Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bringing All Things Together in Christ - Finding Peace

I watched a few minutes of the history channel not too long ago. I came across a show entitled: “Hippies.” In a nutshell, the show was about the hippie generation in American history that lived during the 1960s. Some of you were on that show, you know who you are! The show featured very common “hippie” images. It showed scenes from Woodstock, it showed several interviews of hippies, then and now, VW vans were everywhere, and just about every “hippie” from that era, gave the now universal hand sign for peace.

Peace, now there is something the 1960s lacked! It’s no wonder that so many young people were seeking peace during that era. Think of the “less than peaceful” things that happened in that 10-year span. Nation against nation in Vietnam, race against race in the civil rights movement, Kennedy vs. Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis. During that era, walls were built between individuals, nations, and communities. It’s no wonder so many people were asking for peace! But, what exactly were they asking for?

Have you ever stopped to consider: What is peace, really?

Peace is not simply the absence of conflict. I think some of those young people in the 1960s understood that. They weren’t simply asking for the war to end. They were asking for something bigger than that. No, I certainly don’t think all of the children of the 60s had a strong, Christian motivation for what they were doing. But whether they realized it or not, they may have understood the biblical concept of peace better than most. Peace means much more than we often think.

The word “peace,” comes from the Hebrew word “Shalom.” When a Jewish person walked up to another Jewish person in the morning and said, “Shalom,” what did they mean? See, this was the standard greeting in Jewish culture. Instead of saying, “Good day,” they said, “Shalom.” But a better translation than “Good day,” might be “May you be well.” A Jewish person in this sense was saying “I hope today your life works as it should.” “I hope today you experience life the way God intended for you to experience life.” So, they weren’t simply wishing someone a “conflict free day.” It was more than that. They were wishing them fullness; completeness.

It is very accurate to say that peace is the salvation that comes from God, offering that fullness or completeness that we might otherwise lack. We are not accustomed to hearing about peace in those terms, so let me explain. God offers His people salvation from this world by extending to them peace. Since the Fall of Humankind, this world has been imperfect. Things don’t always work as they should. Relationships break, marriages fail, disease kills, and sin destroys. Into this fallen world, God came to offer peace. He came to offer Salvation from failed relationships, death and sin. At its most rudimentary level, God came to reconcile the relationships of creation, to reconcile our relationships with each other, to reconcile our relationships with the rest of creation and most importantly to reconcile the relationship of the entire creation to God. And when God came into this world, through His Son, Jesus Christ, that reconciliation plan was offered. In that moment, salvation was offered. In that moment, peace was offered.

Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke of the coming of this peace…

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
    as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.
He will raise a signal for the nations,
    and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
    from the four corners of the earth.
The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
    the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
    and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim.
But they shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west,
    together they shall plunder the people of the east.
They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab,
    and the Ammonites shall obey them.
And the LORD will utterly destroy
    the tongue of the sea of Egypt;
and will wave his hand over the River
    with his scorching wind;
and will split it into seven channels,
    and make a way to cross on foot;
so there shall be a highway from Assyria
    for the remnant that is left of his people,
as there was for Israel
    when they came up from the land of Egypt.
      Isaiah 11:1-16 (NRSV)

In that day, when the Prince of Peace arrives, reconciliation will occur. The lion will lay down with the lamb; the barriers separating the tribes will disappear, salvation will come to the world. And church, you and I are living in those days. The One Isaiah describes has come. The peace foretold has arrived. The salvation prophesied about is here! In a fragmented, divisive, sinful, chaotic world, God came and offered us His peace.

Listen to the way Paul describes this event…

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.  
                                                         Ephesians 2:13-22 (NRSV)

This is the good news that came through Jesus Christ. Barriers broken down, two now made into one, this is the peace of Christ! What a gift! Paul, here, is speaking to Gentile Christians. He’s telling them, You were once estranged from God. In our fragmented world, you were separated from God and God’s people. But with the arrival of God’s peace, you have been reconciled. The wall separating you from us and you from God is gone. At its very core, the peace offered to us by God brings solidarity to a fragmented world.

And we certainly live in a divided and fragmented world…

In contrast to God’s model of solidarity and family and fellowship, our world celebrates individuality. Individuality in our country has become a chief virtue. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…Whose happiness? My happiness! My rights are what really matter. Burger King says it all, “Have it your way!” Lawsuits in our country are out of control. Why? Because we don’t want anyone to violate “my rights!” Both sides of one of the most volatile issue of our time frame their points of view in terms of rights, “Right to Life” or  “Right to Choice.” We have debates in our capital about building walls between one country and the next.  Why? Because I don’t want anyone to take my job! My rights are most important!

This championing of individualism has certainly had an effect. We are perhaps the most fragmented society in the history of the world. We live our lives in a series of separated spheres. We have certain associates at work. We have other associates at church, and still we have other associates with family, neighborhood, and children’s parents. And the ironic thing is this: rarely do these spheres ever overlap. American life is a fragmented existence! But, this has not been the pattern of human existence since the beginning. For most of history, people worked with, played with, worshipped with the same, close-knit group of people. But today, our world is fragmented. Our world has embraced this individualistic identity.

And the reality is, so many Christians have adopted this identity as well…

We have been given the gift of solidarity, salvation, peace…why do so many Christians exchange this gift for fragmentation? It begs the question, doesn't it? Are we truly embracing the Fruits of God’s Spirit? Have we really chosen a different identity from those around us? Is there any real difference between those who have accepted the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the rest of the world?

We have, on occasion, allowed the church to experience the same fractured existence. We could obviously talk about the conflicts between denominations at this point, but we won’t. How about the factions within single congregations? This sphere puts all of their time and energy into the worship ministry. This other sphere puts all of their energy into the youth ministry. This sphere puts in countless hours a week working with our senior adults. So often is the case: These spheres do not intersect, and what’s more, these spheres view themselves sometimes in opposition to other spheres. “I’ll give my money, but only to my pet project.” “Why do those teenagers always sing those new songs?” “Why do those old people always sing those old songs?” “I just want my way.” I wonder, “Do we hear ourselves sometimes?”
My Bible class
My ministry
My pew
My worship style
My personal relationship with Christ…

I think sometimes we forget we are not a group of individuals, but one body. A united, walls torn down between us, family. The Body of Christ, Christians are called to be different. We are called to move past our “individuality” and become active members of Christ’s Body.

What does it look like to embrace the peaceful spirit of God? There are two practical aspects of godly peace I want to mention this morning, and then I’ll be through. First, if we truly embrace the peace of God, we will learn the importance of admonishing one another. Remember, peace is not the absence of conflict. In fact, sometimes conflict is the necessary byproduct of peace. Sometimes the tearing down of walls causes pain & discomfort. It certainly did in the 1st century with Jews and Gentiles and it does today as well. Church, as the Family of God, we cannot shy away from confronting our brothers and sisters. There are so many voices from our world that keep us from doing this. “It’s not my place to get involved…” “It’s their choice, not mine…” And the fear of hearing those words when we do get involved, “What right do you have to tell me that?” Do you hear the overtones of individuality? Do you see how these thoughts stand in such sharp dissonance with God’s vision of peace & solidarity? Our generation of Christians has become very timid. We don’t like to confront one another. We don’t like to get the face of our brother and sister and say, “You’re really messing up here.” We may rationalize and say, “It’s not my place.” But, actually, when we say things like that, what we are acknowledging is that we are not a body. Because if we are a body, we realize that what affects one member, effects us all. A Christian realizes that the statement, “It’s none of your business” is bogus. It is your business. It is my business. Because we are connected, we are a body.

The second thing we will learn if we truly embrace the peace of God is the power of forgiveness. As I’ve said a few times this morning, we live in a fragmented world, a fallen world, a world that is dominated by “my rights.” In such a world, it is no wonder that there are not just partitions between us, but huge stonewalls. In the midst of conflict, our world says, “As long as I get what I deserve, that’s all that matters.” “But they will get what they have coming to them.”

My prayer is that God’s children will understand their connectedness to one another better than that.
I know people who are so overcome with resentment toward other brothers and sisters in Christ that they can barely function. They live for getting even. Their whole lives are wrapped up in making sure their brother or sister “gets what they deserve!” If you hear those voices in your head, realize something. That is not the voice of God you hear. That voice is coming from somewhere else. I began by asking you a simple question: What is peace? Peace is the power of God to make individuals into a body. Peace is the presence among us so strong that walls are torn down. Peace is that presence in the world that stands out so much that others are drawn in for a closer look. And when they arrive, let’s introduce them to the author of that peace, the perfecter of that peace, The Prince of that peace.

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