Sometimes it’s impossible NOT to hear something.
If, for instance, I were to start this sermon with the phrase “It’s a small world,” (simply saying that phrase), you might be open to hearing it a variety of ways.
Your mind might consider (for example) little incidents that you have had along the way yourself, of running into someone on vacation, or meeting an old hometown acquaintance in an unexpected place.
“Oh, it’s a small world..” you might say to them with a smile.
If, on the other hand, I were to begin this sermon by singing, “It’s a small world, after all…”
Well then, there goes that earworm, and you will conjure up not pleasant happenstance and unexpected meetings of friends and acquaintances, but rather find imposed upon your psyche that Disney boat ride populated with cut-out and animatronic children singing that phrase over, and over, and over again.
And, once that image is implanted… you won’t be able to think anything else, will you?
Well, maybe I’m overestimating that.
It would only “stick” if you were of a certain age or had ever visited Disneyland or Disneyworld and taken in that ride.
It would only stick if you were my age, having grown up with “The Wonderful World of Disney” and all of its iterations, where the song and ride were used repeatedly as a way of inviting thoughts of inclusion and understanding across cultures.
“It’s a small world, after all…” was a kind of anti-cold war anthem. It arose in the same time as the bleak reality of “duck and cover” drills in schools and back yard bomb shelters. It’s cheery phrases bring back to mind the days of “peace through mutually assured destruction (MAD)” and the maintenance of larger and larger nuclear stockpiles and more sophisticated weapon delivery systems in a race against our adversaries.
The anthem sung at “the happiest place on earth” was sung as a kind of hope for a better day, a larger understanding of how the world could be, should be, but was not.
If you want to understand this gospel lesson for today, (and maybe particularly how it sounds on this Memorial Day Weekend,) you will need to approach this passage from John from the angle from which Jesus’ disciples would have heard it.
When Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives.” Jesus’ disciples would have heard in his words a familiar refrain, an earworm of sorts that came from of living under Roman occupation. They would have heard and brought to mind the “Peace of Rome,” the Pax Romana in which they live.
That’s the “peace that the world gives.” It was impossible for them to hear anything else.
The “Peace of Rome” was a timeframe extending roughly from 27 BCE to 180 CE, ushered in under the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar and lasting until the reign of Marcus Aurelius. It was the time when Rome was at its zenith, having expanded throughout the known world. The “Peace of Rome” meant that there were no other competing nations vying for commerce or for supremacy. There was no “competition” to Roman authority, so Rome could use the vaunted Roman Legions as occupying forces throughout the Empire to keep their conquered lands in order.
Rome expanded its borders, consolidated its control over everyday life.
Rome developed trade corridors, built roads between the nations that it had conquered, to funnel the wealth back home and to facilitate control.
Rome built bridges and aqua ducts, engaged in public works projects and palaces.
Rome appointed local governors and rulers, tipped the scale of power in its own self-
interest and administered affairs of state on behalf of those under its “wing” for their own good.
Rome extracted the wealth from conquered and occupied lands for the benefit of the Empire, both to placate the populace back in the city of Rome (bread and circuses) and to pamper the privileged.
If you heard “Pax Romana” as a citizen living in Judea at the time of Jesus, you heard not just that phrase but all that such a phrase meant to you. The “tune” that went with it, if you will.
“Peace such as the world gives” meant living under Roman occupation, with Legion forces stationed in your hometown.
“Peace such as the world gives” meant a relative “peace” purchased at the expense of the ability to guide one’s own destiny and determine one’s own affairs.
It meant your best fish were taken from your lake and your best crops taken you’re your fields, and all of it shipped off to feed Rome’s populace.
It meant that your goods and property were taxed to support all of Rome’s building projects locally and across the Empire.
It meant you got to pay for the privilege of having foreign troops stationed nearby to keep things orderly, and to keep an eye on you.
It was a peace that was imposed at the tip of a spear and by officials who were far disconnected from your own experience and your own wishes for life, so it was not always that “peaceful” an experience if you were not a Roman citizen.
Such was the peace that the world had to give.
So, when Jesus says, “My peace I give to you…” The question on everyone’s minds as Jesus uses that phrase would have been “What sort of peace is that?”
We know what kind of peace the world gives. Rome reminds us of that daily.
What is the peace that Jesus gives?
Will it be like the kind of peace Rome has to give? A peace that comes with a price that makes the populace chafe and live uneasily with their master?
Or is this peace something else?
This is a peace Jesus promises.
It comes not at the tip of a spear, or imposed by force from outside, but rather it is a peace that comes from loving with and living.
“Those who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
That’s the offer of peace that Jesus makes.
It is a peace that does not come as imposition from the outside by force, but rather as an assurance of relationship, a promise that God will be present with you.
It is not imposed from on high, but rather a peace that has the authority of God. However, this authority is all about local administration of something very personal, a “Spirit” that Jesus promises will live within us and remind us of all that Jesus came to teach and say.
It is a peace that does not extract things from you by using fear, terror, or force you to do things, but rather a peace that descends and quells your fears and eases your mind.
The world gives peace that will benefits those far off.
The world gives peace that will speak of sacrifices that must be made. Sacrifices that will ultimately cost someone dearly, and that will probably only benefit those in power and in privilege.
Jesus gives peace that begins and ends with relationship. A peace that, while it speaks of him having to go away, also promises continued presence. The Spirit, the Advocate, who comes to remain with those disciples, with us, daily, guiding us in the way of life.
This is, of course, what makes preaching on Memorial Day a proposition fraught with danger!
We do honor the sacrifice made by those who gave the “last full measure” and who gave their lives willingly for a greater good, to preserve a Union, to quell the spread of evil, to make a stand against the darkness.
We do wish them peace at the last, and honor their graves, their memory, and their sacrifice.
But we do so mindful that every grave of a veteran also marks a tragic failure for sorts.
A failure of diplomacy.
A failure of this world to learn how to love the neighbor as we love ourselves.
A failure to seek for the things that would make for peace, choosing instead the peace we think can come only by imposing our own will on others.
That is tricky, I know, but to not acknowledge that is to make of Memorial Day just another “Disney ride song,” a faint hope of what we wish could be, sung as a vain hope.
Those who rest in hallowed ground deserve more than that.
The Gospel says that such peace is not unattainable, but rather comes because Jesus comes.
The hope of those whose graves we will visit this Memorial Day Weekend is ultimately now the hope of the resurrection, which is also a gift the comes from Jesus. But they died hoping for something else.
Hoping for a day when we would learn war no more.
Hoping for a time when the rattling of sabers would not mean another row on row of small white stones.
Hoping the world would find a better way, a way in tune with the creator who wept when Cain killed Abel, exclaiming “what is this you have done?” and who weeps still at every conflict, where “peace such as the world can give” is chosen over the peace Jesus comes to give.
Jesus gives peace by coming to dwell with you, to abide with you, to reside with you and with the promise of God’s continued presence in the way of meeting and greeting. A promise that you will find people, others who will also “keep Jesus’ word” with you.
This is exactly the kind of peace that makes you smile.
This is the kind of peace that you experience when you do come across an old acquaintance or new friend who shares your point of view, your passion for life, and with whom you can find common purpose.
This is the kind of peace you find when you discover that there are those who will share your own desire to live as Jesus has shown us all how to live.
The kind of peace that comes when you find those who will treat each other as those who know the love of Jesus, no matter what their belief, for Jesus would sit and eat with all.
This is a different kind of peace, and one that can only be attained by abandoning the project of imposing peace from the outside.
This is the peace that comes from making the decision that loving will be your way in this world, your decision in this life, even if it takes you to a cross.
This is the peace that comes you discover that Jesus sends the Advocate to remind you that this is exactly what he was all about as he fed the hungry, healed the sick and broke bread with those who this world had very little regard or “peace” to share, or love to spare.
Beloved in the Lord, I wish you a different kind of peace this day. The peace that comes not from this world, or of this world, or such as this world can give, but rather the peace of Christ, which is often at first no peace at all.
It is a call to love deeply, to live earnestly, and to see in the other the face of God.
This is the peace that passes all understanding. This is the peace that makes for life.