One of my favorite TV shows is the animated sitcom King of the Hill. It tells the story of Hank Hill, a conservative family man living and working as a propane salesman in a Texas suburb. Hank’s father, Cotton Hill, is an even more rigid reactionary, a proud and patriotic war veteran who constantly belittles his son Hank, whom he regards as totally inadequate even though Hank is truly a good and reliable husband, father, and friend. The extent of Hank and his father Cotton’s conflict over even trivial matters is revealed in one episode when they are shopping for Christmas tree ornaments. Hank selects an ornament for his father’s approval that bears the word “Peace.” “How’s this one?” he asks. “Peace!?” his father sneers. “I bet you would like that. Why don’t you get one with a flag-burnin’ on it?” Provoked by his father’s derision, as he always is, Hank replies defensively, “Dad, it’s Jesus peace, not hippie peace.”
Silly as that is, I agree with Hank that there is a difference between Jesus peace and hippie peace. There is a difference between the peace that Jesus speaks of as his gift to us in today’s Gospel passage and our ordinary, worldly idea of peace.
This promise of an extraordinary sort of peace is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus in John 14 is speaking some of his last words to his closest disciples. Judas Iscariot has gone out to betray him, so Jesus knows what he is about to face, and he has told his disciples that he is going away; now he speaks these words to reassure them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
Go back to the beginning of today’s passage, and you will see that Jesus is actually answering a question asked by one of his disciples, Judas (not Iscariot), the other Judas. That question, immediately prior to the beginning of today’s reading, is why does Jesus intend to reveal himself only to his intimate followers and not to the whole world. It may be that Judas is still imagining, even here, on the very night that Jesus is to be betrayed, that Jesus will be the Messiah everyone expects: A heroic warrior who will overthrow the enemies of Israel with a dazzling display of his power in the sight of all and thus be revealed to the whole world as a storied conqueror.
We learn something important here about Jesus in this moment. This is not the sort of Messiah that Jesus is. He says instead, that rather than show himself off before all the world he and his Father will in a quieter fashion make a home with those who love him and keep his words. To those who do not love him and do not keep his words, he will not reveal himself.
But to fail to keep the word of Jesus is also to fail to keep God’s word, for as Jesus reminds us here, and as he has said many times in John’s Gospel, he does not speak his own words; he only speaks the words of his Father, who sent him to us.
We also learn something important at this point about the Holy Spirit. Just as God the Father sent the Son to us to be incarnate, to live and die and rise from death as Jesus the Christ, so Jesus the Son of God asks his Father to send the Holy Spirit to us.
There is a perfect parallelism here. In exactly the same way that the Father sends the Son, so also the Father sends the Spirit at the request of the Son. This is even clearer if we back up a few verses to the first place in John 14 where Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit. Here in verse 26 Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Counselor.” Just ten verses prior he said, “I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive.”
The Holy Spirit can only be “another Counselor” if Jesus himself already is a Counselor. This is a really tough word in Greek to translate. Sometimes you may have seen it translated as “Comforter” or “Advocate.” These ideas are all implied in this word, which literally means “one who is called alongside.”
The Father sent the Son to “come alongside” us, to be our companion and friend; to teach, strengthen, and advise us; to defend us against accusation and condemnation by our enemies, sin and death. And now Jesus promises to send another, the Holy Spirit, who will also “come alongside” us, to be our companion and friend forever. Just like Jesus is only manifest to those who love and obey him and not to the world, so too the world will not recognize the Holy Spirit; the Spirit of truth is only revealed to those who love the Spirit, and those who love the Spirit must love the Son, and those who love the Son must love the Father.
So this gift of peace is according to John entirely wrapped up with nothing less than the gift of God’s giving to us God’s own self: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This peace that Jesus leaves us I would say is nothing other than the fullness of life from and with God.
This is the peace that Jesus gives. “My peace I give to you,” our Lord says. And he says “not as the world gives do I give to you.”
So what’s the difference?
First of all, I would say that what the world calls peace is really just absence of conflict. As long as there is no disturbance or violence then the world is happy and calls this peace.
The peace of Christ is not absence of conflict. In the very next chapter Jesus warns his disciples that the world will hate and persecute them. And Jesus himself is about to go to a violent death. The peace that Jesus gives does not buy us an exception from conflict in this life. His peace is the power to remain confident in the promises of God amidst conflict.
This is why Jesus is able to say right away that even though he is going away we should not let our hearts be troubled. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. Things are about to get very bad indeed, and yet, Jesus says, let not your hearts be troubled, and don’t be afraid, because the peace he bestows empowers us to remember and trust his promises even in the worst of times.
Second, remember that Jesus strongly associates the Holy Spirit with peace, and only ten verses prior to this one he also called the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth.” I think this is because truth and peace go together. The world is capable of forging phony peace from falsehood. Just ten years prior to our Lord’s birth the mighty Caesar Augustus returned to Rome after a triumphant three-year military campaign in Gaul. To honor Caesar Augustus’s slaughter of Rome’s enemies the Roman Senate commissioned an enormous altar to be built dedicated to the pagan goddess…Peace. That so-called Altar of Peace was nothing but a false temple to a false goddess built to bolster Caesar Augustus’s false ambition to be worshiped as himself a god.
That’s not true peace, that’s a cynical lie. There can be no peace where there is falsehood. The peace of Christ is the peace that comes with knowing the truth of who he is and again therefore, the truth of who God is. The Spirit of truth is another Counselor, just like Christ himself, the first Counselor, who in this same chapter of John says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus is the truth of God the Father. He leaves us his peace because he has also made the truth known.
Finally, true peace is something that cannot be enjoyed individually but only corporately. It is a gift to you all, or as Hank Hill might say—in the English language’s only remaining vestige of the second-person plural pronoun—it is a gift to y’all. The gift of peace is not to you and you and you as separate individuals but to us as Christ’s own body animated by the Holy Spirit.
Because we can only be united by the peace that Jesus gives, and that peace is made possible by the blood he sheds on the cross. In a way Jesus is a warrior after all: By dying and rising again he vanquishes his and our enemies, sin and death, and thus he makes it possible for us to live in love together, he in us and we in him.
The world does not do this. The world is and has always been divided up by tribe: us vs. them.
This is not the way of the church. The church is a unity, it is a com-munity, and this community overcomes all divisions; it even overcomes the division between the living and the dead.
At morning prayer, evening prayer, and mass, we pray that the faithful departed “rest in peace.” I fear we probably think of this in worldly terms, that we are praying that the dead repose undisturbed, but this is not quite right. When we pray that the faithful departed will rest in peace what we mean is that we want our brothers and sisters to rest in peace by remaining in the fullness of life from and with God, even in earthly death. To rest in peace is to abide forever in the gift of God’s own living presence, the gift that all who love him necessarily share, no matter how many ways the world divides us.
In the person of Jesus himself, at every mass the priest bids this same peace of the Lord to be with you all always. We actually mean this. And it actually means something. We exchange that peace with the priest and with each other. We do this not because we wish each other well or because we are eager to chum it up with whoever is in the next pew over. This is a serious liturgical act.
To exchange the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ is to acknowledge that we have God’s own strength and wisdom amidst conflict; to exchange the peace is to recognize that we share a deep affirmation of the truth of who God is; to exchange the peace is to affirm that we are at unity with one another despite our many differences and at unity with the myriad who have gone before us.
Perhaps we have forgotten this by dint of overfamiliarity. It is true that saying “peace be with you” was at the time of Christ and remains today, an entirely ordinary greeting for Jewish believers to offer each other. Muslims say it too. And so do hippies. In the world’s hearing maybe saying “peace be with you” does sound like little more than a pious wish. Because the world can talk about peace, but it cannot give peace. But Jesus does not just wish us his peace; he gives it to us.
This is not what the hippies had in mind. And it’s not a slogan on a Christmas tree ornament. It’s the power and presence of God Almighty in our lives, all our lives, now and forevermore. Amen.