Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

The gospel of peace

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How to speak of peace after the terrorist attacks in Paris? And yet peace is the message of both our readings today – especially Ephesians 2, but also the parable of the good Samaritan. Both readings are about peace, about breaking down the walls that separate and divide.

Icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with Jesus himself in the role of the Samaritan. He is our peace, our shalom.

Icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with Jesus himself in the role of the Samaritan. He is our peace, our shalom.

 

Every time there is an attack we hear the usual chorus: “Islam is a religion of peace.” Perhaps, but every day I come to doubt it more and more. But then Christianity is a religion of peace, isn’t it? Well, perhaps, but we certainly have a long and violent history that proves otherwise.

Ephesians 2 is magnificent:

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 into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, 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 one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians is a letter wrapped in peace; it is a liturgy of peace!

It opens with: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”

And it closes with: “Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Magnificent; but is it anything more than magnificent idealism? Except in cases of individual relationships, has this vision ever actually given birth to peace? Perhaps that is the problem: Christianity has been reduced to a religion of personal salvation. Jesus died for me! Yes he did, but I don’t come first, I come last. My salvation happens only as part of the bigger picture that Paul paints here. Paul declares that God’s plan for the “fullness of time” is to “gather up all things” in Christ (1:10).

The church is meant to be the place where this “new humanity” announced in our reading today is found. This is the key message of Ephesians. And so, the Christian church is required  to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3) through practices of humility, gentleness, patience, uplifting speech, forgiveness, mutual submission, non-threatening behavior, etc.

Peace is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel preached by Paul. But not the peace that the world gives. Jesus said it clearly: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). And that’s how we understand Philippians 4:7, where Paul wrote about “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”

1 Thess 5:3 warns against false peace: When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. ειρήνη και ασφάλεια, peace and security – the very words we hear from our politicians and world leaders.

So is it hopeless? Certainly not in the mind of Jesus and Paul. “Go and do likewise,” he tells us today in the gospel parable. Go and do likewise. Be a peacemaker. “Blessed are the ειρηνοποιοί, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God!” (Matthew 5:9)

Jesus himself is peacemaker. Ephesians 2:17 ἐλθὼν εὐηγγελίσατο εἰρήνην ὑμῖν τοῖς μακρὰν καὶ εἰρήνην τοῖς ἐγγύς. It’s almost as if Paul is quoting Isaiah 52:7 “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation…” πόδες εὐαγγελιζομένου ἀκοὴν εἰρήνης, ὡς εὐαγγελιζόμενος ἀγαθά in the ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint, LXX) of the Hebrew.

Christ announces peace and he is our peace – our shalom, our wholeness/healing. Healing is what the world needs above everything else. We can talk about strategies to defeat ISIS; there’s no shortage of politician and military rhetoric after a terrorist attack. That’s the “peace and security” that Paul warns against. It doesn’t last, because of human greed, hatred, divisiveness.

So how do we overcome the threat of ISIS and the other jihadist groups in the world? I don’t know, but we can begin by not fooling ourselves that Islam is a religion of peace. War and jihad are built into the heart of Islam. There is no equivalent of “the gospel of peace” in Islam as far as I can tell. Christianity and Islam are two totally different and irreconcilable religions. Certainly the jihadists agree! Enough with the political correctness; it has gotten us nowhere. It is time for the church to be the church that Jesus envisioned, that Paul describes in his letters.

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