It is often difficult to reconcile the two themes of the readings today: the first reading accounts Paul’s suffering and the Gospel tells us that Jesus gives peace to us. How can one be at peace when one suffers?
Paul enjoyed the privileges and esteem of dual citizenship. Paul was brought up as a Jewish Pharisee which gained respect from the Jews. At the same time, his Roman citizenship likewise esteemed him among the Gentiles. He was probably called by his two names: Saul to the Hebrew, Paul to the Greco-Roman. He could have boasted and used his background, but even then, he was not spared from suffering.
St. Paul said that it is necessary to undergo hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. He had been stoned and rejected. He had been flogged, imprisoned, and persecuted. He has been ridiculed several times. In the first reading, it was the Jews who stoned him outside of the city. But for Paul, suffering gains meaning only when it is a consequence of his mission. Suffering for the sake of another is meaningful; suffering for its very sake is meaningless and inhuman. He writes to the Philippians (1, 21): “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” What kept Paul going is that hope of death, when he will be united finally to Christ.
Peace does not necessary mean the absence of pain. Peace is attained when one’s heart is aligned with Christ, no matter the intensity of one’s suffering. For what is the true definition of peace? To the Hebrew, peace is shalom. It is more than just our Western way of understanding peace as a state of mind, as when one is gently massaged in a spa or a ‘wellness center’. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians described Christ as the One who has destroyed the barrier between two people, the dividing wall of hostility (2,14). Shalom thus carries with it not just a “state of mind” but the connected meaning of unity and integrity. Shalom is achieved when two warring people reconcile. That is why with Christians, there are no Jews, nor Greeks, nor Gentiles, no walls between men and women, servant or free. The walls that divide a community is abolished in Christ. Christ reconciled all things to Himself, those in heaven and on earth. Each of us thus is one with Christ. Paul said, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2, 20). And therefore, if suffering is experienced as a necessary consequence in bringing people to Christ, then Paul has achieved peace.
When we talk of peace, we are clearly assessing whether our actions are in tune to the actions of Christ. There are times when we are troubled or bothered by something we have done or said to another. We are disturbed because we are afraid that we may have said something that is offensive or hurting. Our bodies give the signal when we are not united with the heart of Christ, as pangs of conscience.
In other words, we may have undergone hardships when asking for forgiveness, when taking an exam, when working steadily for our dreams or the future of our children. But we are still at peace. Why? Because these hardships are necessary in achieving our dreams or ensuring the future of those we love. When we suffer for our loved ones, we experience peace: because our hearts are one with them and with God.