A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Asleep in Heavenly Peace?
December 6, 2018
Perhaps the most beloved hymn of the Christmas season, Silent Night closes with the warm cradle lullaby to baby Jesus, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” This follows the glorious night-time proclamation of angelic hosts heralding his birth, “Peace on earth!” Whether earthly or heavenly, the prospect of peace is one of the great themes of Advent and Christmas.
Each week during Advent we light a candle in anticipation of Jesus’ arrival. Most traditions agree that the first and third represent hope and joy, but the meanings of candles two and four vary. At today’s presbytery meeting we are marking the four, in order, as hope, peace, joy, and love, so in this second week of Advent I invite us briefly to consider the theme of peace.
If by “peace” we mean rest from striving and struggle, Jesus falling asleep is a perfect image. Serenity finally prevails. All cares are forgotten. No matter the vicissitudes of the day, they are dissolved. Blessed rest reigns.
But that is not the meaning of shalom, the Hebrew word we translate “peace.” Shalom may best be translated “wholeness.” More than mere absence of strife, it signifies restoration of the right relationship between everything God has created. Discord is replaced not by silence but by harmony.
Isaiah calls the coming Deliverer the “prince of peace” who will usher in “endless peace.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) We do well to make peace a core Advent theme, but only when we understand it as the restoration of creation’s integrity through mutually life-giving relationships between all its members.
This sort of “peace” often comes, ironically, only by fighting for it. It doesn’t arise easily and can seem unnatural in a world where “nature” seems to commend a Darwinian course of survival of the fittest.
When the angel forecasts John the Baptist’s birth, he promises John’s father Zechariah that the child will turn the hearts of parents and children toward each other. (Luke 1:17) Shalom between generations will be a key product of his Gospel proclamation.
It is fitting, of course, for the one heralding the coming “prince of peace” to be himself an agent of peace. Yet the picture of John that emerges, of the judgment-wielding prophet in the desert, tells a story much different from what we’d expect of a peacemaker. He generates such strife among the authorities that he gets imprisoned, and eventually executed, for exposing their way of abusing power to serve their own interests. Being an agent of God’s shalom is dangerous business.
Jesus flips the angel’s declaration to Zechariah that the Gospel will bring the generations together. “I have come not to bring peace,” Jesus declares, “but a sword ... I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” (Matthew 10:34-36) What happened to the “prince of peace” and “peace on earth?” Why does Jesus say his message will disintegrate families rather than bringing them together in the bonds of shalom?
Alas, many who wish to be his followers seek the peace of heavenly sleep, of blissful oblivion to the world’s problems. Jesus will have none of that, as he tackles the world’s enmities head-on by exposing the inequities of prevailing social and religious landscapes. Some have it way better than others, and they are doing all they can to perpetuate their advantage. Jesus comes along with a message of true shalom, wholeness with genuine reciprocity rather than domination. And the guardians of the old order are sure to resist such a redress of inequity tooth and nail. Sometimes Gospel work takes priority over family fealty, as Jesus demonstrates when he goes AWOL on his family in order to be about heaven’s business. (Luke 2:41-49)
Peace on earth? Yes, but not a peace of oblivion to the world’s ills. Rather, Jesus’ coming is the beginning of a vast rearrangement of all things that makes a broken world whole again. Are we willing to join him in the repair of the world, beginning with the healing of all within us and between us that is broken by sin?
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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