Passing All Our Understanding
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 14 August 2022 [Proper 15]:
Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division!
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder;
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God,
The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God
Hymnal 1982: #661; verse 4
Any questions? Or perhaps the benediction’s line: “The peace of God, which passes all our understanding…” is more confession than poetry. For the fact is, we don’t understand, and it is so very easy to say these words and move on without thinking too much about what they convey.
I remember when I was authorized to say the blessing for the first time. Standing behind the altar, having celebrated my first Holy Communion, it was my duty and my privilege to offer the closing blessing upon the congregation. With the same words I share with you each Sunday, I spoke the mysterious and necessary truth: that God’s love for us goes well-beyond our emotional and spiritual grasp, not to mention our control. Nonetheless, we still need to receive this stunning reality, pondering in our hearts and minds that we are God’s beloved. We are blessed by the Holy One – not cursed – no matter what. And what we are given, what we ostensibly desire, is what we need but cannot provide for ourselves: namely, the “peace of God”, which is life on God’s terms. So, why does something so central to the reality of grace strike us with such confusion and sorely tempt us to dismiss?
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
The telling issue, I think, has to do with the crucial difference between what God’s “peace” entails and what folks like us commonly mean by “peace”. Put succinctly, God’s “peace” is more aligned with what it takes to make life “complete”, whole, cohesive, whereas our common reference to “peace” mostly refers to an absence of conflict. Another way of discerning the crucial difference between God’s peace and our sense of peace is symbolically. God’s peace is epitomized and represented by the cross. Our usual perspective on peace is most frequently expressed by two raised fingers in a “V” shape.
I am quite sure that this morning’s gospel lesson is not anyone’s favorite. That includes me. Its message is not something folks like us necessarily “like”, which allows us to dismiss this passage’s issue. It is the same reason that the congregations on Good Friday pale in comparison to Easter Sunday. We prefer “peace” to be a matter of calmness, no conflict, no war, no death. And I admit that this type of “peace” is alluring, especially when we are so tired of fighting and being divided.
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! [Luke 12:49-50]
Where’s the Good News in this gospel? Why is Jesus so stressed and raw sounding? Where is God’s peace to be found?
Of course, the “baptism” the Lord refers to is the imminence of his cross and all that that terrifying instrument of death entails. Who wouldn’t be stressed by such a prospect? I can think of only two other occasions where the gospel account reveals such an unguarded glimpse of Jesus’ inner life. Today’s reading is one of them, where he confesses to the stress weighing upon him as he moves steadily to Jerusalem. Another is the Lord’s response to the news of his dear friend, Lazarus’ death. Seeing the grief-stricken crowds, Jesus himself wept openly. The third time is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed that the “cup” of suffering and death that was forthcoming might pass him by. That gospel reports that Jesus’ level of stress resulted in his sweating blood, a medical condition called hematohidrosis, where the small capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture due to extreme stress.
“The peace of God, which passes understanding”: yes, indeed! Yet, if we fail to come to grips with the cross’s reality and meaning for life, then the notion of God’s peace will always disappoint and dishearten us.
Here's the point: God’s peace, demonstrated in the cross of Christ, brings more than sweet serenity; it brings transformation, whereas our common sense of peace as “no conflict” only offers a temporary respite, a short “time out”. I maintain that the cross of Christ is God’s transforming demonstration – a demonstration of what is really real: namely, life with God is not only stronger than death; life with God transforms death from a dreaded sense of end into the beginning of a deeper life. We call that deeper life “Communion”: something we glimpse in the Sacrament.
God’s “peace” stems from God’s promise to “complete” life, to overcome all that separates us from the Father and from one another. With God and in God and through God, life not only continues; it also dwells in the hope-filled promise of being completed, of being made whole. And within this promised, within hopeful completeness, all tension and conflict will be seen and welcomed as labor pains, as signs of eternal life emerging – surely beyond our understanding but not our knowing.
The cross of Christ transforms life. It transforms us. It changes us into what we see in the Risen One.
Yes, we all need periods of calmness and the absence of turmoil and conflict. We need this type of peace simply so that we can regroup and face all that lies before us; but we also need the peace of God, the gift of which transforms us and all creation and propels life toward wholeness, Communion.
Otherwise, what’s the use? Under the desire for peace that contains no conflict, life become a matter of how long one can tread the calm water. The peace of God, given its transforming and loving character, beckons to us and strengthens us to swim and to reach out for the shore. Amen.