Got Peace?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Trinity Sunday
June 4, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: True peace is not the product of our own efforts but is a gift from God.

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Those are fine and uplifting words, from the pen of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. They have come to be known as the "Serenity Prayer." They've become precious to many people.

Many of those who cherish them are involved in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Central to the whole AA movement is the concept of serenity - inner peace. Calm the storm within, the philosophy goes, and you'll be able to handle the storm without.

Good advice - but, like most good advice, it's easier said than done.

A man desperate for peace

That's what a young man named Martin Luther discovered, anyway, over five centuries ago.

One July day, young Martin was traveling through a wooded area. He tended to worry a good deal anyway, but when he saw the dark thunder clouds rolling in, he doubled his speed.

Too late. The storm caught him while he was still deep in the woods.

As the thunderclaps grew closer, Martin began to fear for his life. "St. Anne, preserve me!" he prayed. Just then, the hairs on his arm stood on end, and a single bolt of lightning blasted a tree just yards away.

Martin fell to his knees, and the prayer he uttered was not so much spoken, but screamed: "St. Anne, preserve me, and I will become a monk."

That's the folklore, anyway, of how the founder of the Protestant Reformation chose for himself a religious vocation. Historians may quibble about whether this incident actually happened, but it seems true-to-life from a psychological viewpoint.

Even after joining the Augustinian order, Martin went on worrying. One thing he worried about most was his salvation - whether, in the last judgment, when the Lord separates humanity into two groups, would Martin belong to the sheep or the goats?

When the time came for the young priest to celebrate his first mass, he was terrified. Who was he, a sinner, to dare address God? It was all he could do to quell the fear long enough to finish the liturgy.

Martin's fear drove him to the scriptures. He studied Hebrew and Greek, becoming one of the leading scholars in his order - and, indeed, in all the church. The passion that drove his studies was no mere love of learning, but a desperate desire to know he was accepted by God.

Martin was looking for peace.

Those dark days Martin would later describe as the anfechtungen - a German word for spiritual trial, terror, despair and religious crisis. He prayed, he fasted, he mortified his flesh (as was the spiritual fashion of that day): but to no avail. God was punishing him for his sin, he was certain.

Finally, in the first chapter of the letter to the Romans, Luther discovered his answer. Verse 17 of Chapter 1 - a verse he had seen many times before - reads, "The one who is righteous will live by faith." It spoke to his heart that day as never before.

Later, in his famous hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," Luther would write:

Did we in our own strength confide,

our striving would be losing.

Were not the right man on our side,

the man of God's own choosing ...

That man - that God-chosen man - is Jesus Christ, God's own son. All that's needed is to have faith in him, and salvation comes to the believer as a free gift from God.

Finally, after all those years, Martin Luther found serenity: accepting the things he could not change, courageously changing the things he could and wisely seeking to discern the difference between the two.

Living in peace

In today's reading from Second Corinthians, Paul ends his letter with words of encouragement and benediction: "Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you."

His language sounds odd, at first. How do we live at peace, unless God's peace is already with us?"

What the apostle likely means is that peaceful living and God's peace are two sides of the same coin. It's a chicken-or-the-egg situation. We receive God's peace simultaneously with deciding to live at peace with one another.

Elsewhere, in Romans, Paul promises: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ ...."1 God is no longer the dread adversary, sternly judging us. No, God is the author of grace and forgiveness, the giver of peace.

That means, if we're looking for peace of mind, the place to start looking is in the saving work of Jesus Christ alone, not in any human striving.

Peace is God's gift

This puts a whole new perspective on Niebuhr's "Serenity Prayer." Salvation is one of those things we can't achieve ourselves. It's the work of Christ alone.

Most people who recite the Serenity Prayer only quote the first line: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." But there's more to it than that. Here are the remaining, seldom-quoted lines of Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer:

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as [Jesus] did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will. That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next.

Do you see how those additional lines change the meaning of the whole prayer? If you end it with the first sentence, serenity can become a kind of goal for which we strive. Even though the prayer says, "God grant me the serenity," it's easy to skip over that. The result is to misunderstand serenity as a washed-out positive-thinking wish. Just think peaceful thoughts, in other words, and everything will be all right.

This is far indeed from Paul's meaning. The peace we crave is not won through some persistent psychological self-discipline. It's peace with God that Paul's speaking about here, not peace within ourselves! Yes, there's such a thing as sin in this world, and sin is fundamentally offensive to God. The only way we can be freed from sin's curse is to have an advocate plead our case before God. Fortunately, that advocate is none other than God's own son, so successful pleading is assured.

"Grace," writes Philip Yancey, "does not depend on what we have done for God but rather on what God has done for us. Ask people what they must do to get to heaven and most reply, 'Be good.' Jesus' stories contradict that answer. All we must do is cry 'Help.' God welcomes home anyone who will have him and, in fact, has made the first move already."2

The fact is, God has more faith in us than we do in ourselves. How easily we can become fixated on our weaknesses, our shortcomings, believing we can't measure up to God's standards!

But then, like Luther, we just may learn to have faith in God's faith in us. Just as children gain self-confidence through the faith that significant adults in their lives show in them, so we can learn to defeat the pervasive tendency to worry that we may not measure up, spiritually speaking.

Whenever self-esteem flags and we see yawning before us the chasm of insecurity, we will do well to remember that we are created in the image of God and redeemed by the saving death of God's own son. God's belief in us enables us to believe in ourselves.

Created to shine

There's a story of a Buddhist temple in Thailand, the Temple of the Golden Buddha. The temple itself is very small, but within it sits a ten-and-a-half-foot tall, gold Buddha. The statue weighs over two-and-a-half tons and is valued at over $200 million.

Back in 1957, to free up some land for highway construction, a group of monks had to relocate a large, clay Buddha from their monastery to a new location. The monks brought in a giant crane, to lift the giant idol from the pedestal where it had sat for centuries.

When they did so, the weight of the Buddha was so tremendous that it began to crack. To make the situation worse, rain began to fall. The abbot, concerned about damage to the sacred Buddha, decided to lower the statue back to the ground and cover it with a large canvas tarp to protect it.

Later that evening the abbot went to check on the Buddha. He shone a flashlight under the tarp to see if the statue was staying dry. In the flashlight beam, he noticed something gleaming back at him. He thought this strange.

Taking a closer look, the abbot wondered if there might be something underneath the clay. He went to fetch a chisel and hammer and began to chip away at it. With every shard he knocked off, the gleam grew brighter. Many hours of labor later, the monk stood face to face with the extraordinary solid-gold Buddha.

Historians surmise that, centuries before, as the Burmese army was about to invade Thailand, the ancestors of those monks covered their precious golden statue with clay, to hide its monetary value. The Burmese army slaughtered all the monks, and their secret went to the grave with them. Only in 1957 was the golden Buddha rediscovered.3

There's a sense in which each one of us is like that statue. We picture ourselves as very much like its rough clay exterior: ugly and unexceptional. Somewhere along the line - perhaps in our younger years - we absorbed messages that we were inadequate, that we were lacking in essential goodness and beauty, that we were not truly created in God's image.

Jesus Christ came that we might discover otherwise: that we might have true spiritual peace. His desire is that we may "have life, and have it abundantly."4 His wish is that we may find the peace that grows out of a relationship with him.


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