ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
At an appropriate point in some services we greet one another with a friendly handshake or, if we know someone well, with “a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16); and we say to one another, “Peace be with you,” or some similar greeting. Yet do we ever stop to think about what we saying? What is the peace we are wishing one another?
If you look carefully at each of the thirteen letters of St Paul included in the New Testament you will find that near the start of each one, Paul also wishes peace to the people to whom he writes: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7) or something very similar. Perhaps that is not surprising as Paul was a Jew and the typical Jewish greeting on meeting or leaving was “Shalom” (Peace).
The word “peace” can be used in several different senses. It can mean the opposite to or the ending of war. It can mean a general sense of calm and tranquillity, perhaps when we are resting in a beautiful place. For Christians it can describe our relationship with God our Father – and it is this last meaning that I want to explore further here
- In the Garden of Eden
Have you ever wondered why, in the account of the Garden of Eden, God put “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the middle of the garden (Genesis 2:9) and then forbade Adam to eat from it on pain of death (Genesis 2:17)? Would it not have been better if that tree had never been there? Would it not have stopped Eve being tempted and so prevented the fall of humankind?
Is its presence, however, not a way of describing the supreme gift that God has given to human beings – the gift of choice? If the tree had not been there, Adam and Eve would not have had to choose whether to obey God or not, but that would, in some way, have reduced human beings to a kind of automata.
It was obviously a great risk to put the tree there, but God knew that without it there would never be any who would love Him because they wanted to and not because they had to. It is a symbol of human free-will and, maybe, the symbol goes further still – for was the Cross of Jesus, not described as a “tree” (Acts 5:30;1 Peter 2:24)? We will come back to that later.
We know that humankind chose to eat of the tree and in so doing to rebel against God. this destroyed the sense of peace that there was meant to be between God and men and women.
- Peace lost
You may feel that on should not base an explanation on the basis of such an old tale as that of the Garden of Eden. However, even if it is only a pre-scientific way of accounting for humankind’s present relationship with God the basic idea is sound. That is that human beings have rebelled against Almighty God and chosen to disobey rather than love Him. Then again we see this same rebellion in the world today. There are some very articulate atheists and humanists around who, by their ways of thinking, show that they have no time for even the concept of God. There are also many, many folk who may not speak out but who just live their lives as though God was not there. On forms they might declare that they are Christian or “C. of E.” but they never darken the doors of a church (except, perhaps, for a family wedding or funeral). They too have effectively rebelled against their Maker.
So one way or another the human race must plead guilty to the charge of rebellion against God and, as a consequence, there is no peace between human beings and the Almighty.
- Peace restored
So what are we going to do about it? There is simple choice – continue in rebellion or seek to restore peace. But if we want to do the latter, how do we go about it? What can we do ? In fact we can do nothing! The gap between humankind and God has become so great that it cannot be bridged from our side. However it can be bridged from God’s side and that is exactly what God has done. In amazing love He has been prepared to forgive our rebellion, our sin and to restore peace – but this was no easy task even for Almighty God, it cost Him dearly as the penalty of our sin had to be paid. The only One who could pay it on our behalf was God Himself in the person of His Son Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:5,6) who died in the Cross at Calvary in our place. Through His self-sacrifice peace is restored (Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20) between God and those who believe and trust in Jesus. Nothing complicated, no long course of study, no exhausting physical task, but just simple trust in the One who died on the Cross for you and for me.
- How long does this peace last?
The price paid by God the Father through the Son was so great that the resulting peace was meant to be for ever. Another way of describing this is to say that we have been granted eternal life (John 3:16; 1 John 5:11). We have this life now – once we believe in Jesus Christ and resolve to follow Him. Yet we often lose the sense of peace that we ought to have – we feel that we are alone, we have lost the sense of the presence of God that we once regained, we have drifted on the rocks away from the safe anchorage to which God had restored us.
Why? In simple terms, because we have turned to sin again in one way or another, Yet all is not lost, God, in His great love, will deal with this time after time if only we confess our error and ask for His forgiveness. His love is just so amazing!
- What leads us to drift into sin again?
Thoughts may come into our minds questioning the truth of what we have previously believed or what we have been told. The classic example is that of Thomas who was absent when Jesus first appeared to His fellow disciples after the resurrection. Thomas doubted their witness and demanded to see and feel the nail-marks in Jesus’ hands and the gash in His side (John 20:24,25).
However when Jesus came again, Thomas being present, he did not carry out the physical tests he had previously demanded but made one of the greatest New Testament confessions, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-28).
Then again we may drift when things go wrong, when hardship, illness or even the death of someone close strikes us. St. Paul knew all about hardship. He gives us a list of what he had suffered, lashings, beatings, shipwreck, dangers from bandit s, etc. (2 Corinthians 11:24-26). He knew that the Christian life promised no freedom from such things – nor from some particular problem (poor sight? recurrent illness) which plagued him (2 Corinthians 12:7,8).What it did promise was God’s help in time of need (2 Corinthians 12;9).
When doubts or hardships beset us, we need (to continue the nautical analogy) to strengthen the ropes that tie us to that safe anchorage, not to cast them off. This will mean strengthening our faith by persistent prayer, bible study, church going and Christian service (as well as accepting help from others) even when the darkness seems to surround us. Difficulty can produce growth that ease and comfort cannot do!
- Final peace
Jesus promised us peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Paul echoed that, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7), as did Peter, “Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2). This inner peace will continue with us throughout this life and into the next, where, because of the wonderful, eternal, far-reaching love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we will have nothing to fear even on the day of judgment (1 John 4:17,18). Then the variations in peace we have known here will cease and we shall live for ever in the perfect peace of God, won for us by Jesus who died on the Cross and rose again and who said to His bewildered disciples as He stood among them after the resurrection, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:21,26).
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.