LIFE OVERFLOWING: THE WAY OF PEACE
John 14:1-6; 27-31
Yesterday, we tried to look at life overflowing for God's work of mission in the world. We tried to understand God as a missionary God, and what it means to renew our commitment to his work of mission in the world.
Today we'll try to understand God as a good shepherd who cares for his flock, a God who brings peace that the world cannot give. We'll try to see how life overflows for the work of peace.
For our Bible reflections this morning, we'll use two texts, one from the Old Testament, and another one from the New Testament.
Our Old Testament text is taken from the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest in Jerusalem when the Babylonians invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah for the first time in 597 BCE. Many Judeans, including King Jehoiachin and Ezekiel himself, were among those who were exiled to Babylon.
Four years later, God called Ezekiel to be his prophet (Cf. Ezek. 1-3). His mission became his life. He subordinated everything to his mission. He even used the death of his wife as a symbolic act; he did not mourn her death, because according to him nobody would mourn when Jerusalem would be destroyed thereafter (Cf. Ezek. 24).
When Ezekiel started his ministry as a prophet in 593 BCE, King Zedekiah was still reigning in Judah. The mood of the other deportees staying with Ezekiel was hopeful. Their hope grew brighter and brighter as disturbances flared up in Babylon in 594 BCE. This led to plans for rebellion in Judah. Ambassadors from Edom, Moab, Tyre and Sidon arrived in Jerusalem to plan for a combined action against the Babylonians. King Zedekiah stopped paying tributes to Babylon by the instigation of anti-Babylonian nationalists.
Meanwhile, prophets were stirring up the people, preaching that Yahweh would soon overthrow Babylon to bring back home King Jehoiachin and all other deportees with all the treasures taken from the City of Jerusalem (Cf. Jer. 27ff.). But then in 586 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Judah for the second time and destroyed the City of Jerusalem including the Temple. Consequently, more people were exiled to Babylon.
Upon hearing about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and upon receiving a big number of new deportees, the first group of deportees lost their hope to return home. "We will never return home again," they thought; "Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed forever!" The people were desperate and homesick. And in their despair they composed Psalms 137: "By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion" (v.1).
It was in this time of despair that Prophet Ezekiel preached a new message of hope. The end of the Temple does not mean the end of God. God will surely intervene and bring hope in the midst of hopelessness and despair.
GOD AS GOOD SHEPHERD
And this is where our text this morning comes in. It says in Ezekiel 34:11-16:
"The Lord God then said: 'I will look for my sheep and take care of them myself, just as a shepherd looks for lost sheep. My sheep have been lost since that dark and miserable day when they were scattered throughout the nations. But I will rescue them and bring them back from the foreign nations where they now live. I will be their shepherd and will let them graze on Israel's mountains and in the valleys and fertile fields. They will be safe as they feed on grassy meadows and green hills. I promise to take care of them and keep them safe, to look for those that are lost and bring back the ones that wander off, to bandage those that are hurt and protect the ones that are weak. I will also slaughter those that are fat and strong, because I always do right."
God is pictured here as a good shepherd who really cares for the flock. This is in sharp contrast to the leaders of Israel who were supposed to be shepherds of the flock themselves, but they did not take care of the flock. As a matter of fact, they were the reasons why the sheep were scattered throughout the nations, and some of them were deported to foreign lands. That's why in verse one following, we read,
"The Lord God said: Ezekiel, son of man, Israel's leaders are like shepherds taking care of my sheep, the people of Israel. But I want you to condemn these leaders and tell them: I, the Lord God, say you shepherds of Israel are doomed! You take care of yourselves while ignoring my sheep. You drink their milk and use their wool to make your clothes. Then you butcher the best ones for food. But you don't take care of the flock! You have never protected the weak ones or healed the sick ones or bandaged those that get hurt. You let them wander off and never look for those that get lost. You are cruel and mean to my sheep. They strayed in every direction, and because there was no shepherd to watch them, they were attacked and eaten by wild animals. So my sheep were scattered across the earth. They roamed on hills and mountains, without anyone even bothering to look for them" (Ezekiel 34:1-6).
From the time of Prophet Ezekiel to the time of Jesus, the Israelites as a people had not really experienced genuine and lasting peace. They had been under superpowers one after another. After the Babylonians, came the Persians, followed by the Greeks, then the Romans during Jesus' time.
GENUINE AND LASTING PEACE
The issue of genuine and lasting peace is an issue not only in Biblical times, but even in our own time. Peace is a universal concern. People all over the world have been crying for peace. We have been searching all these years for genuine and lasting peace.
In my country, church people have been seeking for peace through prayers. Not a few prayer rallies have been conducted, calling people to really pray for peace. Those in the military also believe that peace may come to us by observing the national security doctrine against those perceived to be threats to peace. They seem to believe that when all insurgents are gone, there will be peace in the land. Consequently, many have already sacrificed their lives in the name of peace.
Now, people during Jesus' time were also dreaming and desperately searching for genuine and lasting peace. The song sung by the angels when Jesus was born carried with it the longings and aspirations of a people who for a long time were also searching for peace: "Glory to God in the highest", they sang, "Peace on earth and goodwill to all people" (Luke 2:14).
As early as the year 64 BCE (Before the Common Era) up to the fall of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century CE (Common Era), Palestine was a colony of the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus established what was known as Pax Romana (Roman Peace).
Pax Romana was a kind of peace based on military might. It was founded on the strength of the Roman army to crush any uprising or rebellion. It was a kind of peace maintained by the fear and the terror of the cross. For anyone caught de-stabilizing or disturbing Roman Peace must be crucified. Jesus Christ our Lord, as a matter of fact, was accused of being a "disturber" of Roman Peace.
This is the kind of peace that the world gives. It is a kind of peace with the pangs of death. Anticipating the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city. For he knew how the people of Jerusalem, especially the religious and political leaders at that time collaborated and helped in one way or the other in establishing and maintaining Roman Peace. When Jesus looked over the City of Jerusalem, he wept and said,
"If only today you know the way of peace! But your eyes are held from seeing. Yet days will come upon you when your enemies will surround you with barricades, and shut you in and press on you from every side. And they will dash you to the ground and your children with you, and leave not a stone within you, for you did not recognize the time and the visitation of your God." (Luke 19:41-44)
The City of Jerusalem suffered the judgment of history because the people did not know or they refuse to know and to follow the way of peace.
Our New Testament text found in the Gospel of John 14:1-6, 27, we read these words:
"Do not be worried and upset," Jesus told them. "Believe in God and believe also in me. There are many rooms in my Father's house, and I am going to prepare a place for you. I would not tell you this if it were not so. And after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am. You know the way that leads to the place where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?" Jesus answered him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me... "Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid." (John 14:1-6, 27).
And so, what kind of peace Jesus was talking about? What is the way of peace which people in Jerusalem failed to see, and perhaps even people of today also refuse to see?
Our Lord Jesus Christ, in his life and death, showed to us concretely the way of peace. He said, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me" (v.6).
WAY OF TRUTH
The way of peace, therefore, is first of all the way of truth. Jesus said, "I am the truth". Where there is truth, there is genuine and lasting peace.
When Pilate asked Jesus if he were indeed the King of the Jews, he did not directly answer the question. Rather, he said, "I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth" (Jn. 18:37). Then, Pilate asked Jesus jokingly, "What is truth?" He was in effect saying, "What truth are you talking about?"
Leaders accustomed to lies and deceit would no longer take truth seriously. For them, truth is just a joke! Yes, they may allow investigations to take place and even create commissions to do the job in order to satisfy people's demands for truth and calm their apprehensions. But these are just lip service. In my country, you could even find situations wherein people accused of crimes are the ones investigating the crime! Hence, they would only end up spinning more lies and deceit, whitewashing the crime, and covering up the truth.
For Jesus, truth is not the cold statistical facts and figures being paraded before people's unbelieving eyes, but rather it is a human person. It is not the abstract knowledge that the economy is growing; rather, it is the startling realization that people have no jobs and their families are hungry, simply because the country's resources are channeled to satisfy the insatiable greed of a few. Statistical data are simply lies, if they do not reflect what is really happening to people's lives.
According to John's Gospel, the purpose of Jesus' life is to speak about the truth. And it is not simply to speak, but to live out the truth, to manifest the truth in and through his life. Jesus became the embodiment of truth.
God is a God of truth. To live for truth is to live a godly life. To speak for the truth is to speak for God. To struggle for truth is to struggle for God's reign.
Truth is eschatological. The forces of evil might be able to crucify and kill the embodiment of truth, but truth triumphs in the end. It is the life of truth that God approves and resurrects in the fullness of time.
An encounter with truth is oftentimes an encounter with suffering. In our world today, there are in fact torture chambers established to process truth into false confessions. There are investigations and trials being conducted to turn truth into lies. And worst of all, there are killings being carried out to silence truth. The wicked forces of this present age could not withstand truth.
Truth is so naked that it must be covered with falsehood. Truth is so eloquent that it must be put to silence. This organized crime against truth defiles our true humanity; it mocks the tears of people, and it defiles the power of God's love. Truth is so clear and bright. But those who are blinded by the authority and power in their hands could not see it.
We should bear in mind, however, that we cannot really quarrel against truth. The bearers of truth may be arrested and imprisoned or even killed, but the truth would always come out. That's why Jesus said to his disciples, "If you obey my teachings, you are really my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).
An old story was told about a sailor who was stranded in an island called the Island of Lies. During his first day on that island, he was brought before a judge, because a woman, who got so interested in his wealth, claimed that she was his wife and that this woman filed a complaint against the sailor for not supporting his family. The sailor discovered later that the island was called the Island of Lies simply because the people there live by telling lies. The sailor stayed in the island for several years until he was chosen to be the leader. The first thing he did as a leader was to pass a law punishing anyone caught telling a lie. For the sailor believe that no society founded on falsehood could ever survive.
The Former President of our country is now under hospital arrest simply because allegedly her whole presidency is a big lie. She is formally charged of election fraud.
The way to genuine and lasting peace is the way of truth. To be instruments of peace, therefore, is to become courageous bearers of truth, especially in a society where the habits of misinformation and deception often pervades the flow of social relations.
WAY OF LIFE
Moreover, the way of peace is the way of life. Jesus said, "I am the life". Where there is life, there is genuine and lasting peace.
Life is a gift of God. It is that which God breathed in us which transformed us into a living soul. Without life, we are mere dust from the ground. Life, therefore, is that which empowers and sustains us to do the will and the purpose of God for humanity. To destroy life or even deny life to others is to go against God's will and purpose for life.
Life in my country today is in crisis. Prices of food and other basic commodities are skyrocketing, making life even more difficult economically, especially for those who have less in life. Our political life is no better. Our government bureaucracy has been marred by endemic graft and corruption, rendering our Christianity a big contradiction in word and in truth. People enter politics, not necessarily to serve but to help themselves with our country's rich material resources. Politicians have no qualms to cheat or even kill in order to win in elections. Life, indeed, lost its sanctity.
Life in Palestine during Jesus' time was also in crisis. And so, people were talking about eternal life. A rich man who came to Jesus one time asked him: "What must I do to receive eternal life? (cf. Mk. 10:17-31).
Eternal life in the Biblical context is more of the quality of life rather than the longevity of life as traditionally understood. In the Old Testament, eternal life is a life characterized by the Shalom of God – peace, justice, righteousness, joy, good health, and well-being. In the New Testament, eternal life is a life in Christ. It is a life patterned after the life of Christ. It is characterized by genuine love and compassion for people, especially the poor and oppressed. Eternal life is not something that we possess as a reward after death, but rather it is something that we have to live out for others before death. This is the kind of life that goes even beyond death. This is the kind of life that is eternal.
In response to the rich man's query, Jesus referred to the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex. 20, Dt. 5). But it is interesting to note that Jesus added the phrase, "Do not cheat," which might be a challenge to the landed elite at that time who tend to withhold wages and take advantage of mortgages that the poor could not repay.
Then, Jesus goes on to say that traditional fidelity to the Ten Commandments is meaningless without a fundamental commitment to the poor and without action for socio-economic justice. In fact, the purpose of the commandments is to create and maintain a socio-economic order in which all would have enough and none would have too much. That's why Jesus said to the rich man, "Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me" (cf. Mk.10:21).
In the subsequent exchange between Jesus and his disciples, he stated that it is impossible for the rich to enter God's Kingdom. Wealth must not be used to accumulate more wealth, as the dominant market-oriented system dictates. Wealth must be distributed so that the poor might have enough. Pious religious discipline in keeping with a superficial reading of the Ten Commandments is not at all adequate. Religion without justice is false religion as the prophets of the Old Testament made it very clear. Solidarity with the poor is not a minor addendum to our faith. Rather, it is the very essence of our faith.
Jesus Christ our Lord had shown us through his life that the meaning and purpose of life is to share it – to share it especially to those who have less in life. Jesus said, "Whoever tries to gain his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it."(Mt.l0:39).
Peace remains elusive in our world today because we have forgotten somehow the value and sanctity of life, the meaning and purpose of life. For as long as people are denied of the fullness of life, there will be no genuine and lasting peace in our land.
To be instruments of peace, therefore, is to uphold life, to develop and to share life's fullness, especially to those who have less in life.
WAY OF JUSTICE
Then, finally, the way of peace is the way of justice. Jesus said, "There are many rooms in my Father's house, and I am going to prepare a place for you" (v.2). Where there is justice – where there are many rooms for everyone – there is genuine and lasting peace. There is peace in the Father's house, because there are many rooms for everyone.
If only our world today has room for everyone, perhaps there would be genuine and lasting peace. There is not enough room for everyone in our world today, because a few have too much while many have too little or even have nothing at all. A few have many mansions, while many have no roof over their heads. A few have billions in bank deposits, while many have nothing to eat.
This reminds me of the story of a Chinese couple by the name of Zhang Hong and his wife Liu Xiaoying from the Zhejiang Province of China. They are already in their 60's and are living in a rundown former Temple, because they could not afford a house of their own. But despite their poverty, the couple is raising nine children, only two of whom are theirs by birth. The rest were given to them by unknown parents or found abandoned near their home.
One really wonders: how could Zhang and Liu still finds charity in their hearts, when even finding food for them is a perennial problem? How could they raise nine children, the youngest of whom is barely one year old? But then, that's the riddle of human nature. Suffice it to say that the couple seems to find happiness in caring for these unwanted children.
The couple earns a living by scavenging. They walk the streets daily with a pushcart, sorting through the garbage and waste materials for discarded items that could be sold for recycling. In spite of all their hardships, the old couple never complained nor regretted their actions. When people ask them why they are doing this, they have only one answer. They would say, "How could we possibly have left the poor babies to die in the cold?"
But the story does not end in sadness. Life had become easier for the family due to a newspaper story which publicized the old couple's unselfish sacrifices. Many people from far and wide began to help them. Thus, the loving care and devotion of one elderly couple had not only enabled a number of unfortunate children to live happy, normal lives, and to have rooms in this world, but also pricked the human conscience of a seemingly inhuman society.
Indeed, to be instruments of peace is to do justice – to do justice to the end that there will be many rooms for everyone, like in the Father's house.
The challenge of realizing our dreams of a world that is genuinely peaceful is far greater today than ever before, especially to us Christians who claim and proclaim that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace. Let us always remember, however, that peace is not given on a silver platter. It has always its price in the struggle. Sometimes the cost of following the ways of peace is too much. But Jesus Christ our Lord said, "Do not be worried and upset, do not be afraid" (John 14:27).
Therefore, we press on toward the prize of peace in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who offered his very life for peace, and who is calling us to build communities of peace; for we do believe that Jesus, indeed, is the way, the truth, and the life of a genuine and lasting peace.