Peace, terrorism and the Spirit

The minister was standing by the door, and as the congregation went by, they shook his hand, as they always did. ‘Lovely service vicar’, ‘thank you’, ‘enjoy the sunshine’ and so on. And then one man stopped, looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘Vicar, your sermon reminded me of the love and peace of God’. ‘How wonderful’, he said, ‘how’s that?’ ‘Well, like the peace of God, it passed understanding, and like the love of God, it went on for ever.’

What does peace mean to you? It works at so many different levels. Is it a glass of wine on a sunny evening in the garden? The stillness and prayerful presence of an ancient church? Relaxing with the children on holiday – not exactly peace and quiet but a deep peace that all is well? That’s one level. We often take that kind of peace for granted. The recent terrorist atrocities bring peace into sharper focus – how blessed we usually are to be free from fear and violence, and how awful it is when that peace is shattered. Absence of peace leads to anxiety and fear.

In our reading, the disciples are not at all at peace. ‘That day, the first day of the week’ referred to in v 19 is the very first Easter Sunday. In John’s account, the disciples have been to the tomb and found it empty save for the graveclothes. They are still pondering this mystery. Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the Lord – she even says he spoke to her, but did they believe her? With her history, quite possibly not.

Certainly, v 19 goes on to say that ‘the doors of the house where the disciples met were locked for fear of the Jews.’ Peace is far from them. They have seen their Teacher executed in the most barbaric way. The one they had hoped was the glorious Messiah has died a shameful death. They’re worried, not understanding why his tomb was empty. Fearful that the same Jewish leaders might come and do the same to them too.

So they barricade the doors. isn’t it true that often the desire for peace becomes a wish for freedom from harm, which then turns into defensiveness, anger and even violence. There’s the old Latin adage: if you want peace prepare for war! We can see that in North Korea – they produce nuclear weapons thinking that ensures they are left alone, but it only draws attention and increases the risk of war

In the next few weeks our society will face that issue again. We can choose between two paths. Communities could withdraw into themselves, wedges be driven between different religions, fear of the unknown and the outside could grow. of course that is exactly what the terrorists want. Yet you cannot defeat darkness with darkness. Instead you must shine a light. It is only hope and reaching out to others which gives the chance of overcoming terrorism.

That is what the disciples found. In the reading the disciples are defeated, defensive and downcast. And then suddenly, they hear a familiar voice speaking: ‘Peace. Peace be with you.’ Jesus breathes peace into them, the peace of God which passes all understanding; tranquillity; restfulness. Their worries evaporate, their concerns which seemed so large fade away in the presence of Christ.

Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic, and the word he spoke would have been Shlama, the equivalent of Shalom in Biblical Hebrew. Our Bibles translate Shalom as peace, but it actually encompasses much more. Shalom is more than feeling peaceful, it’s wider than the absence of war. Shalom is more like everything being as it ought to be. Life as God intended it, in all its fullness. The poor having enough, justice for the oppressed, a society of care and compassion.

Shalom is a vision for the whole of life, and it’s interesting to think about that this coming week. As various political parties put in a pitch for our votes, they sell us a vision of what life could be like. As you read a manifesto or compare promises, ask yourself, what picture of society is being painted here? What are the politicians hoping our world will be like? What vision underpins the policy? And of course, we must also ask what chance do they have of achieving it? Do they have a plan to achieve those aims?

Now the Kingdom of God cannot come through political means. The Kingdom of God includes people making a personal response to God’s love through Christ. Politics does not do that. What politics can do is align our society with the values of the Kingdom of God. Try and make our world more how God wants it to be. But to bring in the Kingdom of God, we need to make our own response.

When Jesus says ‘Shalom’, he’s speaking about the Kingdom of God. Then, in verse 20, he shows them his hands and his side. Have you ever wondered why he did this? I’ve always imagined that it was a proof of identity ‘look it’s definitely me. Proof that this really is Jesus who was crucified and is now risen. After all, when Thomas wants proof, Jesus shows him his hands and his side.

But it occurred to me that there’s something else going on here. The wounds in Jesus’ hands and his side are the reason for peace. The proof of peace, if you will. Because it’s when Jesus passes through death that death is defeated for us. It’s when Jesus’ blood is shed on the cross that our sins our washed away. It’s as Jesus rises again that we share in the hope of resurrection.

Jesus shows the disciples that he brings them peace. They can have peace because of what he has done. No longer need they fear death as the ultimate enemy – and if you’ve ever met someone who has no fear of death it’s amazing what they can achieve because they’ve got nothing to lose. No longer should the disciples be anxious and fearful about sin – because Jesus has reconciled us with God we can be confident in God’s presence.

So what Jesus brings is a deeper peace. It’s a bigger peace than we often imagine. In v.21 he says: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about peace, I often think about relaxing. ‘This is such a peaceful spot’ means I can sit here and think and enjoy the view. ‘That service was very peaceful’ tends to mean that it has left me in a contemplative frame of mind. Perhaps because we live in such a busy noisy world, peace tends to mean slowing down, taking a longer look, doing less and being more. Our world desperately needs that sort of peace.

It’s a bit of a surprise then that Jesus words ‘Peace be with you’ are followed by ‘as the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ The deep peace Jesus brings is not a cop-out, nor a hideaway from society. Jesus gives us a deep and lasting peace so that we can make a difference in the world. The great gift of peace is given so that it can be shared.

The kind of peace of which Shalom speaks, the Kingdom of God, involves whole communities. It transforms society. Peace is not for the individual, it’s for all creation.

A retreat for instance, fills us up so we can minister. The Holy Spirit brings us peace within, joins Christians together into the church, and gives us power to do God’s will. We need to keep asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit so that we can be the community he wants us to be.

It has been wonderful during the last week when we’ve met together for prayer. The 24 hours of prayer at Norton were a hugely blessed time and I know that many people have been praying since. I’d love to know how we can continue developing that regular prayer – what can we do to keep up the momentum.

That’s why Jesus breathes on them and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. Isn’t it inspiring to think that the Holy Spirit in us is the breath of Jesus? That the Christ who was once dead, is now alive, and breathes eternal life into us! That that Breath of Life continues today.

So is this a kind of Pentecost? We are reading it on Whitsunday! Yes, I believe it is. I don’t think it’s a kind of alternative Pentecost, as if John the Gospel writer hadn’t heard Luke’s account. I’m not convinced that John presents it with alternative emphases. I think it makes more sense to see this as a kind of sacramental act: Jesus breathing on the disciples is an outward sign of what will happen later when the Spirit comes. It’s to get them ready, and emphasise that the Spirit ultimately comes from him.

Finally, Jesus says in v. 23 If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any they are retained. This is a puzzling verse. History tells us that this saying has been very controversial. Mediaeval Catholicism interpreted it to mean that the church inherited from the apostles the power to forgive people’s sins and to refuse to forgive people too. This verse was used to argue that if you wanted to be forgiven you had to confess to a priest and you might well have to pay up for the privilege.

The Reformers insisted that indulgences and the like were an abuse of power. People like Luther emphasised the liberating truth that we are forgiven through trusting in Jesus. Some people find sacramental confession to a priest helpful, anyone may do it, but none must because we can all be forgiven through Christ. The role of the church is to proclaim that good news, so that everyone has the chance to be forgiven free of charge. What Jesus does here is emphasise the responsibility of the disciples: your actions, your communication of the message gives people the chance to be forgiven or otherwise. We must take seriously the power that he has entrusted to us -a power that must be given away.

Thankfully the churches today have moved beyond that controversy, because it obscures the real point: that we believe in forgiveness! Jesus has risen from the dead, he breathes new life into us, and we can have peace! The peace of God is bigger than a feeling, or a pious thought. It is grounded on the greatest truth, that Jesus has died and is risen, and that he has won the peace. Now let us put it into practice!

 

 

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

She doesn’t have the presidential look. So said Donald Trump about Hilary Clinton, and when challenged, he repeated it. ‘I just don’t think she has the presidential look. And you need the presidential look. You have to get the job done.’ I wonder what he meant? Do we expect leaders to fit a certain mould? Do you have to have a particular appearance or air to be able to get on? What speaking skills and demeanour are necessary to be effective in the world?

The good news in our Corinthians reading is that whoever you are, God can use you. The world may value a particular sort of wisdom, but the Holy Spirit uses those who are open to him. So we place confidence, not in fancy techniques and special skills, but in the Spirit’s power. For it is God’s Spirit who convinces people of the truth about Jesus.

St. Paul had discovered this through experience. He was a real gospel pioneer, explaining and enculturating the Christian faith wherever he went. In AD 51 Paul went to Corinth, a sea port in Greece. Chapter 18 of the book of Acts describes how Paul and his companions stayed in Corinth for 18 months – a long time – because many people came to faith in Jesus.

Soon though it all began to go wrong. The letters to the Corinthians are the most personal and passionate in the New Testament, as Paul tries to win back his former friends. Within just a year or two of his departure, the Corinthian church had divided along class lines, gone downhill ethically, and wandered away from Christ as they experimented with so-called wisdom. Paul, the wandering unmarried missionary who supported himself by making tents, was an embarrassment to these ambitious, sophisticated Corinthians. Paul was so yesterday! Hadn’t they grown out of his homespun approach?

The passage we’re reading today, from 1st Corinthians 2:1-12 is a model of a Christian response to criticism. Paul does not stand on his dignity, instead he focusses on Christ. He does not defend his style, instead in verse 1 he admits: ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.’

This was a deliberate choice, in v.2: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’

Paul could have adapted his message to make it more philosophical, he could have copied worldly wisdom. Paul could have focussed on the glory and power of Christ and forgotten about the shame of Jesus death. But no, Paul made the conscious decision that his message would be about Jesus the Son of God, and how he saves us through his death on the cross.

Paul did this because, as we heard last week in v. 18 of chapter 1, although the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jesus death on the cross is contrary to the glory, wealth and power of human wisdom, but it is the way that God saves us… As Jesus dies, he atones for the sin of the world. Mercy overcomes judgement, forgiveness triumphs over hate, love is discovered in the midst of suffering. Through his death Jesus sets us free from the power of evil.

Paul knew that we do not find salvation through our own efforts or morality, but through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. So Christianity without the cross would not be Christianity at all. Of course, Paul is not anti-intellectual – after all his own writings show great depth of thought. Paul is not saying that it’s wrong to communicate the gospel in the best possible way – for his own letters use all the best rhetorical methods. But is he saying that all these things must be pointing towards Christ crucified – they must shed light on the message rather than obscure it 

I think that’s an important message for the church today. To have confidence in the good news, that the power of the message itself will take root in people’s hearts and change lives.

It is not wrong to advertise: to use everything from Facebook to posters. It is not wrong to create glossy videos, have high quality music – whether by choir or worship band. It is not wrong to be warm, to serve decent coffee and sit in comfy chairs. But it would be wrong for churches to rely on those things; it would be wrong if the experience was wonderful but the gospel was not heard; it would be wrong if people went from church to church like customers seeking livelier music and eloquent preaching.

Look at the church in many parts of Africa. If they have buildings they are more like sheds. The pastor is lucky if he’s been educated to secondary school. Yet the churches are full and joyous, for the gospel is proclaimed.

And that is what Paul did. In v.3 he admits that he came to Corinth in much fear and trembling. But as v.4 and 5 say, this was so that their faith might rest not on human wisdom but on a demonstration of God’s power.

What is this power? Does he mean miracles? Was the power of God shown through miraculous healings and raising the dead? Certainly that does happen throughout the book of Acts but interestingly when Paul comes to Corinth in chapter 18 miracles are not mentioned at all.

Does the power mean the gifts of the Spirit? The supernatural abilities like giving prophecies, speaking in tongues or interpreting them? Certainly the gifts of the Spirit were very important to the Corinthians – so much so that Paul has to tell them that the gifts are not ends in themselves. Instead the gifts receive their power when they are used to serve one another in love.

This is the meaning of power. A changed life brought about by God. The Spirit’s power is shown when someone believes the good news and becomes a changed person. It’s as we become more like Jesus that the Spirit’s power is shown. That’s a real challenge to our priorities. What is it that shows the presence of God in a church? Lives changed to be more like Jesus. It’s not the quality of the experience for an hour one Sunday morning that matters – it’s what you do with it for the rest of the week.

I wonder who the best preacher you’ve ever heard was? I think of a certain chap. I can’t remember any of his sermons – perhaps one or two jokes and illustrations but no more. I certainly can’t think of any one set-piece where I thought ‘that was an amazing talk’. But I do know that for three years at university I was nourished and developed in my faith through the biblical message he gave.

It’s a bit like meals: I suspect there are very few individual meals you can remember, perhaps the odd special occasion. If I were to ask you what you had for lunch last Tuesday you might struggle to answer. But the fact you’re alive means you have been sustained by regular meals – they have nourished you day to day. It is like that with hearing and reading God’s word – regularly receiving nourishment gives us life.

And when we come to God’s word, we must do so with humility. That means asking God to speak to us when we read the Bible. It means praying that when we listen to a sermon we can hear whatever nuggets are there – because there are always some if you listen hard enough! Coming with humility means wanting to encounter God and being open to whatever change he wants to make in our lives.

Without humility we are like the rulers Paul speaks about in verses 6 and 8. Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priests did not understand the significance of Jesus, and so they condemned him to death. Yet by this action they fulfilled God’s hidden wisdom which he decreed before all time, they did what was necessary for God’s plan of salvation.

Incidentally verses 6 to 9 are not saying that God has hidden knowledge that he only reveals to a select few. This doesn’t set up a kind of super-religious elite. The secret and hidden wisdom in v7 is the message of the cross – which did not make sense at the time but is now available to all. God’s purpose was mysterious but in Christ he reveals it to all.

To understand God’s word we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us. This is what verses 10 to 12 mean. Why did the rulers not understand Jesus? Why do many not get it today? Why can a child grasp the gospel whereas some professors cannot? Because in v.10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. We need to be humble and open to the Holy Spirit who alone understands the things of God.

Think of horse whisperers – we had an email the other day from a guy in Singapore who puts a lot of effort into understanding the different moods of horses. Susannah went on a trip to Bristol zoo recently and found out about the body language of gorillas. Apparently when gorillas are happy they relax. And every muscle relaxes. So their faces go all droopy. Which means that if you see a gorilla looking spectacularly fed up, it’s actually really chilled out. At least that’s what the zoo say!

Gorillas though would understand gorillas. And horses horses. Humans intuitively understand one another. Like understands like. That’s what Paul is saying in v.11: ‘for what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within’. And here comes the punchline: ‘So also no-one comprehends what is truly God’s except the spirit of God.’

And amazingly in v.12: ‘We have received the Spirit of God!’ Isn’t that astonishing?! We could not naturally understand the things of God, but he gives us his Spirit so that we can. Because the Holy Spirit is divine, he understands the mind of God. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians, he can lead us into truth.

What a wonderful gift God gives in the Holy Spirit! May we ask for his illumination every time we come to God’s word. May we use the gifts the spirit gives us, all our time and talents, and submit them to the service of Christ crucified. May we seek to be filled regularly with the Spirit and live out our lives in courageous obedience to him. May we pray the Spirit’s blessing on all that we do, and trust in God’s strength, so that others may find a faith which rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God.