“A PATH TOWARD PEACE”
There was a certain man who was in his favorite chair in front of the television. His wife walked into the room, and she said, "Honey, you haven't even turned on the TV." He said, "I find it more enjoyable this way."
Maybe that resonates with you. I realize we have a couple of persons in our congregation who are in broadcasting. I am not disparaging their work at all, but there is much on television that is less than acceptable these days.
I understand this is ratings month for TV programming and all the extreme stops have been pulled. I understand that is even true in some newscasts. I happened to be watching the news not long ago, and there was a special little piece about stress. A couple of days later I went to another network and there was another special little piece, and it was about stress. I was beginning to get a message. I should be stressed.
The message of these specials was the way to deal with stress: through diet, exercise (preferably walking), through mind exercises, through music. They went on and on. There are a multitude of ways for us to deal with the stress in our lives. Not long after that I had a conversation with our colleague, Craig Dorval. He said he was in a bookstore recently where they have a number of listening posts for CD's. He said at every single listening post there was either relaxation music, stress reduction music, or what he called "soothing spiritual music."
It is obvious that we are struggling with the issue of stress in our lives. What's also very enlightening is that the scriptures do not deal with stress. The scriptures spend a lot of time dealing with another issue that is related, and that issue is peace. Peace is both an issue in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. It's a much broader concept than stress. It is even more than just dealing with violence, or hatred, or animosity that we experience in life. In both testaments the definition of peace is "our wholeness," or "our completeness." Such wholeness and completeness can only be found in a right relationship with God. In both Old and New Testaments there is an individual and inner dimension to peace, but there is also a corporate and connectional dimension to peace. You cannot be at peace just by yourself. You cannot be a part of a group and be at peace if you are not at peace in yourself. It takes both dimensions.
The scriptures make it very clear. This peace-this inner relationship and this corporation relationship-grows out of our relationship with God. It is God, and us, and those around us, all together, that create the peace that we experience, the wholeness, the completeness that we know.
In the Gospel of John, we need to remember, Jesus is God in human flesh. In this passage that you heard this morning, when Jesus says, "I will not leave you orphaned; I will return to you," it is not just the itinerate preacher from Nazareth who is saying those words, it is the Eternal God. That is the clue to our peace. The nature of God, of this Eternal One, is that he wants our peace: our peace individually and our peace corporately. It is God's character to work for the peace of all peoples. It is God's very nature that God wills for us wholeness and completeness, righteousness and peace, for each one of us and for all of us.
If we are to move on a path toward peace, we first must consider the nature of God, what God is like. That is what Jesus is doing in this passage from the Gospel of John. This passage is a part of that larger section called "The Farewell Discourse," Jesus' final words to his disciples. Jesus is trying to do two things for his disciples. He is trying to reassure them, help them individually, internally, and he is also trying to keep them on mission, keep them about their ministry. He is trying to help them corporately and connectionally. Jesus works towards this understanding by emphasizing what God is doing in their lives, what the nature of God is, and what that means for their lives. Jesus says to them, "I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, and you are in me, and I am in you." It is a way of emphasizing how integral God is in each of our lives when we are in relationship with Christ, when we have opened ourselves to the Spirit of God.
In the Gospel of John there is a significant element of universalism. We see it in the verse that is often described as people's favorite verse in all of scripture, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world…" That means everyone, not just some people. In fact it means all of creation. The universalism of God is in God loving all of us. But this verse continues on. It states whoever receives the Son of God, and believes in him, those people shall have eternal life.
There is this universal nature of God, but we need to respond to God. We must accept God's love. If it is not accepted, then it cannot benefit us. If we don't enter into the relationship with God, then we cannot experience the promises of God.
In this passage, Jesus talks about those promises. They are abundant and wonderful. "The Father will love you." "We will come to you." "We will make our home in you." The "we" here is the fullness of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Maybe an illustration might help at this point to understand what is really being said here. There is a person walking down a sidewalk. They meet another person. The first one greets the colleague on the sidewalk. This second person can walk right by, never say a word, never respond, and there is no relationship. But if the first person speaks a word of greeting, and the second person responds with a word of greeting, then there is a relationship, if only for a moment. I am sure you have had both of those experiences. I am sure you have walked a sidewalk, seen somebody, and said, "Oh, hello," and they walk right by like you don't even exist. Other times you have said hello, and there is a response. Sometimes the conversation even goes on.
What is true in our spiritual lives is God is always on the sidewalk of your life. God is always greeting. God is always entreating. God is always inviting you into relationship. You have the choice of walking right by, totally ignoring, and not having a relationship. You also have the choice of responding and entering into relationship. When we do that, we do it with God and with those around us. That is righteousness, and out of those right relationships can grow our peace, our wholeness, our completeness. It is all dependent on the nature of God, who is always there and always inviting us.
There is a second dimension to a path toward peace. We see that second dimension in the passage from Acts. We need to be persistent in responding to God. In the passage from Acts we have a glimpse into the early Church. At this point in the life of the early Church there are two major leaders, Paul and Barnabas. They are co-pastors for all of the Gentile world. In Chapter 15 of the Book of Acts, Paul and Barnabas have a significant disagreement on the role of Mark, a fellow disciple. It concerned whether Mark would become a part of the missionary movement. (Friends, pastoral assignments have always gotten people's emotions up from the very beginning.) Paul does not want Mark to be involved in this work. Or at least Paul doesn't want to be involved in the work with Mark. What happens is Barnabas goes off with Mark. Paul chooses Silas, and in the beginning of chapter 16 we are told that Timothy joins them, and they go in a different direction. There is this split in the original pastoral team, and they are going in different directions. For a while we follow Paul and his crew. Pretty soon we have an understanding from the scripture that Luke is a part of the team, because the narration changes from third person to first person, "We went and did this," "We were involved in this activity." It sounds like Luke was there as well.
What you see in the narration, from this point on in chapter 16, is most enlightening. Not only has this pastoral team split up, but now Paul runs into all kinds of false starts and roadblocks. They are in Asia. The Holy Spirit says, "Don't speak a word in all of Asia." Obviously Paul thinks, well then I will go up to Bithynia. But the Spirit of Jesus comes, and says, "Don't go to Bithynia." Now I don't know about you, but if I had lost my pastoral colleague, and the Spirit said don't preach where you are and don't preach where you want to go, I think I would be stressed at this point.
What does Paul do? He keeps on. He keeps pushing on. He keeps seeking a relationship with God. Now I have nothing against stress reduction. I practice it myself on a somewhat regular basis. There are many ways that we need to do that. But stress reduction doesn't get to the issue, it only deals with the symptom. What we see in Paul's life is dealing with the issue. Paul continues on through Asia. When he reaches the coast at Troas, there is a vision that is given to him, a gift from God. That vision is to come over to Macedonia and preach the word in that region.
What we see at that point is a great turning. Paul gets on a boat and goes across the Aegean Sea in one day, a straight line to Samothrace, the outpost of Macedonia. They travel on from there to Neapolis, and from there on to Philippi. In Philippi, Paul has success. The first convert that we know of is listed by name, Lydia, from Thyatira, a seller of purple. She was probably one who worked with people of great wealth. Maybe she was a clothing designer, or an interior decorator. Only the wealthiest of people could afford purple. To be a seller of purple meant she was a high-class person, well established in the society. She demonstrates her new life by saying to Paul and the other missionaries, "Come and be in my house. Use my house as a center of operation. Work out of here. Hold your congregation here." She becomes an integral part of the movement.
Do you see what happens? Paul has run into roadblock after roadblock. He has split with his great colleague. But in persistence Paul experiences a new relationship with God and others. In these new relationships is peace.
What do you and I do when we run into difficulties? We may use some stress-reduction techniques, which may help for a while. It is only as we turn to God, and find that One who is always present in our lives, it's only as we are persistent in turning to God, that we can find the right path for life, and can ultimately find peace in our lives.
Bill Hybels is the Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Church outside of Chicago, one of those huge 13,000 member congregations. Bill Hybels, a couple of years ago, wrote to Billy Graham, and said, "I would like to come visit you in the Carolinas. I'd like to spend a day with you. I have a number of questions to ask." Billy Graham wrote back, and said, "Sure, come on down."
Bill Hybels got out his yellow pad, and started to write question after question, page after page. He couldn't wait to go and see Billy Graham. He couldn't wait to get over with the introductory stuff and start asking his questions. He wanted all this information from this great master of evangelism, maybe one of the greatest evangelists since the Apostle Paul.
Hybels travels down to the South. He goes up to the Graham house, knocks on the door. Billy opens the door. They greet each other. They sit down. Hybels pulls out his pad. He's ready to start asking questions and taking notes. Billy Graham says, "Bill, pray for me." Bill Hybels said, "I couldn't believe it. Me, pray for him? No, no. He's the master. He should pray for me. He should help me."
Friends, the reason that Billy Graham is the master is because he knows to turn to God. We turn to God at every turning point in our lives. It's only in doing that persistently that we can find peace. Peace is the constant love of God, and our persistent turning to God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.