Years ago, I decided I was going to start reading poetry on a regular basis, so what’s the first thing I did? Pick up a book of poetry and start reading? Of course not. I went straight to the library and checked out a book called Understanding Poetry. My friend Shelle saw it and laughed. I said, “What?” She replied, “That’s so like you.” “What do you mean?” I asked. She informed me, “You have a tendency to undertake thinks, not just do them.” Reading poetry and reading about poetry are not the same thing. The best way to start reading poetry is probably to start reading poetry.
Peace. I don’t know about you, but I could use some about now. So could my friends and family. So could the world. E.B. White once said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Same here, E.B. Same here.
I decided to go on a peace quest, to get an A+ in peace. Yes, you can laugh at me. In my “undertaking” of peace, I’ve taken a course on happiness; worked through books like The Anatomy of Peace; downloaded and even used a few apps; attended a non-violent communication weekend seminar; worked with a specific spiritually wise person who has peace skills; and recently went to a conflict management seminar at my university. So, you could say I’m working pretty hard at it. Striving for peace.
But I’m also a scholar of the Gospel of John, where the word peace occurs six times, always spoken by Jesus, who repeatedly offers his peace to his followers. What does Jesus mean by this peace and how do we achieve it?
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives.” The peace Jesus is talking about? We don’t actually achieve it, we receive it. It’s a gift that requires no undertaking and no striving at all. It’s as available as the air we breathe. In fact, it is the air we breathe. God breathed [emphysao] life into creation in Genesis and that breath is what sustains life. The word pneuma means breath, spirit, or wind. Our passage reminds us that we have the Spirit, pneuma. And in case we missed it the first time, it’s repeated later, for example in John 20:21-22: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The word for breathed here is the exact same word used of God breathing life into humanity in Genesis 2:7. So, I mean it quite literally when I say that peace is as close as our next breath. You could say peace is our birthright.
Breath prayer has been part of Christian practice for a long time. The recent emphasis on mindfulness in the West, once seen only as a Buddhist practice, can help us with the practice of embodying peace through breathing. Peace must be embodied in our real, physical hearts that can calmly de-escalate a situation or race with anger and inflame it - in our arms and hands that can choose to hug rather than hit. If it’s not embodied peace, it’s just an empty concept.
In a real sense, when we are spiritually awake and tapped in to having Jesus and God dwell within and among us, it means that we don’t just have peace, but we can be peace. This takes some regular practice, in my experience. And that’s where weekend experiences and meditation apps can actually help us - as long as we don’t think they are magic or try to get an A+ in the practices.
What I find most stunning is when Jesus speaks words of peace. It’s never while he and the disciples are sitting around a campfire, roasting marshmallows, with an Instagram-worthy sunset above them, singing “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.” John 14–17 is known as the Farewell Discourse, where Jesus gathers privately with his disciples to prepare them for his departure. In it, Jesus encourages them to accept the difficult reality in front of them that they have no power to control. They do, however, have power to choose how they will respond. They are going to lose someone they love very much and can’t imagine life without, someone who changed the very course of their lives and around whom they had arranged their life for years. The pain and the grief will be so piercing and gut-wrenching that the only way to imagine its severity is to compare it to a woman in labor [16:16-24]. The way they have envisioned the future, the script they had written for it, will be shredded in an unimaginable way. They will feel that all has been lost and nothing gained. Maybe even like they can’t possibly go on.
Yet through the speech, Jesus keeps saying that they have access to his peace, that they can not only survive, but even thrive, no matter how awful the circumstances. The kind of peace Jesus offers doesn’t depend on external circumstances at all. In John, of course, Jesus never asks God to take the cup of suffering away from him like he does in other Gospels. He understands that the values he has chosen to live out in the world that doesn’t share those values will, in his case, lead to public shaming, hatred, and even death.
All of this must have sounded like crazy talk to the poor disciples from start to finish. How can one have peace in the midst of grief and uncertainty? Maybe before and maybe after, but during? Grief seems like an obstacle to peace, not a context for embodying it.
Together we could name so many apparent obstacles that seem to make peace a pipedream right now, both on a personal and global level. If you could name one or two obstacles that make receiving Jesus’ gift of peace feel counterintuitive, if not downright impossible, what or who would those obstacles be for you?
For many of us, fear can be a primary obstacle to peace. Whether we admit it or not, many of us are afraid. Afraid of losing our possessions. Afraid that our overwhelming heartbreak will never heal. Afraid that we will always be lonely. Afraid that our physical pain will never be alleviated. Afraid that the best years are behind us and the vivid colors of life will simply fade away little by little. Afraid that our children or grandchildren aren’t safe. Afraid that we will suffer. Afraid that we will die.
We’re in good company. Remember when I said Jesus offers his peace and breathes the Spirit into the disciples again in Chapter 20? There the text plainly says that the disciples had locked themselves in a room out of fear, in their case of the religious authorities. Can you relate? It’s so easy to lock ourselves in a room out of fear and sometimes not even realize we’re doing it. Apparently locked doors and terrified souls are no match for the peace he always and forever offers. Without any fanfare about the locked door, the text simply says: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ [John 20:20]. He emboldens them to come out, even if they face opposition.
Jesus says he doesn’t give peace as the world gives. What does he mean by that? Let me ask you this. When we are facing any of the situations we’ve named, what kind of peace plan does the world offer? “Distract yourself at all costs. Numb the pain. Have another drink. Buy another outfit. Turn up the TV. Watch another three hours of TikTok.” The world invites us to achieve peace by checking out; Jesus invites us to receive peace by checking in. That’s where peace lies. Within. Our opening verse says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home within them. Jesus, God, the Spirit - the source of all true peace - it’s within us. Right now.
Have you ever noticed there’s no hope in John? There’s so much emphasis on receiving peace, but nothing about having hope. John is always training our eyes on the availability of abundant life right now. But hope is always focused on the future, not the present; that’s the nature of hope - “someday things will be different.” Hope isn’t bad, but we can focus on it so much that we miss the present and all it has to offer, even in the midst of challenging circumstances. Too much focus on hope can keep us from embodying engaged peace, where we accept reality as it stands and move forward loving this complicated world with abandon. In John there’s a single commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” By accepting reality, I don’t mean passive resignation or condoning. I mean loving the real world as it is, not just the world as we wish it were. Hope is future. Peace can be now.
It was a Saturday morning. I had made it through a host of obligations that week and finally had time to turn my full attention to a sermon on peace. Sipping a delicious cup of coffee, I opened the book Peace is Every Step by the late Thich Nhat Hanh with a foreword by the Dalai Lama. It begins: “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way…. And I believe that love, compassion, and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to [their] family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world” [vii].
That’s as far as I got before a family member contacted me to share very distressing news that consumed much of the next week. A chance to recall that the kind of peace Jesus offers doesn’t depend on external circumstances at all. I did not get an A+ in breath prayer and a non-racing heart. What I did do is immediately reach out to my community for advice and support. My friend asked if she could come over. I didn’t think I needed anything but she came anyway. We strategized and we even did a little gallows-humor chuckling. She invited her spouse and another set of friends over and food appeared and, though there was nothing anyone could really do to change the situation itself, my community became the peace of Jesus for me. We came out on the other side intact.
Community. Jesus delivers the Farewell Discourse not to isolated individuals, but to a community of friends going through a sad, frightening experience together. Here’s a crucial point. In the last part of verse 27 Jesus says: “Let y’all’s heart stop being troubled and let it stop being afraid.” It’s important to notice here that it is one heart (the word is kardia) shared by all of them together. The NRSV does not render it correctly here since it gives the impression of numerous individual hearts with its translation: “Do not let your hearts (plural) be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” This entirely misses the point. We weep and rejoice with one heart. We are damned or we are saved together. It’s the very same thing Jesus said at the opening of chapter 14: “Stop letting y’all’s one heart [kardia] be troubled.” Another point we must notice: the NRSV makes it sound like they are on the verge of troubled hearts and Jesus is trying to keep them from starting to fear. But the form of the imperative used here means “stop doing what you are already doing.” They are already troubled and afraid even though the Prince of Peace is in their very midst. I love that. We don’t need to pretend. Jesus knows we are prone to being troubled and afraid. No matter how many times we go there, Jesus comes to us reminding us to receive his peace.
The best way to start reading poetry is to start reading poetry. The best way to achieve peace is to receive peace. The best way to practice embodying peace is in community. The best way to expand peace is to come out of the locked room and engage this fear-filled world with a passionate, steady love.
Shall we pray?
O God of Peace and Love, calm our fears, remind us to breathe in rhythm with the Spirit who dwells in us. And whether we are saving or savoring the world in any given moment, help us to embody the peace that we have received from Jesus. Amen.