Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27).
This has puzzled me for years. How does the world give? How is it different from how Jesus gives? And is he talking about how the world gives generally, or just how it gives peace? (if it does, indeed, give any form of peace).
I think there are at least two possible answers. But first we must look at the words Jesus uses. For ‘the world’ he uses the word ‘kosmos’, origin of our ‘cosmos’. In the New Testament context, this does not just mean the physical world. Rather it has something more of the sense of ‘the system’, what we hippies used to call ‘the man’, to whom we were determined to stick it (whatever ‘it’ was…) ‘Eirene’ is the word he uses for peace; and it does not, as this passage is often interpreted, mean just inner peace, a sense of security. It is used for peace between people and nations. It is what we seek eagerly at the moment for Ukraine. And this leads me to the first difference between the world’s giving and that of Jesus.
When the world gives, it generally gives expecting a return. Jesus references this when he instructs his disciples ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous’ (Luke 14:12). As I write, intermittent talks are going on between Russian and Ukrainian officials to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine. Such diplomatic talks inevitable involve concessions and undertakings on both sides (which is why these particular talks are so difficult, because neither the Russian invaders nor the Ukrainian government and people will want to surrender any ground, physical or political).
Jesus, on the other hand, gives freely and without expectation of return. Peace, social or individual, is not a tool he is giving us to equip us for living a Christlike life, though it can certainly be that. No, it is pure gift, a gift for our flourishing. We have to take care of it, of course, because it is a living thing; but inner peace and outer peace should reinforce each other. To claim to have inner peace and yet not be a peacemaker is just self-indulgence.
Second, the ‘kosmos’, the world, gives temporarily. All its gifts are subject to the universal law of entropy. That lovely houseplant your mother gave you will eventually wither and die; the gorgeous scarf your friend gave will fade, or fray, or get torn, or you might indeed get bored with it and give it to a charity shop. Jesus’ gift of peace, however, is limited neither by external conditions nor by time. It’s not just for Christmas…
I would not want to suggest, however, that peace is a gift easily accessed or easy to hold on to. Jesus’ death and resurrection made peace between God and the world, but it cost him dear. Perhaps that is why he makes this promise just hours before his arrest and death. Perhaps he wants us to see how costly true peace is. We may have to struggle through anxiety, depression, loss, grief, to attain any kind of inner peace. And outer peace, peace between partners or neighbours or neighbouring countries, may involve repeated rifts and repeated reconciliations. And this is perhaps a third difference: the world (and perhaps the flesh and the devil too) is a deceiver: it makes claims to offer unconditional and lasting peace, but it cannot back these claims up in reality. When Jesus gives, the gift is real, however difficult it may be to take hold of it.
And what about that other question: is Jesus talking about how the world gives generally, or how it gives peace? Perhaps I have already answered that: the world can indeed give a kind of peace, as possessions gave peace and security to the man in the parable who wanted to build bigger barns for his bumper crop (Lukee 12:16-21). But that peace was both illusory and short-lived. So whether Jesus is talking about the world’s many ‘gifts’, or limiting himself to the false peace it may offer, the message is the same.
I’m not sure I’ve exhausted this topic, but I feel I understand this mysterious promise of Jesus a little better. Perhaps you have further ideas; do feel free to post them in comments. ‘The Lord has yet more light and truth/To break forth from his word’, as the hymn goes. As an Anabaptist, I believe the task of interpretation is a communal one. So don’t take my words as gospel; only the Gospel is gospel.