According to the Gospels Jesus, like many other Jewish people, used “shalom” meaning peace, goodness, good day, as his greeting. It can be used simply as a conventional hello, or with more profound meaning. In John’s gospel, when Jesus says to his disciples that he gives and leaves them his peace, he notes that his gift is not to be mistaken for something worldly, as if it was mere good fortune. John places these words in the context of Jesus’ imminent suffering and death. Clearly most human beings would welcome a peace which has been tested but not destroyed by suffering.
Jesus’suffering was not simply the expectation of death. I don’t fancy death too much but I have known some splendid human beings, some of them quite irreligious who faced their dying with courage, indeed, even with humour. But Jesus was tortured and deliberately degraded. Could his kind of peace cope even with that? This year I have often mentioned David Haines, the refugee camp volunteer tortured and killed by Daesh. He managed to retain his dignity. Perhaps part of the peace shown by Jesus and by David Haines, came from knowing that the ending of their lives was in tune with their sacrificial living.
But it’s possible that Jesus came to doubt his life’ s commitment to God’s justice. Maybe his questioning howl on the cross expressed the feeling that it had all been for nothing.
That’s a true killer. When you are forced to ask if your main reason for living has not fallen to bits; that something you have worked for, loved, lived with, grieved over, may be null and void. My sense is that Jesus experienced this and overcame it. The writer of the book of Revelation, conscious of the persecution which might afflict his flock, used the word overcome, or conquer, to characterise the strenuous shalom that would see them through such suffering.
“Split all ends up, they shan’t crack/ and death shall have no dominion.” (Dylan Thomas)
“In the teeth of life we seem to die; but God says no. In the teeth of death we live!” ( Martin Luther)
If there is such a peace, then we should not imagine it as a feeling, not even as an inner conviction that cannot be extinguished. No, it is the capacity to endure the unendurable, annihilating nothingness, as if it were the love of God. I do not mean that God wills the suffering or excuses the evil that causes it, but rather that God’s love respects the autonomy of his creatures as long as they live on earth, and does not intervene, no, not by force or miraculous messages in the mind. But when God receives his creatures in death, then he wipes away all tears and welcomes them into a peace that is beyond their understanding.
So of course, the words spoken by Jesus in the gospels are always the words of the Risen Lord. The peace which Jesus promises comes from beyond all worlds. But I can only receive it as I walk with Him in this world, where even the greatest trust is far from certainty.
In imagine all this sounds a bit somber; far from the cheery sign off message appropriate to the last day of 2015. In fact, I’m not gloomy, I am speaking of a fighting faith. God’s peace to all my readers! Confusion to your enemies! And bugger Bognor! (The reply of George V on his death bed to someone who tried to avoid the issue by hoping that soon he might be well enough to holiday in Bognor. It is also my reply to all pious attempts to make life seem easier that it is.)