Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, and thus the beginning of the Church’s year. Advent is a time of waiting, of longing, of anticipation. We are awaiting the coming of Christ. Over the next four Sundays, we will try to put into words what that means for us; we’ll describe what we are longing for and what we can expect to receive from the Christ who comes to us. The series is called, “Longing for Christ,” and the four parts are these:
I will be speaking today on the topic, “Longing for the Peace of Christ.”
Next week, Br. Geoffrey will speak about “Longing for the Judgment of Christ.”
Br. James will follow in week three with “Longing for the Salvation of Christ,”
and Br. Mark will complete the series by speaking on “Longing for the Light of Christ.”
Human beings share a universal hope and longing for peace. It is a desire which seems to be deeply rooted in who we are. There are exceptions, of course: people so deeply damaged by life that their capacity to love and be loved is all but extinguished; wounded people whose lives are marked by hatred and fear, who wish others ill and who strike out at them with violent words and actions. But this is a distortion of what we are meant to be, a sign of our brokenness and of our separation from God. We were made to live in peace with one another and with the whole creation, and this desire is still present in most of us. We hope and long for peace.
But peace eludes us. We humans seem to be constantly at war with one another. We have just passed through the bloodiest century in the history of humankind. More people died through violence and war in the 20th century than in any previous century – and peace continues to elude us in this new century – in the Middle East, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, between North and South Korea, as well as in our cities. We continue to experience division and strife, brought about by greed and anger and fear. Evidence abounds in our world of groups of people locked in hatred and mistrust, caught in never-ending cycles of violence and retribution. Even our churches have become battle grounds.
The conflict rages not only between us, but within us. In an increasingly fragmented and frantic world, the quest for inner peace seems ever more urgent. The rise of interest in “spirituality” in recent decades attests to this strong desire for inner calm and harmony. We recognize that something is out of balance in our lives, that we are being pushed and pulled in several directions at once by pressures and demands of our culture, and many of us have lost the sense of peace and inner harmony that characterizes a centered and balanced life. We hope and long for inner peace.
It is no wonder, then, that our hearts respond to the promise of peace. Images of peace, like the one drawn by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading (Isaiah 11:1-9), awaken our deep desire for harmony and peaceful co-existence. Envisioning a future king who would ‘judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’, Isaiah writes: “(When his reign comes), the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-7). Israel longed for such a day, and so do we.
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that such a reign has begun. The kingdom of God is at hand. Luke tells us that the birth of Jesus was marked by a choir of angels, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, good will among people” (Luke 2:13). And Mark reports that “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15). The vision of peace for which we long is no longer just a far-off ideal, distant and unattainable, but a dream that can be and is being realized today.
What is the peace that Jesus brings us? First and foremost, it is peace with God. In Christ, the God who created us and loves us reconciles us to himself. Paul declares to the Christians in Rome that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “While we were (God’s) enemies,” Paul says, “we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (5:10) and “therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). We are forgiven, restored, and reconciled with God through Christ, and that gives us a sense of peace that can never be taken away.
We have been reconciled to God in Christ, but we have also been reconciled to one another in Christ. To the Gentile Christians at Ephesus, Paul writes, “Remember that you were at (one) time without Christ… having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Gentiles and Jews) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… (so) that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in the one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:12-18).
In Christ, God has broken down the walls that separate us and divide us, and offered us a way to peace. As a recent publication from the Diocese of Massachusetts put it, “There is no longer…male against female, Jew against Greek, slave against free, immigrant against native, black against brown, gay against straight, suburban against urban, young against old… for we are all one in Christ!” Peace is possible!
But true peace cannot be achieved at the cost of clamping down discontented voices and oppressing the weak. The peace that God offers and calls us to is a peace built on the foundation of justice. God’s peace is not achieved by the strong dominating the weak; such domination may bring a temporary end to conflict and war, but it will not bring about true peace. The kingdom of God is a peaceable kingdom, a transformed society in which each member is valued and treated with dignity. The weak and the strong live together in harmony, each caring for the other. There is no true peace without justice. We are not only to desire this peace, but to work for it. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus tells us, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peacemakers, reconciling people to God and reconciling them to one another.
Finally, the peace that is offered in and through Christ is a deep and abiding peace, an inner peace that is independent of circumstance. This peace abides in joy and in suffering. It stays with us when we have a sense that God is present and when God seems absent. No one can take if from us. It has been given to us by Christ, and is the result of our union with God through him. No person or circumstance can rob us of it; it is a peace that endures.
As Jesus prepares to leave his disciples he says to them, “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 inner peace can only be given to us by Christ; the world cannot offer anything like it. It is Christ’s gift to us, freedom from fear and worry and the deep security of knowing that we are loved by God and held by God at every moment of our lives – in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, in bad times and good. Be at peace. Don’t be afraid.
“Acquire peace in your heart and thousands will find salvation around you,” says St. Seraphim of Sera. When we receive and abide in that peace, the peace that only Christ can give, we become the kind of people who can live at peace with others and who can be channels of peace in our communities and in our world.
This is the peace we long for and which Christ brings us, a peace that “passes human understanding,” that is steady and sure regardless of life’s circumstances, that endures forever. We long for that peace, we can receive that peace, and we can give that peace freely to others.
“Make me an instrument of your peace,” prayed St. Francis, “where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”
Think of it: instruments of God’s peace. What higher calling could there be? What greater gift could we desire?
“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.”
(The Hymnal 1982, #56, verses 1 and 7)