This is the first in a sermon series devised by Veronica. The sermon titles move progressively outward, in concentric circles, starting with “peace in the soul” today and then looking in turn at Peace in the home/family, Peace in the church/es, Peace in the workplace, Peace in the local community, Peace in the nation and Peace between nations. Peace is a key Mennonite concern and this structure helps us to remember that peace begins at home – or even closer to the core of our being than that. It’s all too easy to focus on questions about peace between nations and ignore issues of peace on our doorsteps or in our house. It’s an elegant and helpful structure for the sermon series.
Even so I have found it hard to prepare this sermon.
I’m not sure I even know what “peace in the soul” means. And I don’t mean by that to ask whether the word soul is the most helpful here or how it is differently understood in Hebrew and Greek thought and how that may influence our understanding. I’m going to take this phrase “peace in the soul” to mean two things: some kind of inner peace with ourselves, and peace with God – which interestingly doesn’t appear anywhere else on the list.
“Peace with God.” It’s the language of tracts and posters and evangelistic sermons and, if you’re old enough to remember them, tent missions. “Available to all” promises the website http://www.peacewithgod.co.uk/. Or there’s http://peacewithgod.jesus.net/ which offers a “four-step journey to peace with God”.
Of course I want to rejoice with anyone who after a long hard road draws comfort from these promises and finds that they open the way into relationship with God. And googling “peace” and “soul” throws up all sorts of sites, including offers of tarot readings and similar paths to so-called peace in the soul which suggests that if we have some glimmer of how to experience peace in the soul we ought to be finding ways to get that message out there and might find a ready audience…
But I think we may also have some questions about peace in the soul. I certainly do…
One whole cluster of questions comes from a suspicion that it may be at best short-sighted and at worst rather self-centred and self-absorbed to be bothering with peace in my soul. And mightn’t peace in the soul be largely an accident of personality, birth order, early experiences, physical health and so on? Is it desirable or even possible to have peace in my soul if there are people suffering injustice or loneliness or inner torment?
And anyway what does peace in the soul look like? What does it mean in real life? As Veronica put it as she sketched her ideas for this sermon series, “what does it mean to have the peace of God in our hearts, when a lot of the time we are anxious or distressed?”
Can we find a way of embracing and talking about peace in the soul without making it all sound at one extreme a bit too easy and too selfish or at the other extreme so serene and unruffled as to be unrealistic and out of reach?
Well, maybe it’s time to go back to our scriptures… Let’s start with Philippians.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
What do these verses tell us about the focus of this “peace of God” and how that peace might happen to us?
It looks as though there are four things which might predispose us to experiencing this peace: rejoicing, being gentle, being aware of God standing close beside us, and dealing with our worries by converting them into prayers in which we not only cry out to God with our requests but also thank God.
I find that quite reassuring. In order to experience the peace of God, I’m not asked to reach a point where I am always at peace with every aspect of myself, never hate myself and my mistakes, never feel pulled in different directions as I take decisions, never panic and want to run away. Admittedly the instructions are quite demanding – I can’t usually find that elusive off-switch for worry - but mostly they are about behaviours we can realistically hope to have a crack at even if it takes our feelings a while to catch up. So maybe peace in the soul, peace with God is more about where we are headed than about how we feel.
Though of course our feelings can sometimes follow where our actions lead.
To take a trivial example, 18 months ago Peter and I had a grim, icy and snowy journey to meet my family for Christmas. Possibly foolishly as it turned out, we’d taken up a friend’s kind offer to lend us her car. It took us around 10 hours to cover 170 miles. After around 4 or 5 hours, feeling deeply discouraged and frustrated, we decided to have a cheerfulness competition, with a judging every half hour where we awarded each other points for cheerfulness. The second half of the journey was still slow and exhausting but the atmosphere in the car – and in our souls – was much better. (And, in case you are wondering, I think Peter won… Just…)
In much more serious situations, I have seen three friends – including Lesley – live through the misery of losing a child with both honesty and a remarkable capacity to continue to find things to be thankful for. They all radiated peace even as they also experienced and voiced intense grief. I wonder if that was partly linked with their thankfulness.
I think this passage from Philippians acknowledges too that it’s quite hard to get our heads round this peace of God and how it works. It does, after all, “pass all understanding”.
And there’s something similar in the verses from John’s gospel.
“Not as the world gives.” This phrase has many resonances which I want to talk about more – but its very language hints at the impossibility of understanding the peace Jesus leaves his disciples unless we learn to live and think by his values not those of the world.
“Not as the world gives.” A couple of chapters later, in John 16, Jesus promises his disciples peace – but in the same breath he warns that in this world they will have trouble. So peace and trouble can go together – which I think gives us the beginnings of an answer to the worry that peace in the soul may be a selfish thing to aspire to. The kind of peace Jesus gives is not a ticket to or a by-product of a free ride, coasting along happily with no responsibility and not a care in the world. I guess that’s not surprising since presumably Jesus is the best example we have of someone who has peace in the soul and his life was emphatically not self-indulgent or passive.
This peace is independent of the trouble that the world brings – the trouble the world is likely to bring for the followers of Jesus since, as we learn another two chapters on in John 18, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. That pus the peace of Jesus directly at odds with the usual ways of this world, which may even lead us to places that look far from peaceful by this world’s standards – it certainly did for Jesus.
So if the peace Jesus gives is not the peace that the world gives, what is it? If it is not about things going smoothly or about a calm life without challenge or stress, what is it? And how do we receive it?
Isaiah 26:3-4 may give us some clues: “Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace— in peace because they trust in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock. “ And Psalm 119:165 says: 165 Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.
I like the solidity of that word “steadfast”. And I think that “steadfastness” may be closer to what it means for a Christian to have peace in the soul than four-step programmes to personal forgiveness or dreams of an untroubled life. Psalm 34:14 suggests that seeking peace is the twin of turning our backs on evil: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”
Indeed there’s a hint in all these verses that peace in the soul is not our primary goal, something for us to strive for. Rather it’s something that happens while we’re busy aiming for other things, as we depart from evil, are steadfast in trusting God, love God’s law, rejoice and are gentle and pray with thanksgiving. Which might tell us something not only about what peace in the soul is but also how we receive it.
Maybe one reason I’ve struggled with this sermon is that I’m not very disciplined at, well, spiritual disciplines of bible reading and prayer and meditation. And I think they are important to experiencing peace in the soul. But I think peace in the soul has other deep roots too. It’s also about what and who we give ourselves to. It’s about trying to live by Jesus’ values not the values of the world, about seeking good and pursuing it, about trusting God, rejoicing and giving thanks. It’s partly about who or what is in control in our lives and about not getting in the way of the Holy Spirit but allowing some space for the fruit of the Spirit (of which peace is part) to grow in us.
So, to come back to Veronica’s question, “what does it mean to have the peace of God in our hearts, when a lot of the time we are anxious or distressed?” I guess I would answer that the peace of God is not so much about how we are feeling at any given moment but about what and who we are aiming for and how we are acting. It seems to be partly about a kind of singlemindedness, a focus towards God and others and a way of taking to God the things that threaten to throw us off course.
I was struck by a comment Giles Fraser made as he was in the thick of controversy over the response at St Pauls to the Occupy camp and had just left his job – and with it presumably his home. He wrote “The hassle of is something that does not feature prominently in its sales literature. People often say that faith must be a source of great comfort — and that is said mostly by those who don’t know a great deal about what a life of faith really feels like. They talk as if religion in general is some sort of metaphysical strategy for achieving beatific calm; as if religion were always painted in pastel colours.”
But in spite of this wish to debunk the idea of faith as a means to calm, a bit like a pastel coloured painting or a CD of splashing water sounds or whale song, Giles Fraser did acknowledge that “for all this, Christianity does promise the clear sense of purpose which has something in common with calm.” (Church Times 11 November 2011)
I think Giles Fraser is right that a sense of purpose and direction has something in common with peace in the soul, may even be part of the recipe for experiencing peace in the soul. And that sense of purpose and direction and that kind of steadfast focus on God don’t protect us from swirls and gusts of hassle and anguish but maybe they can help us live through them well. Perhaps they can help us live well with the tension between the call to serve Jesus in a world that seems infinitely and impossibly full of need and the tug to tend our relationship with God, ourselves and those close to us. I suspect that part of peace in the soul is learning to live with our own inner dividedness and with tensions between two truths or two apparently opposite callings or insights. Maybe part of finding peace in the soul is accepting that in this life we will never be fully at peace but finding that we can somehow make our peace with that.