Peace That Passes Understanding

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 12:49-56.

Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

I would hardly be surprised if most of us in this congregation this morning responded to this line from the Gospel by saying “Wh-u-u-t?” We are so accustomed to speaking about Jesus and Peace in the same breath – we habitually greet each other with Jesus’ own words, “Peace be with you” – that hearing Jesus say “No, I came to bring division!” comes as quite a shock. What could Jesus possibly mean by repudiating peace?

Well, it all depends on what we mean by “peace.” Alfred North Whitehead, the originator of process philosophy and theology, says that there are two very different sorts of experiences, for which we tend to use the same word “peace.” Both of those things we call “peace” have to do with how we bring discordant elements into harmony — but they make that harmony in very different ways.

In the first way, we take all the discordant feelings, all the qualities of things or actions or people that don’t seem to fit, and we just suppress them, we act like they aren’t there, we see only the things that fit into our picture of the way things ought to be. It looks like peace, but it’s a kind of false peace, a superficial appearance of peace, blandness masquerading as peace — it’s what Whitehead calls “Anaesthesia.” It’s like the false prophets in Jeremiah, who say “Peace, peace!” when there is no peace, who say “I have dreamed!” and try to put God’s real word to sleep, and who thereby give the lie to God’s call to justice. The false peace of Anaesthesia handles conflict, sure; but it “handles” it by pretending it isn’t there, so that it festers under the surface and poisons the very relationships it pretends to save.

But the other experience which we call “peace” is very different from the first. Whitehead says this other experience is the genuine Peace, and he describes it as  a “harmony of harmonies.” This kind of Peace handles conflicts, not by dismissing conflicted feelings, but by facing the conflict head-on and finding a new set of values that can integrate both poles of the difference.

In any conflict, in any difference, both of the sides — or perhaps we should say all of the sides, since there’s usually more than just two — all of the sides have some value, some integrity, some worth that is genuinely and uniquely theirs. Our temptation is always to choose one side and reject all the others; it seems so much simpler that way; but that kind of choice always ends up leaving out the other potential values, the other possibilities for good, and that makes our choice much poorer.

Whitehead says that a more dynamic way of handling such a conflict is to create a harmony of harmonies, to find a system of values and feelings that can hold together as much of the good from all the sides as can possibly be held together. In the Anglican tradition we call that “comprehension”; Richard Hooker wrote about it in the 1500s, especially holding together, comprehending, what is truly catholic and what is truly reformed; and by doing that he gave a character to the Episcopal way of being Christian that has lasted for centuries. That harmony of harmonies is what Whitehead calls “Peace” — and I think that is the same idea behind the biblical shalom, the Peace that is wholeness and completeness and that surpasses all understanding. This is not the false peace of Anaesthesia, but the genuine Peace of mutual well-being.

And here’s the thing: you can’t have the second Peace unless you are willing to let go of the first. You can’t have genuine Peace unless you are willing to give up Anaesthesia. You can’t co-create with God a harmony of harmonies unless you are first willing to face the differences – because after all it is difference that provide the raw material out of which harmonious relationships can be made. Harmony, as any musician will tell you, doesn’t come from sameness, but from differences being joined together in a creative way. Genuine Peace comes only from recognizing division and working to integrate it in hope and love.

And I think that is why Jesus in the Gospel says he has not come to bring peace, but division. It’s not because there is anything particularly good about division in itself, it’s not because there is anything especially virtuous about conflict for conflict’s sake – believe me, we see enough fruitless conflict these days to know that.

But Jesus says that you can’t have real Peace, genuine Peace, until you face the divisions, until you experience the differences, and then out of that experience co-create with God the harmony that will bring real mutual well-being. Jesus tells us in this Gospel that he will not give us Anaesthesia, he knows God calls us to more than that; but if we are willing to follow him, if we are willing to be kindled with his fire and be baptized with his baptism, then he will show us the way to pursue real Peace with everyone, comprehending the divisions, integrating the differences, building a real mutual well-being for ourselves and each other and our community and our our world.

And maybe that’s why Jesus said he did not come to bring peace: Because Peace, the real Peace, the harmony-of-harmonies Peace, is not something that can be brought to us, it’s not something that can just be handed to us passively, but it is something that must be created, something that must be built up from within, something for which we must do the hard work together. And it is hard work; everything in the Gospel says it is hard work; if you’ve ever tried to see the good in the point of view of someone with whom you really, really disagree, then you know it’s hard work.

But the good news is that Jesus is with us, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our peace-making faith, and in his reconciling love we see the example and we receive the inspiration for our work of reconciling love as well.

And so this morning I want you to think about what that work of love might look like for you. Is there someplace in your experience where you are aware of the differences, aware of the divisions? It might be within your own psyche, or among your friends, or in our community, or in our nation. Is there someplace where you can see the value in the differences, and can conceive a larger system of feelings that can hold those goods together? Where can you practice comprehension? Where can you leave behind Anaesthesia and help to co-create the genuine Peace?

Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Maybe not. But let us pray that Jesus will always empower us to make Peace in his Name. Amen.


  1. Rebecca Greeley says:

    Thank you. Living in bush Alaska now, it is so good to hear the voice of my priest and hear the word of God weekly. I will be a vessel of peace this week.