Tuesday the Fifth Week of Easter – Acts of the Apostles 14:19-28, John 14:27-31a.
In today’s readings, we hear Jesus promise his apostles, “Peace I leave with you,” and yet we hear in the first reading that Paul is stoned and left for dead when bringing Christ to the people of Lystra. What kind of peace is this? Moreover, how can we reconcile Jesus’s words that He gives his apostles peace when He says elsewhere “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34)?
What is interesting about these moments when Jesus invokes the concept of peace is that they are both directed to the twelve apostles and act like bookends on his ministry while alive with them. The “not peace but a sword” passage is from the gospel of St. Matthew and occurs during his exhortation to the Twelve Apostles when he sends them out to the surrounding towns after He “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matt 10:1). First, let’s note that this is a fulfillment of the “gathering of Israel” prophesied in the scriptures (cf., Deut 30:1-5, Isa 11:11-12, Jer 29:14, Ez 20:41-42), as Jesus tells them “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5b-6). But it is also preparation for the work the apostles will do after the Resurrection: “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth'” (Acts 13:47). As we reflected in Who are His Sheep? there is a natural progression to the spread of God’s salvation — first, within the Chosen People, then to all the nations. The apostles’ mission is to be radical evangelists in both cases. Jesus tells them, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff” (Matt 10:9-10a). What kind of mad mission is this? We might imagine that the apostles would be terrified without the safety net of money, extra clothes, and basic defense like a staff. But by all accounts, they went joyously, buoyed by the overflowing love Jesus was bestowing on them, made supernaturally courageous and unbothered thanks to the gifts of the Spirit. And here we can reflect on the singular focus of their mission: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment” (Matt 10:7-8). They are to be like Jesus, spreading the Word of God by mouth and by deed. What else would one need? We often think of “being like Christ” as a moral imperative, a perfection of sinlessness. But here we see what being like Christ really is: an outpouring of saving words and saving work, a laser-like focus on God the Father whose reign is at hand, and a complete lack of ego because “you received without payment,” so you should give endlessly without expecting thanks, payment, or recognition. Wow, I don’t know about you, but I find this thrilling.
Jesus must be honest with the apostles as He sends them out to do His work: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves … 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues” (Matt 10:16-17). Note that the gospels don’t report this type of treatment in the years of Jesus’s ministry but rather report that many were healed, many demons cast out, and many new disciples were gained. Thus we must acknowledge that Jesus was referring to the treatment the apostles would receive after his Death and Resurrection. In this prophetic mode, He continues, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). As in so many places in the gospels, Jesus redirects His disciples to consider the reality of God — both His love and His judgment — as so much more important than the trials of this world. So the apostles are warned that they will be persecuted but in the same breath reassured that they should not fear the trials of the body because they do the good work of salvation for the soul. As we shall see, this is advice that St. Paul lives out.
Now we have the appropriate context to understand His words:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Jesus sees all of time. He knows that many will not welcome His message or accept His sacrifice. Even within the same family, some will follow Him for their soul’s salvation and others will reject Him. When He says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” He reveals something about the path to salvation. This path demands that He absolutely must come first (that is, He, our triune God). That is why Jesus asserts that we cannot be saved if we love parents or children more than Him. He invokes these intimate relationships purposefully, in order to illustrate that our relationship with God must be so fundamental to who we are that it comes before anyone or anything else. To renounce God would be worse (and more ridiculous) than renouncing ourselves because it renounces the very One who made us, who made everything. This can seem extreme to those who lack a close relationship with God, but to people like the saints, there is nothing shocking about these statements. What it reveals to everyone, regardless of who they are, is that Christ’s message forces you to take a stand. Either you fundamentally put God first, before all else, and you achieve salvation, or you don’t. This is where the image of the “sword” makes sense: it cleaves apart the believers from the unbelievers. It is unavoidably violent not in its nature (the nature of the path is, in fact, love), but in how it is received in the world. Because the Way to God that is Christ is fundamentally nonviolent love, it doesn’t revel in this “sword-like” effect brought about by those wolves who attack the sheep. This is why He tells us we must “take up the cross.” Only those who are convicted (not those who convict) are put upon the cross. Only those who are the object of violence, not those delivering violence, are put upon the cross.
So we can see that Christ’s first use of the word peace at the beginning of the apostles’ ministry is an intricate and paradoxical message about the Way. By preaching love and working deeds of love, the apostles will be forcing people to come face-to-face with a God they must choose to accept or reject. This is not peace on earth but a troubling of their spirits, a stirring of their spirits. Like accelerant on a fire, the apostles will bring about an internal uproar that people must reconcile within themselves. This is not “peaceful.”
On to today’s gospel reading and the second use of “peace” by Jesus to his gathered apostles. This passage occurs during His lengthy speech to the apostles on Holy Thursday in the gospel of St. John, after He has washed their feet at the Last Supper. His moment of glory is at hand, and as He sees the details of His glorious sacrifice laid out before Him, He wants to prepare His apostles to build the Church after their moments of confusion and dismay. So, He says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” This is a different peace than the one He refers to at the beginning of their ministry. To use his own terms, we might refer to the first peace as a worldly peace and this second peace as the Lord’s peace. He deliberately distinguishes between the two. He bestows the peace of the Lord because they have chosen God to be their sole companion. These men and women have left their homes, their occupations, and their families; they have preached God’s word and done His works; they have been given gifts of the Holy Spirit and will be given much more. In short, they are on the Way to God, the Way of the Cross. This is why He urges them not to let their hearts be troubled or afraid. The peace the Lord gives them is a type of steadfastness of spirit and a sense of the rightness of their deeds. This is a peace of the heart, a peace in their souls.
Thus we can see that the Lord’s peace can exist within a person even when the peace of the world does not exist. Every martyr is a testament to the Lord’s peace existing in the midst of the violence of the world.
The rest of today’s gospel shows us the depth of Jesus’s empathy and care for His beloved apostles, his fledgling Church. Knowing how they might react to His death, still hidden from them, He says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.” And He even gives them the reason that He is choosing this path, certainly something they will be asking themselves in the days to come: “but the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me.” In this last sentence, He summarizes the Way of the Cross. It demands that a person demonstrate his love for and obedience to the Father. This love and obedience encounters the messiness of the world in myriad ways — sometimes it’s beautiful like the art that is poured into a cathedral, sometimes it’s mundane like the care for the sick, and sometimes it’s awful in the martyrdom of the saints.
And so we can return to our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, with Jesus’s words ringing in our ears. We hear that “some Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived and won over the crowds. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.” Here are the wolves of whom Jesus warned his apostles. The matter-of-fact reporting of Paul’s stoning and being left for dead is shocking; this is the incomparable St. Paul whose epistles help to not only form the early Church but define so much of our own instruction and theology. But more shocking is the following sentence: “But when the disciples gathered around him, he got up and entered the city.” The miracle of a man stoned almost to death simply getting up is amazing in itself, but what stands out to me is the fact that he walks right back into the city where he was stoned! My first thought is, wow – that’s some serious fearlessness! But in light of today’s reflection, I begin to see that this is the Lord’s peace.
Paul exhibits those facets of being blessed by the Lord’s peace that we pondered above: a steadfastness, an untroubled heart, an internal peace that comes from a singular focus and mission that nourishes him from within.
Indeed, the rest of the reading shows us what the Lord’s peace within a person can achieve. They gain “a considerable number of disciples” in Derbe then return to the city where Paul was stoned and “strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith.” I am amazed by this model of strengthening and perseverance, repeated so many times in the lives of the saints. Some might claim that persecution itself helps one on the path to sainthood and ultimately to God, in a sort of pain-yields-gain model. But in the light of today’s reflection, it seems much more likely that we are learning something about the qualities of the Lord’s peace. This gift from God, this strengthened, peaceful spirit, is bestowed even more bountifully by God when we act out His will in the world. It is not the persecution and pain that begets more peace but our unreserved gift of ourselves to God that garners His love in return.
So we must not misunderstand Paul and Barnabas’s words when they say, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” I don’t think they mean that the hardships in themselves guarantee the entrance to the Kingdom but that these hardships are inevitable when the word and will of God (themselves a “sword”) are active in the world through the disciples of Christ. In other words, the world is filled with wolves who will react violently to the choice God will thrust upon them in the form of His disciples. The hardships we undergo are a part of the world in which we must live, a world fundamentally fallen, and we are here to help achieve the salvation of fallen souls, so we will inevitably encounter violence and hardships. This is the Way of the Cross.
It makes me wonder what hardships I’ve encountered as I follow Christ. Not many if I’m honest. What does this say about me as a true follower? Am I bringing the “sword” of Christ by proclaiming that we must put God first, above all else? Have I helped accelerate the fire of God’s discernment in the souls of others?