St John Chrysostom understands our Lord to be speaking of interpersonal peace:
Here He not only takes away altogether our own strife and hatred amongst ourselves, but He requires besides this something more, namely, that we should set at one again others, who are at strife.1
This also follows, for to have the peace of Christ perfectly established in our hearts must not only free us from the passions that separate us from the love of God, but also yield a compassionately righteous understanding of those neighbors for whom we already have God’s mercy. Having this, we can do the work of the only begotten Son of God, our Lord — guide, strengthener, and gracious co-worker. As St John suggests, we then go on from having peace with others to making peace among yet others. With this extension of God’s mercy and understanding we pass from the moral and contemplative virtues to levels of spiritual heroism reached by the greatest saints.
Blessed are They which are Persecuted
The mystery of human freedom includes the sad fact that not all who hear the Gospel see, understand, and are converted and healed; and some will persecute. He who made our peace and gave us adoption into the family of God, the Church, gave His life to do so, for He met the full fury of worldly violence and trampled down the death by which it ruled with His own redemptive Death, conquering violence and fear of death with His glorious Resurrection. In doing so He told us that to share His life we must bear His Cross. So He ends the Beatitudes:
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Mt. 5:10–12).
The blessing of the Kingdom of God is assigned to both the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. These are they who come to realize with their Saviour that the soul’s eternal life must reject the life of this age and, by giving its own life for the world, bring forth the fruit of the salvation of others.2 These are they whose growth in the life of Christ has brought them in the unity of the faith to the place of seeing that they do not abide alone, but in and with the Saviour, Who calls them to give their lives for the life of the world, just as He did. As He spoke of the Cross as the instrument of the glorification of the Son of Man, so the disciple who is truly one with Him will be willing to deny himself and take up his cross and follow [Him] (Mt. 16:24). These holy martyrs, passion bearers and confessors are they who accept the full consequence of sharing the Life of Christ. Not all who solemnly and soberly come to this realization suffer violent death, but they must know the seriousness and consequences of their responsibility, as St Basil the Great did in writing to the apostate Emperor Julian:
After insulting God, it is useless for you to give heed to widows and orphans. The former is mad and dangerous; the latter the part of a merciful and kindly man. It is a serious thing for a private individual like myself to speak to an emperor; it will be more serious for you to speak to God. No one will appear to mediate between God and man. What you read you did not understand. If you had understood, you would not have condemned.3
May God grant us the faith, courage, and spiritual readiness to speak as St Basil did when the time comes. The most important question, though, is not “What if?”, which like Peter before the Crucifixion we might be tempted to answer with a boast that could prove painfully false. To be where St Basil, the Martyrs Polycarp, Catherine, Kyrill of Kazan, Grand Duchess Elisabeth and many more confessors, passion-bearers and martyrs have been spiritually, we need to repent as they did, and as pastors we must consider how we are assisting our parishioners with that work.
Gaining the Mind of Christ
To that end, let us come to some final thoughts and questions. My concluding conviction is that repentance is the process of gaining the mind of Christ, beginning with the humility to suffer and serve.4 When thinking of examples of repentance we are used to considering Prophet David, St Paul, St Mary of Egypt, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others who turned dramatically by the grace of God from evil and self-destructive ways to true piety. These are marvelous examples of the grace of God and the power of the freedom He has given us. But the spiritual labor of St Mary’s repentance was accomplished during her 47 years in the desert, the first 17 of which were spent struggling with the demons of her former life. Her promised peace came indeed, but few details appear in her Life.5 This is perhaps best, since every life is unique and we can become unhealthily engrossed in the struggles of others. Good readers of narrative literature recognize we can be helped by thoughtful analogy, but also distracted or seduced by over-identification. Our Lord’s words are spare and memorable. Put another way, repentance is each Christian’s distinct, personal coöperation with God in the mystery of revealing what each of us shall be when He is revealed; for, we shall be like Him when we shall see Him as He is (I Jn. 3:2).
I hope the approach to the path of repentance found in the Sermon on the Mount and the commentary of some of the Church Fathers will help us reflect on our path of repentance and on those of our parishioners. The fruit of that process is the mysterious manna and the uniquely inscribed white stone the Saviour tells John He will give to him who is victorious in the struggle, …and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it (Apoc. 2:17). Please let us help one another see how better to assist the people of our churches win the victory, the name, and a place beside the Saviour.
Rev. Priest David Starr is rector of St Juliana of Lazarevo Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico.