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“Peace be with you”: a sermon on Psalm 4

May 1st, 2006 by isaac · 2 Comments

Below is the sermon I preached yesterday at Raleigh Mennonite Church in the morning and Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in the evening. On this 3rd Sunday of Easter, the lectionary texts I used were Psalm 4 and Luke 24:36b-48.
The Peace of Christ 

Where do we find peace? What is our source of peace? Those are the sorts of questions Psalm 4 ask us this morning.

The Psalmist starts off with a desperate cry, a demanding prayer that wonders why God doesn’t stand up for him against the enemies: “Answer me when I call to you, O my God of vindication. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer” (4:1). Powerful people with evil hearts surround the Psalmist and he wonders why God’s not around. Where’s God? Isn’t God supposed to stand in solidarity with his people? Isn’t this chosen one, the psalmist, supposed to be protected from the fiery arrows of the malicious? Then, why isn’t God protecting him? So, he prays a prayer for justice, the prayer of the lowly, the humbled: “Answer me when I call to you, O my God of vindication.”

My God of vindication or My God of justice. The Psalmist gives us a clue about what  aspect of God he’s interested in—the Psalmist says, “O my God of vindication.” The Psalmist is after God’s justice, God’s protective care, God’s love for those who walk on the righteous path and fall victim to the schemes of powerful people. And that’s a prayer that many of us pray.

That’s what is so wonderful about the Psalms. They give us words to pray when we don’t know how to pray. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Psalter “the school of prayer.” We turn to Psalm 4 when powerful people harm us or drag our reputation through the mud—when they “turn our glory into shame,” as the Psalmist writes in verse 2. And the Word of God, this Psalm, gives us words to speak to God, God’s Word to speak—the Psalms help us learn God’s language, they school us in the grammar of God’s way of communication. Bonhoeffer writes, “It’s not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray…. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s word, ought to determine our prayer.” The Psalms, this Psalm, give us the richness of God’s word, new words that direct our emotions toward God. We learn how to pray by praying the words of the Psalm, words that come to us from elsewhere.

The Psalm for this morning teaches us how to pray, how to hope, as we seek God’s vindication, God’s justice. The temptation for us is to make God’s justice an echo of what we want it to look like. Creating justice in our own image; a justice and a cause that jives with our desires, our sense of order, our projection of the good for everyone else. Something we can build with our own hands, according to our maps and architectural plans. And the Psalmist is all too clear about this desire. In verse 2 he writes, We love our delusions and false gods—the God we create in our own image.

We want God to vindicate us—and that usually means we want God to give our enemies a good beating, to get rid of them, or make us look real good and them real bad; to turn to tables so we get on top and they go down to the bottom. A lot of times justice for us operates as a zero-sum game—somebody has to lose so another can win. But that’s not where the Psalmist leads us—”You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound” (v7). Greater joy. The powerful can go on being powerful, the wealthy—those with an abundance of grain and wine, as the Psalmist puts it—can continue in their accumulation. The Psalmist doesn’t seek reversal. Justice doesn’t mean he changes places with the ones on top. None of that. Rather, the Psalmist receives greater joy. It looks like the powerful, the materially endowed enemies are still there. The point is not eradication, negation, but the witness of joy, bountiful joy, the joy of the Spirit.

And where does this joy come from? How does the distress of the Psalmist turn to joy at the end? First there is a call to silence, to stillness in verse 4: when you’re angry, that’s ok, just don’t sin. When you’re laying in bed, and you’re tempted to plot the demise of your enemies, be patient, wait in the stillness. And patience, being still, waiting, is the hardest thing in the world. Our first impulse is to impose our desire by force, to make things turn our alright, and that just usually means that we want things our way. To be still, to wait, to be patient, is to give up control of the situation and just be where you are. Waiting and trusting is hard work. But it’s the work that the Psalmist identifies as making us open to receive joy from elsewhere, the Spirit of God—a disruptive movement that doesn’t quite fit our plans, our plots, our justice.

The danger sometimes with calls to stillness and silence in the midst of distress, in the midst of pain and suffering, is that we think this means that we just retreat to the secret place deep down inside where we are alone with our Jesus, alone with our self—away from a distressing world. But that’s not what happens for the Psalmist. In the stillness he remembers the words of others. “Let the light of your face shine upon us” (v6). Those are familiar words, words ingrained through Israel’s services of worship. It’s an excerpt from the blessing God gives to Moses to give to Aaron to give to the people—and notive how the words travel through people: “The Lord will make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord will lift up his face to you and give you peace” (Num. 6:22-26). The words of comfort that come to him in his silence are not his own, but the blessing of God spoken by others in worship. As he lies on his bed, seemingly alone, God comes to him through the remembered words of others—a blessing he receives at worship services.

We are tempted to turn the psalmist’s call to contemplative silence, prayerful stillness, to sound like something more at home in Aristotle than the gospel. Aristotle ends his book on ethics with a vision of the good life that has no room for anything but contemplation of the gods, of the divine, of the transcendent, devoid of human interaction, let alone human mediation. The ideal life is a solitary existence free from the interruptions of neighbors, free from the troubles of ordinary life. And this freedom is important so that we can contemplate God without worrying about all the stuff around us. That’s Aristotle’s vision. Not the Psalmist’s.

For the Psalmist, the words of the worship service give him all that he needs to sustain him through the night, to bring him peace in the midst of distress. And these are not his own words; these aren’t thoughts and feelings he can conjure up from the depths of his soul; these words come from elsewhere, someone else, from God’s blessing spoken upon him by others. At the end of the prayer, the psalmist does not escape into heaven beyond the stress of the ordinary. No. Instead he lies down in his bed. He sleeps. And the people who wronged him aren’t erased. God provides peace in the midst of strife and safety in the midst of violence. As another Psalm puts it, “God prepares for me a table in the midst of my enemies.” The enemies don’t go away. They’re always there. But God provides peace and safety in the midst of our struggles. And this peace and safety is not achieved through destroying the enemies, but through a greater joy, a joy that over-flows, a better joy.

Our task is the difficult work of stillness and silence where we open ourselves to the words of hope, the words of blessing, that we’ve learned here at the assembly of God’s people, and wait for God’s peace. The Psalmist shows us how God’s peace comes to us through the words of others; in the stillness, in the moment of distress, God speaks to us the words already given to us by others. Communal words lodged in our memory.

This good news is quite simple, my message this morning isn’t anything too complicated: The word of peace comes to us from elsewhere, from someone else. It’s not something we can tell ourselves. Like the Psalmist, the words come to us from the words spoken to us at church, here, today. In our passage from Luke, we find the startled and frightened disciples gathered in Jerusalem, patient, waiting in the midst of distress. “Then, suddenly, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them: ‘Peace be with you’” (Lk. 24:36). Christ, with a body like ours, with a mouth like ours, comes and speaks the word of peace, the blessing of peace. It’s not something the gathered group can conjure from the depths of their souls. They have nothing in themselves that can provide peace and safety… all they have to offer is need, human need. That’s why Augustine says our hearts are restless: In his Confessiosn, Augustine prayed, “Our hearts are restless untill they find their rest in thee.” Our hearts are unstable, a dynamic movement of desire, an unsettled void calling out for that which only God can offer. 

And Jesus comes and speaks the words of life, words that satsify our restless longings: Peace be with you. And Luke wants to make it very clear that this Jesus is not an apparition, a ghost. ‘Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (v39). This Jesus has a body like us, and he eats like us: Luke writes, “And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence” (vv41-42). Jesus wants to make sure his disciples see his flesh, see his body. Not a ghost. Not a phantom. Not an illusion. Not an idol. Not a false God. Not some spiritual reality we can make up if we sit quietly enough and squint hard enough and say the right prayers. No. This is Jesus with a body, who eats, walks, talks. Just like us.

I fear we are far too easily pleased with ghosts, illusions, images we create for ourselves in our restless hearts. Spirituality easily turns into superstition. Conjuring. Speaking the right words into the darkness and making an apparition on which our mind’s eye may feast. But that is not the place from which we receive the word of peace, the blessing of peace. Those words come from Jesus’ mouth, from Jesus’ body. A mouth like yours, and bodies like ours. Pinch yourself. A body just like that. No ghosts; not figments of our imagination. Real flesh. Fully human.

And here we are—bodies gathered in Jesus’ body. And as Bonhoeffer said, “Christ exists as a community.” Christ is this community. This place, with these people—this is where we wait for God to speak words of peace, to meet us, to comfort us, to touch us, to embrace us with his love. Our Jesus is personal, very personal, more personal than we may be comfortable with—as personal as the one sitting beside you… real flesh. But it’s not that personal Jesus we meet in our head, like a ghost, an apparition—the production of our superstitious conjuring. No. That’s not the Easter gospel. That’s a different gospel, the gospel according to the German NT ‘theologian’ Rudolf Bultmann—where Jesus is resurrected in our hearts, and that’s all that matters.

The Jesus of the Easter story offers us a body, a real body. And our personal relationship with him is more than something we do when we close our eyes and think real hard. It’s a personal relationship that passes through us, through the neighbor, the one sitting next to you. Jesus passes in our midst when we come together and worship our God. And that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Our personal Jesus is here, all around us, in this place of worship, this place of service to our holy God. As one of my favorite pastoral theologians, Herbert McCabe, put it: “Christ is present to us in so far as we are present to one another.” Christ is present through us. But to receive Jesus’ peace in our midst, it takes the patient stillness of the Psalmist. We have to learn how to sit with one another. To be present to each other’s needs. To know each other well enough to offer the right word at the right time; the meal in time of need; the phone call when we know our brother or sister is going through a rough time. And that also means we have to learn how to dwell with one another. To really be present. Even when we don’t like some of those in our midst.

Maybe you have enemies here. Maybe when we pick up your eyes and look across the room, we see some folks we have a real hard time with. Maybe this space is shot through with lines of conflict. But that is not reason to despair. That’s actually where the gospel speaks most clearly—listen to the words of Jesus after he describes the difficult process of conflict and forgiveness: “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:18). Heaven on earth. This slow and difficult process of confrontation, conflict, forgiveness and reconcilation is what heaven looks like here and now. Heaven comes to us as we engage in the difficult work of being present to one another, the hard work of reconciliation, saying that we matter to one another enough to argue, to have conflicts, to voice our concerns—not just sit and retreat to the solitary voices in our heads and pray to a Jesus above the fray, a Jesus content to float in the spiritual realm—the gnostic Jesus of the Gospel of Judas. That is an image of a Jesus that doesn’t want to abide with us, who wants to escape the flesh, the body—in a way, it’s the reversal of God’s promised Emmanuel: God with us.

But the good news of Christ Jesus is that God has come near, closer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine put it. And we are, all of us gathered in this place, his body. We are witnesses of his presence, his real flesh. Christ passes through our midst as the Spirit moves between us, drawing us together like magnets. Be still, be present to one another, and feel Jesus’ body surround you… Feel the divine caress as you draw near to you neighbor. Listen for God’s word of peace that passes through those around you. Today Jesus offers us a personal relationship with his body, a relationship we discover in the persons sitting next to us, and those across the room that we don’t want to sit with.

Tags: sermons

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dewet // May 8, 2006 at 1:13 pm

    I have great respect for your bold sermon on psalm 4. I appreciate the way you explain the fleshness of Jesus Christ in the midst of his followers. I surely would like to read through other postings of you. Recently I was reading the first epistle of John and it striked me how John describes Jesus Christ as becoming flesh again in the community’s life of “love”. It striked me how “un-gnostic” this is! I am reading a study of C C Pecknold on Augustine and discovered anew what important role the concept “Word became flesh” plays in his method of reading Scripture. Reading Scripture for Augustine means more than mentally making sense, its means performing the text in flesh. And if I do not have it wrong, Augustine knew that a community of fellow readers plays a vital role in all this. Thank you for the sermon.

  • 2 isaac // May 10, 2006 at 4:57 am

    Dewet, thank you for reading this sermon, and for the kind words. I think you are totally right about the connection between this sermon on Psalm 4 and the passage from I John. I don’t know if you or your church follows the lectionary, but this passages assigned for this week are John 15:1-8 and I John 4:7-21, and those passages say just the sort of thing you’re talking about: “Jesus Christ as becoming flesh again in the community’s life of love”.

    Right now I’m preparing to preach this weekend so those passages from the Gospel of John and First John are weighing on my mind. So far, what’s so striking to me about the I John passage is that in the end he brings it around to our love for one another. The passage makes us look real hard at our love for each other. For John, our love for God is displayed in our love for another. Our love for God passes through the other, the specific other, the neighbor. 4:12 brings this point home: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us”. God is invisible. We enter into the Love that is God when we love our brother and sister. We don’t know we love God unless we love another.

    Sebastian Moore speaks the heart of the passage with such clarity: “the absence of a positive concern for others is the surest indication that God is not loved at all… No love of neighbour, no love of God… The only way of finding out whether I love my neighbour is to ask myself whether I ever do anything for him” (God is a New Language, p. 26). A few pages later Moore returns to this point: “For the Christian statement ‘I love God’ is the statement that I am troubled by the God who is Love and so am constituted ‘a loving person,’ a person reshaped by essential love and so made loving in the totality of my human, social situation. Thus ‘not to love someone’ is quite simply, to be without the love of God” (p. 29). I think Moore beautifullly speaks the heart of First John. What do you think?

    Oh, great point about Augustine and love, flesh, Word, and the community. If you get a chance, let me know what you think about this post from a while ago on Augustine and reading Scripture: Augustine: reading for love