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!

 

 

Advertisements

It’s come!

I wonder how the day began that first Pentecost? Had the apostles been gathered in that Upper Room for long – after all it was only nine in the morning so had they been all night or just gathering? Were they praying together? Eating? Or beginning a service for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the Giving of the Law?

 

And how did they become aware that the Spirit was coming? Did the sound of the wind rush upon them out of nowhere, or was it a breeze increasing in intensity? Did the divided flames look like fire, spread like fire, feel like fire?  Was there a kind of religious ecstasy that bubbled up from inside, spilling over into the gift of tongues?

 

The disciples tumbled out into the streets, laughing, praising, proclaiming the works of God. At Pentecost Jerusalem was full of many pilgrims from all over the known world. Drawn by the commotion a crowd soon gathered – puzzled, intrigued but some also laughed. What on earth is going on?

 

I wonder how you would have answered? How would you explain the coming of the Holy Spirit?

 

I find St Peter’s talk fascinating in what he doesn’t say! I find it intriguing what he doesn’t mention. He does not emphasise the gifts of the spirit – the miraculous tongues, healings, miracles, prophecy and so on – even though they’re being displayed there and then and might call for explanation, as gifts from God for the benefit of all.

 

Peter doesn’t talk about the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, self-control and all those wonderful virtues about which St Paul would write so eloquently. The fruit the Spirit grows in us as we become like Christ.

 

Nor does Peter speak about the role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had told his disciples in John’s gospel what the Spirit would do: he will be the Comforter, the Teacher, the Advocate. But Peter doesn’t refer to that.

In fact, St Peter says very little here about the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian. He could have spoken at great length about all the amazing things the Spirit does, the wonderful relationship Christians can have with God through the Spirit. All of that would have been perfectly true and it tends to be the way that we think of the Spirit today. We might think of the Spirit being God living within us – and that’s absolutely right.

 

None of these beliefs about the Spirit is unimportant. They can be immensely powerful in helping people to come to faith. When we run Alpha courses we often find it’s the Holy Spirit day that makes the biggest difference. Up till that point the participants have listened to talks about the Christian faith, shared some interesting discussions and enjoyed good meals. On the Holy Spirit day we pray that the Spirit will touch each person – and he does. That’s what makes the difference –  people see the Holy Spirit at work and suddenly they think: ‘There’s something to this.’ We need to remember that  – when we share our faith – not just talk but pray too and ask for opportunities to witness to the Spirit’s power. The personal nature of the Holy Spirit, the wonderful things he does are hugely important. But on the Day of Pentecost Peter emphasises a completely different line.

 

What he does say is ‘This proves that God has kept his promise. This shows that God’s Kingdom is coming.’ Peter doesn’t see the Holy Spirit as something to give individual Christians a boost. He doesn’t just see the Holy Spirit as the fuel in the spiritual tank. He sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as an epoch-changing event. A key stage in God’s plan for the world. A crucial moment in the story of salvation.

 

Look at the quotation from the book of Joel, where he makes this point. A strange choice perhaps. It comes from a time in the Old Testament when Israel was suffering a plague of locusts. Joel the prophet called people to repentance, promising that when they do the locusts will fly away and times of blessing will return.

And then suddenly Joel looks far into the future – the day will come when these blessings look small by comparison. One day God will pour out his Spirit on everyone. The Lord’s Day will come – a day of judgement and power – and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

 

It’s on the way, says Peter. Look at what you see: the Spirit has been poured out. Listen to what you hear: God’s word is spoken in every language under the sun. You hear the works of God in your own language. This shows God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh. He has kept his promise – this is a sign that his Kingdom is coming. Judgement is near, you need to know this and prepare for it. But this is the good news: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is what Joel promised – the Holy Spirit before the great day of the Lord.

In other words, this event is important because of what it shows. The Holy Spirit is an inner witness to an outward reality.

 

As an analogy: an engagement ring shows that a marriage is promised. A deposit on a house is a downpayment prior to the sale – a token of good faith showing that the decision has been made and that the rest of the money will follow. St Paul describes the Holy Spirit as being like firstfruits – the early produce from the garden which shows that the full harvest is on its way.

 

All of these have a sense that a key event has happened which unlocks something in the future, and acts as a sign that the future event is on its way. So it is with the Holy Spirit – his presence with us is a sign that God is keeping his promises.

 

This means that if we ever wonder if the Kingdom of God will ever come; if we ever look around us and think ‘The World is going to pot, will God ever put it right?’, then we can look inside, at the Holy Spirit within us, working in his church, growing the Kingdom, and say ‘Yes, God has promised.’

If we ever doubt whether God will judge the world, if we wonder why evil seems to go unpunished, then the answer is look to the Holy Spirit. Judgement will come, God has shown us by giving the Spirit who convicts the world of sin. And if anyone worries whether God can really save, the answer is the Holy Spirit, who brings each person into a relationship with God.

 

That may not be the way we naturally think – to see the Holy Spirit as evidence, but Peter says it is so. The fact the Holy Spirit has been given shows that God is faithful and keeps his promises.

 

The Holy Spirit is a sign that everyone is invited into God’s Kingdom. The Holy Spirit is a sign that today is the day of salvation, and an encouragement not to delay. The Holy Spirit is a sign that the Kingdom of God is drawing near. We must remember this: not just look at the Holy Spirit as a helper sent to support us, but as a promise of what God is going to do. That will encourage us and give us confidence to persevere.

 

On that Pentecost, three thousand understood what Peter said and were baptised. They saw the amazing things going on – and grasped the significance of them. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to understand God’s plan for the world. Amen.

 

 

Babel unbabbled

It was a very spiritual atmosphere as the little group of pilgrims celebrated Communion together in the Shepherd’s Cave near Bethlehem. All was done in a very Anglican style: calm and peaceful. At least it was until the charismatic Catholics from South Korea began their Eucharist nearby, complete with amplified rock band, dramatized re-enactment of the Nativity and dancing girls. Had I been able to understand it, it would have been great fun.

Different cultures worship in different ways, but the gospel translates into every dialect and style. Christians do not have to read the Bible in one official language, we can hear the good news in our own tongue.

That is part of the message of Pentecost. The diverse crowd in Jerusalem that day did not have to learn Aramaic before they could respond to the message. Instead the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, addressed the crowd in their own native languages. Ever since, missionaries have laboured to understand local cultures and Bible translators have dedicated their lives to producing versions which people can read in their mother tongue, making the good news of Jesus intelligible to all. It is a momentum we must continue today, as we explain Christ to an ever changing culture. We in the church need to make the effort to ensure the message can be heard and understood.

For God cherishes human diversity. It is often said that Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel, that the many languages and mutual incomprehension, which were a judgement on human pride, are now undone. This is not quite correct. Pentecost is not a reversal of Babel, but a transformation and healing.

Pentecost does not set things back to how they were before the Babel story, to an original single language. Rather, using the different languages, the Holy Spirit expresses the one message in ways which all can understand. The story of Babel is taken up, healed and made whole, not simply reversed.

We see this in the Book of Revelation, which ends, not with a return to the Garden of Eden, but with a vision of new Jerusalem. We see that the Risen Christ bears the scars of the cross. In other words the story of human history with all its brokenness is not simply wiped away, but it is instead made whole, transfigured, so that through it can shine the glory of God.

Christopher Bryan