JESUS PREACHES PEACE AND UNITY AS EFFECTS OF CONVERSION
By divine design today’s readings are most ad rem and appropriate enough this week as we have joined the church universal praying for Christian Unity. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began in 1908 as the Octave of Christian Unity, and focused on prayer for Christian Unity. The dates of the week were proposed by Fr. Paul Wattson, cofounder of the Franciscan Friars. He conceived of the week beginning on the Feast of the Confession of Peter, on 18 January, and concluding with the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul on 25 January. This was accepted by Pope Pius X while Pope Benedict XV “encouraged its observance throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church.” This year’s week of Prayer for Christian Unity, has the theme “Has Christ been divided”? (1 Cor. 1:13) as prepared by churches and Christian communions in Canada. In a world marked by diversity in language and culture, we express our Christian faith in diverse ways. During this Week we are called to celebrate this diversity and be faithful to Christ’s call for the unity of his Church. All are invited therefore to join in prayer, song, and witness to unity as followers of Christ.
As we begin the proper gospel reading of Year A in ordinary time today according to Matthew, Jesus sets the ball rolling by beginning his mission, calling his first disciples, and beginning to travel from place to place, to proclaim that the kingdom of God was close at hand. John had been arrested, so that was the end of the ministry of John. The gospel tells us that instead of going to Nazareth (in other words, instead of going home), Jesus went to Capernaum. His preaching was anchored on conversion and repentance. Thus He preached, “Turn away from your sins, and turn to God, because the kingdom of God is near.” Conversion has to do with crossing-over, with changing of direction, with a shifting of position. It means letting go of one situation or position, and moving to another one. It is basically about change from our very being as compared to shading of the fore skin and taking up a new being. Cardinal Newman would always say, ‘to live is to change and to become holy or whole is to have changed often’. The writer of the Psalms is continually calling on the Lord to change his heart. “Create a new heart in me, O Lord, and put a right spirit within me.” Having that attitude towards God is a necessary part of conversion. A constant declaration of my willingness to be changed is a central part of prayer.
Whenever we talk of conversion, we remember with vivacity the popular story told about Leonardo de Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. He searched far and wide for what he considered to be an ideal model for each person in the painting. He began with a fine-looking young man, full of life, and chose him as a perfect model for Jesus. He followed with other models for each of the apostles. Naturally, the work took several years. He left Judas till last, because he was having a problem finding someone who could represent him. Finally, he came across a hobo and tramp who had all the appearances of being untrustworthy and, like Judas, would probably sell his soul if it brought him some money. Leonardo approached the man and persuaded him to come to his studio. While the work was in progress, both men came to the same realisation. This man had been in this studio before, representing Jesus. He had gone astray, lost his way, and was now on Skid Row, shanty town and slum. It was a great shock to de Vinci, and another moment of conversion for the man.
This change as Christ means by preaching conversion today is a change that displaces disunity with unity; crisis with peace. Division is a stranger to human community. This stranger called disunity is of great challenge to human community visible enough in the famous Berlin Wall that warranted the division of east from west with bricks and mortar. It was the most concrete sign of the “Iron Curtain” that divided Europe for nearly half a century until 1989. In hindsight, it was a tactical mistake on the part of the East Germans to erect the Berlin Wall. If only all the other walls which divide humans were built of bricks! Unfortunately, they are built with myths and ideologies, prejudices and fears created by sectionalism, tribalism nepotism e.t.c. Because we don’t see them, we are not always conscious of their existence. They are not easily attacked. It is a slow tortuous process even to make people aware of them. Such is the case with the walls which were erected throughout history to divide religions. When you consider that the Berlin Wall came down after less than fifty years of existence, it is disturbing to reflect that there is another wall dividing Germany and Europe and the West, which has remained intact for more than five-hundred years. It is the wall that divides the Christian world into Protestants and Catholics. There is little indication that that wall is coming down. It is strange that the barrier which divided the atheistic communist world from the God-believing West could disappear so quickly while the one that separates two sets of Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord should remain as solid as ever.
Today’s opening prayer sums up the longing of every human heart for acceptance by God and for enduring peace. The tragedy is that so many people try to satisfy this longing while turning their backs on God, with the result that their search for inner calm and serenity becomes fruitless. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you,” Christ said in his final discourse to his Apostles at the Last Supper as recorded by St John (14:27). Peace, or in Hebrew “Shalom,” was the common word of greeting and farewell among Jewish people. But in St John’s time the word did not just mean an absence of war, trouble or bitterness. It was an expression of that harmony and union with God and our neighbour that comes from following the wishes of God’s Holy Spirit.
There is a great difference between the peace of the world and the peace which comes from God through the action of Christ. The peace which the world offers is the peace of escape from turmoil and hassle. The peace of Christ is that which enables us to rise above sorrow and suffering, the common lot of all mankind. Indeed, St Paul states the Christ himself “is our peace” (Eph 2:14), meaning that reflection on Christ wounded and nailed to the Cross is enough to melt the hearts of the most bitter opponents, and sustain people in times of adversity. Human pain, suffering and misery, however, are conditions which God never wished for mankind.
As Christ has called us Christians to be his disciples we are called to repentance made manifest in unity and peace. Thus we are to leave off everything to follow Him as the apostles have shown us. They left their comfort zone and business in the big city of Carpanaum and followed Jesus therefore experiencing the true light of Christ. Today I ask you; what is it you are unable to let go for peace to reign? We are therefore agents of peace and unity. May the Lord be our peace. As this light of divine favour shine on us today, may it bring us peace, love, unity and progress. Amen.