“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)
What a precious gift Jesus gave to his disciples with these words. They were said during a difficult conversation following the meal at which Jesus startled his twelve disciples by washing their feet, something only a slave would do. Then Jesus told the group that his betrayer was about to turn him over to the authorities, and that Peter would deny that he ever knew Jesus. The disciples must have been alarmed by this talk, to say the least. And in the midst of it Jesus said to them, “I give you my peace. It is not what the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.”
But they were afraid, and with good reason. Jesus was seized, flogged, accused of inciting a rebellion against Rome, and convicted in a sham trial. Within a few hours the death sentence was carried out. It was the agonizing death of a hardened criminal, a threat to society, raised high on a cross adjacent to the main road where all could see and jeer at the foolish young teacher, or perhaps be reminded by the grisly sight that Rome tolerated no hint of disloyalty among its subjects. The disciples, of course, were implicated by association with Jesus, and after the crucifixion they went into hiding. No hint of peace anywhere in the entire episode.
The circumstances that the apostles and other followers encountered after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension were no more peaceful. According to tradition, ten of the twelve apostles were martyred. The early church was persecuted by the Roman government, by the Jewish religious authorities, by Greek polytheistic philosophers, by everybody it seemed. As the gospel was spread by missionaries throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe and eventually across the globe, the threat of violent opposition also grew. Whether from savage tribes of indigenous peoples or sophisticated power regimes fearing loss of their dominance, the courageous Christians who answered the call to share the good news of Jesus’ saving love and power knew that death or severe harm may be only a heartbeat away.
Those days, sadly, are not over. Today Christians live under extreme threat of persecution in North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran, according to Open Doors, an organization that supports and serves persecuted Christians across the world. The Open Doors website (www.opendoorsusa.org) cites a finding of the Pew Research Center that 75% of the world’s population lives in places with “severe religious restrictions,” and a statement from the U.S. State Department that Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or neighbors solely because of their Christian faith. It is all too apparent that this world needs some of the peace that Jesus left with his disciples, and we need it now!
The peace that Jesus gave is the enduring, eternal peace of the New Covenant that he established by dying on the cross to pay the price for the sin of humankind. The supreme sacrifice under the law has been offered, and sin no longer has power to separate us from God. Regardless of what happens to us and around us here in our temporary earthly lives, we have the peace of knowing that after this life we’ll be with God forever because he has forgiven our sin. The trials of our transient life on earth are put into eternal perspective. Not that the trials are trivial – the pain and suffering are real – but they’re not all there is or ever will be. That trite phrase that we use so often about minor irritations, “this too shall pass,” becomes a comforting reassurance when it’s placed in the context of God’s promise.
Jesus said the peace that he gave was different from what the world gave. The key difference is that God’s peace is sure because God’s promise is sure. We all know a lot about empty promises in our world. One recent example can be found in the election that we’ve just seen in the U.S. In the campaign that leads up to every election, promises are made that will not be kept – some are never intended to be kept, some cannot be kept because of the structural checks and balances of power in the legislative system, and some are rendered moot by unforeseen circumstances. Not so with God’s promises. He can keep them because he is all-powerful and all-knowing, and he will keep them because he cares for us and all of his creation.
The peace of the Lord, unlike the peace of the world, can be shared and spread – actually, it must be spread, because this is how we spread the good news as our Lord commanded. When we share the story of God’s love for us, we also share the peace of Christ. It’s all wrapped up in one package. We share the peace of the Lord with one another at our regular Eucharistic celebrations, and we also share it in our daily interactions with the world. It is our duty as followers of the Prince of Peace.
How might this world be different if every faithful person deliberately and intentionally spread the peace of the Lord in only one encounter each day? I suspect the impact would be far greater than we could possibly imagine. Let us take up that challenge, today and every day. Even if it has no other notable effect, see if sharing peace with another helps your spirit feel more at peace too. That would surely be worth a lot.
The peace of the Lord be always with you.