Peace like a River

By Peter Robinson
Advent Peace

On the second Sunday of Advent we anticipate and celebrate the promise that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, has come to bring peace into the world. In the face of so much hubris, greed, polarization, division, and war around the globe, the promise of peace might seem a distant and elusive dream. The suffering of so many people in too many places awakens deep sorrow (and at times anger) in our hearts: Come Lord Jesus.

I remember singing an African-American spiritual as I was growing up: “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.” No one knows who the original author of the hymn was, but it was popular in African-American communities of the 1800s. Karl Marx might have us believe that this is the kind of hymn that only works to suppress those who are marginalized by encouraging a form of escapism where they retreat from, rather than confront injustice. In this view, the subtext to the hymn is that, while there may not be peace in the world or peace in our immediate situations, we can still have an inner peace by turning away from, or even ignoring the conflict found all around us. But that isn’t what the hymn suggests at all. Here is no private peace that ‘subdues’ the inner person; instead, it is peace like a river, and rivers always flow. This is a peace which, by its very nature, flows or even pours out onto the world around us, catching us up and carrying us along as it pours out into our world.

It is a wonderful image, but in the face of so many intractable problems the desire to do something now can be very powerful. For some people that might mean joining in a protest or getting directly involved in areas of conflict in one way or another. Yet, many if not most of these situations around the globe have deep roots in longstanding divisions and conditions of alienation. Even as we may long to do something, anything to help further peace, we are simultaneously wary of the real danger of adding fuel to the fire.

For a Christian the starting point is always prayer. There is a wonderful prayer for peace in the Book of Alternative Services:

O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wrath and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

May we be communities who continue to seek after and pray for peace in our world.

One of the mysteries of prayer is that while we are pouring out our hearts to God, God is in turn speaking into our hearts and calling forth a response. While it would be foolish and dangerous to believe that we can fix all of the complex issues and intractable divisions festering in so many places in the world (especially those we don’t fully understand), even so we can start to work for peace within our own immediate locations. This is not to ignore challenges around the world but to recognize that peace, God’s peace, needs to flourish in our own situations as well. Indeed, for the church to speak peace to the world it must learn to live into Christ’s peace itself, to become a living manifestation of it.

There is one way we might want to qualify the spiritual, “I’ve got Peace Like a River,” and that is to shift the emphasis away from the first-person singular to the plural. For followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, we are called not just to be peaceful individuals, but to be communities of peace. In this way, Christ intends peace to flow out to the world from his body, the church. “By this all people will know you are my followers if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).

The reality is that our relationships are constantly affected by conflict. Often times that conflict is the result of the simplest things: someone does or says something that hurts, and so we respond in anger. At other times the conflict goes to the root of deep insecurities in our lives. It can get more complicated in the church: not only because the church is made up of a wide variety of people – people who, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t relate to each other at all – but also because we are dealing with matters of faith, matters of the heart, and thus division takes effect with more intensity or force.

We have been learning from 1 Peter this fall in our Tuesday evening chapel. It is a letter to the small, isolated, and often persecuted Christian communities (house churches) scattered across Asia Minor. In 2 Peter the communities are encouraged to live at peace even in the midst of the persecution and suffering they were facing: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15). Peter (and Paul for that matter) wrote to the early Christian communities about suffering and conflict because they were experiencing a lot of it: conflict with the world around them as well as conflict in their own communities. The apostles are not suggesting that we should simply put up with our differences or that a truce with one another is more important than working through and resolving issues. No: doing the hard work of learning to live at harmony with one another is fundamental to following Christ.

Jesus opens a way for us in his death on the cross. In the midst of his suffering, he did not lash out in anger but had compassion on the very people who were attacking him. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus brings a whole new perspective to this idea of seeking the good of others. As the letter to the Ephesians states so clearly, we are to be reconciled to one another because we have been reconciled to God in Christ Jesus through the cross. Indeed, over and over again, throughout the New Testament we are told that one of the marks of the Christian community is that we are learning to live together and to love one another in spite of our significant differences.

We know that in order to be at peace with one another, one party in a conflict (or usually, both sides) has to change its position – has to move or give ground. But we are not simply moving towards one another: we are moving towards Christ. In the issues we are struggling with, in our conflicts with each other, we do not solely search for middle ground, nor do we simply put up with one another. No, we work together to know and live into Christ’s heart for our world: our lives conformed to Christ. As we are conformed to him, we are in turn enabled to live at peace with one another.

“And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all people, as we do to you.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12)

Peace or harmony always begins with God and God’s initiative towards us. When our natural tendency is to take offense, to get angry and to go our separate ways, it is always something of a miracle when we learn to get along with one another. And yet we hope and pray for this miracle. Not just for ourselves but for the world. And even as we pray, we are to work towards peace, beginning first with the situations that are right in front of us. When Christians learn to live together in peace, that peace can in turn flow like a river out into the world around us.

I will end with a Guide for Lament from Rula Khoury Mansour writing from the Nazareth Center for Peace Studies.

We deeply mourn

        the immense suffering where lives are lost, and fear fills the air. Our hearts ache for the deaths of thousands of innocent lives, including many children, women, journalists, and aid workers. We lament for the wounded, the kidnapped, and the displaced.

We cry out …

      for those whose homes have been destroyed and those who have been forced to flee, for families torn apart and fractured, and for those feeling forgotten, abandoned, and trapped in their own land, and the withholding of essential supplies from those already in hardship.

We implore …

       the international community to work earnestly toward a ceasefire and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a time for collective action and a renewed commitment to peace, justice, and the well-being of all who call this troubled region home.

We pray …

          for healing for all who are affected; may they find solace and peace in their distress, and may God’s loving presence provide them with the strength and resilience to overcome trauma. We also seek strength and wisdom for the dedicated peacebuilders who strive to build bridges amidst the chaos.

We lament …

        the pain and loss we've endured, may we remember that it is precisely in these moments that the call for peace grows stronger. Our shared desire for peace unites us. Together, we refuse to let hatred and violence define us. Our collective strength and compassion will guide us towards a brighter future where Palestinians and Israelis live peacefully side by side.

Together, we can be instruments of peace in the hands of the Prince of Peace,
We call out for peace!


Peter Robinson is Professor of Proclamation, Worship and Ministry at Wycliffe College.