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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Eucharist 2 – who we are

 

1 Corinthians 11:20-27 and Luke 14:15-24

A couple in their 90s die suddenly in a freak accident. Up till that point they had been in excellent health, due to the wife’s interest in health food.

When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, with beautiful kitchen, swimming pool, lovely view. As they “oohed and aahed”, the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost.

“It’s free,” Peter replied, Remember, this is Heaven.”

Next they went out back to see the championship golf course next door. Each week the course changed to a new one representing the greatest golf courses on Earth. The old man asked, “What are the green fees?”

“This is heaven,” St. Peter replied. “You play for free.”

Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out. “How much to eat?” asked the old man.

“Don’t you understand yet?” St. Peter asked. “This is heaven. It’s free!”

“Where are the low fat and low cholesterol foods?” the old man asked timidly.

“That’s the best part…you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like and you never get fat and you never get ill. This is Heaven.”

The old man looked at his wife and said, “You and your stupid bran muffins. I could have been here twenty years ago!”

When Jesus talks about heaven, how does he imagine it? He certainly doesn’t talk about harps and clouds at all. As far as I’m aware he mentions Paradise just once – to the thief on the cross who puts his trust in Jesus right at the end of his life. Because he turns to Christ he is forgiven and will be in Paradise.

But mostly the image Jesus uses is a banquet. ‘Blessed is the person who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God’ says a dinner guest piously. Jesus has just said something challenging and it seems that the guest is one of those people who tries to defuse tension by saying something that all can agree on. But Jesus isn’t going to let an opportunity pass.

He responds by telling a parable about a banquet. How lucky indeed those will be who eat in the kingdom. So make sure you respond to God’s invitation! Don’t take it for granted, says Jesus!

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus talks about feasting in the Kingdom of God. You and I are invited to a glorious celebration, a wedding banquet thrown by God. And I don’t mean the sort of party where you make polite conversation with people you’ll never see again while wishing you had three hands because you’re standing up and it’s impossible to eat canapes from a plate while holding a glass of imitation Prosecco.

No, God invites us to abundant joy. To celebration and fulfilment. To the whole company of the redeemed. Not the smug nuclear family of the Christmas adverts. This is a celebration that involves the full communion of the saints – all those who have belonged to Christ. The vast breadth of people from every race, nation and language who have accepted Christ will be there. It will make the Olympic opening ceremony look tame by comparison. We are invited. God calls each one of us today to make a response – to say yes to him, be forgiven, and then live his way…

This feast, this gracious invitation from God, this inclusive celebration is symbolised and foreshadowed in the Eucharist. Holy Communion is a picture of God’s heavenly banquet. Here God invites us to come to his love feast. To join in celebration with all those others he has called. Today we will explore what the Eucharist says about us. How it symbolises the diversity of God’s people. How it calls us into fellowship with one another. How it creates a new Kingdom community.

Isn’t it interesting that in the Gospel reading from Luke several people refuse the host’s invitation? And they do so for individualistic reasons. The activities they do instead are not about community: they are solitary and could be done anytime: inspecting a field, trying out oxen. Even having a new wife begs the question ‘why not bring her along and share your joy?’

Are the people rejecting the invitation because they turn away from others? Now of course, for an extravert who likes being in a crowd it is easy to be the life and soul of the party. For a bookish introvert a party can be a fearsome thing. I don’t think Jesus is talking about that – not least because the things the introvert may be concerned about such as looking stupid or being rejected, those fears are not issues in heaven.

No, the ungrateful guests are rejecting the host and his character. They don’t want to be part of his celebration. They prefer to be independent rather than receive blessing from others. They don’t want to share with the guests he has invited, community holds no attraction for them, the openness, even vulnerability that fellowship requires is a step too far.

It reminds me of the old style 8 o’clock. When I was a curate about two dozen came to prayer book communion. There was plenty of room in the choir stalls but several people preferred to be miles away from anyone in a church that could seat 800. There was quite an emphasis on ‘making my communion with God’ – but rather less on communicating with one another. I knew a chap who even used to leave before the clergy had reached the door so that he didn’t have to speak to anyone.

I can see how such a service could provide a place of refuge for those who have been deeply damaged. It can hold them in a safe place but it’s contact with others which gives the chance of greater healing. Being willing to share your pew, offering the peace, staying for coffee after the service are much more than just being sociable. They are God given means of grace, ministries by which we can welcome one another, build relationships and support fellow Christians on the journey of faith. Meeting is a way that we can encourage one another in living out the gospel in the coal-face of Christian living: at work, home, school.

For God’s mission in the world is not done by the clergy, it’s carried out Christians in the front line – by the lay people. It’s lay people who have contact with other folks through their work, school, home or social interests. You can be the light of Christ for them, show his love, speak of him. It’s your work that makes a difference for the Kingdom in the world.

The job of the clergy is to resource the wider church, to support through ministry of word and sacrament the laity who are on the frontline of God’s mission.

So think of how we can support one another in our work for the Kingdom. That time after the service is potentially a real blessing. It’s not just for the clergy; it’s a chance for all of us, the whole body of Christ, to share in real ministry. Ministry belongs to everyone – the whole people of God.

Stay if you possibly can. Speak to different people. What about those you know well? Can I challenge you to raise your game? Go a bit deeper: what’s are you doing this week? What did you think of the sermon? And be willing to open up yourself, for it’s as we share with one another that trust and support grow. That does require us to step out and make the effort. But if we can kneel at the rail and open our hands to receive the presence of God, surely we can stand and recognise his presence in one another.

In the parable the host throws open his doors. He invites those who are truly vulnerable, the disabled and rough sleepers, people despised and rejected because society believes they have nothing to offer. The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, recently spoke of seeing a peer of the realm and a man recently released from prison kneeling side-by-side to receive the sacrament. Humility before Christ removes all pretensions to status; in His presence we are all equal: sinners redeemed and saints in the making.

When the God’s people can embody this grace, it is an incredibly powerful witness. Which is why St Paul is so frustrated in the reading from 1st Corinthians. Imagine how revolutionary it would have been in Romans times for slaves and masters to share communion together! That symbolism would undermine the whole institution of slavery.

But the Corinthians weren’t practising equality. Their Eucharist took place in a meal, and it seems that it wasn’t so much Bring and Share as Bring and Scoff. The idle rich arrived early and ate their banquets. When the slaves had done all their tasks, there was nothing left for them to eat. ‘Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?’ says Paul. Because of their disunity, it is not really the Lord’s Supper they are eating. Division means they are not recognising the body of Christ. It is a kind of blasphemy when they say they’re celebrating the Body of Christ in bread and wine but not recognising the human Body of Christ right in front of them.

It’s so important that we act on division quickly. If you’ve got an issue with someone there are several things you can do. Firstly, don’t grumble about them to everyone else but approach them directly. The most destructive thing to relationships is an undercurrent of grumbling that never gets addressed. Secondly, best not to send emails or even letters – they are so easily misunderstood – but pluck up your courage and speak face to face. Thirdly don’t accuse or lose your temper, but speak honestly, owning the emotions you feel. ‘When you did that I felt hurt because…how can we stop that happening again?’

We share the Peace because Jesus told us to be reconciled with one another before we approach God in worship. Hopefully sharing the peace reflects good quality relationships that do exist – but if there are problems may it also be a reminder that we need to sort them out.

Perhaps this episode explains why the church moved away from celebrating the Eucharist as a meal. It can be very powerful when we do – perhaps we ought to more. We have celebrated a Maundy Thursday supper – are there other times when the church can gather for Eucharist in a meal? Perhaps this is something we should do as a Gauzebrook Group, overcoming the isolation that can creep into rural life.

When people share communion together it can be an incredibly powerful symbol of reconciliation. We are who are many are one body because we all share in one bread. The Eucharist both expresses the unity of the God’s people the church – and creates it. When we share the bread we are united in our common dependence on Christ. When we drink from one cup we acknowledge that each one of us is here because we have responded to his love poured out on the cross. As we kneel together we affirm our equality in God’s sight and as we rise we look forward to that heavenly banquet. In the meantime, let us go and be Christ’s body in the world. Amen.

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.