A seminary classmate of mine, Brian, grew up in a rough part of London. During his young adult years, in the 1980’s, he was a part of that city’s punk rock scene. He had a rainbow-colored mohawk, studded wristbands, and a leather jacket- the standard punk uniform of the time. And, true to the punk ethos, Brian was disaffected, angry, and sometimes violent. God, needless to say, was not a part of his life.
One day Brian and some companions noticed that a local monastery was hosting a day for youth. They decided to go, create havoc, and disrupt the whole thing. When they arrived at the front door, a frail monk greeted Brian. Brian told him to "(Blank) off," and shoved him hard. The monk fell back against a wall and landed on the floor. He then picked himself up, dusted off his robes, smiled at Brian and said, "Peace be with you." Brian was at a loss for what to do or say. He had expected threats, insults, a call to the police- anything but a wish that he enjoy peace. The experience was so powerful, Brian said, that at that moment he was converted to faith in Christ.
Brian’s conversion experience is an example of the transforming power of the peace of Jesus- a peace we heard about in today’s gospel. No less than three times the risen Jesus said to his disciples, "Peace be with you." Indeed, these were the first words the Lord spoke to the disciples after his resurrection.
This peace- "Shalom" in Hebrew- might best be described as what we experience when we live in complete harmony with God. It’s a true gift that Jesus won for us through his death and resurrection- that’s why he first gave it on Easter day. But this peace is also something for which we must strive, by daily surrendering our life into God’s hands. When God is absent from our life, or when we work against God’s will, we will experience turmoil, restlessness, desolation, and inner conflict- as seen in the anger and violence of Brian’s life before his conversion. But when we live in harmony with God, we will know the peace of Christ.
When Jesus offered his peace to his friends, the wounds of the nails and spear were plainly visible for all to see. This tells us that a life lived in Christ’s peace is not necessarily free of hardship; we all have a cross to carry. Instead, the peace of Christ allows our hardships to be transformed, because we know we’re loved, strengthened, and guided by a God who cares for us, knows what’s best for us, and has a plan for our lives. Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, as he suffered with terminal pancreatic cancer, wrote a little book called The Gift of Peace. Just thirteen days before he died, he finished his book with this thought: "As I write these final words," he said, "my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace."
Jesus wants us to enjoy his peace. At the same time, he doesn’t want us to hoard it to ourselves. The peace we receive is a peace we’re meant to share. Think back to today’s gospel. Jesus wished his friends peace, and then sent them forth into the world to spread that peace. "As the Father has sent me," he said, "so I send you."
The same thing happens to us at Mass. During the Eucharistic prayer, we recall Jesus’ promise of peace at the Last Supper when he said to his apostles, "I leave you my peace, my peace I give you." Then we ask Jesus to "grant us the peace and unity of (his) kingdom." After this, we share the sign of peace, as we turn and say to each other, "Peace be with you."
"Peace be with you" isn’t a special way we Christians say hello to each other, and it’s much more than a simple expression of good wishes. Instead, it’s a way we acknowledge that the peace of Christ is a gift that our Lord has offered to each one of us. At the same time, to say "Peace be with you" is also something of a challenge, both to ourselves and to those we greet, to be open and receptive to Christ’s peace. Because we all fall short of it, and even reject it outright, through our sin, selfishness, and pride.
Pope Benedict described the Eucharist as "the sacrament of peace." In particular, he wrote about the "great value" of the sign of peace we exchange at Mass. He calls it an "eloquent" gesture, because of the "irrepressible desire for peace in every heart" in the midst of a world "fraught with fear and conflict." Because of this, he concludes, we who share Christ’s peace with one another at Mass, have a special responsibility to share the peace of Christ with the world.
And that’s what we’re sent forth to do at the end of each Mass. It’s for good reason that all of the options for the Dismissal at the end of Mass explicitly mention Christ’s peace: "Go, in the peace of Christ;" "The Mass is ended, go in peace;" "Go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord."
We can’t, however, share with others what we ourselves don’t have. That’s why we need each day to open ourselves more and more to Christ’s peace, by placing our trust in God and striving to live in harmony with his will. "Acquire inner peace," said St. Seraphim, and a multitude around you will find their salvation."
The world is filled with people like my seminary classmate Brian. Maybe they don’t have a mohawk! But they do have anger, turmoil, confusion, meaninglessness, cynicism, hopelessness, despair. Our Lord wants to use us to bring his peace to people like them. Maybe then we should make our own the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, who said, "Lord, make me a channel of your peace."