READ : Colossians 1:19-23
In the light of current events, decent people everywhere, people of every sort of faith and of no faith at all can agree at least on this: we need to find the way to peace.
The events of the past year have made us all much more aware of the devastating effects of hatred and violence and more attuned to the desire for peace. All over the world now men and women of goodwill – Christians, Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, secularists and agnostics – are united in their longing for a better way. Decent people of every faith and of no faith at all can agree at least on this: we need to find the way to peace.
PEACE . . . AND PEACE
But who knows where that is? Who can tell us how to get along with one another, who can teach us to love instead of hate? There is peace . . . and then there is peace. Some kinds of peace are not worth having, or pursuing. For example, there is the peace of the grave, the peace of death. How often have you heard this remark at a funeral, “Well, at least he’s at peace now.” But that’s just an illusion. It isn’t peace, but merely the absence of life. A corpse doesn’t have peace; a corpse doesn’t have anything. It’s just dead.
Or consider the “peace” of slavery and oppression. There was peace, of a sort, in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. But what kind of peace was it? The peace of terror and brutality, peace enforced by “religious police” with guns and clubs, and by public executions in the football stadium. I don’t think any of us would want peace on those terms.
Then there is the false peace of complacency, of simply not caring. Or the artificial peace provided by drugs or alcohol. More than 2,500 years ago the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah spoke of those who offer a deceitful kind of peace. “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious,” he said. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11).
So it’s not enough just to say the words. It’s not enough to make a wish or sing a song for world peace. It’s not enough to settle for a substitute or counterfeit kind of peace. Real peace is more than just the absence of open conflict. It’s more than being left alone. It includes wholeness and health, well being, integrity. In shalom, God’s peace, everything becomes integrated: self with self, person with person, race with race, nation with nation, civilization with environment, humanity with God. The key to peace is reconciliation. To experience true peace, whether within ourselves, or with our neighbors, or among the nations, we must first find a way to overcome the hostilities that set us against one another. We must heal the estrangement, bridge the gap, reconcile the differences.
THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF THINGS
In the Christian view of things, the human race has a serious problem. The reason we don’t have peace is because we are at war – with ourselves, with each other, and most of all with God. During the 1990s a notorious incident occurred in Los Angeles. A black man named Rodney King was stopped by the police, and his illegal beating was caught on film. It caused an uproar, and rightly so. But what many people still remember from this event was Rodney King’s plaintive question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Why, indeed? What is the matter with us? What makes us behave so hatefully, so viciously, so stupidly toward one another? The biblical answer is that there is a basic flaw within our very natures that makes it impossible for us to achieve real, lasting peace by ourselves. Good intentions won’t cut it; nice-sounding words aren’t enough. Something more is needed.
Many people think that “something more” that is needed is education. I heard someone remark recently, with regard to the problem of religious fanaticism and terrorism in the world, “What those people need is education. We’ll never solve these problems as long as so many remain trapped in ignorance.” Now, I want to say that he had a point. Education is important to human progress and the growth of tolerance. But anyone who thinks that universal education will usher in world peace is in for a serious disappointment.
I have a son who works in a medical research lab. Last year his colleagues prepared to publish their results in a major scientific journal. They submitted a paper and waited, but the publication was delayed. It seems that one of the scientists asked to review the study – a professor at one of America’s premier universities – was withholding approval, not because there was anything wrong with the research, but because it would have diminished the importance of that professor’s own work.
Do you see it? There’s the problem. All the education in the world can’t change the human heart. You can be a Ph.D. and that won’t help you with things like vanity or jealousy or resentment. Education may make us smarter, but it doesn’t make us any better. To know peace, to make peace, we first need something – or rather, Someone – to make us good.
The message of the Christian gospel is that God has done this very thing. He has performed the work that makes it possible for peace to come, because it makes it possible for us to be restored to a right relationship with him and to be changed from the inside out.
GOD MAKING PEACE
Here’s how the apostle Paul explained it in his letter to the Colossians:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
(Col. 1:19-20, niv)
Listen again: “For God was pleased . . . through [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (vv. 19-20). The good news right at the center of the Christian message is news about a reconciliation based upon the death of Jesus Christ. Trying to understand why Christ’s death is necessary in order for us to be reconciled with God and to experience peace brings us to the very heart of the Christian faith. Peace only needs to be made between parties who have quarreled with one another.
So when the Bible talks about the need for us to be reconciled with God, it implies that there’s been a separation or an estrangement between us and God. According to the Bible, the original quarrel is between God and ourselves – before it ever becomes a quarrel between our neighbors and ourselves. According to the Bible the original quarrel is between us and God before it ever becomes a quarrel between us and our neighbors. All the brokenness in our world and in our lives originates first from our ruptured relationship with God.
Scripture says that all of us are born with a natural hostility toward God. We are naturally at odds with him. “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior” (v. 21), says the apostle Paul.
But even that is not the whole problem. There are two parties to every quarrel, and if we need to be reconciled to God, God also needs to be reconciled to us. Our sinful behavior has aroused God’s animosity. The problem is not simply that we have rebelled and turned away from God. The problem is that God’s holiness cannot tolerate our selfish behavior. We have become offensive to God. It’s not enough just to say we’re sorry, even if we would be willing to do that. God’s justice must be vindicated. But in spite of all this, God still loves us and wants to save us. God, in theologian Richard Mouw’s phrase, has “emotional complexity.” He experiences both perfect love and holy wrath, for the same people (us) at the very same time. So the problem with reconciliation is not just getting us to accept God, but enabling God to accept us without violating his integrity. What really has to happen for God to make peace with us and for us is that God’s mercy and justice must, so to speak, be reconciled to each other.
THROUGH THE BLOOD OF HIS CROSS
The only way that can happen is through the cross, where Christ died as our substitute in payment for our sin. Here is the supreme good news of the gospel: God has reconciled all things to himself by making peace through the blood of the cross of Jesus Christ. God is the subject of that sentence. He is the initiator; reconciliation is his work from beginning to end. Peace is not made because we buy God’s favor with our sacrifices, or even because Jesus buys it with his sacrifice. The cross didn’t enable God to love us; he has always loved us. The cross enabled God to forgive us without compromising his own holy nature. Christ’s death didn’t cause God’s love; it resulted from God’s love. God is our reconciler, working through the agency of Christ his Son, God’s great Peace Maker.
UNDERSTAND, ACCEPT AND LIVE
This is the gospel; this is the message that Christians have always believed and taught. It is also the stumbling block that causes people to reject Christianity. But Christians believe that God has reconciled us by Christ’s own body offered on the cross. It is the cross by which we’re transformed from God’s enemies into God’s children.
One crucial implication of this truth is that outside of Christ there can be no peace with God. No one can possibly be brought into harmony except through the work of Christ.
Paul says in this same passage I read earlier from Colossians, “God saves you provided that you continue . . . steadfast in the faith without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel” (v. 23, nrsv). You may have full electrical power in your house, but a light still won’t work until you have plugged it into the circuit. In the same way, even though Christ has fully provided all that we need for salvation, you and I cannot be saved until our lives have been connected to him through faith.
Many still don’t understand how critically important it is to accept the message of the gospel personally. Many, even among those who would call themselves Christians, have never experienced the personal transformation that happens when we trust in Christ’s death for our salvation. When it comes to finding and making peace with God, each of us must turn away from self-reliance to Christ-reliance. And then we have to live out that reconciliation in the world, showing by our lives that we really have been changed – from the inside out.