by Bill Carroll
May the Lord give you peace.
That’s how Francis of Assisi began his sermons. These powerful words echo the greeting of the risen Jesus to his fearful and traumatized followers: “Peace be with you.”
Peace is the deepest longing of the human heart. Even today, the desire for peace draws us to God’s Table, where we are fed, healed, and changed.
Peace is more than absence of violence, though it surely includes that. As Martin Luther King once observed, “Peace is not the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice.” Peace is God-given wholeness that transforms every aspect of life. God cares passionately about each of us: God cares about our griefs and wounds, about our painful memories, and about our broken relationships. God cares about every detail of our story. And God desires to make us whole and free. Peace involves just, life-giving relationships: with our God, with each other, and with the earth. Such relationships are given in creation, distorted by sin, and restored by grace.
In the midst of a world torn by violence and injustice, Jesus establishes a universal community. And, however imperfectly, this community reflects the life of love within the Trinity. In Christ, God intends to establish justice and break down the walls we build to divide us from each other.
As followers of Jesus, we are to serve as equals in the power of the Spirit of love. We are to bear each other’s burdens, and we are to love ALL PEOPLE with his radical, life-changing love. All of us share in the authority of Jesus–and in his ministry of reconciliation. We are called to become active peace-makers–“instruments of his peace.”
In the year 1181, in the Italian city-state of Assisi, St. Francis was born into a wealthy family of cloth merchants. Within, Assisi was torn by conflict between the established nobility and the rising middle class, to which Francis belonged. It was also involved in frequent military clashes with its neighbors. As a young adult, Francis lived the carefree life of a playboy. Then, he joined the army, hoping to gain glory and become a knight. In a battle with nearby Perugia, he was captured and spent a year as a prisoner of war.
When he returned home, Francis was quite ill. As he lay sick in bed, he began a process of conversion. His former life now left a bitter taste in his mouth. One day, while he was praying in a broken down church on the edge of town, he had a vision. A painted figure of Christ crucified spoke to him and said: “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin.” At first, he took the words literally and began to repair the building. It soon became apparent, however, that God was calling him to renew the Church as the People of God–the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Another day, at the Eucharist, Francis heard the Gospel in which Jesus sends his disciples out to preach. Because his Latin was not so good, he asked the priest to explain it to him. The priest replied that followers of Jesus should not possess gold or silver or money, that they should not carry a wallet or sack, that they should take neither bread nor staff for their journey, and that they should not wear shoes or even own two sets of clothing. Jesus, the priest explained, commanded his first followers to preach the kingdom of God in complete poverty. Francis’ response was immediate: “This is what I want,” he said, “This is what I seek. This is what I desire with all my heart.”
Francis had discovered the path toward peace that he would travel for the next twenty years. Inspired by the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, he and his companions gave everything to the poor and wandered about, begging for their daily bread and preaching the Gospel. Poverty, for Francis, was a way to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who became poor for us. His decision to follow in this way provoked violent opposition from his family. His father locked him up and even beat him in a desperate effort to recall him from apparent madness.
In spite of his family’s opposition, Francis was steadfast. For the first time in his life, he experienced the extreme vulnerability of the poor: to hunger, cold, and violence. He also came to know their quiet dignity. He rejected the secure life that he could have had in order to draw closer to the poor, naked, suffering Savior whom he loved. In his radical poverty, Francis fulfilled what Paul says in Galatians: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
By choosing poverty, Francis rejected his previous worldly patterns of living in favor of life according to the Gospel. He showed no signs, however, of a morbid, life-denying spirituality. For Francis, poverty made possible a profound joy in God and creation. Indeed, he celebrated the goodness of all God’s creatures, which he called sister or brother. And he praised God for them in song. By refusing to call anything his own, Francis became free to accept everything as God’s good gift.
Few of us are called to the radical poverty that Francis embraced. Nevertheless, his example challenges us to consider the ways in which our possessiveness distorts our relationships–with God, with each other, and with the earth.
Francis invites us to ask ourselves some hard questions. Do we value money and things more than human community and the common good? Are we so tight-fisted that we fail to share with those in need? Are we dishonest in ways that lead to personal advantage but harm others? Do our patterns of consumption damage God’s creation? Does our pursuit of wealth and status lead us to neglect our relationship with God? Are we more concerned with our personal agendas or privileges than the claims of justice and truth? I suspect that the answer to at least some of these questions at least some of the time is “yes” for all of us.
Francis invites us to identify the possessions, attitudes, and behaviors that prevent us from living as brothers and sisters, as followers of Jesus and beloved children of God. He invites us to live lives of love and solidarity with the earth and its creatures–and with every single human being. By God’s grace, we can renounce every obstacle to following Jesus in the ways of love. With Francis, we can begin to simplify our life, so that we might be more open to God. Like him, in the power of the Spirit, we can become little ones to whom God is pleased to reveal the Kingdom.
May God give us peace.