The Gift of Peace

For 72 years, from 1682 till 1754, at the insistence of the Quakers, the colony of Pennsylvania maintained no militia.  Despite repeated calls to establish some armed body, the Quaker pacifists held to the principle.  By 1747 this unrelenting pacifism, in the face of war between Britain, France and Spain, had driven Ben Franklin to publish a call to arms: the pamphlet, “Plain Truth.”  That same year he established the League for the Defense of the City and Province, with some 10,000 men responding to his plea.  

In 1755, after repeated failed legislative attempts to fund a militia, Franklin persuaded the Pennsylvania Assembly to borrow the money required for militia supplies. Dogged insistence on peace did not jibe with Franklin’s famous pragmatism.  There is, however, something somehow ennobling about being a part of a society that once tried a serious experiment in peaceful living – no matter how many times removed we are from the distant cousins who tried (however vainly) to enforce the peace.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Franklin, I think, might have understood part of what we hear Jesus saying today: “not as the world gives do I give to you.”  The world does not give us peace; Franklin knew that well.  And in the absence of evidence of peace in the world, it is not entirely clear what became of the gift of peace that Jesus said he was giving to his disciples.

Biblical scholars tell us that we are prone to over-simplify what Jesus was talking about.  His gift of peace is not, some say, meant to imply the end of warfare, not the banishment of gunshots from our streets or our schools, not the quelling of domestic violence in our homes.  No, his peace, we are told, passes all understanding.  It is more than an end to our foolish destruction of one another.  It is the peace of salvation, the peace of communion with God.  It is the establishment of his kingdom: the vision of the city that we hear about in the Revelation to Saint John: the new Jerusalem that needs no sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its lamp; where the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flows from the throne of God, through the middle of the street of the city.  And anyone who wishes may take the water as a gift.

In the face of this vision of peace, the mere cessation of warfare, we are told, is an entirely inadequate understanding of God’s peace –  a lesser peace, to be sure, but we have settled for it.  And on reflection it does seem cheap to think we have achieved peace when we manage to bring a war to its conclusion.  This is a bit like thinking that all is well in the house when Mom and Dad have stopped fighting – but even a child knows that this is not true, and chances are the shouting will begin again soon.

So then, the peace of God, which passes all understanding, is more than a moment of relative calm, more than a treaty signed on the deck of an aircraft carrier, more than the assurance that our kids are safe in school.  But would it be so wrong to try to establish this lesser peace in Christ’s name – to claim a beachhead for Christ, planting his peaceful flag over the landscape here and there where we decide we are not willing to tear one another apart?

The gift of peace that Jesus bequeaths to his disciples is a gift that they never asked for.  And like them, we often have a hard time dealing with gifts we never asked for.  I know someone who keeps such gifts in a closet, waiting for an opportunity to re-gift them.  We all know what it is like to receive a tie that we will never tie, socks that will never see our feet, tchotchkes that will never be displayed, etc., etc.  What do we do with gifts we never asked for?

We have a hard enough time dealing with the one commandment Jesus gave: to love one another as he loved his disciples.  Somehow the Ten Commandments seemed like enough – at least they were enforceable – we didn’t ask for one more!  And now we are faced with this un-asked-for gift of peace.  Which sounds like a gift that belongs in the it’s-the-thought-that-counts category.

Jesus offers us the gift of his peace.  And like any gift we never asked for, we are not sure we want it.  He offers us the gift of peace: inviting us to be partners in building the city of God as we build up his kingdom.  He offers us a vision of a city of peace when all we wanted was a bigger house or at least a condo.  He offers us the gift of peace, and we would have settled for central air conditioning.  He offers us the gift of peace when all we wanted was to have our nails done.  He offers the gift of peace and we are not sure we want it.  And if we, his latter-day disciples, are the inheritors of the gift of peace (which in many ways we never asked for either) what are we to do with this gift that we can hardly even define?  
Like Ben Franklin, we have generally esteemed the gift of peace to be impractical – even the lesser peace that only brings an end to fighting.  We have, after all, the means to wage astonishing warfare – means that are sometimes effective, it must be said, at maintaining a certain kind of peace.  But do we – even those of us who claim to be Jesus’ disciples – do we really think a peace that passes all understanding is something we would enjoy?  Is the gift of peace something we could even hope for?

The Quakers held fast to the hope for peace, and they had the will for it – still do - even if they lacked the means for it – which is perhaps as close to receiving the gift as we can get.  Was their refusal to arm themselves a kind of sacramental act: an outward and visible sign of some inward corporate grace?  A symbol of the city they knew God has already built in his divine mind and which they believe God means for us all, finally, to dwell in?

And although as a society (and a city) we have much for which to be grateful to Franklin, perhaps as a parish community of Christian disciples we should be less grateful for this one aspect of his pragmatic legacy: that his quite practical point of view prevailed.  Perhaps we should be more eager than he was to learn how the desire for peace – even a lesser peace than that peace which passes all understanding – can be stronger than our feeble means to achieve it.  

Can we hear Jesus when he tells us, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid”?  He knows that the gift of peace is one for which we are not prepared and that we are not sure we want it.  He knows that we are unpracticed even at keeping a lesser peace.  Be not afraid.  He will supply the means for peace.  He alone can establish peace within the walls of the new Jerusalem.

The royal charter that William Penn received in 1681 from Charles II granted to him the powers of “Captain General” of whatever army he might raise, and authorized him to "levy, muster and traine all sorts of men, of any condition soever, . . . to make Warre."   This gift of the king’s was entirely practical, and almost certainly necessary.

But for 72 years the desire for a certain kind of peace prevailed in Penn’s colony, in what seemed, even at the time, an unlikely zeal for another kind of gift: the gift of peace, quite superior to that gift which had been given to Penn by Charles II.

And maybe that is the crucial thing to learn about the gift of peace that Jesus gave - that peace which passes our understanding, that we have not fully known, cannot even describe – to want this impractical gift more than to not want it.  Maybe the challenge is not to understand it but just to want it, so that our feeble capacity for peace might surpass our stunning ability to “make Warre,” as it did here, for a season, in William Penn’s colony, where again today, the gift of peace is ours, if we want it.

Preached by the Rev. Sean E. Mullen
13 May 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 13, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.