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Bringing Peace to the Church

December 22, 2020 | Jim Keena

How the Birth of Jesus Sets Us on the Path to God’s Peace

Our divided nation needs a united church.

It’s no understatement to say that 2020 has been a contentious year. A heated national election and a global pandemic have joined in splitting our country.

Sadly, what’s true of our nation is true in many churches. A recent survey by Lifeway Research revealed the number one “pressure point” for pastors is maintaining unity amidst complaints and conflict. A significant point of contention among many parishioners is how the church should respond to the coronavirus.

As we enter the Christmas season, how can we foster “peace on earth” and in our churches? An overarching theme of the Christmas story is that Jesus brings peace. At His birth, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). So, how do we bring the peace that Jesus brought to the world into our churches?

Unmasking the Problem

A unique feature of this contentious period is there’s a visible symbol of the divide. Rev. Aaron Vriesman writes, “Wearing masks has revealed the cracks in our faith. In the COVID era, I have noticed Christians be deeply divided about a matter that just one year ago would have seemed very trivial: wearing masks.”

Of all things, masks have become symbolically significant. For some, wearing a mask represents a desire to stop the spread of the contagious virus. It is a tangible expression of loving one’s neighbor and protecting their health. For others, not wearing a mask is a symbolic resistance to a perceived overreach of governmental authorities. It is an act of loving the church enough to protect her right to worship God in Christian community.

But the root problem isn’t about wearing masks. The Bible unmasks the hidden face of our conflict, “Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? …They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves” (James 4:1, The Message). When we don’t get our own way, it typically stirs either anger or anxiety, or a blend of both.

Frequently anger flares because of perceived injustice. Some protest, “It’s not fair I’m being forced to socially distance or mask up!” Such individuals are fearful of losing their rights. For others, anxiety is often stoked by feeling endangered. So, some complain, “How could they risk my health by refusing to follow social distancing protocol? Don’t they know I have a compromised immune system?” In this case, they are fearful of losing their health.

The one thing both sides share is they aren’t getting their “own way.” To some degree, both sides resist surrendering their rights to the other. If that’s the core problem, what’s the solution?

The Christmas Solution

At the heart of the Christmas story is the Christ child who was born to “guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79b). There are three types of peace to which Jesus guides us: peace with God, the peace of God, and peace with others. These three kinds of peace are different but interrelated. So, how does the birth of Jesus set us on a path to peace?

Peace with God

First, Jesus was born so that we could be at peace with God. The human dilemma is that our sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2, Ephesians 4:18). Our separation from God is because we want to be our own gods (Genesis 3:5). In contrast, Christmas is the story of reconciliation; God became man to bring mankind to God.

So, how do we make peace with God? By turning from our insurrection against God and placing faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul explains, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). That is how we receive peace with God. As a Christmas carol proclaims, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

Peace of God

Second, Jesus was born so that we could experience the peace of God. The peace of God is different from—but dependent upon—peace with God. While they are distinct, they are never separate, because a result of being reconciled to God is experiencing the peace of God. As Paul wrote, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

So how do we experience the peace of God during this year, of all years? How should we respond when we experience an upsurge of anxiety and anger? Tim Keller answers, “The root of peace is confidence and trust in God’s wise and good control of your life.” There are two ways to express this confidence and trust: talking to God and talking to ourselves.

When debilitated with anxiety, the Apostle Paul says, talk to God! “Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns” (Philippians 4:6, The Message). But we should also talk to ourselves. Pop culture tells us to listen to our hearts. There’s a measure of wisdom in that advice. But it’s also wise to talk to our hearts, especially when they are filled with anxiety. It is wise to remind the subjective feelings of our hearts of the objective truth of the gospel. When filled with fear, it’s prime time to “preach the gospel to ourselves!”

Recently a family member was infected with the coronavirus. Then, one by one, the adults in our family displayed symptoms and tested positive. Eventually, my wife Kim became ill. Days later, testing revealed we both had contracted the virus. One evening, before going to sleep, I became anxious about our health. The anxiety increased when my heart and mind joined to play an internal game of “What ifs?” It’s when worst-case scenarios become extrapolated into “worser-case” scenarios (pardon my grammar)!

As this one-upmanship intensified, I stopped listening to my heart and began preaching the gospel to my heart. I reminded myself that because of Jesus, I am a child of God, who is at peace with God (Romans 5:1) and that I can place my “confidence and trust in God’s wise and good control” of our lives. At that point, I began to experience the peace of God that “transcends all understanding.” And the peace of God began to “guard my heart and mind.” And then I went to sleep!

Peace with Others

So how can we foster peace? The answer is in the third type of peace that Jesus brings: peace with others. Our reconciliation, being at peace with God, is foundational to being at peace with others. Ideally, because we are at peace with God, we experience God’s peace, which creates peace with others.

Admittedly, that’s not always the case. At times it is hard to practice. Paul writes, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). It takes effort to be at peace with others, but it’s worth it. Ultimately, when Christians are at peace with one another, the gospel is validated, and God is glorified (John 17:20–23).

That’s how we bring the peace of Jesus to earth, our churches, and our hearts.

Jim Keena

Professor of Pastoral Theology and Church Relations

The Rev. Jim Keena was senior pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Bozeman from 2008 through early 2020, when he joined the […]

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