In (Radical, Hard-Fought) Peace Let Us Pray
Sermon preached by Andrea Popa on Sunday, March 28, 2021 at St Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am grateful to be here today - in this space and with you in person. During this year’s Women’s Month we have been giving attention to some of the key themes of our communal gathering. In the past weeks Teva, Christina and Shannon have discussed the themes of thanksgiving, sacrifice/praise, and love. Today we turn our focus to the fourth and last theme of the month: peace.
It has been our hope that by highlighting and exploring these themes, we can appreciate more fully our celebration as the Body of Christ.
How many of us can say that we have found and sustained a heart of peace in the chaos and uncertainty of this past year? Let us reflect.
In the world of online meetings, one activity that has become popular is the word cloud. If this were a Zoom liturgy I might be asking you all to text in keywords to a web platform to reflect your experience, and from those words we would create a virtual word pattern. The more times a word is entered by participants the bigger that word gets in the image until two or three words emerge as the largest and most common shared ideas.
If I were to ask you for words that describe this past year, my guess is that a few major themes would begin to emerge:
COVID-19 | Virus | Pandemic | Shutdown | Quarantine | Vaccination
In smaller print we might also see:
Isolation | Bubble | BLM | Race Protests | Fear | Xenophobia | Politics| Fatigue | Distance
In a separate query, if I were to ask what you have missed most this past year I expect our word cloud might highlight:
Family | Community | Health | Travel | Connection | Peace
In all our worry, our isolation, our political divisions, and the anxiety of these “unprecedented” times… peace has been largely absent. We have been alone - but not at peace. We have slowed our social schedules - and yet not found peace.
When we look to our communal liturgy, however, the word peace is ever-present:
When our priest exclaims, “Peace be with you all.” we respond in unison: “And with your spirit.”
As we prepare for prayer, the Deacon chants, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.”
And before we partake in the Divine Eucharist, we exchange the “Kiss of Peace” - turning to our neighbor with a nod, or a bow - and the greeting, “Christ is in our Midst! He is and ever shall be.”
It is easy to associate the word peace with a type of detached escapism - a lack of conflict, absence of strife, freedom from deadlines, a calm found in moments of solitude. We correlate peace with looking over a serene mountain lake, or sitting down in a flowered armchair to a steaming cup of chamomile tea. In fact, the derivative word “passive” means non-confrontive, and is the very opposite of “active.”
In the context of our liturgy, however, I would submit to you today, that peace is paradoxically - hard work - not tranquil, an act of purposeful engagement - not detachment, a hard-fought victory - not passive.
Our racial equity partners talk about doing the “work” of reconciliation as we mindfully dismantle centuries of systemic oppression. The chant “no justice, no peace” contextualizes that peace will only be won after justice, equity, and inclusion are achieved through struggle, accountability, and a rewiring the status quo - through radical systemic change,
Similarly, in our liturgy, we talk about the “work of the people.” The communion of the saints is built on love through service, the struggles of engaged reconciliation, and active peace-making.
If we dig deeper into both the scriptures and our liturgy, we find peace as a bedrock theme. We begin to understand that God’s peace comes from vulnerability and accountability, introspection and forgiveness.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ himself instructs, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23) In Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians, where he admonishes the new church to “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (2 Corinthians 13:12) Communion with Christ is not possible outside of reconciliation with our sister or brother. Our ritual expression in the “Kiss of Peace” can only come when our relationships are mended.
When Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection, they were assembled in fear, behind closed doors. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 20 we read: “Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” He continues saying: “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them....” (Jn 20:19-23) It is through this very authority that our priest in liturgy passes to us the Peace of Jesus, and we are reminded of this commission when we repeat the words, “Christ is in our Midst.”
Throughout the letters of the Apostle Paul to the early church, peace is used as a greeting, but perhaps also as a call to peace in action. In his letters to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, he repeats: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” To Timothy and to Titus he writes: “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4) We see this language echoed in the opening dialogue of the Anaphora where the priest asks us to “stand aright… that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.” We then respond “Mercy, Peace, a sacrifice of Praise.” Then he says, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.”
In his admonition to the Thessalonians, we see peace referenced in a different way. Writes Paul, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-27)
Stop. Take that in.
We are not just working independently towards the goal of peace. We are working with the God of peace, and it is by his power that we are sanctified and that our spirit is made whole. Our journey towards peace is anchored in the forgiveness we have received. It is so that in Great Litany, we pray for “peace from above” before praying for the “peace of the whole world.”
And lastly, when in our liturgy we hear, “Let us depart/go forth in peace,” we are reminded of Paul’s prayer to the Philppians, where he concludes, “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Ph 4:7)
As we journey through Lent towards Pascha these next weeks, I myself am reminded that peace is active, messy and communal. I must leave my gifts at the altar and go reconcile myself with my sister, my brother, before exchanging the “Kiss of Peace”. I must step out of my solitary routine and separate myself from the “gifts” I am bringing in order to seek the peace only God can give.
As we walk these weeks together I would offer the charge: In radical, relational, hard-fought peace let us pray. And the God of peace who is Himself faithful, will sanctify us.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.