St Mary’s 12/5/19 6th of Easter 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
Preacher: Mark Hart
‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
What would peace look like for you? Or for the Church of England? Or for the United Kingdom?
It’s easy to put a finger on what takes away peace. Whether it’s hostility, disease, hatred, natural disaster, or broken relationships. It’s much harder to picture what would flourish if all that was taken away. Because this word peace is not just about the absence of trouble. It’s about the positive presence of goodness and well-being. It’s about a transforming release of life and vitality. It’s about resurrection life with all its surprise.
‘My peace’, said Jesus. He’s talking about the peace which he has with his Father, which can be shared with us by the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom he will give to us. This is God’s peace, the peace which is lived in that unity and fullness who is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It’s a peace which is completely inaccessible to us in the sense that we cannot know what it is like to be God. The idea of imagining a day in the life of God is a nonsense. We would simply project all our prejudices about what is good onto God. And we would massively limit the infinite beauty, goodness and truth of God.
That’s why the Bible warns relentlessly against idolatry. It’s not just a prohibition against bowing down to gods made of wood or stone. It’s about the danger of taking anything about human culture and society and projecting it onto God in any absolute or literal way.
Whenever we do that we put a limit on what is possible. We limit both our knowledge of God and the degree of God’s peace we can know in our world.
Take, for example, the well-worn question of whether to call God ‘Father’. It’s what Jesus taught us to do. It’s the name Jesus uses for God in this passage. It’s a name which conveys much positive truth about our relationship with God and about our share in Jesus’ own relationship with God.
It’s less helpful when it is taken to suggest that God is male. Maybe no-one explicitly says that. But the idea can do its work subconsciously, just by use of the term. It can reinforce a patriarchal view of society. It can allow us to get used to the idea that power and authority are male. It can contribute to the Church failing to recognise the role women can play.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray ‘Our Father’. But we should check ourselves and remember that God’s peace is bigger than any of words. None of our words describe God in any objective, literal way.
Take the next part of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘thy kingdom come’. It’s the phrase chosen by the Archbishops to name their initiative of ten days of prayer from Ascension Day to Pentecost. Ten days of prayer for the Church to grow. If you like, ten days of prayer for this peace to come which Jesus promised.
But again the terminology means we have to check ourselves. God’s kingdom. If that means a place where God’s will is done, that’s fine. But the word kingdom brings with it baggage related to the sovereign rule of monarchs in earthly nations throughout history. Images and ideas which can limit our appreciation of God and our imagination for how God’s peace may be known among us.
Once you’ve called God a king, you’re well placed to argue that such a constitution is right for our nation and that considerable power should be invested in the monarch. The pattern is clear. Project what you want to maintain about society onto God. Then you can argue the other way in order to maintain your system of control. This order is necessary for the world because it is rooted in who God is. That’s how it has been argued.
Again, my point is not to speak one way or the other about monarchy. It is to open us up to the possibility of God’s peace being something more than we have known. All our culture and order is provisional because we can never say it has been read directly off the nature of God. Any claim to have done that is idolatry and it limits our participation in God’s peace.
Similar points could be made about what is the right ordering of the Church. In the Church of England, we have bishops, in common with the Catholic and Orthodox churches. I think there is a very good basis in Scripture and tradition for that order. But I am glad there are other churches. We need their challenge in order for it to be evident that God cannot be contained by any institution.
Family life is an area where in the lifetime of people here today there has been significant change in society, in ways which continue to be challenging to the Church and its sense of what is God’s order for our lives. When is the Church right to stand against change and point to what it believes has been revealed in Scripture and tradition? And when is the Church in danger of making its norms into an idol which excludes and judges?
That brings us to the question of how this peace comes to be realised among us. Jesus said it is through the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in his name. The Spirit of Jesus himself, present in the Church. And here lies a great irony.
‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is the title of a play by T S Eliot which portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in his cathedral of Canterbury in the year 1170. In the middle of the play is an interlude when Thomas preaches a Christmas Day sermon on peace, just four days before his death. It includes these words.
“Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’”
Becket was soon to be martyred. The disciples were persecuted and killed. In all this they had the Spirit of Christ, for they were ready to lay down their lives for the truth.
Not as the world gives. Christ’s peace was not to be given by the imposition of an order from above, by the tabling of rules and rituals to squash all that spoils peace. Christ came to serve and to lay down his life. And his peace is the resurrection life which follows, an abundant flourishing which resists any pinned down structure and control.
That’s why, if the Church is to be open to this peace, and to be a sign of this peace, it can only be by its love and service. As I said at the beginning, we can identify all that works against peace. We can less easily write down the blueprint for a peaceful society. Because that’s not how it works. That would always be an idol. God is always bigger than we can imagine.
And there is where your deepest peace lies. In the infinite heart of God. As we look for God’s peace in our lives and in our society, let us not prejudge what it may look like. Rejoice, said Jesus, because I go to the Father. So let’s get ready to celebrate the Ascension on Thursday. Because that’s about our humanity being taken into God, a place where there is infinite capacity for our peace to expand.