‘Peace’ is a word that goes to the heart of the Christian message. It was the theme of the angels’ song on the night of Jesus’ birth. It is something we all long for. Yet ‘peace’ is one thing the world does not have.
In fact, with the constant news of war and brutal terrorism, in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq, and so many other places, we can be tempted to ask what the angels meant when they sang of peace and goodwill at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is one of the criticisms about the Christian faith from cynics and genuine enquirers. It’s one of the questions that can tempt professing Christians to doubt the reliability of God’s Word.
The key is in the second part of the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors”. They were speaking about the peace God’s people would know – personal peace with God (John 14:27) and peace with one another as God’s people (Ephesians 2:13-18). In Colossians 3:15, St Paul says, Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. When we, or others ask, ‘Where is the evidence of the fulfillment of this ‘peace’, the answer is, ‘The people of God’.
But Paul knew very well that this peace doesn’t happen automatically. In Colossians 3:12-17 he identifies attitudes and actions we need to develop. He begins by putting his finger on attitudes that can constantly cause tension and conflict. So, instead of indifference towards the pain, suffering and exploitation of others, he says, put on compassion and kindness; instead of arrogance or pride that thinks only of self, be humble and gentle; instead of impatience or resentment, practice patience.
Indifference, pride and impatience. How often are we impatient because we are not prepared to put up with the faults or perceived failures of others? And, how many of us are indifferent to injustice and exploitation – unless it touches us, or our loved ones? We are rightly upset with the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS, especially against people who refuse to convert to Islam, but what of our concern for the teenage girls still hostage to Boko Haram in Nigeria? Or Christians in Palestine, South Sudan, or Afghanistan? And, turning to another example, what concern do we have for the extensive sex-trade networks that are proliferating around the world?
‘Freedom’ a new film (being released in Australia tomorrow) tells a story of the 19th century ‘Underground Railroad’ in North America that brought freedom for tens of thousands of slaves. But it is not just an historical narrative for it opens up a story of Christian faith and courageous compassion for the sake of others. It alerts us to the reality of sex-trafficking today and the need for gospel-motivated action for those being exploited.
At the heart of our attitudes towards one another should be a willingness to work for peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said. This does not mean that truth is subsumed in the cause of peace. Rather, as Paul goes on to say in Colossians 3:16, we should allow the truth of God, revealed in his Word, to fall upon and direct our relationships, with one another and with the wider community.
The angels song. Returning to the night Jesus was born, the contrast of the shepherds carrying out their work in the dark and the angels doing their work in the brilliant light of God’s glory could not be more vivid. Glory to God in the highest, they sang, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased (2:14).
Three themes are set in parallel: Glory and peace, highest and earth, and God and men and women with whom he is pleased. The supernatural realm echoes with joy and honour at the outward manifestation of God’s love (glory). Now men and women to whom God has come can experience the reality of the peace we all long for.