Friday, third week of Lent
"The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" - Philippians 4:7
"Allegory: Inconstancy" c. 1490, Giovanni Bellini
Bellini's allegories are not always easy to interpret, but this one clearly has as its theme uncertainty, inconstancy and insecurity. The globe balances precariously on the woman's knee, and its real support is the child, as likely as all the other children to grow tired of the task and take to frolicking. Any peace that rests upon externals is in such a state of insecurity. A good digestion, no financial trouble, happy relationships, an interesting career: then the world is beautiful to us, the children smile, and we are at peace. But of what value is such a peace? At any moment accident or natural change may disrupt it. A peace dependent on the woman's knee remaining still and the diligence of a small child in persisting in its Atlas-stance is a poor, uncertain peace: we cannot be peaceful in a dependence.
‘Peace’ in Greek has the idea of wholeness, of having all the parts knit together. It's when heart, soul, mind and strength all love God.
This is not a promise of external calm. This is promise of internal stability. The Jewish people were expecting something to change in their political, religious or financial realities. But that was their definition. No wonder they were disillusioned and disappointed time and again.
Paul, writing letters to the start-up churches helping them to better understand the true message of the gospel, wrote to the church in Ephesus. He was writing to a largely Gentile (pagan) audience. They were having trouble forming a church community with the Jewish converts. Paul lets them know that God has broken down the divide between God’s “chosen” people and the “unchosen” Gentiles. Here we begin to see an even clearer explanation of peace:
“Remember that at that time you (Gentiles) were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace…. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.“ (Ephesians 2:12-17)
What is peace? Reconciliation with God through Christ, empowered by His Spirit.
In this case, it should end hostility between the Jewish and Gentile converts – but that’s the fruit of peace, not peace itself. That’s what peace looks like when it’s embodied, but it didn’t start there. It started at the cross, and moved inside. Only people full of peace within them can truly bring about peace around them. We think of peace as the end of hostility, so we often start there: “Everybody stop fighting!” That’s good…but it’s the veneer of peace. Peace begins within. When writing to the church in Galatia, Paul had more to say about peace:
“Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised… May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who live by this principle—they are the Israel (the chosen people) of God.” (Galatians 6:13-16)
Because Christ died, Paul has been made part of this new humanity. Anything good in him is because of the person and work of Christ. There are no “works” that can save him or give him worth. He understood God’s peace – he’d been reconciled with God through Christ and empowered by His Spirit, and now he had unshakeable identity. He understood mercy – a covenantal, compassionate love for others. Paul had been given much by grace; he would extend this principle to others. You can have this too (says Paul) if you live by this principle.
All that matters is that, through Christ crucified, we are made a “new creation.” That is what knits us together inside and makes us whole. That is the source of meaning, worth, and self-image. Peace begins in us, not around us when we are in right relationship with Christ. Here’s how this looks practically.
"You look like you are putting on weight!” My body grows older. My boast is in Christ.
“Where did you buy that!?” My fashion taste is lousy. My boast is in Christ.
“You have a dead-end job! Wow, you really wasted your Saturday!” My accomplishments are straw. My boast is in Christ.
“How could you have forgotten that thing? How could you overlook that person?” I am not perfect. My boast is in Christ.
“I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Mr. X or the latest international event!” I don’t know everything. My boast is in Christ.
“You haven't gone anywhere cool, have you?” I don’t have much money. My boast is in Christ.
“People are gossiping about you.” Let them. My boast is in Christ.
There is great peace in being able to say, “I am nothing on my own, but I am reconciled with God through Christ and empowered by His Spirit. I will not fear my failures or worship my successes. He must increase and I must decrease. My boast is in Christ.”
Jesus heading to his crucifixion, confident of his place in the Father's love, spoke these words over his disciples:
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." - John 14:27
O God, grant me the peace that is Christ Jesus, the place where I am confident of your love and care. Amen.