Today I preach at one of the churches in our circuit that isn’t in my pastoral charge. It gives me an opportunity in the sermon to use one or two favourite pieces of material when it comes to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and to make the odd point that will be familiar to long-term friends or readers. Still, whether you recognise some of the content or not, I hope you enjoy this sermon.
A friend of mine had a book of cartoons about the different approaches Christians have to sharing The Peace at Holy Communion. In one of the cartoons, a worshipper approaches another man, only to be rebuffed from sharing The Peace with the words, “No thank you, I’m C of E.”
In our reading today, the risen Jesus says, “Peace be with you” three times to his disciples. They don’t reject the offer of peace like the “No thank you, I’m C of E” man, in fact I’m sure they need it – one of the things that has struck me repeatedly this Easter season is just how scared the disciples were. Not just at the thought of arrest by the authorities, but the genuine fear they experience when they encounter the angel, the empty tomb and finally the risen Lord himself. They need peace!
But I am also struck in this reading – and it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible – how the repeated gift of peace is accompanied each time by another gift.
The first gift is joy. The first time Jesus appears behind locked doors, says “Peace be with you”, shows them his hands and side, and ‘then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ (verses 19-20).
Not only is this a favourite passage, I also have a favourite story that I love to tell. It concerns the first Christian missionaries to the Inuit people of the Arctic. They were translating the Bible into the local language, but hit a problem when they came to these verses, and in particular, ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ Their difficulty? There was no Inuit word for ‘joy’ and its related words. What could they do?
One day, a missionary went out with the Inuit hunters and their dogs. Upon return, the hunters fed the dogs with meat, and the missionary observed the evident happiness of the dogs as they tucked into their feast. He thought, “There’s a picture of joy. I’ll ask them what their word is for that.” As a result, the first Inuit translation of John’s Gospel reads at this point, ‘Then the disciples wagged their tails when they saw the Lord’!
Jesus is alive. He brings peace. That fills us with joy. Normally you cannot miss the sense of joy at Easter, can you? We have been through the self-sacrifice of Lent and the ever darkening shadows of Holy Week, only for light to burst forth on Easter morning and fill our hearts with joy.
Why are we joyful? Biblically, it isn’t that this is the ‘happy ending’ to the story – in fact, this is more like the beginning than the end. Nor is it only the promise that there is life after death and that we shall be with him forever after death. And as someone who lost his own mother just two months ago, believe me I don’t belittle that hope.
We are joyful because the resurrection shows God’s new world. As the Father has made his Son’s body new by the Spirit, so he is making all things new. It is the first event in the work of new creation. It is the foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth. You could say it is heaven on earth. Rejoice! God is not leaving things as they are. The resurrection says otherwise.
Look at it from the disciples’ point of view, before you get to any subsequent New Testament scriptures that make this point, such as Revelation 21. Think about how those good Jewish disciples expected the resurrection of the dead to happen at the end of history as we know it, when everyone would be raised back to life, either to blessedness for the righteous or judgement for the wicked, as Daniel 12 taught them. Well, suddenly this end time event has happened in their midst – a resurrection! Therefore God is bringing heaven to earth, and this is reason for great joy.
Let us also rejoice this Easter, because the life of heaven is coming to earth. We do not have to wait until death to experience at least a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
The second gift is mission. The second ‘Peace be with you’ is a preface to Jesus saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (verse 21), and is followed by his [prophetic? Proleptic?] gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 22).
Mission makes sense after joy. We cannot keep quiet about the joy of knowing that God is bringing heaven to earth. God isn’t simply doing this for us, he is doing it for the whole world. It must not only be the subject of Joy, it must also be shared. Resurrection people are good news people.
And furthermore, it makes sense to talk about mission only after having received the peace of Christ. For how many of us get nervous about mission? It is a challenge, but Jesus offers us peace so that we may exercise the gift of mission.
But – what is this mission? Is it the much-feared door-knocking and button-holing? Before we make assumptions, let’s remember how Jesus described it. ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you,’ he said. Which begs the question: how did the Father send Jesus? And for that we have to go back from John 20 to John 1, to a verse we often read at Advent or Christmas, but which we need to hear all year round: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).
In other words, Jesus’ mission was not hit and run, however much he sometimes moved from place to place. It involved being with and living in the midst of the people to whom he was called. His life was visible to them, as well as his words and mighty deeds.
Likewise, we are not called to hit and run mission. We are called to costly involvement with the people among whom we live. We are meant to be present for the long haul. We are meant to be known for the kind of people we are as a result of our faith, sharing God’s love unconditionally, so much so that people want to know what it is that makes us tick. And that gives us the opportunities to talk about Christ. Most mission, Jesus style, is among our neighbours. If we know the peace of the risen Christ, then it is a natural act of gratitude to pay it forward by pouring our lives into the communities where we are situated, demonstrating God’s love and looking for the chance to speak about the One who leads us this way.
Not only that, our peace-based mission is exercised in the same power as Jesus. Here he tells his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. We’ll put aside this morning the question of how we relate this command to receive the Spirit with the delay until Pentecost in Luke’s writings, for which there are various explanations. But let us note that this is another case of doing mission just like Jesus himself. His public ministry did not start until he received the power of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Similarly, we are to seek the Spirit’s power in order to engage in his mission. There will be no signs of heaven coming to earth through our ministry in our own strength. We too must rely on the Holy Spirit. Too often we look for the latest techniques in order to revitalise our churches. These are dead ends. The only revitalisation will come from the life of God himself, and that means looking to the Spirit.
The third and final gift of peace is faith. When Thomas is present a week later, again Jesus turns up suddenly in their midst out of nowhere. Again, the disciples need to hear his greeting, “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time, what follows is the invitation to Thomas to check him out and to believe.
It is of course from this story that we get the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’. He has said that he will not believe unless he examines for himself the wounds of the crucifixion in Jesus’ body.
But why do we regard Thomas as worse than the other male disciples? Is he really so different from the other apostles who doubted the women’s initial report of the resurrection according to the other Gospels? They too wanted strong evidence. I think my father was the first person to say to me that Thomas had had a rough deal from the church over the centuries, and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. The other men had no reason for a superiority complex: they had held the same attitude.
I don’t therefore see Jesus being any more censorious with Thomas than he was with any of the other apostles. He has just offered peace, after all. Yes, he points to the greater blessedness of those who believe without seeing him, but he still gives Thomas the gift of faith. And if early church tradition is to be believed, then although we don’t read of Thomas in the Acts of the Apostles, he most likely founded Christianity in India, where to this day there is a denomination named after him – the Mar Thoma Church.
I suspect that if we compared notes among us as a congregation, we would find a wide range in our experiences of faith. Some of us may find faith quite easy and serene, and others only find deeper faith after much wrestling with deep questions. And some of us individually oscillate between serene faith and questioning faith in different phases of our lives. The good news of peace from the risen Christ is that he invites us all on the journey of faith and trust in him, whether that comes easily to us or only with much struggle. The resurrected Lord comes to all his disciples, those who find it easy and those who don’t, with the gift of his presence and the bestowal of his peace. Just because you or I may be wrestling with some deep questions about God does not preclude us from the gift of his peace.
And because Christ still offers his peace to those who think they are bumping along the bottom of belief, that very gift can make the difference which allows faith to flourish and to be exercised with boldness. If the traditions about Thomas going to India are true, then maybe that is what happened to him. Did the peace of the risen Christ invigorate his faith, not only in the Upper Room but for the rest of his life? It is certainly possible for him, and it is for us, too.
As we conclude, then, let’s come full circle back to our ‘No thank you, I’m C of E’ man. There are people in our churches who don’t like The Peace. Maybe some present today are uncomfortable. But regardless of what we think about it as a formal practice, we cannot receive and keep the peace of Christ as solitary Christians. Since his peace brings joy, that most naturally overflows to others. Since his peace leads us into mission, that leads us to share Christ’s peace in word and deed with others. And as his peace leads us to deeper faith, we observe that is something that cannot solely be exercised in isolation.
This Easter season, then, let us say ‘Yes please’ to the risen Christ’s gift of peace. And may it enable our lives as disciples to grow and flourish to the praise of his name in the church and in the world.
When somebody leaves a job, we normally buy them presents. When I left my office to study Theology, my friends bought me a set of mugs, given the image of students sitting around drinking.
But when a ministerial colleague left the first circuit in which I served, he reversed the custom. Before Ken left to follow his calling as a prison chaplain, he gave gifts to all the staff. I still remember that he gave me a book by Henri Nouwen, the (since deceased) Dutch Roman Catholic priest.
And today’s reading is about parting gifts. It’s about parting gifts, given by the one who was going to leave. On this Sunday after Ascension, we go back to a passage where Jesus promised what he would give his disciples when he left them. What did Jesus leave his first disciples – and, by implication, us?
The first gift is one that effectively says, I’m not really going.
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (Verses 23-24)
Physically I’m going, says Jesus, but the Father and I will be present in your lives. It’s rather more than what we mean when we say we will be with someone in spirit: Jesus and the Father will actually be present spiritually, in a way ordinary humans cannot be.
So Jesus is saying this isn’t a complete going away. You won’t be bereaved, I’ll just be present in a different way, in some sense a better way. Not only will Jesus be present with those he shares his earthly life, he will be present with all disciples. And further, it won’t just be Jesus who is present, but the Father, too.
Hence, all the wistful, romantic views about how wonderful it would be to have walked with Jesus along the shores of Galilee are punctured. Jesus says, this way is better. It is more blessèd for him to ascend and then come spiritually with the Father to all disciples. Let those of us who have never physically seen Jesus view ourselves as second-class Christians.
This, then, is a beautiful gift for the parting Jesus to give. He and the Father will be spiritually present with all Christians. There is no distinction between superior and inferior disciples. All are valued, and this is shown by the divine presence in all followers of Jesus.
There is, however, a challenge that goes with this first parting gift. Jesus associates this gift of divine presence with obedience to his word. To repeat the quote I just gave, Jesus says that the promise of his and the Father’s presence is to ‘Those who love me [who] will keep my word’ (verse 23), and in contrast ‘Whoever does not love me does not keep my words’ (verse 24).
What do we make of this? Is Jesus making it some kind of condition that he and the Father will only come to those who are goody-goodies? If so, it’s hardly some kind of gift. In that case, rather than a gift, their presence becomes some kind of reward or payment. You could say their presence would be more like wages for doing the right thing.
But I don’t think it is that. Jesus is setting this parting gift in the context of a relationship based on love. When people love one another, they both want to be with each other and they want to do what pleases the other party. That is what is going on here: both a close presence (‘we will come to them and make our home with them’) and a desire to please (‘Those who love me will keep my word’).
Put all that together, and what have you got? You’ve got a relationship where one party is going away, with all the potential heartache of a parting. But you have something there that cannot be paralleled in ordinary human relationships, in the way that Jesus and the Father will spiritually make themselves present in the lives of disciples. Our part is in love to ‘keep’ the words of Jesus.
That word ‘keep’ is interesting. It isn’t just about obeying, although it includes that. We keep the words of those we love. Think of a couple who are going out together, and especially if they live miles from each other, they will keep one another’s words. Letters will be kept, emails will be filed away, and especially when they are apart the correspondence will come out and someone will pore over it for nuances of their beloved’s thoughts and feelings. Only in the light of that devoted reading will they then act, because they have learned what pleases the one they love.
I’m sure I don’t have to ram home a spiritual application too hard after that. Keeping Jesus’ word means reading what he has said to us in a spirit of devotion, because we love him and he loves us. As we do so, we gain a feel for what pleases him, and we then set out to please him. All this brings him (and the Father) closer.
The second gift comes in verses 25 to 26. We’ve had Jesus and the Father, now we receive the Holy Spirit:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Let’s pick up on that word ‘Advocate’. Other translations say ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Helper’. Which one is right? All of them. And more. It’s one of those rich Greek words in the New Testament: paraklétos, and because it is so layered with meaning some people like to leave it virtually untranslated as ‘Paraclete’. If you did translate it literally, it would be something like this: ‘one called alongside’. So you can see why English versions opt for words like ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper’.
However, paraklétos had a particular application in the legal world. It referred to ‘a helper in court’. And from that you can see why some English translators choose words such as ‘Counsellor’ (think of ‘learned counsel’ in our legal parlance) or ‘Advocate’ (especially if you think of that word’s use in the Scottish legal system).
Add to this ‘helper in court’ Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (verse 26), and you get something like this. The Holy Spirit is the helper in court who reminds us what Jesus says. You could say, then, that the Holy Spirit here is Jesus’ helper. He is an advocate for Jesus to us. He helps us hear that word we are longing to pore over in our relationship of love with Jesus. On our own we cannot hear the word of Jesus. Even if we read it in the pages of Scripture, it just doesn’t jump off the page and sink into our being. But the work of the Holy Spirit makes the difference. Not that it then always becomes easy to hear the word of Jesus, but the Spirit makes it possible and real.
If you stretch the legal language a little further, then perhaps there is a particular time when the Spirit does this for us. If there is a ‘court’ context, then perhaps this is a promise that the Holy Spirit will especially help us receive the word of Jesus when we are ‘on trial’ for our faith. Not necessary literally on trial, although that is true for so many Christians around the world, but when we are under pressure, facing difficulties or opposition, the Holy Spirit comes to us and makes the message of Jesus clear to us.
This, then, is the second parting gift from Jesus. The Holy Spirit will help us hear his word in order to dwell on it and please him, but especially in times of stress he will make the voice of Jesus clear to us.
The third and final (at least in this passage) gift is peace. Verse 27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It’s a verse I often read at Methodist funerals, and I hoe it provides comfort to people in the deepest sorrow. It’s a verse I’ve applied to my own life at times of great nervousness. This may seem trivial compared to bereavement, but when I first took my driving test I was a bag of nerves. My foot beat time on the clutch – so much for the three-point turn – and I was in such a state that I pulled in behind a bus, waited for it to move off, completely oblivious to the fact that it was at a terminus, having completed its route. The second time I took my driving test, I wanted to avoid being a nervous wreck again and I memorised this verse. I was duly calm, and performed well in the test.
Except I didn’t pass. I sustained a puncture a quarter of a mile from the end of the test route. Although I had completed all the statutory manoeuvres, the examiner refused to proceed to the Highway Code test (no written exam in those days) and gave me a ‘no result’!
So we tend to apply this verse about Jesus’ promise to give a parting gift of peace in rather personal, if not individual terms. Yet however valid that is, I have been struck this week by the thought that Jesus might originally have meant it in a different way.
Jesus doesn’t simply give this gift of peace to individuals here, but to a group – his disciples. Some of our conventional understanding of this verse will still make sense in terms of the Ascension – if they are troubled by the thought of Jesus’ departure, he will calm them. Likewise, if they are under pressure, if not in a ‘court’ situation, then the gift of peace alongside the Spirit’s work will be invaluable. But I suspect he means more.
If it is peace in the midst of a group, then is Jesus not saying that peace should characterise his disciples? Should we not be known as a community of peace? By that, I don’t mean that we never have arguments, nor that we sweep our differences under the carpet. I mean that our life together as Christian community is one of harmony, healing, well-being and justice. Is that what we are like?
The other night I went to hear Sam Norton, the vicar of Mersea Island, speak at Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society. During his talk, he showed us a photo of the Amish community in the United States, and we remembered the terrible murder committed in their midst by an outsider a couple of years ago and how they pulled together in forgiveness. That, surely, was a Christian community that had practised the gift of peace given to them by Jesus and then when the crisis hit it was more natural to them to practise it also when under strain.
In other words, if we receive the parting gift of peace from Jesus, we need to put it into practice. It is no good just waiting for the crisis. We need to turn things into regular habits. The regular practice of peace will make us what one writer calls ‘the peaceable kingdom’. And by that I don’t mean simply sharing ‘The Peace’ at Holy Communion as we shall do in a few minutes: I mean the habits of peace that involve forgiveness, reconciliation, believing the best of one another and so on.
In conclusion, Jesus gives us a word about joy at the thought of his forthcoming departure:
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (Verses 28-29)
You wouldn’t normally mark the departure of a loved one with joy for yourselves, even if you were happy for them. But if the departure of Jesus means parting gifts like these – a loving relationship with him and the Father sustained by deep love and keeping his word, the Holy Spirit bringing the word of Jesus to us even in the most testing of situations and finally a communal peace – then do we not have every reason to be joyful that Jesus departed the earth for the right hand of the Father?
The Nobel Committee must be having a laugh, right? Nominating the Internet for the Nobel Peace Prize – they must have gone soft in the head this last year or two. Last year Barack Obama only had to breathe and suddenly he was a Nobel Laureate, at best on grounds of aspiration, certainly not on what he had achieved after a matter of months in the Oval Office.
Yes, there are plenty of good things on the Internet, and yes, a certain proportion of it is about ‘dialogue, debate and consensus’, but then there are the flame wars, the pornography, the terrorism and government monitoring, to say nothing of the dross, the mundane, the trivial and the narcissistic.
In any case, there is much more to peace than ‘dialogue, debate and consensus’. In Judaeo-Christian terms peace involves harmony, justice, healing and reconciliation just for starters.
And who would receive the award? Tim Berners-Lee, maybe? I can’t help thinking of the story that Rod Beckstrom and Ori Brafman tell in ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘ about being quizzed by French officials years ago with a persistent question: “Who is the President of the Internet?” Despite their frequent attempts to explain its decentralised nature, their inquisitors needed an answer. Only when one of them said he was the President of the Internet were they satisfied.
So, come on Nobel Committee – tell us you just wanted to give us all a giggle.
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.
Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.
In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?
I think it does.
Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers. Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.
However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.
Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.
And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.
What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.
The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.
So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.
But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.
But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.
Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.
Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.
Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).
Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.
Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?
I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.
Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!
The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.
Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.
What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.
The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.
May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.
“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.