The Peace We Promise

Text of the sermon preached on Proper 15C (August 14, 2016) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56
Psalm 82

Every time we have a baptism in the church, or on certain Sundays of the year such as All Saints Day, Easter, Pentecost, or a few others, we reaffirm our baptismal vows. And when we reaffirm our baptismal vows we make several promises. Can anyone tell me what those are? Here is a reminder:

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

We answer each of these with, “I will, with God’s help.” This acknowledges that we can’t fulfill the promises without God. We also answer them as a group, which acknowledges that we can’t fulfill them without each other. I wonder, however, if you are experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance in trying to reconcile that last promise with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. I know I am. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” while Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

It probably didn’t escape your notice that Jesus is in a much less friendly mood than he was in last week’s passage. When Jesus speaks from a place of stress or exhaustion, as he does in today’s reading, he often slides to the strident, confrontational end of the spectrum. Sounds particularly human, doesn’t it? Sounds like me if I’m having a low blood sugar day or if I’m about to take a trip. We can use Jesus’ stress to explain away his difficult words — “He didn’t really mean that stuff about peace and division; he was just really stressed out” — Or we can acknowledge that in his stressed state, Jesus speaks some unvarnished truth, perhaps not as nuanced as he would have liked to speak it, but truth nonetheless.

To get to this unvarnished truth, we first have to understand how people in Jesus’ time would have heard the word “peace.” One version of the word was a simple greeting: “Shalom.” Another use was for the halt of the upheaval: “Peace, be still.” But a third use was more sinister — peace as propaganda. You’ve heard of the “Pax Romana,” the “Peace of Rome.” This was the glorious gift of Rome to the peoples fortunate enough to come under the Roman banner and Roman “protection.” Well, that’s how the Romans would have sold it. The Pax Romana really was spread by the edge of the sword, and conquered peoples who lived in fear and distrust of their occupiers.

I think it is to this third kind of “peace” that Jesus is referring today: “peace” as the absence of conflict, yes, but also the absence of justice, of freedom. The kind of peace the Pax Romana brought was really just a thin veneer spread over a roiling mass of suppressed cultures and traditions and hopes and dreams. The thin veneer of “peace” hid the brokenness, the divisions that lay beneath.

With his words in today’s lesson, Jesus seeks to rip the cover off this false kind of peace and to expose the brokenness of society beneath, and in exposing that brokenness, begin to heal it. Jesus knows human nature all too well — without exposing the brokenness, the divisions in society, we are content just to go along with the status quo — willingly ignorant to the steep costs of so-called “peace.” Indeed, Jesus’ words today could have spilled from the lips of any leader of the Civil Rights movement. How many decades did this country live in so-called “peace” before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus in 1955?

Jesus’ words also speak unvarnished truth when we move from the societal to the personal. Each of us has an individual Pax Romana within us — a set of assumptions about our security and wellbeing that promises peace at long last. Despite lack of evidence, we believe these promises until we realize that they come from the marketing department, whose goal is for us to consume, not to find peace. When Jesus rips the cover off of this false kind of peace, we find our broken selves, which have fragmented because we let ourselves be seduced by so many things. With the false peace gone, we confront the broken, divided people we really are.

But we aren’t alone. Jesus may have come to expose the divisions hidden under the myriad of Pax Romanas of society and of our souls. But this is only half of the mission. He also came to put the pieces back together again. He came to show us what real peace is: peace accompanied by justice, mercy, and love — peace that nurtures the dignity of all peoples rather than suppressing it — peace that passes all understanding.

This is the kind of peace we strive for when we reaffirm our baptismal promises. We strive for the peace of the broken bone that grows back stronger than before. We strive for the peace of the generous heart that no longer fears the scarcity as it once did. We strive for the peace of Christ that shatter the veneer of tranquility, exposes the divisions beneath, and weaves the disparate threads of division into peace that is true, deep, and abiding.

The peace we promise to strive for in our baptismal promises is this true, deep, and abiding peace of Christ. We participate in the hard work of accomplishing this peace when, with God’s help, we see past the thin veneer of so-called peace in society and in ourselves. When, with God’s help, we follow Jesus Christ to the brokenness beneath, the brokenness of the cross and the world. And when, with God’s help, we don’t stop there, but press on to the new wholeness of the empty tomb and the power of the resurrection.

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