At the Versailles Conference in 1919 the Allied powers decided peace meant defeating Germany and then keeping it in a straitjacket for as long as possible. Peace meant punishment and constant policing. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 peace meant killing two hundred thousand people at a stroke. Peace meant destroying and intimidating to a sufficient degree to end war, and then making sure your enemy didn’t get hold of the wherewithal to do the same to you. At the Woodstock Festival in 1969 peace meant smoking pot, growing you hair down to the ground, and driving a rainbow colored VW Beetle, and doing all three while making love to anyone you could get your hands on.
These are the kinds of images that come into our minds when we hear the word peace. Such a diverse range of uses makes the word peace seem either vague and idealistic or cynical and manipulative. The New Testament is neither vague nor idealistic nor cynical nor manipulative. It has two words for peace. One of those words is Jesus. Ephesians 2 gives us perhaps the most concise description of the way Jesus is peace. All of them center on the word one.
First, Jesus makes one new humanity. It says he “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two [i.e., Jews and gentiles], thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Eph. 2:14b-16). I want to take a moment to explain why Christianity steers a unique path in political thought. One of the most significant questions in modern philosophy is, Are humans all fundamentally the same, or are we different from one another in ways that aggregate us into separate and competing groups? There are two conventional answers to this question.
One says we are all fundamentally the same. This is the bumper sticker that proclaims, “One race-the human race.” The assumption seems to be that if we all realize we’re the same we’ll all suddenly be at peace with one another. The more we ignore or eradicate our differences, the happier life will be. We could call this the sophisticated version of the Woodstock approach. The trouble is, once we suppress our differences, we become unrecognizable to ourselves, let alone to one another. Peace becomes a form of denial.
The other conventional answer to whether we’re fundamentally the same or different says, no, we really are all different, and asserting our identity is central to our being, even though those differences—of age mobility, intellect, genes, wealth, race, gender, access to recourses, and so on—make conflict with one another a perpetual and probable danger. So we need nation-states, regulated government, and careful policing to prevent us from killing one another. This is how we got to Versailles. The trouble is, it’s also how we got to Nagasaki. Peace becomes an olive branch covering the nakedness of raw power.
But Christianity says to both of these answers, “Why do you assume that difference leads to violence? Why do you assume that violence is more basic than peace? Yes, we are all different from one another, but in God’s sight difference is made for peace. Difference creates beauty, creativity, flavor, color, texture, harmony. Violent conflict lurks among the shadows of difference and sometimes breaks into the foreground, but antagonism isn’t written into the DNA of difference. God made us to be different from one another because he had a myriad of different things he wanted each one of us to do. We aren’t made in a factory to be identical widgets; we are made by an act of love to rejoice in the detail of our difference from one another. The fundamental difference is the difference between us created beings and God the Creator, and it’s in the tension and creativity of the difference that life resides. Harmonious difference is what the universe is all about.”
Think about someone you’re struggling with right now. You’re probably bewildered or infuriated by their difference from you. But there’s no use ignoring the difference, and you can’t control their effect on you forever. The only answer is to find a way to make that difference creative and constructive. That may feel like a daunting prospect. But it’s the only prospect you can genuinely call peace. Ephesians says Jesus brings us the peace. But it was daunting for him too. The cost to Jesus is the blood of his cross.
Jesus doesn’t abolish difference. He’s the embodiment of harmonious difference. He brings God and humanity together. He brings Jew and gentile together. He makes possible, demonstrates and renews a world in which Technicolor diversity can flourish while each entity enriches the life of every other. That’s the kingdom of God. That’s what his life, death, and resurrection gives us, now and forever.
So Jesus transforms our fears about being different. And the second thing Jesus does is to transform our fears about being the same. Jesus makes us, in verse 16, one body. When we read the words “And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), we recall how Jesus became a human being like us. He brought divinity into our humanity. But just as significant is what Jesus did in the other direction. He brought humanity into the heart of God. When we say Christians are the body of Christ, we’re not just saying that where is a divine dimension to everything Christians do together. We’re also saying that the joy, the blessing, the struggle, the sin, and the pain of human striving on earth are taken up into the life of God. This is the paradox of Christian belief: God is utterly different from us – eternal where we are temporal, all-knowing where we are foolish, all-loving where we are self-absorbed. But God is unbreakably connected to us through Jesus in a way that does not diminish God but only ennobles and enriches us. The image Ephesians gives us of what it means to be both different and the same is the picture of one body, with countless interdependent parts. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2:19-22). To demonstrate how much that is at the center of God’s purpose and identity, in Ephesians that body is called Christ’s body (5:30).
I wonder what your greatest fear is. For most people it is being finally fundamentally alone. The fear of pain and death is only a part of the bigger feeling of being utterly alone forever. And the most destructive things people do tend to arise out of a terror that they are or may become utterly alone. Jesus’s gifts of peace to us is to promise that he will never leave us alone.
So this is how these first two priceless gifts fit together. We are different from one another, and in Christ that difference from one another becomes part of the dynamism of our difference from God, and so it leads not to endemic antagonism but to kaleidoscopic creatively. But yet we are one body, and in Christ that means we are deeply bonded to one another as we are deeply bonded to God. That is what peace means.
And the third thing we discover, this time in verse 18, is that we have access to the Father in one Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the part of God that gives us here and now and forever and always those things that Jesus brought us once and for all. Jesus has shown us and brought us peace, but we need the Spirit to continue to make peace in and among us. The one Spirit proclaims “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (2:17). One of the most difficult things in life is to balance your care for those who are near – your regular circle of friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues – with your responsibility for those who are far off – distant friends, family, fellow citizens, and people of other nations and faiths. In Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House he describes one Mrs. Jellyby, who spends every hour of the day campaigning about the plight of the people of faraway Borrioboola-Gha while failing to see that her own neglected children are disintegrating around her. We all know how easy it is to become so wrapped up with a small circle of intimates that we can’t register the need of those outside our own tiny world. I don’t think I know anyone who really gets this balance right, however hard we try.
It’s hard to be at peace with those who are far and at peace with those who are near. In Ephesians those who were far off are the gentiles and those who were near are the Jews. But it’s just as easy to think of those who are far off as meaning those who feel by their life and actions they’ve put themselves beyond the reach of God and those who are near as meaning those who feel they’re just the most righteous and worthy people of all time. I wonder whether you’re more at peace with those who are far off, or with those who are near. I wonder whether you feel you’ve put yourself beyond God’s mercy, or whether you feel you’re “nearer to God than thee.” Jesus is our peace because he gives us the Holy Spirit to reconcile those from whom we are far off and those to whom we are near. Jesus is our peace because he gives us the Holy Spirit to reconcile the parts of ourselves that are far from God with the parts of ourselves that are near.
The fourth thing Jesus makes, in verse 19, is one household. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also member of the household of God.” The three Greek letters oik, which represent the core of the word for “home,” appear no less than six times in the last four verses of Ephesians 2—we have “aliens,” “household members,” “built,” “structure,” “built together,” and “dwelling place,” all coming out of the same root of “home,”— oik. And the same root gives us the words economics and ecology. And it’s economics and ecology that show us the full significance of how Jesus brings us peace.
How does Jesus transform economics and ecology? Think for a moment about what both disciplines take for granted: that there’s not enough. Economics says there’s not enough money, not enough wealth, not enough health care, education, GDP, equity, liquidity – whatever there is, there’s not enough of it. Ecology says there’s not enough oxygen, ozone, species diversity, rain forest – you name it, there is not enough of it. Economics and ecology are all about scarcity. And so of course they presuppose conflict, because we’re bound to fight over limited and diminishing recourses.
But Jesus is all about abundance. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims that there’s more than enough of the things that last forever. There’s more than enough life in everlasting life; there’s more than enough mercy in the forgiveness of sins; there’s more than enough joy in the song of heaven; there’s more than enough love in the peace that passes all understanding. Jesus’s economics and Jesus’s ecology bring us peace because they teach us the secret of happiness, which is learning to love the things that God gives us in plenty and that never run out. Things like love, joy, and peace. Jesus doesn’t give us too much of the tings we fight over, because we’d still fight over them. We call these things the words of eternal life. That’s how Jesus is our peace.
And the fifth thing Jesus makes, in verse 21, is one holy temple, one dwelling place for God. This is the climax of the whole symphony. Remember, step one was, we think difference makes conflict, but in Christ difference makes kaleidoscopic creativity. Step two was, we think we’re alone and isolated, but Jesus bonds us unbreakably with one another and with God. Step three was, we think we’re bound to tread on and fight with those close to use, or club together with those close to us to fight those who are far away, but Jesus gives us one Spirit that reconciles us to those near and far. Step four was, we think we live in an economy of scarcity, but Jesus creates an ecology of abundance. The more we keep assuming conflict is unavoidable, the more Jesus shows himself to be our peace.
Finally, he makes us into one temple. That means he makes us the place of encounter with those who long to meet and be reconciled with God. He turns us from his huge problem into his simple prayer. He transforms us from a battleground to a sanctuary. He makes us the living example of his salvation. He makes us the embodiment of peace. Finally, after the greatest battle of them all—the one Christ fought for us on the cross against sin, death, and the devil—he makes us into a peace the world has never before known, and everything becomes worship. That’s what heaven is—the place of harmonious diversity where we as one body, whether saints who know we’ve had a past or sinners who know we have a suture, enjoy the things that never run out and all finally becomes worship.
As I said earlier, the New Testament has two words for peace. The first one is Jesus. I didn’t say what the second one is. There is a second one. It’s what happens when there is harmonious difference, costly unity, constant reconciliation, ever-failing abundance, and everything finally becomes worship. The second word for peace in the New Testament is church.
Reverand Canon Samuel Wells is the Vicar at St. Martin in the Fields and author of several books.
Taken from Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith by Samuel Wells. Published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Copyright 2011. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.