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!

 

 

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Freedom

The Fourth of July was coming up and the American nursery school teacher was taking the opportunity to tell her class about patriotism. ‘We live in a great nation’, she said ‘One of the wonderful things is that in this country we are all free.’

One little boy stood up, with his hands firmly on his hips. ‘I’m not free’, he said, ‘I’m four!’

The little boy said more than he knew. Can you be free if you are four? When you are four you spend a lot of your time doing what you are told. But if my four year old was free to do what she wanted, she’d quickly get addicted to crisps and bad habits and wouldn’t be free at all.

So is freedom all about being able to do what you want? And does the idea of freedom as liberty end up making freedom the opposite of responsibility? What about all those people who have found freedom of the soul despite living in oppressive societies?

Today’s reading from the book of Acts Chapter 16 verses 16-34 tells us a lot about freedom. How freedom can take many forms, how someone can be free even in prison, how Christ sets us free. If you want to follow it you can find it on the inside cover of our Gazettes.

This passage follows on immediately after the reading we had last week, in which we heard how a merchant called Lydia was converted in a Roman colony called Philippi. St Paul and his companions had met Lydia at a place of prayer on the riverbank. What I find interesting in verse 16 is that they’re still going there.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, so now she’d become a Christian, why didn’t they meet in her house? It would have been nice and comfy, they could have enjoyed food and drink, they could have adapted the room for their own needs, they could have worshipped God in their own way without worrying about what others might think. But they didn’t.

Paul and his companions deliberately go to the public place of prayer because they want to be seen and heard. They want everyone to hear the good news about Jesus. Christ gives us the freedom to speak about him so that others may have the freedom to respond. Christians shouldn’t spend all their time shut away in churches. It’s good to get out into the community, to be visibly present and to worship outdoors.

Palm Sunday processions, Good Friday walks, Pentecost and Boules services, that kind of thing give a positive message. Of course, it’s got to be high quality and well supported – I’ve been to too many cringeworthy outdoor events attended by one man and his dog. Let’s go outdoors, and if we do let’s make it a priority, doing justice to our faith.

There’s a saying that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Paul doesn’t think so. Being followed by a slave girl shouting out ‘These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you a way to be saved’ annoys him. He turns, and says to the fortune telling spirit ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out’. And it does.

As a vicar I occasionally get phone calls from people who feel that something spiritual and unpleasant is troubling them or present in their home. It doesn’t happen often but perhaps more often than you might think. Sometimes a tragic event has happened in that place, or a previous occupant was involved in the occult. I go round the house with a colleague, praying in each room, splashing holy water, listening and blessing in the name of Christ. It’s amazing the peace that Christ can bring. It’s only not worked once: and that was when the person was leading séances and wouldn’t give them up. Christ allows us freedom. If we want to be free from darkness he has great power.

It’s remarkable how many people, even Christians have tried out Ouija or tarot, consulted a medium or similar. People offering this may be charlatans who cold read customers to give false comfort. But that may be less dangerous than those who open people up to unwelcome forces.

While they may seem to give insight into the future, I’ve known people say that such foretelling does not bless – it can cause great anxiety.

The Bible is clear that fortune telling, mediumship and all other forms of spiritism are forbidden to God’s people. It is not our place to know the future. God can prepare us, even tell us what is going to happen if we need to know. But usually God’s emphasis is on giving us the strength to get through whatever the future might hold. Trying to see the future through tarot or palmistry or even horoscopes won’t give you the ability to avoid it or the strength to endure it. If we want to be held through the unknown, we must step out in faith with God’s Holy Spirit.

I much prefer the approach taken by Her Majesty the Queen as she speaks about her own faith on her 90th birthday. In a foreword to a book about her faith, she quotes this poem: ‘I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

If anyone here had been involved in Spiritism or the occult, Christ can set you free. Renounce it, ask for his forgiveness and his peace. It may be surprisingly difficult to do so – that emphasises how necessary it is.

When someone turns away from evil and the Kingdom of God grows, often there is a backlash. In v.19 the slave girl’s owners see that their hope of making money is gone, but rather than complain about this, they use the well-tried tactic of stirring up racial hatred. ‘These people are different, they’re introducing new customs.’

Christians in many places are susceptible to this kind of kangaroo court and summary punishment. Like Paul and Silas though, many of them have discovered that Jesus gives us freedom despite our circumstances.

The apostles could have felt very sorry for themselves, it would have been entirely understandable after a severe beating. Instead, locked up in the stocks they sing hymns and pray. They have realised that they are free: free in how they react, free to praise God. No one can crush them.

Perhaps we too can learn this – in small way. It was the morning before going on holiday. I was in a rush. Lots to do, emails to send, a sermon to write for when I got back, people to phone. Then when the work was done, packing to start. I was in a bad mood, snappy at the children.

As I was struggling with Jemima’s coat buttons, she began to sing: ‘Sing Hosanna, sing hosanna, sing hosanna to the King of Kings’. It suddenly struck me: I have a choice. I can choose to remain in a grump and stressed by everything there is to do. Or I can accept that it’s all there and make the most of whatever comes my way. To a large degree my mood is my choice. Despite circumstances, Christ gives us freedom.

It’s not recorded what the other prisoners made of the midnight praise party. But the situation was transformed when an earthquake burst the prison door. Yes, earthquakes are frequent in that part of the Mediterranean but Luke is sure this was no coincidence, rather the power of God.

God can give us freedom from circumstances. He can change what is going on around us. This does raise a few questions though: why did God not intervene earlier to save Paul and Silas from a beating? Why did God intervene at all – they didn’t make a run for it when their bonds where broken, and we learn in the next passage that they were going to be set free anyway. Perhaps God’s priorities are different to ours.

God intervenes so that he can give freedom to the gaoler. Convinced by God’s power and amazed that the prisoners have not escaped, the gaoler abandons his plan to kill himself and instead is baptised. God brings him freedom from despair. He has the gift of hope and salvation.

This is the ultimate freedom that puts everything else in context. When we are set free by God’s forgiveness a huge burden is released. When we know God loves us we are free from all sorts of expectations society lays on us, free from all manner of striving. When we accept eternal life in Christ, we are free to spend our lives in a completely different way. Coming to Christ is the best freedom of all.

There’s a model of becoming a Christian here: the gaoler’s family hear the word, they believe and are baptised and then he begins Christian service by tending the wounds of the apostles.

Finally, there is one other form of freedom in this story. Freedom from society’s boundaries, the divisions of class and wealth. Paul, a Jewish zealot; Lydia, a wealthy business woman; a slave girl and a tough Roman gaoler are now members of the Church. In Christ we have freedom, whoever we are in the eyes of the world.

Jesus gives us freedom. Freedom from the power of darkness, freedom despite our circumstances. Freedom to change and freedom to live for him. I wonder, where do you need freedom today? Is Christ calling you to a deeper freedom in him? Let us be silent for a moment and listen to his call. Be free to respond.

 

A Christmas reflection

‘The most unexpected thing’, said Major Tim Peake from the International Space Station ‘was the blackness of space. We always talk about seeing the view of planet earth and how beautiful it is, and so you come to expect that. But what people don’t mention that much is when you look in the opposite direction and you see how dark space is. It is just the blackest black and you realise how small the earth is in that blackness.’

He could see a contrast between light and dark which you just don’t get on earth. A higher perspective had brought understanding. Something similar is happening in St John’s gospel, from which we just had our reading. The gospels of Matthew and Luke have a more earthly perspective. They interpret and explain the facts and events around Jesus’ birth – the familiar stories we all hear at the Nativity and Crib.

But if all we had was John’s gospel, we wouldn’t know any of that. Shepherds, angels, wise men, no room at the inn – none of that appears in John. If all we had was John’s gospel we wouldn’t even know Joseph’s name. For John’s gospel has a more heavenly perspective. It is written to complement the others – I think it assumes we’ve already read them. The fourth gospel reflects deeply on who Jesus is and what he means. Like an astronaut on the space station, looking down, John has the time and the distance to see the big perspective.

And he marvels at three wonderful mysteries. Word. Light and the Son of God. Firstly Word. Jesus makes God intelligible. That’s the heart of verses 1 + 14 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ What is a word if it’s not communication? And what is communication if we can’t understand it? John says that we can understand God because of Jesus.

That’s a pretty big claim to make. You might expect that God would be unknowable, completely beyond our understanding. If God is God, even the best human mind is feeble and darkened compared to him.

And it’s true, if it were just down to us and our guesses, we could never even begin. But what if God decided to reveal himself to us? If God took the initiative in communicating, as our Hebrews reading says he did through the prophets, it would be utterly reliable. It is better for a perfect and powerful God to stoop low to us than for us to try and think our way up to him. The message of Christmas is that this has happened in Christ. Because it is God taking the initiative, we can trust what he says. God’s self- revelation in Jesus is reliable.

As Hebrews puts it: ‘In the past he spoke through the prophets, but in these days he has spoken to us through his Son, who is the reflection of God’s glory.’ Like breath condensing on a wintry day, Jesus makes the invisible God visible. In Jesus God condescends to make himself known. The infinite is encompassed within a mortal span.

How that happens is a mystery. We will never fully grasp the wonder of what occurred that first Christmas. How God became man. God reveals to us what we need to know, and we can trust him. But He does not reveal everything to us – we know that the Word became flesh but not how – and at times like this we just bow in awe and worship.

One of the most amazing things that happened to me this year is seeing my son Jonathan find his voice. If you don’t know Jonathan, he has such severe cerebral palsy that he can’t speak. He can’t control his movements enough even to push a button, so for nine years of his life we’ve had to guess what he’s thinking through his smiles and frowns.

The breakthrough came this year when he began looking at letters on a Perspex board. By standing the other side of the board, and noting what letters he looks at, you can write down the words as he spells them out. And you know, he has the most wonderful character and amazing mind. My proudest moment was when he won the prize letter in Aquila magazine – it took him three and a half hours to compose. Finding the right communication has unlocked his personality.

I mention that because when many people talk about God, they talk as if God’s unknowable. If he exists, they say, he must be so far off, so distant, so much greater than us that we cannot know anything about him for sure. Many talk as if our attempts at faith are just grasping at clouds. But you know, that leaves God’s initiative out of the picture. It doesn’t allow him to act. God does not have locked in syndrome. God communicates with us. That’s the beauty of Christmas – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

In doing so, the difference between the darkness and light becomes clear. The presence of Jesus throws the darkness into sharper relief, even as he banishes the night.

So I wonder how many different forms of light you have experienced today? Perhaps you have had lively children in the house, full of joy and excitement at the fairy lights. When they were eventually persuaded to go to bed, did you curl up on the sofa enjoying the comforting warmth of a log fire, reading a book by its light? Surely when you ventured out you were guided on your way by street lamps or the headlights of a car? And entering the church the candlelight speaks of hope and promise amidst the dark.

Jesus the light of the world reaches us in body mind and soul. His light guides us, heals our emotions, restores the spirit, gives hope. ‘That light was the life of all people’ – if we ask him to, he will meet our deepest need – which is for him. When we know him – and he responds to all who ask – we can find a profound fulfilment that goes further than anything else.

He can do this because he is God’s Son; who shares God’s nature and makes him known. The most wonderful thing is that he invites us to be God’s children too. Surely you’d think it would be enough for God to communicate with us? For him to forgive and heal and meet our deepest need? But that is not enough for our loving God.

He would also make us his own children! Love, cherish, honour us as his own! So the Son of God became like us that we might become like him.

What amazing depths of love God has for us! What an astonishing invitation to receive! What a wonderful Saviour to celebrate today! Amen.