THE CHRIST-CHILD is born, says Zechariah, to guide us in the ways of peace (Luke 1.79). At his birth, the night sky rings with the joy of the angels, as they sing of the peace this child will bring (Luke 2.14). With the infant in his arms, Simeon declares that he can now “depart in peace” (Luke 2.29).
The peace that the newborn Christ will impart is one of the leading themes of Luke’s infancy narratives, as it is of our Christmas carols. Perhaps in future this Sunday’s Gospel should be included in our carol services — a tenth lesson tacked on to the traditional nine — to remind us that the grown-up Jesus had his own ideas about what manner of peace he would bring to the earth.
“Did you think that I came to bring peace on the earth?” asks Jesus. Well, yes, Lord, actually we did. We believed those angels with their siren songs. We remember how you blessed people with the benediction: “Go in peace” (Luke 7.50, 8.48, 10.5-6). Peace was your bequest to us — at least that is what your beloved disciple said (John 14.27). We were led to expect that peace was a fruit of your kindly spirit (Galatians 5.22).
Yes, Lord, we did think that you came to give us peace. And, if you don’t mind our saying so, what we are experiencing in the Anglican Communion right now — not to speak of Iraq — is not what we thought you had in mind. If this is peace, it certainly is “the peace that passes all understanding”.
The contradictions run deep, perhaps most starkly in Jesus’s apparent claim that his purpose is to undo the work of his predecessor John the Baptist. Gabriel had said that it would be John’s mission to heal family divisions (Luke 1.17). Jesus’s mission, by contrast is, it seems, to foment family division; to set close relatives against each other.
How are we to resolve these contradictions? However can we harmonise the peace-on-earth song of the Christmas angels with the fire-on-earth warnings we shall hear on Sunday? How do we reconcile the scriptural promises of peace, the vision of lions lying down with lambs, of swords becoming ploughshares, and the rest, with what is in fact is going on — in Baghdad, in a fissiparous Church, and for much of the time in my own head?
Bishop Edward Bickersteth in 1875 would have had us believe that “peace, perfect peace” is indeed possible “in this dark world of sin”. “The blood of Jesus”, he tells us, “whispers peace within.” It is a feeble hymn, but it draws its inspiration from a great text. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26.3).
There are skills by which the mind may find rest, and we have our schools of Christian prayer that teach them. There are, too, the techniques of other faith traditions, especially those of Buddhist meditation. Was Jesus a master of such methods? Did he practise “right mindfulness”? He certainly slept through the storm that terrified his disciples (Mark 4. 38).
Yet the evidence of Sunday’s Gospel (“What stress I am under!”) is that Jesus never achieved the unruffled serenity of the Buddha. Beneath the Bo tree, Siddhartha Gautama found enlightenment. Beneath the olive trees, Jesus embraced the cross. Both paths are good, but the way of the cross is not is not a fast track to a quiet mind. Perhaps there are things that matter more.
The promised peace may be “peace within” — or it may be “peace hereafter”. The good Bishop Bickersteth thinks that it is both: “It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease, And Jesus call us to Heaven’s perfect peace.”
Christian spirituality has no quarrel with the quest for “peace within”, nor with the hope of “peace hereafter”. We are more likely to be of some use if we keep our stress levels down, and we shall be less discouraged by failure if our perspective is not bounded by the transient. We return this Sunday to the great 11th chapter of Hebrews, to those whose desire for “a better country” made their engagement with the one they were in only more purposeful and effective.
What matters is that these paths — that which seeks inner peace, and that which pursues peace “beyond the river” — do not become detours to avoid the demands of the present and what is happening outside the walled garden of my own soul.
The language of Sunday’s Gospel is that of the prophet, the role in which Luke casts Jesus as he approaches Jerusalem. Prophets possess a still centre, and they see beyond the horizon. But their focus is on the here and now. They do not agonise over the seeming contradictions between what we are promised and what we are given. There is far too much to be done.
23Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? 24Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. 25I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ 26How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back - those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? 27They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. 28Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. 29Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
29By faith the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus said to his disciples: 49‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
54He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?