"Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ". (Romans 5:1)
There are not many things in this world that we would expect everyone to agree on. With our many different experiences of life and our many different outlooks on life, the population of the world is enormously diverse. We have different languages and different lifestyles and different religions. But I don't think we could find many on the planet who would not agree that peace is a good thing, something to be desired, something to be sought after.
Of course there are many kinds of peace; the word is used in a variety of ways. There is the peace that is the opposite of war, something we may take for granted in Britain but which is a real and desperate need for many people in many places. There is the peace which is the opposite of noise, again something we can take for granted in the countryside, but which many in our cities, and many with young families, long for. There is the peace of being totally at ease with someone, the absence of tension in a relationship, which we can find in a marriage or in a special friendship.
All of those kinds of peace are vitally important to us, all of them contributing to our human wellbeing. We need peace both in our world and within ourselves, and perhaps we can never hope to have one until we have the other, whichever way round you look at it. Peace is so obviously important to us that it seems amazing that as a species we humans constantly go to war, and build machines that cause disturbance, and create tension in our relationships with one another. History teaches us that we all want peace, but seem unable to do the things that create it. As Paul so honestly expressed it, we know what we want to do but find ourselves doing the thing that we don't want to do.
We all want to live at peace, we all long to experience peace, but still it remains so illusive. To bring this right down to earth and right up to date, let me share two very human stories that I read recently. Steve was a family man who was always kind and always punctual and always the first to help. He never said "no" to anyone. But underneath all the goodness that others saw in him, he was troubled and anxious. His father was a high powered lawyer made it clear that his son was a disappointment and that he would never amount to anything.
Steve may not have agreed - but somewhere deep down he came to believe him. And no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he put himself out, he was always left with the feeling that he should have done more and should have done better. In his search for a sense of peace he asked God to take away his sins, and perhaps he believed that God had taken away his sins but he always felt that he was a fundamentally bad person, and that his only chance at redemption lay in trying harder. This is not a happy story, for Steve died of a heart attack at the age of fifty.
Then there was Jo.
Jo seemed to have it all: a great career, great looks, and a wonderfully personality. She was the sort of woman who was envied by many people but at home, in the privacy of her own luxury flat, it was as if she became a different person. As soon as she shut the door, relieved from the pressure of keeping up appearances, she would head straight for the gin bottle. She knew that she was becoming addicted and she was smart enough to know that it was wrong, but it was only the drink that allowed her to escape from the enormous pressure she felt, pressure to keep proving herself, pressure to keep going. None of her many achievements brought her the sense of peace that she needed, and she died from the effect of alcohol before her fortieth birthday.
Now thankfully, these stories are not typical. In fact we might see them as extreme examples, but they do demonstrate that even those among us who appear to have all the advantages, who appear to be doing well and to have everything sorted, may actually be suffering from a desperate lack of peace, a desperate lack of contentment and well being in their lives. We all want to live at peace; we want it in the world around us, and in our relationships, and within ourselves, but for all of us it can remain so illusive. And how much effort and energy and indeed finance are used up in the effort to find it.
Now there is an obvious way for our thinking to go from here. We could say that in the church, we have the answer. We could say that we have the solution, in our scriptures and our Christian faith. That is true - but it can also be false. Why? Because you don't have to be part of a church community for very long to discover that its members are not all super-spiritual people who have all of their lives sorted and are totally at peace with themselves and with one another. In any church you will find the same kinds of behaviour that you will find anywhere else. There will always be those who will seek to justify themselves and make themselves look good. It can get even worse because there is the expectation that we have found peace and therefore that we should look happy and content and sorted.
A minister wrote a powerful book about how he had to resign from his church because he had committed the sin that proved unforgivable in his denomination. He went through a spell of depression. He claims that his congregation could forgive anything except this, for their expectations meant that they could not cope with someone who claimed to have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour but was not filled with joy every minute of every day. Life in the church can, for some people, bring more pressure and less peace than life outside of the church.
So having painted that gloomy picture, why do I also say that I believe the church does have the answer, the solution to the great human search for peace. It is because underneath all of the ‘stuff ‘ of life that we bring to it, the church is the place where we keep alive the message of scripture which tells us that peace is not our goal to be achieved, but is a gift to be received. "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1)
That’s what Augustine was trying to say 1500 years ago when he wrote his famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Pascal said the same thing when he commented that there is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside each man. We may try to fill that vacuum with the things of this world - money, sex and power - but the result is spiritual indigestion. Our stomachs are full but our hearts are empty. Where can we go to find the things we want more than anything else in the world? We can go to God, for in Him we find what we seek.
All kinds of people, with all kinds of need find their way into church during the week. Often they are just sitting quietly, enjoying the peace. But that is the feeling of the building - not the real thing. That is the gift from God, and is the liberating message that we come back to week after week, and day after day. Of course the church is full of messed up people. That is the whole point of it. Jesus himself said that he had not come for righteous people but for sinners. The thing that we have in common is not our long list of shining achievements, but our honest recognition that we need grace, and plenty of it, a recognition that frees us from the need to prove anything to anybody. For the wonderful truth this morning and every morning is that ‘We are accepted in the Beloved’. In other words God accepts us just as we are, warts and all, just because of Jesus and his love for us.