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Sabbatical, Day 60: April Fools, Online Photos And Music, Tim Keller, Sojourners

This morning before school, we tried to explain April Fool’s Day to the children. They got the hang of it to a certain extent, and much enjoyed the collective prank played on all the pupils at their school today when staff told them they had to hop everywhere. 

Elsewhere, The Guardian claimed it was giving up ink and instead would entirely be published in sub-140 character messages on Twitter. Some might be concerned about dumbing down, I’d be concerned for the spelling – anyone remember the days of the Grauniad? I also received a Facebook message from the We’re Related application, claiming that one Barack Obama of Washington, DC had added me as his fourth cousin, once removed. I’ve never heard of him, so it can’t be true.

Meanwhile, Miss Universe described Guantanamo Bay as ‘fun’ and Alan Shearer became manager of Newcastle United. Oh no, those two are true.

Staying in the realm of truth, it’s been a bit of a techie day. I finally uploaded the Lee Abbey photos to my Flickr account today. I’ve organised them into three sets, all under one collection.

I’ve also been looking at some of the popular online music services in the last twenty-four hours. Yesterday, I downloaded the software for Spotify, but have been hampered by slow connection speeds. Some artists also had far fewer tracks available than I had hoped. I have also signed up for a free trial of emusic. I thought the offer of fifty free MP3 downloads was generous, but soon realised it would be easy to exceed that.

However, the emusic download manager has crashed tonight – whether that’s due to our slow connection as well, I don’t know. Certainly the problem isn’t limited to Spotify: YouTube videos only play a bit at a time, and the Flickr upload I mentioned in the previous paragraph took three attempts to complete. I’ve tried the usual tricks of rebooting and disconnecting the router for thirty seconds, but so far to no avail.

But if all the above sounds like trivial fluff, I have done some serious things today. Most notably, I have read three chapters of Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘. To date, I’m impressed with the way he graciously exposes the weaknesses in contemporary objections to faith, especially Christianity. He manages to do so intelligently, without coming on like an intellectual warmonger. The book is definitely for people of a certain academic ability, and while I have the odd query about what he thinks everyone can agree on (immediately after he has exposed fundamental differences), I think this looks like one of the best works of apologetics I have read in years.

And here is a great article from Sojourners, about the increasing involvement in social justice issues by American Christian musicians.

Finally, just to say that Debbie is getting better today. Still washed out, but the fever has subsided and she has not been in bed. I’m relieved she’s improving.

Peacemakers

“Blessèd are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

I remember my first Remembrance Sunday service as a minister. The Anglicans and the Methodists gathered together every year in the parish church. The vicar didn’t like preaching, and always delegated that to the Methodist minister. He chose the Beatitudes of Jesus as the Bible reading. I’m sure you don’t see any parallels with this morning, then. 🙂

In my naïveté, I felt I had to expound the whole passage. I said something about every one of the nine beatitudes. So – here we are, another ecumenical Remembrance service in a village parish church, settle back into your pews … 

No. I’ve learned. There is enough in one of these Beatitudes to fill our thoughts on a day like this. I could have chosen, “Blessèd are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”, but instead I selected, “Blessèd are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” What might these words of Jesus mean for us on Remembrance Sunday, and what might they mean for us generally in following him?

Peace with God
We cannot understand the mission of Jesus unless we see it as being out peacemaking between God and human beings. He said that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mark 10:45, italics mine). Jesus came to bring reconciliation. He came with the message of God’s grace and mercy for sinners. He demonstrated it by his outrageous association with the most unworthy members of society. He accomplished it in his death on the Cross, where he took the blame for the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he made the new life of God’s kingdom visible and possible.

In the Gospel of Jesus, peacemaking bridges the gap between God and people caused by our sin. The apostle Paul says that God in Christ appeals to us to be reconciled to him. That happens through the Cross, when we respond by turning away from sin to follow Jesus and trust him. It is the work of Jesus as the Son of God to make God’s appeal to us and to make the bridge-building possible.

So what better time to find peace with God than Remembrance Sunday?

Peace with Neighbours
At college, a friend of mine bought a book of cartoons about the symbol of reconciliation at Holy Communion services, the sharing of the Peace. The cover had a cartoon showing one character offering the Peace to a rather frosty person. Its title? ‘No Thank You, I’m C of E.’

Some people think the introduction of the Peace into Christian worship is one of those touchy-feely happy-clappy trends that don’t fit with traditional worship. In fact, it’s a much more ancient tradition than the Book of Common Prayer. Only one tradition of Christian reconciliation is older, if you want to be truly traditional, and that is Paul’s command that we greet one another with a brotherly kiss. I don’t hear traditionalists calling for that too often!

But my serious point is this: a liturgical action like the Peace symbolises the fact that if we are at peace with God, we are called to be at peace with our neighbour, insofar as our efforts allow. That is why the Book of Common Prayer invited all those who were ‘in love and charity with [their] neighbour to take [the] holy sacrament to [their] comfort’.

In other words, we cannot have the blessings of reconciliation with God as a private possession without striving for reconciliation with people. Children of God will be such peacemakers. We will forgive those who have wronged us, not by pretending something didn’t happen or didn’t matter, but by separating blame and punishment. We shall take steps to apologise and make appropriate amends when we know others have been hurt by our actions. This is what those who have been adopted into the family of God do. God has built a bridge to us in Christ: we build bridges to others.

Peace with the World
Here’s the thorny problem with this text on Remembrance Sunday: if Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers, should we ever go to war? Clearly, Christians have disagreed about that for two thousand years. I’m not about to settle it in one brief sermon. 

It’s worth noting that there was a political application to Jesus’ words here. If peacemakers were to be called ‘children [sons] of God’, then that would have struck a chord with his first hearers. In Jesus’ day, you will recall that his homeland of Israel was occupied by Rome. There were different Jewish responses to the fact of occupation. The wealthy Sadducees ingratiated themselves with their rulers. The Pharisees prayed for change.

And the Zealots were the freedom fighters. Rome would have viewed them as terrorists. What did the Zealots call themselves? ‘The sons of God.’ At very least here, then, Jesus repudiates the use of violence in advancing the kingdom of God.

It may be a different matter when it is not a matter of forwarding the Christian cause as one of justice for others, where we defend the oppressed. Jesus would have had the Hebrew word for peace in his mind, shalom. Now shalom is not peace simply defined as the absence of war. It is about the presence of justice and harmony in society.

Thus if promoting justice and harmony meant taking forceful action against the wicked, we might in some ways be peacemakers. However, that is something that needs weighing carefully and only pursuing in ways where we guard as much as possible against descending to the level of the oppressors. So, for example, that is why – although I disagree with Barack Obama on issues such as abortion – I welcome his commitment to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

An Anglican priest from Kenya once told me, “If I am attacked for being a Christian, I will not fight back. If I am attacked for being a black man, I will.” Whether you agree with him or not, he was trying to distinguish between the fact that Christians may not seek to advance the Gospel aggressively or violently, but we may use force if it is a matter of justice for others. However, let us exercise caution. Force should only be exercised with reluctance, not enthusiasm. 

One final area of peace to mention this morning:

Peace with Creation
This may seem an odd thing to talk about, and perhaps the moment I said ‘Peace with creation’ you thought this was going to be an excuse for some trendy talk about the environment.

Well, this point is about environmental concerns, but it is thoroughly rooted in the text. In the Old Testament shalom peace includes harmony with creation. This is not some ‘Hello trees, hello flowers’ approach, or viewing our planet as a goddess called Gaia, as some do. It is about taking seriously our stewardship of God’s world. If in the kingdom of God the lion will lie down with the lamb, if nothing will be harmed or destroyed on God’s holy mountain, and if the throne of God is surrounded not merely by humans but by ‘living creatures’, then we have a vision of harmony with God’s created order.

Even without this vision, we would surely want to fight to make peace with the environment for the sake of our children and grandchildren, just as many fought for a just peace in World War Two.

But the Bible’s vision of the future is a large and compelling one. It is not, as popularly supposed, one where the material is vaporised and we are all ethereal spirits floating on clouds. Rather, it is one where just as Jesus’ body was raised in a new physical form, so will ours be. It is one where heaven comes down to earth, and God inaugurates a new heaven and a new earth. Creation is redeemed with a new creation. Peaceable creation care today anticipates God’s future. It is in harmony with it.

Blessèd, then, are the peacemakers. Children of God are those who have been reconciled to their heavenly Father through the Cross of Christ. In response, they offer that same peace to others, they seek reconciliation with their neighbours, justice in the world and the well-being of creation.

May the Holy Spirit help us all to be peacemakers.