Monday, June 30, 2008

Thick or Thin? Considerations On the Meaning of Peace

This being the week of the 4th of July (can it be already?) as many are inclined to do, we reflect on our freedoms, and relative peace that we have in this country. While we are at war in far off places, we live in a generally peace-filled place. My hope this week is to reflect on ideas of peace and what that means for us as Christians.

A few years ago I heard a chapel message about the nature of peace. She spoke from the John 20.19 (See also, Luke 24.36) passage which reads, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Peace, as she interpreted it, grew out of its opposite of strife or the negation/absence of strife. I was not quite at ease with her definition. It felt deficient. Slight. Almost cheapening the profundity that should come with Christ’s words. I want something thicker…more substantial.

More recently in our small group we ran into the passage from Luke 10.5-6 (See also Mt. 10.13) which reads, “Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace to this house!' 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” Is Christ here speaking of the absence of strife? And what is all this about offering it and its return?

My contention is that there is a thicker reality to peace than what we as American’s tend to read in these passages.

First off, lets look at the thin reading of peace as the woman offered to us in chapel. Looking back on her remarks I wonder what strife was Christ trying to overcome in his words? Was he at odds with the disciples when he appeared to them? Are his words to be interpreted as an olive branch held out in hope? I am not satisfied with this as the context does not seem lend those interpretations too easily. Likewise if we consider passages like Matthew 10.34 or Luke 12.51 Jesus tells his followers that he has not come to make peace, but has come with a sword. How are we to interpret this troubling passage? Does this sanction a just violence? Through out the Lukan narrative, we see the birth narratives (1.79, 2.14) suggesting peace, Jesus proclaiming peace in his redemptive activities (7.50, 8:48 – we will come back to these), teaching his disciples to do the same (10.5-6). How can these passages be reconciled with the divisive sword? What we see in the narrative is that God’s purposes will engender opposition. This opposition is ultimately the strife and violence that brings Jesus under the weight of the cross. It seems clear that a thin reading from these two passages alone cannot be a sufficient understanding of peace.

That being said, Mark 9.5, Jesus does urge his followers to be at peace with one another. Here, and a few other places, I will admit that it seems that Christ spoke of an absence of strife which offers some credibility to a thin reading…or perhaps a sacramentally thin reading. More likely the thin offering is a resultant effect from the thick interpretation.

So then, what is this thick reading I have been raving about? My tendency is read them Christologically and Soteriologically.

Our small group has been reading Luke through the lens of Isaiah 61 or the prophecy Jesus reads about himself in the temple recorded in Luke 4.16-19,
“When he came to
Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Luke’s contention, as the narrative seems to suggest, is that when we see these things we are seeing the active presence of the Kingdom of God.

Luke seems to pair peace with healing. Passages such as Luke 7:50, And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." or Luke 8.48/Mk 5.34, “"Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” seem to suggest a great reality to peace than the absence of strife, though it may well include it.

Joel Green suggests that peace is roughly equivalent with salvation in the Lukan narrative (NICNT, 413). Rereading the healing passages above, Christ is not sending the healed women out with an absence of discord, but has sent them away as signs of the healing salvation brings and signs of the inbreaking of the Kingdom. Perhaps the command to go in peace can be roughly reworded to “Go, being now saved.”

But I think we can move beyond the soteriological reading to another reading based in Christology itself. If we see the incarnation as God’s reconciling efforts for peace with humanity, Christ himself becomes the embodied reality of peace as well as the means to procure it.

If we take this perspective to the Luke 10 passage again, we read Jesus telling the disciples to tell the communities that, "The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Not only the redemptive signs of healing and freedom offered in the Isaiah prophecy and the women, but Christ himself as the embodiment of peace. Returning to the woman’s chosen passage that she chose to interpret as the absence of strife, I prefer to read it as a thick proclamation of who Christ was. “Peace be with you,” he said is suggestive of the embodied reality of who he was and also what he offered them. Jesus become the means of acquiring peace with God through faith. But also, that Jesus is the very reality of that peace as seen in the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God…the peace of God has come near, in a physical human form.