Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year C
May 1, 2016
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” We echo those words at the Sign of Peace in every Mass. We do well during the Easter season to bask in Christ’s gift of peace. But what exactly does that peace mean? What is it supposed to look like in our lives?
Everyone wants peace, and to abide in this life peacefully. What we as Catholics define as peace goes deeper than what passes for peace in the world around us. Many years ago, while working in Kansas one summer, I attended a Mass at which the priest, instead of saying the introduction, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace,” chose to say, “Why don’t you wish one another a nice day.” Is that all that we think is going on at that moment—a handshake, a smile, and “Have a nice day?” Exchanging pleasantries can happen anytime. Jesus has something more significant in mind with his gift of peace.
The setting of the words Jesus said in today’s Gospel is Holy Thursday night. Our Lord has just instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the gift of His Body and Blood which his priests of the New Covenant will not only share, but will make present by the power of his name. He would then seal this covenant in his sacrificial death on the cross, and gain an everlasting victory by rising from the grave on the third day. This victory is the source of the peace we share, a peace that can exist in our hearts and among one another even if there are conflicts from outside, or disagreements between us on lesser things.
Sometimes we think that, in order to be at peace, everyone who has a problem with us must drop that position and no longer harbor any hostility toward us. But how realistic is that? The Apostles had peace in their hearts whether enemies opposed them or not, because the Lord triumphed over death and His Spirit was with them. Later on in this discourse from St. John’s Gospel, Our Lord tells the Apostles, “In this world you will have trouble, but take courage: I have conquered the world.”
In this room there are all kinds of opinions when it comes to politics or other worldly matters. You may not see eye to eye with the person behind you, but peace is Christ’s gift to all of us. He has triumphed over death and His Spirit guides our hearts to receive the fullness of Christ’s teachings. Our petty disputes must not get in the way of our spiritual identity and brotherhood.
On a broader scale, what may look like peace between peoples and nations is simply an absence of active warfare or a temporary truce. Just because one country is not invading another doesn’t mean that true peace is at work. When you study Church history, the late Middle Ages were a particularly distressful time for Europe. Leaving aside the conundrum of the Church, in the form of the Papal States, getting roped into labeling nations as allies or enemies, consider how often numerous Christian groups were fighting against one another. The local king, duke, or count would gin up a military campaign, and in many cases the average soldier or citizen would think, “I don’t understand why we are doing this. What makes this group my enemy? How are they threatening me?” How many baffling alliances dragged otherwise innocent bystanders into combat? How many people over the centuries were swept up in warfare, not for legitimate defense of their homeland, but because the leader at the time required it of them?
Fast-forward to the year 1914; Pope St. Pius X passed away in August that year, it is said, of a broken heart. With World War I escalating, the Holy Father couldn’t fathom how so many men from Catholic and other Christian nations were taking up arms against one another. Families were being torn apart, and people in the prime of their lives were perishing as grist for the mill!
In our own time, how ironic is it that, for as many people as there are in our world who pray and work for peace, so many ethnic groups are still at war with each other? Human beings have learned so little from their past! If only that were the extent of it; terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda engage in war and threaten war every day! We are called to earnestly pray and work for peace, but a mutually declared cease-fire will not take us there. Only a willingness to preserve the dignity of one’s neighbor as much as oneself will draw human beings closer to the Prince of Peace. And only sincere conversion of heart will bring about that kind of change.
Jesus goes on to say in today’s Gospel that he does not give peace as the world gives peace. I take this to mean that, quite often, what the world calls peace is very different from life in the Spirit. Jesus was brutally honest about what happens to those who know God’s plans and still reject them, but Jesus was not a pugilistic, bullying personality. He could have imposed his Kingdom, complete with fearsome supernatural signs, but instead he proposed. His miracles didn’t so much serve to broadcast his might as a divine Person as to fill humanitarian needs, like feeding the hungry and healing the sick. When we perform corporal works of mercy, we are advancing the peace of God’s Kingdom, since it is Christ himself whom we feed, clothe, and shelter.
What’s more, the peace of Christ is only conditioned upon receiving his gracious gifts of love, and watching how those gifts bear fruit. The way of Christ is joyful and peaceful, if only we decide to follow it. The Holy Spirit liberates us when we learn to accept that Christ’s peace, the kind that matters most, does not hinge upon the passing anxieties and priorities of this passing world. His peace abides in us when we courageously respond to divine grace and allow the Holy Spirit, with Whom we were sealed in Confirmation, to speak and act through us. By all means, pray for peace, but ask Jesus to show you what his peace will accomplish.