5th Week of Easter (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
Jesus says to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Reading the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters, we might be inclined to return the gift of Christ's peace with a polite “No Thank You” note. If Stephen's execution, Paul's imprisonment, the martyrdom of every apostle except John, and all the other trials, torments, and deaths that befell the merry band of Christians in the first few centuries of the Church are examples of what taking the gift of Christ's peace means, then, yea, we would wise to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Living “peacefully” with Christ looks a lot like living in constant turmoil with an ever present threat of injury and death floating nearby. Complaining to Jesus about this apparent misnomer wouldn't do much good. He promised us trial, tribulation, persecution, torture, and death if we took up the cross and followed him. Yet he says that he gives us his peace. It is reasonable to ask then, “Um, Lord, exactly what do you mean by 'peace.' Because frankly, I'm not seeing it.”
Let's begin to answer this question with a quick philosophy lesson: when dealing with an apparent contradiction in terms, the first move to make is to define your terms and distinguish. “Peace” is usually used to mean something like “a state of non-conflict, the condition of relative calm.” But if we limit ourselves to understanding peace as the absence of conflict, then we will not be able to say much about Christ's peace. Our history of living in the world as preachers of the gospel is stained with the blood of Christian martyrs and with the blood of those we ourselves have killed. So, we need to refine our definition. Peace could also mean, “a state of tranquility; freedom from disquieting thoughts or emotions; external and internal calm.” While peace can indicate that harmony has been achieved between opposing external forces, it can also indicate that internal conflicts have been brought into agreement, a state of interior concord and silence. Given these differences, we must make this distinction: rather than bequeathing to us a perpetual state of non-conflict with our enemies, Jesus gives us the peace of internal silence; the quiet assurance of hope.
Why does Jesus give his disciples his peace? At this point in John's gospel, Jesus is preparing his friends for Judas' betrayal in the Garden. He is on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and crucified. He knows that his death will shock his students, leaving them dispirited and quite possibly rendering them useless as preachers. Notice how Jesus imparts the peace which passes all understanding: “Peace I leave with you; MY peace I give to you.” The disciples are not given just any old peace, any old garden variety balm for their twitchy nerves. They are given the peace that Christ himself possesses. “MY peace I give to you.” The peace that Christ himself possesses is the sort of peace that comes with surrendering to the Father's providence, His loving-care: surrendering plans, expectations, dreams; surrendering a stubborn heart and a cold mind; surrendering need, want, self, and living wholly in sacrificial love as God has willed us to love one another. And even as we love imperfectly, failing over and over again, we do so out of his gift of peace.
We are told that if we want peace, we must work for justice. If we want peace, we must confront conflict; or disarm national armies; or eliminate poverty and disease; or take the right medications and see the right therapists; or buy enough stuff and live to our full economic potential; or educate ourselves in the best philosophies. We can purchase the peace of this world if that's what we truly want. But we cannot buy the peace that has already been given to us for free. We peace we need is the peace purchased for us on the cross, the peace of sacrificial love and the certain hope of resurrection.
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