When I made my first will as a young priest, I was asked if I wanted to add a testament. It took a moment to realize that the lawyer wondered if I had any words of wisdom to impart. I did not and alas still do not, but others have both in American history and in the Bible. We have been reading the most famous biblical example for the several weeks at Mass. It is usually called the Farewell Discourse, but it follows the form of a classic testament.
These were given by a teacher or patriarch to those whom he is leaving behind. It includes the announcement of departure, final instructions, warnings about the future and advice about potential dangers. The most important section was, then, as now, his legacy to those he left behind. What would comfort and support his family or followers? That was what the disciples were waiting for, and we hear it today.
It is direct, simple but perhaps surprising. “Peace, I leave you, my peace I give you.” As the disciples would face misunderstanding, he might have said I leave you solid doctrine and clear beliefs; as they would face persecution, they might have wished for the protecting angels we find in today’s reading from Revelations. But he says peace. If we know any word of Hebrew it the word for peace “shalom.” It means harmony, simply everything is right. Jews would have expressed this as a hope. Our common human experience is that everything is never all right. This peace was expected when the Messiah came and ruled. Jesus tells them that shalom-peace is here and now. The apostles were startled, and we should be as well. Where is the harmony, where is the peace? Just look around and see the war in Ukraine, racial violence in our own country and the increasing difficulty in providing for simple needs.
The answer is in the next line: “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Jews understood this peace as a gift from God which they expected to receive from the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah and more and can give them this peace now.
But only if we are joined to him. We have heard today that if we keep Jesus’ word God will make his dwelling within us. Last week we were told that this requires obeying the new commandment to love as Jesus did: passionately, completely, and sacrificially. That crucifixion is the consequence of this love would not have been lost on the disciples nor should it be on us.
It is the Paradox of Peace. To attain shalom -peace – we must first experience resistance and stress. There are several reasons for this. First, evil is a pre-existing condition. We are born into a world that is riddled with sin and corruption. We have come to call these structures of injustice, racism, xenophobia and the like, but I still prefer the ancient Christian designation of Original Sin. Second, this Sin is powerful both because it is everywhere, but also because it is attractive and active. St. Paul calls these forces principalities and powers, thrones and dominions. They prey on our weaknesses and insecurities.
The murders in Buffalo last week show that a person can be sucked into these powers and eventually dominated by them with frightful ease. Resistance is a conscious act that is increasingly difficult and painful and by last week well beyond the Buffalo murderer. Third, they are so strong that we cannot break them by ourselves. Therefore, God did not send yet another prophet or teacher but came himself to join with us and free us from these chains. This is what we celebrate in Baptism when we are first connected to God, but which we must continue sacramentally through the Eucharist and other sacraments. Our lives may be seen like a bent steel pipe that needs to be strengthened out. We are not strong enough to bend it back, but Jesus is and can. It is never easy and always painful, but we know it has been accomplished when we experience true peace.
More than Christians have experienced this, but it is easier for us to see it through our fellow believers. Let us look at Congressman John Lewis. The key experience of his life was the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He was violently assaulted and left for dead. Years later he spoke of this:
At the moment when I was hit on the bridge and began to fall, I really thought it was my last protest, my last march. I thought I saw death and I thought “It’s OK, it’s all right – I am doing what I am supposed to do (“His Truth is Marching on John Lewis and the Power of Hope, Jon Mecham, page 197)
This is peace. This is knowing that God has bent you back into shape, and shows the 4th element of true peace. It is most often experienced by those working for the common good. Congressman Lewis was born into a world I cannot comprehend. He faced a wall of violence and intimidation which few people managed to confront, much less change. If he had simply stood back and performed the roles expected of him none could have blamed him, and he would not have been beaten senseless and suffered uncountable indignities. But he would not have experienced Shalom. He would not have known the peace the world cannot give.
Many of us may have an inkling of it, but not a full and powerful experience and those who have it must show us the way. I may not have any great wisdom to impart as a testament, but John Lewis did. He told people to make “good trouble”. Good preacher that he was he knew that if we took God’s gift, he would bend us and the world back to wholeness. This is the call to the Christian: for our society to know true peace here, we must make good trouble now.