Today's reading from chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles seems to open with a romanticized image of a Church that could never have existed.
The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.
But this description is only romanticized if we misunderstand the word peace.
For far too many people, peace is the absence of conflict. This kind of peace can mask some of the most unhealthy situations in the world: in families, in organizations, especially churches. Especially churches because people who go into ministry are often conflict averse in the extreme. When the desire to avoid conflict is our guiding principle, no matter how "ministry" we do, we cannot carry out the mission of the Church, the conversion of the world.
Peace as the scriptures understand it is not the absence of conflict but right relationship. To be at peace is to be constantly striving to live in right relationship with God, his body (the Church), and all who are our neighbor.
This is particularly difficult in our time because it assumes that there is such a thing as an objectively right relationship. There is right relationship and there is wrong relationship.
We know this right and wrong in three ways.
We know it first of all by that fundamental law that God has hard wired into humanity. We call this natural law. There is no culture in the world where stealing or lying are considered good. Some may argue that it is allowable in dealing with people they think of as the enemy but they would never say it is good in itself.
As Christians, we also know right and wrong relationship through what we Catholics refer to as "divine positive law", the truth that God has revealed to us in his Word, the Bible.
Lastly, we know it through the Church when she exercises her teaching function, magisterium, from the Latin word for teacher, magister. We believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and continues to help the Church properly apply the teaching revealed in the Bible to the challenges we face today.
Jesus in St. Matthew tells us to be perfect. We can call it perfection, peace, or holiness. To be at peace, to be holy, to be perfect is to embrace the idea that there is an established order to human life. I am supposed to behave in a certain way toward God, toward my bishop, toward the people I serve, toward my family and friends, toward strangers. There is always a right and wrong relationship.
Step two is recognizing that we all fall short. And here is where conflict is not only inevitable but necessary. If we are all called to perfection, to holiness of life, and if we are all one; then we need our brothers and sisters to challenge us and support us as we strive to be better. To overcome our inertia, our tendency to stay the same. For object to person to move friction is required. On a frictionless surface nothing moves.
St. Paul was a man at peace who constantly was engaged in healthy conflict, acknowledging his own flaws and simultaneously challenging others to be better, more conformed to Christ.
How do I know healthy conflict which is part of peace from the unhealthy conflict that is incompatible with Christian life? Ask yourself one simple question, "Am I truly striving to help my brother or sister to find holiness or am I simply trying to impose my will, to get them to do things my way?" Your conscience will know the answer.