My dear brothers and sisters in Christ
May the Peace of Christ be with each of you, especially the mothers during this Mother’s day weekend. On my retreat this past week, I spent some time reflecting on the phrase from our Lord in today’s gospel, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” I couldn’t help but pause to ponder what made Jesus’ peace different than that of the world. I looked in a concordance to see other instances of the use of the word peace in the gospels. For the most part, it is used as a greeting, a use which is still done by both Jews and Muslims to greet one another. “Shalom,” in Hebrew and “Salaam” Arabic. Jesus would have greeted his Jewish followers with peace each time that he saw them just as we greet each other with a hearty hello.
There was, nonetheless, one passage that I found in the gospel of Matthew that says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” This verse prompted a question for me: Is Jesus talking about his own peace or the peace of this world when he said the above? Edward Gibbon in his book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire notes that, at the time of Jesus, there was relative peace throughout the Roman Empire that was largely kept by the sword. There were no major wars or uprisings between 27 BC and 180 AD because, in general, the Roman Emperors favored consolidation ahead of expansion. The Messiah was supposed to come and bring true peace to his people by driving out all Gentiles from the Land and set up a United Israel as a world government. That’s the peace of this world that Jesus is talking about in both the Gospels of Matthew and John that is won by the sword, the kind that he didn’t come to bring. Instead, the peace that he will bring is one brought to the church by the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
So, how will the Holy Spirit’s peace be different than that of the world? One person described the Roman understanding of peace as not so much the absence of war and conflict as the point when your opponent has been so decimated that he or she is wiped out. I think the difference between this and Christ’s gift of peace is clearly seen in the first reading today. This story from the Acts of the Apostles tells about the first real controversy in the church. While Paul and Barnabas are evangelizing in Antioch, certain Jewish Christian believers claim to have authority to explain what it means to be a Christian. They claim that you have to first be Jewish in order to be considered Christian. It would be like an excommunicated priest coming into Ames claiming to have authority to speak about who should be ordained, especially if his view contradicted the views that the bishops and pope have stated over and over again. Of course, such a person would have no authority to speak for the church and would only be causing the same division that the Jewish Christian believers did in the first reading. It’s too bad that the Gentile Christians didn’t simply pay more attention to Paul and Barnabas and simply ignore those who would try to divide them.
Nonetheless, I find Paul and Barnabus’ reaction instructive. They could have simply taken up a counter stance to say that there needs to be a division in the church’s practice. This was the way the Apostles had handled the situation with the deacons, for instance. There were deacons to deal with the Greek speakers so that the Apostles could be focused on the Aramaic speakers. Paul and Barnabas could have said that the Jewish Christians needed to maintain the Jewish laws while the Gentile Christians were free to live a life of grace, basically dividing the church in two. However, that’s not what Paul and Barnabas did. Instead, they went to Jerusalem, to the seat of Apostolic authority at the time, to get a ruling from Peter, James, and John: a ruling that removed almost all of the Jewish ritual laws for all believers in favor of the life of grace offered to the church by the Father through the Holy Spirit. They trusted that the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit and given the charism to lead the church, would not lead them astray. This action of trust ultimately lead to the peace of the church so that we could move forward with the mandate to evangelize the world.
Jesus says to us, his church, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” The peace of Christ doesn’t mean that there will not be war or conflict. As we have seen almost continually since the time of Jesus, there have been and probably always will be conflict, fighting, disagreement, and war. The peace that Jesus offers is a peace that gives us assurance that we are not so separated from God through sin that he would stop loving us. It is the peace of Christ whose death and resurrection has inextricably connected us to the Father in his loving, Spirit-filled plan of salvation. It’s the peace that calls us to trust in the teachings of the church and her apostolic successors who guide us through the violence and strife still present in this world. And it’s the peace that this world cannot give because it deals more with our internal ability to trust the church than our own ability to control and manipulate.