Texts: James 3: 13-4:8, Mark 9:30-37
"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." That line is from a song often sung at Christmas and one that has been quite popular since it was written in 1955.
I believe that there is a lot of truth in those words. But at the same time, I also believe that they show some of the difficulties in building a more peaceful world. If world peace begins with me, then I am worried because I know how often there is no peace inside my own heart. And I imagine that the same thing is true for many of us.
The passage from James this morning highlights the problem. "What causes fights and quarrels among you?," James writes. "Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" Desires that battle within us -- a phrase to remember.
In the passage from Mark, the disciples have been arguing about who is the greatest among them. Once again, Jesus explains to them that "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." To make this point clearer, he then draws a child towards him and says "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me." Children are the most vulnerable and ignored group during the time of the disciples. Jesus is making it clear to them that his community is one in which the least powerful and respected are the most welcome. It is a community where humility and service to others is the path to love -- and not the normal path of worldly wisdom and strength.
James echoes this point: worldly wisdom is boastful and envious and selfish. But heavenly wisdom comes with humility. He writes, "the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."
Still, this still leaves us with a problem: how do we achieve humility? And how can we put ourselves last and be the servant of all? It all seems like a tall order. In my life, I find that it is easy to be humiliated. But while humiliation and and humility are related words, they are different moments in life!
We feel humiliated when we make a bad mistake; when a family member or friend puts us down or judges us; when we stumble and can't get up, and so on. And often, this state of being put down also happens inside our own minds. This is what I meant when I said that I am often not peaceful on the inside. One of the difficult lessons I have learned so far in life is how much fighting lives inside me.
This issue became clearer for me in my marriage to my now ex-wife. When Fran and I first married, we thought we were in love; and to the extent that we were then capable of it, we did try to love one another. The problem was that I was not very often loving towards myself. And I looked to Fran to fill that gap within me.
Unconsciously, I would often put myself down. If I made a mistake -- which, of course, happens all the time for any of us -- my inner "worldly wise" voice would call myself bad, or a failure, or worse. Over time, I have come to understand how easy it is for me to be insulting, unkind and disrespectful towards myself.
We all need to be respected and loved. But if we don't find a refuge inside our own heart where we know that we are a loved child of God, welcomed and healed by Jesus as the Christ, and always accompanied by God's Spirit, then we won't have a good basis upon which to love a spouse or a friend or a good basis upon which to receive love from a spouse or friend.
Jesus left his disciples with the commandment to love one another just as he had loved them; and it is a wonderful commandment. But it is not an easy one to fulfill! If I am always attacking and hurting myself whenever the inevitable pains and mistakes of life happen, then I won't be able to love either myself or my neighbours.
Why do so many of us have these inner fights? Why do we put ourselves down so often? The religious answer is that this is a fallen world. The human condition is inherently difficult, and pain is unavoidable. Even in the very best of families and communities, it is easy for infants, toddlers and little children to get the message that maybe there is something wrong with them when they are in pain.
And the society in which we are born, while it is filled with wonders and possibilities, is also filled with competition, violence and destruction. In the midst of all the economic, political, environmental and military problems of this world, it is easy to feel bad about the choices we make to try to fit into it. These are some of the reasons that many of us are unconsciously at war inside ourselves.
It can be a vicious cycle. Life is filled with pain and the world overflows with troubles, so we feel bad about our place in all of this. If we feel bad about ourselves, we either become easy victims for bullies, or we defend ourselves by becoming a bully ourself. And this outer and inner dynamic feeds upon itself in an unfortunate way.
God provides a way to break out of this vicious circle. Jesus reminds us that we don't have to do anything to be welcomed, accepted, and loved by him. A powerless child leads the roster in Jesus' community. Sinners, hated tax collectors, and the sick and hungry are all welcomed by Jesus. They simply have to be to receive God's love.
This is the heavenly wisdom mentioned by James, a wisdom that comes from humility. In the inevitable problems of life -- a difficult marriage, an illness, a failure or one kind or another -- we can, with Grace, come to realize that at these moments we are like the powerless child welcomed by Jesus as first of all. In our weakness lies our strength.
Here is how Paul put it in First Corinthians: "Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles -- but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."
God in Jesus shows us a holy wisdom that follows the inevitable path of human weakness. Like Jesus on the Way of the Cross, in our weakness, we can find our strength. It is a strength which is not ours; instead it is a gift from God. By taking this humble path, we get help to heal our inner wounds and help to respect and love ourselves. With self respect, we are better able to love and serve others as well.
As for me and Fran, we learned a lot in in our marriage despite being young and foolish. We did end the marriage and went our separate ways. But I thank God for all that I learned during those years and I thank Fran for putting up with me in some of my more humiliating moments. Today Fran and I are friends and each other's supporter. I am sure that for both of us, we are now better able to love than we once were -- though learning to love is a never-ending journey for all we foolish humans.
So what does this have to do with Passing the Peace of Christ? I am sorry to report that I didn't find much in my quick research. But I did find the following on the website of a United Church of Christ congregation from Illinois, which I like:
It states, "in the 'Gathering' portion of our worship service, following the declaration from the worship leader that God forgives us, we 'pass the peace' to one another. Why do we do this? In the assurance of forgiveness, we hear that our relationship with God has been reconciled. We then, at least ritually, reconcile our relationships with one another through the passing of this sign of peace—believing that what we do in ritual begins to shape what we do in everyday life."
So Passing the Peace is a sign of reconciliation, even though it is given and received by humble, conflicted, and sin-filled humans. We know that we live in families and congregations in which fights often arise, as they will in a violent society made up of people filled with inner aggression. This means that Passing the Peace of Christ is a wish for our neighbours that they receive something precious; something often not achieved; and something that only comes to us with Grace. All this strikes me as a wonderful thing to wish for each other in this difficult and mysterious life.
So to close, let me state my wish for us once again; that we remain awake to the Grace that is available to us every moment of our lives:
May the Peace of Christ Be With You!