect of this is to banish fear and anxiety from our lives.
If we could lead our lives in this kind of peace then holiness and godliness would surely follow. This is why, at the end of services, the priest blesses the congregation that they might know this peace: “the peace of god which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God….” Just look at those words again – it’s peace that has the effect of putting us in the knowledge and love of God. That’s why it is so extraordinarily important. And yet it is one of those things in our lives that is generally more marked by its absence than its presence.
Why is this? There will be many reasons but the principal one must be our relentless busy-ness. When we are this busy we so easily lose our moorings as the sense of what really matters to us is lost in a blizzard of doing – getting, spending, caring, cooking. If we don’t watch out we end up sleep-walking through life and not awake to its depth and richness. The problem of course is that however much we know this it is very hard to behave otherwise.
Many of you will know that having children is a life-changing experience. I can clearly remember when my son, our first child, was born almost 24 years ago. I was fortunate enough to be able to take two weeks off work and despite the broken nights and exhaustion I can clearly remember the peace and joy I felt. I knew then what I have known ever since that there is nothing more important in the world than me being a father to that boy – now a man – and his sister. That awareness had a dramatic effect on me as I returned to work. Suddenly my job as a Producer in BBC Current Affairs – a job I’d worked so hard to get and that was the envy of so many – seemed like a complete irrelevance. It seemed no longer as exciting and important as it once had and I wondered how I’d ever find the energy to do it again. And yet the irony was that it had become all the more important that I went to work – after all, I had a son to bring up, to clothe, feed and school. Well, you will of course have guessed what happened next. Within no time I was working all hours again, not getting home before well after bath time and was far from present during those hours that I did spend at home. I can distinctly remember playing with the children and my mind being elsewhere as I pondered some problem at work that was playing on my mind.
Many of you will have experienced the same thing and some of you will doubtless being going through all this now. This, I fear, is our lot, managing all these competing demands. So given that, how can we ever hope to find this all-important peace that is the key to our being the people God wants us to be? The first thing to remember is that peace cannot just be summoned. It is a gift of the Spirit and that’s why it “passes all understanding”. However, we can play our part by putting ourselves in the right kind of position to receive it. To do so we need to step back and make space. It is not just busy-ness that stops us doing this though. It’s also the fact that as human beings we find it very hard to truly live in the present.
If you stop to analyse your thoughts for a moment you will realise that they are very often focused on either the past or the future. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because in reflecting on the past we can learn and make improvements in our lives while by anticipating the future we can make plans. We are unique in all creation in having these abilities and it’s precisely this that gives us our God-likeness, enabling us to be His co-workers. But it’s a curse because in our fallen state the past is very often a source of pain and regret and the future a source of anxiety and fear.
To know the peace of God at its deepest is to live wholly in the present, to transcend time, to be so rapt in concentration that only the present exists and its seems like eternity. It’s then that we know what it is to live without pain and fear. Now of course, there are degrees of peace and what I have described here is peace at its deepest and it is the greatest of gifts but the fact is that there are all sorts of experiences that can promote peace – a country walk, a visit to an art gallery, listening to music, reading a book, playing with children, playing sport, church services (although perhaps not listening to sermons) and yes, even work. In fact I would say especially work so long as we love it. And that is the key, because we are only ever drawn out of ourselves into a state of peace by something that we love.
Psychologists have a term for transcendent experiences – they call them variously “peak experience”, and either “being in the flow” or “being in the zone”. When we have experiences like this we are at our most effective but exert least effort. We have a sense of peace and timelessness and are blissfully self-forgetful. It’s when we are both at our most relaxed and at our most awake because we are most alive to the present moment. It’s worth remembering here what Jesus said about how best to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God – be awake.
Through the experience of this active kind of peace our faith becomes real. It’s not just something we proclaim but something we start to live because in it we start to experience the richness and depth of God’s presence. As I said, because they are gifts of the Spirit these are not experiences we can just conjure up. But we can make ourselves ready to receive them. To do this we need, in the midst of our relentless busy-ness, to treasure, nurture and expand those aspects of our lives that we love most, making time for them in joyful anticipation of the Spirit granting us his peace, that peace which passes all understanding and that is the wellspring of all right thought and action. Amen.