The Peace that Passes All Understanding

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. . ., and whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house,’ . . . and then say to them, ‘the Kingdom of God has come near to you.’”  Luke 10:4-9

Pentecost 4C – July 7, 2019

As many of you know, for twenty years before I became a priest I was an appellate lawyer. Clients would hire me to represent them after a trial, either to defend the trial verdict on appeal or to challenge it, depending upon how they fared in the lower court.

The task of the appellate lawyer is to identify the best issues to appeal, to master the evidence that was presented in the lower court, to research the relevant law, to write the briefs, and then to prepare for an oral argument, typically before a three-judge panel.

An oral argument usually lasts a half hour to an hour, but the preparation beforehand would take weeks of intense study of the facts and the law, a careful review of all the briefs, and several practice moot courts. When I walked into the courtroom on the day of the argument, usually I would be accompanied by at least one junior associate and a paralegal, armed with litigation bags that contained notebooks full of carefully indexed excerpts from the trial record, binders filled with copies of the key case law, and lots of notecards on which I had jotted down critical points I wanted to make during my argument.

The name of the game was preparation, preparation, preparation, and we came to court loaded for bear. It was a carefully choreographed routine and I knew I could count on my colleagues to hand me any piece of paper I might need at a moment’s notice should an issue come up during the judges’ questioning.

This is what I did day in and day out for the two decades when I was a lawyer, so when I arrived at Virginia Theological Seminary to take my first preaching class, I thought I would be ready for just about anything. How hard could preaching be in comparison to arguing complex legal cases?, I said to myself. I knew how to speak in public, and I knew how to prepare a succinct presentation.

So, you can imagine how taken aback I was during the first class when the homiletics professor started with the following exercise. “Please put all your bibles, prayer books, notebooks, and laptops away,” she said, “put your chairs in a circle, and we will begin. I’m going to call on each one of you, one by one at random, and I will hand you a verse of Scripture on a piece of paper. I will give you two minutes to gather your thoughts without reference to any aids, and then I will ask you to stand in the center of the circle and preach a five-minute sermon to us on the given text.”

Well, this was not what I expected. My whole professional experience taught me that preparationis the key to effective speaking, and here I was being robbed of all my resources. It was a terrifying and humbling experience.

After the class, I went up to my professor and asked: “So, what is the theory behind today’s little exercise”?  “Do you remember,” the professor answered, “in Luke’s gospel when Jesus commissions the seventy to go out into the country to preach the good news? Do you recall the instructions he gave these seventy apostles? He told them quite specifically to ‘carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,’ and to take nothing with them other than the peace of Christ in their hearts? That is what this little exercise was about.”
“Preaching,” she explained to me, “is as much about authenticity and embodying the good news of God in Christ as it is conveying information. You need to learn what it feels like to be vulnerable in front of the congregation, without any artifice or help, and to persuade your people that you actually believe what you are saying.”

“I know you were a lawyer for a long time,” she continued, “but the difference is that preaching comes from the heart. As a preacher you are not so much an advocate talking to the judge about someone else’s case, as you are a witness on the stand telling the whole courtroom the truth about who Christ is, why He makes a difference in your life, and why He should make a difference in everyone else’s too.”

As the course went on, I learned that our professor was not in fact advocating that we should give extemporaneous sermons every Sunday. Of course, we should be prepared; of course, we should write out our thoughts; of course we should choose our words carefully. “But the moment your preaching becomes disconnected from your life, from your vulnerability as a person, and from the peace of Christ that grounds you,” she warned, “that is the moment you are in danger.”

But here’s the thing: the instruction Jesus gives to the seventy in today’s gospel is not just advice to preachers. Jesus is talking to all the baptized, to all of his followers. He is talking to you as well as to me. We are all commissioned to go out into the world to share the good news of God in Christ, and to do so with authenticity and transparency, relying on nothing other than the peace Christ has implanted in our hearts. Some people will accept the good news we offer, others may reject it; but we are not to be deterred from offering Christ’s peace to all who have ears to hear, and to assure them, in Jesus’ words, that the “Kingdom of God is near.”

The peace we are to share with others is not, I hasten to add, a simple handshake or kiss; it is not merely a quiet pause, or cessation of conflict, or a short-term calm. Nor is it some sappy, New Age withdrawal from the world. The peace of which Christ speaks comes from the Hebrew word shalom, and means well-being, wholeness, harmony, an enduring groundedness in God’s being. Christ brings the shalom for which God’s people have for centuries been longing: a peace that actively desires to bring everyone and everything into loving relationship and completion. This is the peace Christ urges all of us to communicate on his behalf.

I’m not sure why Christ doesn’t personally appear to everyone in the universe to share his shalom, but he doesn’t; he instead relies on feeble people like you and like me to spread and to embody his good news. Christ entrusts us to be his beacons of hopeful peace to this hurting world. We are his ambassadors, and in order to be good ones, we need to find our own words to express how Christ’s shalomis changing our lives.

St. Peter in his first epistle puts the point this way:  Every Christian, he says, should “always be ready to give an account of the hope that lies within us to anyone who should ask.”

So, my question for you this morning is this: Are you ready today, here and now, to give an account of why Christ gives you hope? How would you convey Christ’s shalomto others if you were asked? If leaving church today, a passerby were to come up to you and ask, ‘so why do you go to church on Sundays,’ what would you say?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to call on anyone. But this is a question I hope you will seriously ponder, for it is the question Jesus is asking this morning.

You might say:

I come to church because I need forgiveness, and I hope to become a more forgiving person.

Or, I come to learn gratitude, and I hope to become a more thankful and giving person.

Or, I come because I’m broken and exhausted, and I hope to be healed and renewed.

Or, I come because I am lonely, and I hope to find connection and community.

Or, I come because I’ve lost a sense of meaning in my life, and I hope to find purpose and wholeness.

Or, I come because I want to love and be loved more deeply, and I hope that Christ will offer me this gift.

These are all good answers, and they all express an aspect of the shalomChrist offers, but only you know your answer. And it is youranswer that Christ is waiting to hear, and it is youranswer that Christ is waiting for you to share with others.

I’m sure you have noticed that we end our service every Sunday with the words, “Go in peaceto love and serve the Lord.” There is a reason we say this: these words remind us that the “peace,” the shalom, we are given here in church is not a resting place, but rather a call to action, a commission to love and serve others, a charge to share the Christian hope with the world. Christ is beckoning us, just like he beckoned the seventy, to continue his unfinished work of Kingdom-building.

So, I invite you to find yourpreaching voice, your authentic and heartfelt expression of Christ’s shalom. And then, dare to tell your story to someone else who may not yet know that God is near, and tell them about the peace that passeth all understanding that awaits them if they are just willing to welcome Christ into their homes and their hearts. Amen.