Sermon delivered at the ecumenical Independence Day service, 6 December 2022, 12:00 pm
Gospel: John 14:23-29 (NRSV)
23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
Sisters and brothers in Christ,
On our vacation last summer our family visited the Muisti Centre of War and Peace located in Mikkeli. What especially caught the attention of our school-age children was the word cloud wall in the museum. A timeline on this wall depicts those words which were most repeated in the letters which soldiers sent home from the front. (For the information of our dear youth, it was neither What’sApp messages or Instagram updates that were sent from the trenches, but rather letters written by hands covered in dirt.
The words” dear,” ”home,” and “well” were repeated often. In December 1939, the end of the summer of 1941 and from the beginning of the summer of 1944 – that is, the times of the fiercest battles – the most oft-repeated words in the soldiers’ letters were “peace” and “God.” Was it the case, then, that when their own fear beset them the most and their distress over their Fatherland was the greatest, they resorted to God and prayed for peace?
I made a word cloud as well out of the prayers and hymns of this service. The result came as a surprise: the most-repeated words are “peace” and “God.” What does this coincidence say? That harsh times have returned?
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus speaks of peace and tranquility. ”Don’t worry and don’t lose heart. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give you what the world gives.”
Here Jesus seems to be speaking of two kinds of peace: that which the world gives, and that which he gives. What is this about? What does he mean by the first, that is, the peace that the world gives?
In the first place, there is the knife-to-the-throat kind of peace known to the peoples and nations of the world. Here, the stronger party takes his own, puts the knife to the throat of the weaker one, and says: “I am very, very peaceful, shall we make peace and reconciliation?” This kind of peace isn’t achieved through negotiations and diplomacy, but only by force and violence. Thus have the ruffians and great powers acted throughout history. Jesus knew well this kind of knife-to-the-throat peace. In his time, Rome occupied Palestine and in the end the soldiers of this occupying force amused themselves by torturing and killing him.
This year has removed the masks from many faces and revealed the faces of war. Disappointed and shocked, we have followed how the same knife-to-the-throat peace has tried to be used to subjugate the Ukrainian nation. This kind of knife-to-the-throat peace is not at all just. It is not perceived as genuine and fair. Thus, it cannot last. Although peace is made with one hand, the other hand is a fist held behind the back. The battles will pause, but only to start again at some point.
A more subtle form of peace which the world can give is a peace through trade relations. Here the powerful families or great powers agree upon strict trade relations among themselves. It is to be hoped that it comes about as a result of this dependence on trade that the parties find that it is more useful to refrain from violence than to wage war. And so swords are forged into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This model also was well known in Jesus’ time.
In fact, in the ruins of World War II today’s Europe was built on this model of peace through trade relations. It has been more durable. We have enjoyed a long period of peace. After the fall of communism, many of us believed that by creating trade relations we could buy our way to getting our neighbor to the east to love peace and respect democracy.
This year has bitterly shown that in this world the peace-from-trade model is also fragile, even deceptive. Many European countries have been deceived or allowed themselves to be deceived.
In speaking of peace, Jesus shows that he recognizes realities. He isn’t a fool who urges submission to whomever, nor is he an idealist blind to the hidden selfishness in human nature. In this world, peace is often based on calculations. In this world, peace is an arrangement between people and thus always fragile. In this world, strife is continually near. On the field of battle, and at the heart of social media.
Nevertheless, our Lord urges us to build peace and to reconcile already in this life. “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) We should not adopt cynical theories where relationships between people are seen as mere power structures. Peace and righteousness are fragile; and still they are worth pursuing. Peace and justice belong together. There isn’t one without the other. Sometimes building peace can mean agreeing to a reasonable compromise. Sometimes it means acknowledging the terrible fact that for the sake of a just and lasting peace, we cannot agree to an unfair and unstable knife-to-the-throat kind of peace.
Our decision-makers and shepherds now have to weigh these calamitous options in Finland and Europe. What is their task?
In one of my episcopal visitations, I got the chance to visit a nursery. The children and staff waited in lovely rows in the reception area. It was given to a six-year-old boy to solemnly pronounce the words of greeting. He was led by the hand to me, but upon seeing my episcopal cross, he forgot what he was supposed to say and uttered, “Are you some rapper?”
I responded, “Yes, I do sing in front of people. I’m not a rapper, though, but rather a shepherd – what in your opinion is a shepherd’s job?” Before our entourage had the chance to be seated, we had decided together that a shepherd’s job is to keep the flock together, feed it, and defend it against beasts. That is: to unite, feed, and defend.
Here today I see before me the shepherds of this world. Your task is to make difficult decisions in difficult times. Your task – together – is to unite the flock, feed it and defend it against external threats. Our task, dear listeners, is to support them, help them, and pray for strength and wisdom for our decision-makers in the demanding tasks of a shepherd.
There is good news for us all in Christ, the Good Shepherd. In the gospel for today he says: “Be brave, do not despair.” And he promises: “I give you peace. My own peace I give to you, not the peace that the world gives.”
The peace of which Jesus speaks here is not only the absence of war. It is peace of soul, that is, rest, joy and thankfulness that we have peace and reconciliation with God. From this peace of soul, this joy and thankfulness, will sprout an abundant peace: peace in our homes, neighborliness, love of our friends, trust between parties, peace among nations and care for all God’s marvelous Creation. The good God calls us all, together and individually, to the ownership and promotion of this peace.
On this Independence Day today, many will be paying attention to what the guests are wearing to the President’s Reception this evening. So be it. But the Apostle Paul wants to a different set of instructions for dressing up, instructions which fit us all. It reminds us that the building of peace begins at close range, from our own selves. Thus he urges us to be clothed:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” (Colossians 3:12-15, NRSV)