SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 15:1f., 22-29 Rev 21:10-14, 22f. Jn 14:23-29. Peace. The New Jerusalem; The Continuing Presence of God; Peacemaking; The Dwelling Place of God.
Business seminars used to deal with what they called conflict resolution. Today, realizing that – human nature being what it is – we don’t really resolve many conflicts, they are more and more emphasizing the concept o f conflict management. The major tactic is to try to give a full hearing to each side in a conflict and then try to mediate, seeing if each side can get what it wants without making the other side feel as though it has lost, and – most important – keeping peace.
Indeed, peace – external peace and internal peace – vital for all of us. We continue to consider external peace in special ways at times. Problems of internal peace such as undue anxiety and scrupulosity we consider all the time. Jesus made peace an important part of his last lessons the night before he died. He said that he was giving us his gift of peace “not as the world gives”, and repeat that idea in a prayer before the kiss of peace at Mass.
What the world means by “peace” is often simply the absence of war. It is a state of being left alone, like the harassed mother wants from her active young children or the worker from the public he has had to deal with for too long. Or it is a deep sleep, which is what the world understands when it writes “Rest in Peace” on its tombstones.
What Jesus means by peace is quite different. It is not simply a cocoon wrapping us in self-centeredness, isolating us from the pressures of daily life, and eradicating trouble. It is a positive, active thing – a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence. St Augustine was in the tradition of Jesus when he defined peace as “the tranquility of order”. It contains certain prerequisites. It is all-involving. If you want peace, you must have a still and quiet conscience, because there is no peace for the wicked (Is 48:22). If you want peace, you must work for justice. If you want peace, you must seek God’s will. As Dante put over the doors of paradise,” In His will is our peace”; T.S. Eliot added that if we do God’s will can find peace “even among these rocks” of our life.
And Jesus said that one of the essential requirements of peace is love. One problem with that is that love can turn inward and become a very private thing. By the Tiber River in Rome there is in a glass-enclosed building the ara pacis, a beautifully-carved marble “alter of peace”. It was erected by Augustus Ceasar after he and his armies had conquered practically all of Europe and the known parts of Asia. But when one bends others to one’s will, that is not peace, but tyranny.
Another version distorted love and peace is one that is syrupy sweet and sentimental. Those versions can be exclude almost anybody anybody we wish. To avoid that, Jesus calls for our obedience: “Whoever loves me will keep my word” (v. 23). That kind of discipline reaches out to the world God loves. In our often brutal world, that can call for what we today call “though love”.
To help, Jesus tried to show the Apostles that the mode of his presence was going to change. Presence – especially the presence of friends – is important to everyone, and the Apostles were dejected because Jesus’ physical presence was to be no more. He assured them that his bodily presence would be replaced by something far more wonderful.
For all that, though, Jesus’ presence would be no less intimate. From their having been able to physically see, hear, and touch him, they would now have God entering their lives in the deeper sense of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus would pass on to his heavenly Father, the Spirit would come to move people on to the next phase of union with God.
He promised the Paraclete, the third person of the godhead, to help give God’s peace to us. The word “Paraclete” is also translated “Comforter”, but a Paraclete does more than comfort. The word is equivalent in Greek, the language in which St John the Evangelist wrote, of the Latin “advocates”, and means a mediator, a defence attorney, one who stands by you in time of need. In time of trouble, it is a great comfort to have a lawyer take your side. What the lawyer does for pay, the Paraclete does for love. What the lawyer does with the possibility of failing, the Paraclete does with a guarantee of success for those who do their part. Although we are guilt, both Paracletes – Jesus and the Holy Spirit – plead our cause and get us a suspended sentence.
As the poet (Gerard Manley Hopkins) put it, a Paraclete is one who cheers, who encourages, who persuades, who exhorts, who stirs up, who urges forward, who calls on. What clapping hands are to a speaker, what a trumpet is to a soldier, a Paraclete is to the soul. A Paraclete is zealous that we should do the good, and full of assurance that if we try we can; calling us on, springing to meet us half way, crying to our ears as to our heart: “This way to do God’s will; this way to save your soul. Come on, come on!”
Paracletes take place on a human as well as a divine level. When the heartbroken Nathaniael Hawthorne went home to tell he wife that he was a failure and had been fired from his job in a customhouse, she surprised him with an exclamation of joy.
“Now,” she said triumphantly, “you can write your book!”
“Yes,” replied Nathaniel, “and what shall we live on while I am writing it?”
To his amazement, she opened a drawer and pulled out a substantial amount of money.
“Where on earth did you get that?” he exclaimed.
“I have always known you were a man of genius,” she told him. “I knew that someday you would write a masterpiece. So every week, out of the housekeeping money you gave me, I saved a little. So here is enough to last us for a whole year!”
From her confidence and encouragement came one of the greatest novels of United States literature, The Scarlet Letter.
On the divine level, deeper experiences of God do not, however, make Christians immune to problem or pain. Even as Jesus was speaking about his farewell gift of his kind of peace can be present even in the midst of insults, persecution, and approaching death.
The troubles of Jesus continued in his Church. The first major controversy in the Church is that recorded in the First Reading of today’s Mass. It concerned whether a non-Jew becoming a Christian should be compelled to enter the Church by way of Judaism. When you consider that most of the first Christians were devout, synagogue-attending Jews, the dispute is not strange. Those Jewish Christianity by way of Judaism took the position that the Jews were God’s chosen people. They pointed to God’s promises to Abraham, to Moses’ freeing the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, to the words of the prophets. And – very significantly – they were emotionally dedicated to their belief in their Torah, or Law.
On the other side of that dispute were those who believed that the ultimate and final word of God is not the Torah, but Jesus; he alone is our salvation. They said that if Jewish regulations like circumcision were made binding on Christians, Christianity would become nothing but a small sect of Judaism (like the Lubavitcher sets of Judaism today in places like Brooklyn). They believed that Christians die and rise in Christ through baptism, which frees us from the Torah.
In the Church’s first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Jerusalem, their position won out. At that Council the early church Fathers indicate their decision not to lay on Christians any burden which wasn’t strictly necessary. And, being true peacemakers, they not only promulgated the official decision, but sent Judas and Silas out with it to help the lukewarm to accept it. With that decision, the Christian assembly officially broke ties with Judaism, arrived at a new and higher step in defining itself, and extended membership into regions of the world where it hadn’t gone before.
The successor of Peter and the rest of the Church continue that authority and concern. The history of the Church has sordid pages – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the immoral lives of some Renaissance Popes, the bad politics – and is always in need of reform. But the Church is an assembly guided by the Holy Spirit to teach Christ’s truth authentically.
That truth doesn’t change. There is no new Gospel. But Christ’s Gospel can be applied to new situations. The Gospel develops, but doesn’t depart from its original deposit of faith. There is nothing in the oak tree which wasn’t first in the acorn; yet the oak has certainly grown and developed. The Church has always confronted new problems. This shouldn’t cause consternation. The Church will continue to solve life’s problems as she has always done – by relying on the Holy Spirit. The Church’s authority remains a sure and absolute guide in matters of faith and morals.
The vision of the end result for those who cooperate is the “New Jerusalem” described in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, part of which constitutes today’s Second Reading. Jerusalem was the Lord’s choice for His dwelling. In the Holy of Holies in the Temple, he “dwelt on the wings of the Cherubim,” which surrounded the Ark of the Covenant. Jerusalem represented all Israel, and was its capital. It was the embodiment of all the promises made to the Patriarchs and the Prophets. Yet at the time of Christ it had become corrupt, and good Jews hated that corruption. Among the many interpretations of the Book of Revelation, what is sure is that the Book is trying to describe the king of peace that will result, both here and the hereafter, if Christ holds sway.
We face the same issues as did our forebears in today’s liturgy – conflicts and their management, troubles of various kinds, and God’s presence. We should know enough about conflict management to achieve peace – Jesus’ unique peace, his Easter gift, wherever we go. And we need a broad enough vision to see God’s presence everywhere. That is particularly true at the Kiss of Peace at Mass, when w recognize God’s presence in every single person. Those realizations should have such results as deeper understanding of others and easier gestures of forgiveness both of which I turn help further a reign of peace. That is a mode of conflict management in which everybody wins.