SHALOM: Peace No Matter What

A Sermon I gave at Bethel CRC on July 31, 2011.  Our youth group recently went on a SERVE Trip – you can check out the video here
Text – John 14:25-27

Every year at SERVE there is a theme for the week.  The theme is meant to tie the entire SERVE experience together – from the worksites, to the evening sessions, to the relationships we built with our teammates.  We gathered every night as a group to explore the theme with our site speaker.  Immediately following the large group gathering, we would continue the discussion in our small groups.

This year’s SERVE theme is “SHALOM: Peace No Matter What”.  Today, we are going to spend a bit of time exploring this theme in order to give you the chance to encounter some of the things we talked about and learned at SERVE.

Unless you are Jewish, “Shalom” is not a word that you hear very often in your daily conversations or in church services.  And yet, the concept of Shalom is central to the Biblical story.  The Bible begins and ends with Shalom.  So, why is it that such an important theme is so often overlooked by Christians?

The main reason for this has to do with translation.  The Hebrew word, “shalom”, is usually translated into English as “peace”.  Typically when we think of peace, we think of the absence of war or of the idealistic and unrealistic aspirations of people wearing bellbottoms and flowers in their long hair.

We all want peace, but at the same time, as modern people living in a world where warfare and bloodshed are the norm and dominated by an economic system based on conflict and the survival of the fittest, we are very cynical about the possibilities of peace and an end to global conflict.  This is especially true of us Calvinists who preach about the “total depravity” of all humanity.  We have been taught to believe that peace is impossible in a fallen world.  This, in turn, leads us to turn a deaf ear to biblical references of peace since we know that war, not peace, is our current reality.

In our culture, we also understand peace as a sense of inner tranquility.  There is no end to the amount of books, programs, and products that all claim to offer us the secrets to peace of mind in the midst of our hectic lives.  We want to live perpetually blissful lives, free of stress and conflict.

However, these definitions of peace are not what the biblical writers have in mind when they talk about shalom.  While it is true that shalom does entail an end to war and a sense of inner tranquility, this is not what shalom is really about in its fullest sense.  While the absence of conflict is a good thing, in the end it is not enough; the mere absence of conflict cannot by itself lead to reconciliation, healing, and restoration.

Indeed, when we translate “shalom” as “peace”, we end up with a very one-dimensional and secular understanding of a central biblical concept.  This means that our preferred translation of “shalom” as “peace” can be very misleading, suggesting nothing of the richness and depth of what shalom truly is.  Shalom is more than a political concept and it is bigger than an individual feeling of serenity; Shalom is cosmic in scope.

Shalom, translated literally, means wholeness or completeness.  It refers to harmony and unity between all things.

Furthermore, shalom is also connected to biblical understandings of justice and truth.  When justice is accomplished, shalom prevails.  When truth is revealed, shalom abounds.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see shalom used as an expression of hope and longing for the restoration that the Messiah will bring.

Truly, Shalom is a central theme of the biblical story.

In the beginning there was Shalom.  Everything was good.  Everything had a name.  Everything was provided for.  There was harmony.  Creation was complete and whole.  God’s assessment of his creation “it is good” implies shalom.  God could rest and enjoy the word of his hands because shalom thrived.

But then.

But then the disobedience of Adam and Eve and their dissatisfaction with the way things were disrupted shalom.

Sin began and continues to destroy the goodness and harmony of God’s creation.  It unravels what was once whole.  It tears down relationships and causes enmity between people.

If Shalom is the way things are supposed to be, then sin is the way things are not supposed to be.

Sin is the antithesis, the complete opposite, of shalom.

God is the God of shalom.  Sin and its devices have no place in the world he lovingly created.  God desires the flourishing of creation and to enjoy a relationship with his image-bearers.  His purpose and plan is to bring all things to himself, to love and bless what he has made.  In other words, shalom is God’s will for the world.

Nothing can stand in the way of God’s love.  God emptied himself sending his son, Jesus, to earth in order to proclaim God’s message of hope.  The hope that God will restore his broken creation and that Jesus would be the one who would usher in the kingdom of God’s shalom.

However, as much as God is faithful to his promises to bless and to heal, we, like Adam and Eve, are dissatisfied with the wholeness that God offers and seek to find it on our own.  We long to be made whole, but insist that we are the ones to do it.  We search for what is missing in our lives while asserting that we be the ones who define what it is that is missing.  We want shalom, but we want it on our terms.  We are looking for shalom because we were made for shalom.  Yet, we are always quick to settle for the imitation rather than the real thing.  We would rather be perpetually distracted by temporary happiness offered by the latest trend than to accept the gift of a life with God.  The former is easy and costs only money.  The latter is difficult and costs us our lives.

In our quest for our self-made shalom, we always end up dissatisfied, hurt, lonely and unable to find what we are really looking for – God’s shalom.

Although distorted by sin, shalom was brought back into focus through Christ’s resurrection.  His resurrection signals the triumph of shalom over sin.  Because of his sacrifice, shalom is restored between humans and God – listen to these words from Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace, shalom, with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”.  Our relationship with God is restored; it is once again whole and complete.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice, shalom is also restored between us and our neighbors – listen to these words from Ephesians 2:14-16: “For he [Christ] is our peace, our shalom; in his flesh he was made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us”.  The divisions that cause us to hate our neighbor and go to war with each other become secondary to the unity that we share in Christ.  Mother Teresa once said “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”.  We are all, each and every person on the planet, image bearers of God, forgiven and loved by Christ.  This is our true and first identity.  When we remember this, then there is no room for hatred and conflict or for disunity and distrust; there is only love for God and neighbor.  There is only the fullness of shalom

Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension show us that God’s kingdom of shalom is at hand.  But more than that, Christ’s actions on earth bring this heavenly kingdom into earthly reality.  The division that sin caused between heaven and earth is being erased.  Heaven and earth are being restored into one whole and seamless reality.

Think of it this way.  In the Old Testament, the tabernacle was meant to represent heaven and earth.  It had two rooms; the first room, where the table of showbread, the golden lamp stand, and the incense altar were, represented earth.  The second room, the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, represented heaven.  There was a thick curtain that divided these two rooms.  The curtain represented the division or separation between heaven and earth, between humans and God.  A division caused by sin, a division that is not the way things are supposed to be.

Now, think of what happened when Jesus died.  The curtain in the temple in Jerusalem was ripped.  To be clear, the curtain in the temple served the exact same purpose as the curtain in the tabernacle.  God’s heavenly kingdom is breaking into earth reality.  The ripping of the curtain represents the triumph of shalom over sin.  Because sin has been defeated, there is nothing to separate heaven and earth.  God’s future, a time when justice and peace will finally embrace, is coming into the present.

Shalom is about restoration, about heaven being united to earth, about the lordship of Christ over all creation, about the final defeat of sin, death, and suffering once and for all.  This is our hope as Christians; and it is a hope we are called to bring into reality now.

As Christ-followers, we are called to be shalom-makers.  Jesus summarized it best in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Blessed are the peace-makers, shalom-makers, for they are children of God”.  Bringing shalom to our world is one of the primary tasks of the church.  We must be actively pursuing and sharing shalom with the world.  Toward his conclusion in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that you will be known by your fruit, and, as you know, shalom, is one of the fruits of the Spirit.

In our text for today, Jesus gives two gifts to his disciples: the Holy Spirit and God’s Shalom.  It isn’t very difficult to see the connection between the gifts and the implication of what these gifts are to be used for.

Shalom is a gift that we receive and it is a gift we give to others.

Shalom is the power of the Holy Spirit living and working in us, empowering us to share God’s shalom with the world.

This means that we cannot claim to be Christians if we are not actively pursuing and sharing Shalom.  In the words of the Psalmist, we must “seek shalom and pursue it” for we are known by our fruit.

We respond to the gift of Shalom by either ignoring it or by participating in it.  There is no middle ground.  If God is in and with us, then Shalom will prevail – it will explode out of us.  When we abide in shalom, we cannot help but pass it on!

To receive the gift of Shalom, we must turn our back on the destructiveness of the world; however, this does not mean we turn our back on the world.  Our mission as the church is to enter the world to spread shalom.  When we abide in shalom, we seek to bring healing and wholeness to our broken world.  In other words, the church is called to be a community of shalom – to be a foretaste of God’s future and to bring God’s shalom to the world.

Someone once said that “to dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself”.  Shalom is about life the way God intended to be lived – a life of joy, gratitude, satisfaction and rest.  A life lived to the fullest in hopeful anticipation of Christ’s return when all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.  A life lived in self-sacrificial love for others in the midst of a hurting world that calls out for healing – a world where hunger, warfare, broken relationships, and suffering abound.  A life lived that works for justice.  A life lived that seeks to bring healing and restoration.  A life that knows even when sin and death seem to always have the last word, that the Holy Spirit will always bring comfort and shalom.

When Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done”, he was teaching us to pray for shalom.  God’s kingdom is one where Shalom abounds.  God’s will is for shalom to permeate the entire universe.  As God’s covenant partners, our responsibility is to cultivate God’s kingdom and to do his will.  Through his resurrection, Christ has established his kingdom on earth.  We do not idly wait for his return because we, the church, the people of God, are called to be Christ’s presence on earth – to be shalom-makers, bearers of faith, hope and love.  The coming of the kingdom is about the restoration of shalom, about God reconciling all things to himself.

On SERVE this year, we had the chance to participate in God’s shalom by learning, praying, eating, playing, and serving together.  All are acts of worship.  All are acts of shalom.  All are a taste of God’s kingdom.  When we gather together as a church to learn, pray, play and to serve others, we too are participating in shalom.

I want to leave you with a challenge today – that when the Bible talks about “peace” that you remember that it is really talking about shalom.

Shalom is God’s gift to us.  May we faithfully pursue it and pass it on to those who are so desperately seeking it.  Amen.

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