Telemachus was a monk who lived in the 4th century. He felt God saying to him, ‘Go to Rome’. He was in a cloistered monastery. He put his possessions in a sack and set out for Rome. When he arrived in the city, people were thronging in the streets. He asked why all the excitement and was told that this was the day that the gladiators would be fighting and killing each other in the coliseum, the day of the games, the circus. He thought to himself, ‘Four centuries after Christ and they are still killing each other, for enjoyment?’ He ran to the coliseum and heard the gladiators shouting, ‘Hail to Caesar! We die for Caesar!’ and he thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ He jumped over the railing and went out into the middle of the field, got between two gladiators, held up his hands and said, ‘In the name of Christ, forbear!’ The crowd protested and began to shout, ‘Run him through! Run him through!’ A gladiator came over and hit him in the stomach with the back of his sword. It sent him sprawling in the sand. He got up and ran back and again said, ‘In the name of Christ, forbear!’ The crowd continued to chant, ‘Run him through!’ One gladiator came over and plunged his sword through the little monk’s stomach and he fell into the sand, which began to turn crimson with his blood. One last time he gasped out, ‘In the name of Christ forbear!’ A hush came over the 80,000 people in the coliseum. Soon a man stood and left, then another and more, and within minutes all 80,000 had emptied out of the arena. It was the last known gladiatorial contest in the history of Rome.
Jesus taught us that ‘God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God’ (Matthew 5:9). Statistical evidence suggests that since 3,600 BC the world has known only 292 years of peace. During this period there have been 14,351 wars, large and small, in which 3.64 billion people have been killed. The value of property destroyed is equal to a gold belt around the world 97.2 miles wide and 33 feet thick. Since 650 BC there have also been 1,656 arms races, only 16 of which have not ended in war. The remainder ended in economic collapse of the countries involved. Having the wisdom to face the truth, however unpleasant it is, will bring us closer to peace, and we all need to recognise, as Eliezer Wiesel (1928-2016), the Jewish writer, academic, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, suggests, ‘peace is not [just] God’s gift to his creatures, peace is our gift to each other!’ When it comes down to being peacemakers we are not spectators watching the game but players on the pitch. As Mother Teresa reminds us, ‘If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other!’
Peace is very much at the heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. When the angels announced the birth of the Christ-child to the shepherds guarding the Temple flocks in the fields outside Bethlehem they did so praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14). The Greek word for ‘peace’ used here signifies a very special kind of peace, ‘the peace that comes from knowing that our lives are held securely in the palm of God’s hand’. In order to genuinely be distributers of this special kind of peace – to be the blessed peacemakers’ Jesus exhorts us to be in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9) – we have to first know ‘peace with God’ (Romans 5:1), the peace Jesus himself gives (John 14:27), that comes though personal faith in Jesus Christ. Only in this way can we know true peace ourselves and change our world into a place where peace is a priority.
Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) was a prominent American lawyer and Presbyterian church elder. He is best known for penning the Christian hymn It Is Well With My Soul the theme of which is knowing the kind of peace we have been talking about here. This hymn was written after a series of traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first two were the death of his two-year-old son and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer and had invested significantly in property in the area of Chicago that was extensively damaged by the great fire). His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plan, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with another sea vessel and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, ‘Saved alone …’. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford travelled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night, oh my soul!
~ Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888)