"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" So said the angels to the shepherds at the first Christmas in a land that continues to suffer endless conflict. “Peace in the Middle East” is such a long-standing pressing need that it has become a cruel joke for a platform in beauty contest satires and other portrayals of impossible aspiration. The sad, maddening and unending conflict has exploded with violence from Palestinians and Israelis again and, this time – also again - with profound danger of a wider conflict in the region and beyond.
Post-WW2 nations seek to pay an unpayable debt to the Jews for the Holocaust by preserving a homeland given to them out of the rightly troubled conscience of many of these nations. But this gift was given by taking that land from Palestinians whose resentment for this seizure continues unabated. Many Palestinians hate Jews for living on land that was theirs in recent history and many Jews hate Palestinians for seeking to reclaim land that belonged to the Jews in ancient history. Christians have no land given to us to possess by divine right or historical precedent. Instead, we are sent into all the world to serve everyone everywhere with the good news of peace in Jesus Christ. But between many Jews and Palestinians, the hatred is mutual and the violence perpetual. Peace is an elusive dream that the skills of generations of diplomats have failed to achieve.
“Peace on earth” was the heavenly refrain at Christ’s birth. This is because He accomplished peace and gives it even to hardened enemies. This includes, first and foremost, giving peace with God to those who hated Him and were liable to His devastating justice. This gift of peace extends to persons who are at war with those destructive things in themselves that make them an enemy to themselves and to others. And this gift of peace reaches to individuals, families, communities, peoples and even nations who have hated each other for generations. Jesus achieved this peace by dying for the forgiveness of our sins that alienate us from God and one another, and by being resurrected in His righteousness that reconciles us to God and one another. In His salvation, Jesus provides forgiveness, righteousness, reconciliation and peace to Jew and Gentile (e.g., Palestinian), Russian and Ukrainian, black and white (e.g., police reform), slave and free (e.g., labor and management) and even male and female (e.g., estranged marriage partners).
We Christians have failed often and sometimes miserably to make a full use of Christ’s gift of peace. We have failed in our persons, marriages, families, churches, neighbors and friends. We have been stubborn in our sin and refused to turn from it and to say and do what is right. Consequently, we have forfeited the gift of peace in these relationships and have caused estrangement, harm and pain to ourselves and others. But Christ’s achievement and gift of peace remains, even if neglected or rejected. As often as we confess our sins and turn to Christ, He is faithful to remove our alienation and to give us His reconciliation and peace. This peace is not perfect in this life but it is real and good. And it will be made total and complete in Christ’s new creation.
Christians have the privileged duty to be ambassadors for Christ, offering these terms of peace to all those around us, from individuals to nations. These terms are to seek Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the end of our war with God and also for the righteousness of Christ and the beginning of our peace with God. We do not call alienated parties to negotiate terms acceptable to each other. We call these parties to be reconciled to God in Christ and, in that, to be enabled to reconcile with each other. In Christ, there is no place for retaliation because we forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven. This forgiveness includes willing and generous restitution by the forgiven sinner to those he harmed by his sin when this is possible. See the New Testament story of Zacchaeus for an example of this and various biblical laws of restorative justice including with the guilt offering. In Christ, the issue is not what can I force my enemy to give me as a condition of peace but what can I give or do for them so that they will live in peace with me. Christ came not to be served but to serve by giving His life for the good of those who love Him, even those who had hated Him previously. Christians, in Christ by faith, are sent into the world not to force our enemies to serve us but to spend our lives working for the good of our enemies in the pursuit of peace. Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who do evil to us. This is the way of peace for individuals and groups, even nations. He also promises blessing to peacemakers because they will be called sons of God, the One who makes peace. To those who reject these gracious terms of peace, there is only destruction both temporal and eternal. Hell hath the fury of God spurned.
The answer to unceasing war in the Middle East, as also in marriage and any relationship, is peace with God in Jesus Christ. But this truth will outrage many and war with God and man will continue relentlessly until those who do not repent from hatred and alienation are removed and those who seek peace and pursue it finally enjoy it together in full with Christ.
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:19-21). I beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. And then, in Christ, be reconciled to others also so that we all may live in peace. Merry Christmas and may the New Year be filled with peace.
Kit Swartz Ruling Elder, RPC Fulton Teaching Elder (Emeritus), RPC Oswego