The peaceable kingdom john 14: 27-31

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The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Reifsnyder

1st Presbyterian Church

Winchester, VA

January 25, 2015
Peace, I leave with you. My peace I give to you, not as the world gives.

John 14:27

Ever since I took an art appreciation course in college, I’ve been a bit of a museum junkie. I admit though, my tastes are simple and unsophisticated. Perhaps that explains my love for the work of the Quaker minister and artist Edward Hicks, who is best known for his depictions of “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

The painting is based on Isaiah 11, a text which casts a vision of what the world will look like when the Messiah ushers in the kingdom of God. If you can imagine a time when predator and prey will be at peace, when the wolf will live with the lamb, and the lion will graze with the calf, and no one will harm or destroy, and a little child will lead them all; if you can imagine such a totally unexpected, unnatural, unfathomable time like that, you are beginning to get a picture of what living in God’s kingdom looks like.

This is a beautiful image, and Hicks painted 61 similar, though unique versions of it. We have one in our living room. In the image on the bulletin, you see William Penn making a treaty with Native Americans, one of the more fair minded and compassionate treaties, which earned him Hick’s admiration. An image of God’s kingdom.

I always have assumed that Hick’s vision of the peaceable kingdom was a product of that Quaker heritage of commitment to non-violence, promoting peace and opposing war, a commitment rooted in the Quaker’s straightforward reading of Jesus’ words.

Jesus’ words, of course, have long been a challenge and sometimes a thorn in the side of those who would follow this charismatic carpenter from Nazareth. Virtually the last words he spoke before being led off to be crucified, were an expression of a theme he saw as central to Christian life: “Peace, I leave with you, my peace I give you. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful.” To be filled with peace so that we can be purveyors of peace is perhaps what we deeply desire, but it is no easy charge in a world where conflict and hatred and discord seem the norm, and persistent violence dashes any hopes we have that the peaceable kingdom be anything more than a pipedream.

The violence of our world is deeply disturbing to me, and hopefully to all Christians. I could not help but note that last week’s runaway blockbuster at the movies was American Sniper, which is the story of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal with the most recorded kills as a sniper. I haven’t seen it, but have read a lot about him, and some of his noteworthy qualities. His book on which the movie is based talks more of his Christian commitment (he had crosses tattooed on his forearms) and the initial wrestling with the moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas inherent in his vocation. The movie, however, apparently smoothes over the rough edges of Kyle’s life in creating a narrative of good guy shooting bad guys. In many ways, his story offers a picture of the troubled and violent world in which we live. I am not a pacifist, accepting the painful reality that sometimes wrong must be done to combat greater wrong. But I believe Jesus was, and am unsettled by his consistent call for peace and his persistent teaching that violence as a way of responding to violence always has fallout. Indeed, we have learned a lot about the physical and emotional and spiritual wounds that invariably have accompanied a dozen years or more of perpetual war.

Living in the messy, violent world that we do, presses on us the importance of having that image of the peaceable kingdom before us as Christians, a vision of peace on a grand, cosmic scale which embraces the whole world. It was Robert E Lee who was reported to have said “it is well that war is so terrible or we might grow too fond of it.” The peaceable kingdom prevents us from becoming too accustomed or too accepting the oft violent world as it is, and pushing away the hope and promise of something different, even when it seems so remote.

Though it may be that it was Hick’s Quaker aversion to war which led to his fixation with the theme of a peaceable kingdom, but there may be something else. Around the time he started painting this theme, the Quakers had experienced a church fight and schism, and then the branch in which Hicks was a minister began splitting again. Disturbed by this, Hicks began to distance himself from the fray and devoted more of his attention to being a decorative artist and painter. Perhaps his vision of the peaceable kingdom reflected his hope for the community of faith that he was not experiencing.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent years about the community of faith—and how elusive peace is not only on a broad supra-national scale, but also at a very personal level, and in the workplace, and in the world of government and politics, indeed even in the church.

What does it take to hold people together despite disagreements and differences? Bonds can be strained over the different prisms through which we see issues like war and peace, and what constitutes love and justice when it comes to healthcare and immigration, and how we recognize women’s gifts for ministry, and how we understand the centrality of Jesus in relation to other religions, and of course, how we view same gender marriage. As we look around the congregation, what ties us one to another despite differences, what binds us a community of faith.

In The Great Divorce, which a number of you are reading as part of the Sycamore Sunday school class or Wednesday morning study group, C.S. Lewis has a fascinating description of hell. He pictures those who are waiting in this netherworld of hell—or at least its ante-room, questioning whether they are going to get on the bus to heaven. They were wondering why there are so many empty spaces in this grey landscape, why house and people seem so far apart. “Where are the people? “Was there once a much larger population,” the pilgrim asks. “Not at all” says the one accompanying him to heaven. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty four hours he quarrels with his neighbor. Soon he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled. If the street is full he’ll go on further. But odds are he’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again, right to the edge of the town. (in hell) they keep moving on and on. Getting further apart.” Separating, dividing. Can we see that pattern in our world, disconnecting from one another, not engaging with those who are different, moving further and further apart.

Scripture reminds us that it is love that binds us. Jesus offers these words on peace at the last supper, just before being led off to his crucifixion. Immediately before these words, in John 13, Jesus offers love for one another as the key mark of the church. “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, you must love one another. People will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” I have always thought it a little odd that Jesus describes love as “new.” Have they really missed its centrality before this? What is clear—and what may be new-- is there is a integral connection between the capacity to love and experiencing the peace Jesus offers.

In his masterful study The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis analyzes the four types of love he sees in the Bible. Agape is that self-giving sacrificial love, exemplified by Jesus on the cross. It is the love Christians strive for but only episodically achieve. Eros is the passionate, emotional and physical attraction, the love which binds couples and is the basis for family. Philia is the love of friendship, bound together by common interest and attitude. In recent years some have suggested that it is friendship with God and with each other that is the glue that holds together the body of Christ. But theologian Scott Bader-Saye suggests that it may be, storge, or affection, the most overlooked of Lewis’ 4 loves, which might best be viewed as that which connects us in the face of difference.

Though we may find a few friends in church, people who see the world as we do, and like the same activities, and want to be together because of shared interests, the reality is that church is much more of a hodge-podge of persons who we may be more likely to be bound to by affection than friendship.

Affection, according to Lewis “grows by virtue of shared time and space. Its most basic form is love shared within families, but includes the fond feelings we have for people in our neighborhood or workplace. It does not rely on shared interests, ideas or passions (as does friendship), not does it rely on shared attraction (as does eros). Rather it grows out of regular routines, of shared life, short conversations, proffered support. Affection is of all the loves most linked to place—it arise among those who find themselves sharing a common life not because they chose one another but because they found themselves thrown together…There is no necessary fitness between those whom it unites.”

Isn’t that what happens in church? We are thrown together, and through time and practice we develop habits of attentiveness. First we may simply notice, the attractive and the unattractive, then we learn to endure, then we come to enjoy those we attend class and share fellowship meals and sit in the pew next to. Finally, we come to appreciate the people in our midst, to have genuine love for them, storge love, affection. To have friendship as the basis to be the church together, may imply a high level of agreement, which proves elusive. But we can develop a high level of affection for people—a genuine form of love—for people with whom we may still not agree and never be friends with.

Bader-Saye remarks that “sometimes we come to church expecting to find a group of like-minded people with whom we will become friends, but instead bump up with cranky people who rub us the wrong way.” Expressing love as affection may help us to have realistic expectations, to know that not everyone in the pews around us will be people we can will ourselves to like, or agree with. But perhaps we can come to appreciate them, value them, love them, in spite of our differences. We can affirm that they love Jesus and want to follow him as much as we do.

Could it be that the peace which Christ promises comes as a result of our greater attentiveness to one another? Love as affections requires a great commitment to simply being present to one another. There is great excitement about the communication possibilities of the church of the future through social media and virtual relationships. And much of this is good and valuable. But maybe texting and Facebooking can’t carry the weight of love. Love as affection may require our bumping up against each other and dealing with our physical and emotional quirks and sharing together time and space. Gathering together may be an important element of learning to love those we thought we could not love, who are not like us, who will never be anything more than acquaintances.

Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, Jesus says. Can we find peace while being true to our convictions? Can we love one another for Jesus sake while accepting our differences? That is the vision of the peaceable kingdom.


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