All Saints by the Lake, Dorval
Proper 14, Year C
July 7, 2019
Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest upon that person; but if not, it will return to you.
On many Sundays in church, the blessing at the end of worship begins with the words, “The peace of God, which passes all understanding …” This phrase comes from the concluding greeting of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and has become a byword (the English politician John Wilkes, commenting in the eighteenth century on the Treaty of Utrecht, quipped that “this must surely be the peace of God, for it passeth all understanding”).
So one thing we know about the peace of God is that it is inherently beyond our comprehension. That being the case, and given that we are not literally being sent out two by two to heal the sick and drive out demons, what can we usefully derive from this passage about how the peace of God works in our lives?
First, we know that we are being sent to the same places where Jesus himself intends to go. Christ is with us, just behind us, on the journey, backing us up.
We also know that the harvest is plentiful, even if the labourers are few. The fact that we are small in numbers is not something to worry about, or a barrier to doing the work of God effectively. We can dwell in peace knowing that it is not up to us to deliver a stunning success (however that might be defined) but only to do faithfully what we are capable of doing.
Next, Jesus says, “I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves.” Which is a super reassuring statement, to be sure! But if we’ve been paying attention, this is what we should have come to expect from Jesus: not comforting platitudes, but plain truths. An essential element of God’s peace is vulnerability. We do not – we cannot – have that peace if we are unwilling to admit our own limitations, to acknowledge that we depend on others, to open ourselves to the possibility that we may be hurt, and to be prepared to absorb that hurt without lashing out and perpetuating it.
“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.” Another daunting instruction. I know that if I were told to go on a long journey by foot without any luggage whatsoever, it would make me anxious, quite the opposite of peaceful! But God’s peace is not an emotion, but a conviction. We can experience peace even in the midst of anxiety, as the bedrock understanding that no matter the storms that swirl around us, we are safe and loved. And perhaps the injunction to travel light and not stop to engage in conversation is a way of underscoring the urgency and important of the mission.
And thus we reach the part of the reading where the word “peace” is actually mentioned. No indication is given of how the disciples are to know whether their peace has been shared or is being returned. They are to accept what they are offered and focus on the healing work they have been sent to do, and on conveying the all-important message, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
If the town as a whole is not welcoming, the travelers are to ritually shake the dust from their feet and travel onwards, after reminding them once again that – for good or ill – the kingdom of God has come near. The nearness of the kingdom is an objective fact, not depending on how the listeners feel about it or whether they let the news change their lives. And the preachers are not responsible for how their message is heard; they are responsible only for making sure it is transmitted in the first place.
This is the flip side of the idea of peace as vulnerability that I mentioned before; peace is also having clear boundaries, and knowing what is and isn’t yours to worry about. The towns who won’t hear the disciples’ message are not their responsibility to fix. (And certainly not to destroy with fire from heaven, as James and John had suggested in the previous chapter.) We need both vulnerability and boundaries; both openness to the messiness of experience and clarity about what is and isn’t our burden to carry. And always, the essence of the message is that the kingdom of God has come near: that God is among us, working in us, calling us to something greater, and the only question is whether or not we choose to answer the call.
God’s peace is both something that we are given, no strings attached, and something that we can deliberately cultivate and seek out. Sometimes it comes to us unbidden, as a quiet moment of hope and calm in the midst of chaos or crisis. But we can also consciously make room for it in our lives through prayer and meditation, self-care, and personal work. I personally am much more able to access the peace of Christ when properly medicated for anxiety and getting enough sleep.
Once the seventy have returned from their mission, as they rejoice at the more dramatic things they have witnessed, Jesus brings them back down to earth by reminding them that there are more important things than being able to tread on snakes and scorpions. “Do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Our knowledge of God’s peace is rooted in identity and promise, not in flashy performances. We are made in the image of God, inherently beloved; our names are written in heaven, and nothing that we do or don’t do can change that. And the kingdom of God has come near, and is working in the world, and nothing that we do or don’t do can change that, either. God’s peace is to be found in knowing both these things and listening, with vulnerability and humility, to how God is calling us to participate. And God’s peace is to be found in knowing, with rock-bottom solidity, what is and isn’t our job to handle, and that God is the one who’s in charge. That God has destroyed death and promises that everything will be OK in the end; if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.
We can feel the peace of God regardless of our external circumstances, while also acknowledging that there is so much more to it that it is beyond our understanding. We can spend our lives growing into the knowledge of what the peace of God is like. And at the same time, we are beloved, and the kingdom of God has come near, and that is all we need to know.