When discussing questions of tradition and change in the church, whether at the parish level or that of the universal church, “peace” is not the first word that jumps to mind. The tensions in the life of the church today, though, mirror those at the time of the Apostles.
Acts 15 outlines the deliberations of the Council of Jerusalem, which took place around A.D. 49 or 50. Prior to the gathering, certain disciples of Jesus in Antioch claimed that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas, says Luke, “had no small dissension and debate with them.” We are not privy to the particulars of the response, but we can be assured that the arguments were fierce. Ultimately, the issue was brought to Jerusalem to be decided by the apostles and the elders, guided by the Holy Spirit. And the decision of the council was that being circumcised was not necessary for salvation.
This must have shaken the world of many of the early Christians, but the peace Christ gives the church clearly does not preclude profound disagreements. What must bind the church together throughout its differences is the understanding that the Holy Spirit is present among the disciples of Jesus. Christ connects the giving of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to the giving of his peace (eirēnē) to the disciples. But if the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church is the promise of peace, what kind of peace does Christ give?
Christ’s peace is comparable not to that of shaky political allegiances but to the steadfastness of God. In Jesus’ use of the word, we must consider the Hebrew concept of shalom, which can mean health, the well-being of the whole person and friendship, as well as the absence of war. All of these must certainly be considered as aspects of peace. But two other senses of shalom come closer to Jesus’ deepest meaning of peace, for shalom can indicate divine grace and, in particular, the salvation that the Messiah brings.
As Francis Moloney says in The Gospel of John (Page 410), “the gift of peace, therefore, is intimately associated with the gift of the Spirit-Paraclete, the ongoing presence of Jesus in his absence (cf. vv. 16-17, 26), the source of the disciples being loved by the Father and Son, the agent for the ongoing revelation of both Jesus and the Father to the one who loves Jesus and keeps his commandments in the in-between-time (vv. 20-21).”
In what Moloney calls the “in-between-time,” our now, Christ’s peace does not inoculate us from the reality of the world and its warfare, not from psychological or physical pain, not from arguments and bruised feelings; nor will it mimic the sappy sentimentality of greeting cards or TV movies and make certain every day is sunshiny and happy. The peace of Christ is the gift of eternal life (Jn 10:28) and the gift of joy (Jn 15:11) that transcends the vicissitudes and losses of this life, because it offers the deep joy of salvation, which God gives and the world cannot snatch away.
And when it seems, sometimes, that all we can think of in the “in-between-time” are the disputations among us, part of the work of the Paraclete is to cause the church to “remember” (hypomnēskō) what Jesus taught, for Jesus says “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit has not abandoned the church and will not do so but offers ongoing insight into what Jesus taught in order to guide the church into the truth.
It is only after the promise of the gift of the Paraclete that Jesus offers his peace, encouraging his disciples not to “let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” This peace is unlike the world’s peace precisely because the gift of peace is the gift of eternal life. Guided into all truth by the Paraclete, the church must be untroubled and fearless in the midst of the travails of the “in-between-time” as it remembers the teachings of Jesus.