John 14:27 “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (The Jerusalem Bible)
Romans 14:7-8 “We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (NRSV)
By the time I was 16 in 1966, I was getting a bit weary of church life. I finally persuaded my parents to let me drop out of youth group and Bible Class. With my father as my teacher and grade school principal, dropping out of worship attendance was not an option! At the same time, the United States was being rocked by assassinations, the civil rights movement, and Friday night tallies of Americans who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. I paid attention to such things and was more than a little distressed.
At about the same time our congregation received a new seminary intern, Vicar Habin. He took a special interest in me which resulted in my re-engagement with church activities. In one memorable driveway conversation, Vicar Habin reflected on the John 14 verse during which he commented on the Jerusalem Bible’s translation which used the word, “bequeath.” It struck me then as a big word, a word which signified a significant gift given by Jesus and a gift I wanted realized in my teenage years of distress. In my senior year I would use this verse to lead Chapel Hour at the Lutheran high school I attended. That conversation with Vicar Habin, that verse and that word would stick with me throughout the years in a variety of situations. Through the work of the promised Spirit, Jesus has bequeathed me the gift of peace.
One of those moments took place in 1996. While participating in a Lutheran World Relief Study Trip to West Africa, our group was holed up in a Peace Corp Compound in Niamey, Niger while a military coup took place a short distance away. For a brief time, the group’s anxiety was palpable. While sitting against a wall in the compound this verse came to mind with the accompanying thought, regardless of the circumstance, that the God who in Christ Jesus is with me at home is the God who is with us in this moment. I felt the surprising gift of peace.
A more recent occasion took place on March 1. While exercising at the local Jewish Community Center, I felt a bit of tightness in my chest. Realizing that we were scheduled for a trip to Europe in a few weeks, I decided to get off the treadmill and contact my doctor’s office.
After an EKG, she entered the examination room with an intense look on her face. “This is serious, Marcus. I think you are having a heart attack right now. I’m calling 911.” Despite my protests—“I’m feeling fine. I can drive to the hospital myself”—she silenced me, “You aren’t driving anywhere.” Perhaps sensing my growing anxiety and bewilderment evidenced by some tears in my eyes, she placed her hand on my shoulder and, without asking permission, began praying for me. She prayed for the gift of peace and that God would attend me and those caring for me in the hours ahead. Such is the work of the promised Spirit. Again, I felt a sudden relaxation and the gift of peace.
The next afternoon, I went through a heart catheterization. I received only minimal anesthesia and, throughout the process, found myself surprisingly humming the hymn, “When Peace Like a River Attendeth My Way” which includes the refrain, “it is well with my soul.” Normally I would not have counted that hymn as one of my favorites, but there it was, accompanied by the gift of peace. The catheterization would reveal no heart attack but five blocked arteries and a need for bypass surgery.
As I anticipated surgery I found myself dwelling in another verse which delivers the good news, “…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” In retrospect they provide a fleshing out of Jesus’ words, “Peace I bequeath to you…”.
On March 6, I would undergo bypass surgery, but not before my pastor, Melissa Micham, would insist on breaking into the prep room, praying for me, and softly singing the hymn, “Thy Holy is a term that originally meant set apart for the worship or service of God. While the term may refer to people, objects, time, or places, holiness in Judaism and Christianity primarily denotes the realm of the divine More Wings.” That was followed by a large African-American staff member assuring me that he was praying for me, that I was going to be just fine, and then pushing the bed toward the surgery room while robustly singing me into surgery, accompanied by my laughter and grateful heart. Such is the gift of peace.
The next days would not be easy, but the gift of peace and the knowledge that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” were sources of deep consolation and promise. During one painful and deeply disheartened moment, I said to my wife and daughter, “I am ok with dying.” There is some freedom in resting in Jesus’ words! To that my daughter responded, “But we aren’t!”
For a teenager Jesus’ words were a word of promise in a disturbed world. Vicar Habin would take me to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give a speech at a Black Baptist Church in the Hough area of Cleveland in which he linked the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection to the cause of civil rights and non-violent protest. That message would stick. My dorm room would feature Dr. King’s words, “True peace is not merely the absence of conflict, but it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.”
Throughout the years I have most often thought of the peace of Christ as the gift of reconciliation offered by our crucified and risen Lord to his followers of every age. That thought is critical and opens the possibility of new life in relationships personally, within community and within Creation, in biblical terms, is the universe as we know or perceive it. Genesis says that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In the book of Revelation (which speaks of end times) the author declares that God created all things and... More. That’s a big deal!
But I’ve also learned again that the peace that our Lord bequeaths to us is an ongoing peace accompanied by the promise of life in the presence of my dying—and whatever dying is taking place in the church and in the world.