Romans 6:19-23; Luke 12:49-53
Shopping at a nearby grocery store recently I couldn’t help but notice all the Christmas merchandise on display. When I spotted an ornament that said Peace on Earth I was reminded of Jesus in the readings we will soon hear – the prophet Isaiah speaking of the coming Prince of Peace; angels singing of peace on Earth; Luke telling of the whole world being at peace.
What a stark contrast to today’s gospel, where Jesus says that he has come not to establish peace but division. We might wonder what happened; isn’t this the same Jesus who blessed peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and so lovingly bid his disciples peace (John 16:33; John 20:19, 21)?
Yes, but a bit more depth is called for. It is true that Isaiah called the Messiah the Prince of Peace but he also called him a stumbling block (Isaiah 8:14). At his birth the angels did sing of peace but just days later Simeon called him a sign that would be contradicted (Luke 2:33-34). Jesus did bless the peacemakers but he also said that he came to give sight to the blind and to remove it from those who see (John 9:39). Paul said that Jesus is peace (Ephesians 2:14), but Jesus said he is the peace the world cannot give (John 14:27).
The world cannot do so because the peace of Christ is not merely the lack of war, it is a fruit of the Spirit; the union of wills binding us to each other and to God. Like all fruit, peace takes time to develop and requires trust, patience, and humility. Still, the reward is worth the wait for this is the peace that brings life in abundance and is why Christ came; to reconcile us to the Father by putting the enmity between us to death on the cross, restoring us to right relationship with the Father.
Our Lord’s words in the gospel must be understood in this context. When he speaks of fire we should think of his love. As from a single flame come light and heat, so from the heart of Christ come mercy and justice. On all who dwell in the darkness of sin and the shadow of death fall the two sides of true peace: the light of his mercy that shines like the dawn and the healing rays of his justice that purify us like silver in a refiner’s fire. And when he speaks of division we should think of pride, for this is what keeps us separated from God and each other. Pride breeds the shame that keeps us in darkness and away from the penetrating light of Christ, as well as the fear of admitting our faults that keeps us away from the healing grace of Confession.
In calling out these things Christ identifies the battle that rages within each of us: Remain free of God and enslaved to sin, or be free of sin and enslaved to God. The first leads to discord, the second to peace. The choice of peace seems so obvious but as Paul implies in the first reading it is notoriously difficult. Of the many obstacles, the primary one is ourselves. We are our own worst enemy and daily die the death of a thousand cuts; little things that edge us into the darkness. For example, in our free time when we could say a prayer we choose to surf the internet. When we could pick up the phone and reconcile with a long lost brother, sister, parent, or child, we wait for them to call first. When we could volunteer at the food pantry, homeless shelter, or nursing home, we sit back and watch TV.
To win this combat and know the peace of Christ we need the armor of the virtues; prudence, to discern where our good lies; temperance, to know when we should move on; justice, to understand that the love we give our neighbor and God is the love we owe them; and fortitude, to constantly yield our will to that of Christ, for only his is the love that casts out all fear, not only restoring us to right relationship with the Father, but reconciling us with each other.
In the end, the choice to fight the battle is ours. Peace on Earth can remain a Christmas slogan or be a lived reality. The first costs nothing, requires nothing, and yields nothing; the second costs all we have, requires all we are, and yields eternal life.
It comes down to this: No Jesus, no peace; know Jesus, know peace.