The Shalom Community

A year ago July, long before the advent of Covid-19, we learned a new word here at St. Andrew’s, in the context of a sermon. Minister that I am, of course, I love words; encountering them; learning them; savouring them; teaching them.

That word? Shalom. It may have been new to us, but it’s hardly new to the world, or to the Word of God. “Shalom,” writes Mennonite pastor Jamie Arpin-Ricci, “is what love looks like in the flesh. Shalom, the embodiment of love, in the context of a broken creation, is a hint at what was; what should be; and what will––one day––be again . . . Where sin disintegrates and isolates, shalom brings together and restores. Where fear and shame throw up walls and put on masks, shalom breaks down barriers:––and frees us from the pretense of our false selves.”

It’s a Hebrew word, of course, found an astonishing 250 times in the Old Testament, in 213 separate verses: and even the Greek word which translates it, ’irhnh (irēnē) occurs a further 86 times in the New Testament. In other words, if ever there’s a Bible word, it’s shalom.

I first heard the word shalom in this sanctuary, on the lips of our good friend Ken Mackenzie, spoken to me, and to others, as a form of greeting––a blessing, as it were––during our pre-Covid time of mixing, blessing, and greeting, held at every service.

Shalom. It’s a large word; not a long word, but a large word, as if it were “bigger on the inside than the outside” (as C. S. Lewis would say). It means “peace”: not only the kind of peace which results from the absence of hostility (between nations and peoples); but the kind of peace or shalom which comes to the human heart when one is fully, and deeply, healed, by God; by which healing one is made whole and complete, not only experiencing “prosperity” in spiritual terms, but a profound sense of fulfillment––personal fulfillment, which can then ripple out to bless the community. Nowadays, we might call this “wellness.”

Shalom. It’s as if encapsulates all that we have ever wanted as human beings:––both individually, and as peoples and nations. In other words, both “inner” and “outer” peace, at one and the same time. No wonder the Catholic mass concludes with a prayer. Dona nobis pacem.

That’s Latin, of course, and it means, “grant us peace.” Or to put it another way, “grant us shalom.” “Grant us shalom, O Lord; lest we die, and the world be lost.”

When composers set the Catholic mass to music, they usually a devote a whole movement to this three-word prayer, both little, and large, at the same time. Beethoven, for example, spent some of his last years on this earth writing a mass––the great Missa Solemnis, opus 123. On dedicating it to his patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, Beethoven inscribed it with the following “this comes from the heart, and is to go to the heart;” and when asked to describe its significance, especially the significance of his setting of the words Dona nobis pacem, Beethoven said, “it’s a prayer for inner, and outer peace.”

A prayer for inner and outer peace––a prayer for shalom:––that’s the one prayer which concludes every Catholic mass ever spoken. Though I am not a Catholic in the formal, big “C” sense, I think they’re on to something . . .

Needless to say, what the worlds needs now is not just “love sweet love”––to paraphrase Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s famous 1965 song––but peace, sweet peace. It’s the only thing “that there’s just too little of,” to go on paraphrasing. Peace, sweet peace: no, not just for some, but for everyone!

In fact the need for peace, for shalom, is desperate. Just turn on the television, and you will know what I mean.

“Peace, what peace?” cries a young woman from South Africa. “When money is power? When relationships have no more integrity? When our earth is being destroyed? When babies are born into a life without hope? When the world is full of plague and pandemic?”

Needless to say, if there is any word which defines the Kingdom of God, it is shalom.

But how do we find this peace? This desperately-needed shalom, said to be what love looks like in the flesh; the very embodiment of love in the context of a broken creation, that not only brings the warring together, but restores them at the same time . . . that heals the broken-hearted, and sets the captives free? How??

That is the question.

How? By casting yourself upon the One they call the Prince, by faith, and in answer to his call: the Prince, of Peace, even Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One. And then, by gathering about him in community, a “shalom community.”

Needless to say the word “prince” doesn’t have the greatest provenance, these days: with one contemporary Prince said to be once-upon-a-time best-friends with a notorious desperately-abusive sex offender who targeted teenage girls, and may have even supplied one for the Prince, which the latter may or may not have accepted. Or another Prince who sent a team of assassins to Istanbul to murder and subsequently dismember a journalist who had been critical of his regime. Or the great 15-16th century writer, philosopher, and diplomat, one Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote a book called The Prince, which became––ever after––the textbook on how to behave unscrupulously for political ends, deceiving, if necessary; murdering, if necessary. And the list goes on.

But when the Prince of Peace came––the real prince––the whole of life changed. And the reign of Shalom began. Do you know what Jesus’ first word to the disciples were, when they were together, and the Lord has risen from the dead? “Peace be with you!” Or if you will, “Shalom be upon you.”

“On the evening of that first day of the week,” reads the Gospel of John, “when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.””

Similarly, long before Jesus set foot upon the earth the Book of Isaiah insisted that the Shalom community would be like a whole kingdom, “the Peaceable Kingdom,” where the wolf will lie down with the lamb; the leopard with the goat; the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child would lead them. In other words, a Kingdom in which old adversarial relationships finally come to naught, before the advance of God’s shalom. And in that Kingdom, the very fruits of the Spirit would begin to appear, of which shalom is one.

Dear People: it’s not enough to know “about” this Prince: we need to encounter this One: this Prince: by faith, and in faith; and begin to trust Him, and to be filled by Him. And then we need to begin building––or keep on building––the shalom community.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war,” said Martin Luther King, on some fabled sunlit moment before his tragic assassination, “that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality . . . “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Yes, I think the Catholic mass is on to something when it concludes, each and every time, with a prayer for shalom. But I think Kenny Mackenzie was also on to something when he greeted his fellow-worshippers with an extended hand, and with shalom. By greeting someone with shalom, you are in effect saying, “may your life be filled with health, wholeness, and safety.”

To become a peacemaker, shalom-giver, and a builder of shalom community together with all of God’s children, you have to do what Ken does. You have to put peace––or shalom––into each other’s hands, and into the hands of the world, in whatever way you can! Ever had someone ask you to shake his or her hand by saying, “put it there”? Well, you, and we, have to put it there (!!); you have to put peace into each other’s hands, and the hands of the world. And even then, it’s got to be more than just a fleeting handshake, or a token gesture . . . It has to be or become or begin to become a whole new way of living, and relating, to other people.

Put Peace into Each Other’s Hands is actually the title of a wonderful chorus from our Book of Praise. It’s by Fred Kaan, a Dutch hymnwriter:

Put peace into each other’s hands
and like a treasure hold it; reads this wonderful piece,
protect it like a candle flame,
with tenderness enfold it.

Put peace into each other’s hands
with loving expectation;
be gentle in your words and ways,
in touch with God’s creation.

Put peace into each other’s hands,
like bread we break for sharing;
look people warmly in the eye:
our life is meant for caring.

As at communion, shape your hands
into a waiting cradle;
the gift of Christ receive, revere,
united round the table.

Put Christ into each other’s hands,
he is love’s deepest measure;
in love make peace, give peace a chance
and share it like a treasure.

The beautiful thing about peacemaking is that it starts very small. But the more you do it, the bigger and bigger and bigger it gets––like the word shalom itself, bigger on the inside than the outside. That’s what I love about being a Christian. The “further up, and further in you go,” as C. S. Lewis would say, everything becomes bigger, richer, fuller, “deeper, more wonderful,” and here I am quoting Lewis directly, “more like places in a story,” a story you have never heard but very much want to know.”

Shalom. Peace. Like a treasure hold it. Protect it, and with tenderness enfold it. Put peace into each other’s hands with loving expectation. Be gentle in your words and ways.

How gently do you treat other people? Or do you curse and abuse them every chance you get?

Look people warmly in the eye, for our life is meant for caring. It really is. Forget about making money and taking territory:––or worse still having your own way all the time. Our life is meant for caring, and building shalom.

Shape your hands into a waiting cradle, and the gift of Christ receive, united round the table.

Put Christ into each other’s hands. He is love’s deepest measure. In love, make peace, “give peace a chance” ––(and here Fred Kaan is quoting John Lennon, ironically)––and share it like a treasure. Becoming a peacemaker involves putting peace into each other’s hands. It will change the world. Indeed, the world was changed when the lifelong anti-Communist Richard Nixon

shook hands with Mao Zedong in February 1972; hands to hands, eyes to eyes––not looking away!; when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin welcomed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with a handshake on Nov. 19, 1977, which led to a peace treaty 16 months later;

when Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev shook hands on Nov. 19, 1985, inaugurating a whole new era; when President F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shook hands

in Cape Town, South Africa on May 4, 1990. This was after agreeing to talks on ending white-minority rule; when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, with President Bill Clinton looking on.

Building the shalom community. Peacemaking. It began with Jesus, and a roomful of Jesus’ disciples. and it can continue with us.