Peace is something to be desired in our lives. Jesus promised it as a gift to us. The peace he was talking about is not the absence of war but shalom. The Hebrew word is so much bigger than we are used to; it means wholeness, things being as they are meant to be, good relationships, freedom from guilt. When Jesus spoke of his peace to his disciples he was hours from death and he knew it. Despite circumstances he knew peace and that can be true for us also.
The readings for Sunday were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67 and John 14:23-29. The full reflection from the noon service is reproduced below.
Sixty-five years ago, on 28th April, Mussolini, once leader of Italy, was shot after a court-martial on the orders of the National Liberation Committee. Two days later Hitler committed suicide in the bunker in Berlin where he had been commanding operations. On 7th May Germany agreed to an unconditional surrender which was signed at the headquarters of General Eisenhower in Rheims. On 8th May the British people were informed by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill that the Second World War was over in Europe.
Yesterday the sixty-fifth anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, was marked in London by a service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. This was attended by around 2000 veterans, Government representatives, political leaders and service chiefs. Prince Charles led the service.
Today in Russia another celebration has occurred. The surrender of the Germans came into force on 9th May for the Russians and so this is their VE Day celebration. For the first time, troops from Britain, France, Poland and the US have joined with Russian troops in marching through Moscow’s Red Square. Along with 10,000 Russian troops were the Normandie-Niemen squadron from France; the 2nd Battalion, 18th Regiment from the US; 75 army, air force and navy representatives from Poland; and 76 soldiers of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards from Britain. Many world leaders, including Angela Merkel of Germany, were also present.
It was obviously a momentous and long awaited day when six years of war which had claimed countless lives, destroyed cities and changed the way of life for millions, finally came to an end. Many of those who can remember the day have shared their reminiscences with the media.
George Broomhead was one of the crew of HMS Meynell, a British destroyer. All the men were given 24 hours’ leave so that they could join the celebrations that were taking place all over the country. He headed for London, arriving at lunchtime in Trafalgar Square. The excitement seemed to carry him along and he soon found himself sitting on the head of one of the famous lions. He was handed the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes and the Russian flag which he proceeded to wave in time with the singing. He became famous overnight as his photo was published on the front of the Picture Post magazine. He recalls how he felt: “It was absolutely fantastic, unforgettable, I’d never seen so much jubilation – it went on for hours.”
Norman Bowie was a prisoner of war when VE Day arrived, having been captured in North Africa before the Battle of El Alamein. He remembers working in a paper mill that day in Germany but suddenly finding that his German guards had gone. Some Americans whom they found told them about Germany’s surrender. Norman and his fellow POWs began to make their way home by way of Czechoslovakia where they got help from the Russians to get to England. He too remembers the party atmosphere, the euphoria at knowing that the war was over.
Of course, although peace was declared, although people celebrated and sang and waved flags, the negotiations which brought an end to the war could not change the way people felt deep inside. Some of the old soldiers sharing their memories, recalled comrades who never made it home. Families often had spaces around the table because sons and fathers had died. Others were home but terribly injured, losing limbs or eyes. For many the memories would never fade. They would always cower at loud noises; the cheerful young man who walked away returned as a withdrawn and silent person. What of the many concentration camp survivors, often the only member of their family to get through the war? They had seen so many horrendous sights, man’s inhumanity to man writ large. Peace is not so easy to find in these circumstances.
Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving them with peace. He made the point that it was not the same kind of peace as that which the world gives. It was not like a signed agreement at the end of a war. Jesus was referring to something altogether different. Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, means far more than the absence of conflict and guns falling silent. Shalom defines things that are as they should be: material and physical conditions, relationships between people and nations, a morality which leads to freedom from guilt. I’ve heard shalom described as ‘wholeness’.
How could Jesus offer this? He had warned his disciples often that they should expect persecution and hardship. A little later in this same final discourse he said to them: ‘If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world .. the world hates you.’ And also: ‘In the world you will have tribulation.’ So was Jesus trying to fool the disciples? Was he just helping them with a bit of positive thinking, stirring up a few good feelings to get them through the inevitable tough times? Was he, like the White Queen to Alice, urging his disciples to believe six impossible things before breakfast? If that were so, Jesus would be a liar, certainly not a Messiah worth believing in.
Jesus said that he was giving the disciples ‘his’ peace. He spoke these words to them just after Judas Iscariot had left to betray him to the authorities. Jesus knew that there was nothing which could stop the train of events that had now begun. He was about to suffer all that the world could unleash on him. The very fact that Jesus could offer peace at that time, facing with full knowledge torture and crucifixion, shows that this is a peace that works. Unlike the piece of paper which changes external circumstances at the end of a war, Jesus’ peace changes internal circumstances even if there is a war still going on. Jesus was not interested in taking his disciples out of the world but in equipping them to live in the world and turn it upside down.
Through the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives we too can have a deep and lasting peace which is not dependent on circumstances. All is well in our lives because we have the assurance that God is in control whether it looks that way or not. Jesus has made it possible for us to experience shalom, in terms of a right relationship with God. We know that we are citizens of heaven even while we live on earth.
The disciples had a good opportunity to prove if Jesus was just uttering empty words when he spoke of peace or whether he spoke the truth. They found themselves persecuted, arrested, beaten, stoned, and facing execution as they sought to spread the Good News. Paul particularly faced many dangers before finally dying a martyr’s death. Despite this he could write to the believers in Philippi: ‘The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’
Even Paul’s great mind couldn’t understand this kind of peace, but it didn’t matter because he knew that it worked in the midst of all kinds of persecution and tribulation. He had proved it by experience, just as Jesus was doing at the very time he was speaking to his disciples about the gift of his peace, and as countless followers of the Way have done since.
Jesus says to us as he said to his disciples: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor