The Peace of The Cross

Sunday 16th May 2004
Year C, The Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter's, Chailey
Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-29

Please remain standing for a moment.

What do you do when it's time for THE PEACE? Are you a natural hugger or do you tentatively advance a stiff index finger? And what's your scope? Do you follow the latest Vatican pronouncement and just do a quick circle of the people who happen to be round about or do you search either for people you know elsewhere in church or perhaps those you don't know who look as if they could do with a friendly greeting? And what is this for? Is it something you get through, more or less willingly, or is it something that sums up your attitude to your fellow Christians gathered in Church in preparation for Eucharist. Is it essential or do you just wish that it had never been introduced?

Now you can sit down!

These questions naturally arise because, as you will have noticed, today's Reading from John contains words which are often used to introduce The Peace: "My Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you".

As we are reading Acts at the moment it might be a good time to ask what kind of peace Jesus did leave. Well it certainly was not the kind of peace that we usually think of, most often linked with the word quiet, as in: "All I want is a bit of peace and quiet". As far as one can see From Acts the Disciples have hardly had a minute of quiet since Jesus ascended into Heaven. He promised the Holy Spirit but it wasn't that "Still small voice of calm" but, rather, a mighty wind, a movement of souls, leading to wondrous witness and mass Baptism. Peter, once the blunderer, is dynamic and decisive, being spirited out of prison once and then being rescued by an Angel. The infant Church has had its first Martyrs in Stephen and James the brother of John, it has begun to have the kind of theological disputes about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity which ultimately has brought us here today; it has moved first out of Jerusalem and then out of the traditional land of the Jews to great cities like Antioch, to Cyprus and now, today, we are celebrating the conversion of Lydia, traditionally thought of as the first European Christian, though this must be highly doubtful. Even if you count Cyprus as non-European, we already know of Greeks that have been converted to Jesus. Nonetheless, the picture of the church which Jesus bequeathed to his Apostles is one of wondrous witness and spiritual turbulence, of animation and immanence. We read in verse after verse of the Holy Spirit 'kick starting' Christianity. This is wonderful to read and imagine in our mind's eye but peaceful in the terms we use the word, it is not.

So what might this peace be that Jesus promised, just before he was betrayed, condemned, murdered, buried, Resurrected in the space of three days? Well, I think we have to abandon our conventional understanding of peace being a rather empty thing; an absence of war, an absence of noise, a temporary absence for parents of children; machinery turned off. We usually regard peace as something hard won, negotiated against the world in which we are trapped. We live in a noisy, troublesome world and look for peace; we take country walks, we go on holiday, we close ourselves alone in a room with a good book; and yet, recently I was in the Torre Del Paena in Patagonia and even there one was aware of the occasional light aircraft overhead. As usual, however, this kind of analysis is misleading. It tends to divide us in search of our peace from them who are making all the noise. Just as we drive a car and all the rest of the vehicles out there are 'traffic', just as we complain when we visit a beauty spot that it is full of 'tourists' so this idea that we are escaping from the turmoil that everybody else creates is surely wrong. So what is our responsibility?

Let us go back to Verse 27 about peace and put it into the frame of the two surrounding clauses, then it reads in the Authorized Version: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you." Not as the world giveth, indeed not. So we have our first clue as to Jesus' meaning in his putting the ways of the world on the one hand and that of the Holy Spirit on the other. Our peace depends upon listening to and discerning through the power of the Holy Spirit rather than behaving as the world does. In theory, at least, that is the easy part to which we can so readily affirm. We can set the things of God on one side and the things of the earth on the other and adopt a ready superiority.

But it seems to me that that cannot be the answer simply because of the fact of the incarnation; because God sent his beloved Son Jesus into the world to save us we as a community of believers can hardly turn our noses up at the world Jesus willingly lived in, setting his godliness aside. And so the kind of peace which Jesus is speaking of is not worldly detachment. So what might that relationship be between our inner, Christian life and the life of the world? For the answer to this question, for the second clue, let us briefly remember the life that Jesus has lived up until this final, great, valedictory speech to his disciples. Well the overwhelming impression of Jesus the Saviour which I draw from the four gospels is of a man who is unnervingly tolerant and calm. Only once does he get really angry and that is when, as a devout Jew, he finds the Temple, the House of His Father, being desecrated by traders. Significantly, too, he is irritated when his Disciples try to 'protect' him from the poor, the under privileged and children; and this should say something very particular to us who are mostly prosperous, privileged and adult. For the rest, he exhorts baptism, forgives sins, uses homely language to describe the Kingdom, says the same things to his Disciples over and over again; and we only have the extracts that were written down. No matter what the four different outlooks of the Evangelists and the audiences they were writing for, the same, uniform impression comes across. Jesus did not tolerate sin or injustice but he was slow to point the finger in individual cases. What a surprise, then, that the Christian Church which is supposed to bear His inheritance has turned out to be one of the most fractious and judgmental human institutions of all time. From morning until evening we hardly stop judging. Not content to diagnose the sin we are all too anxious to find out the sinner. When it comes to the pronouns for things that go well, "I" and "We" are usually at the top, when it comes to pronouns for describing things that go wrong it is usually "he", "she" or the dreaded "they". So the second clue to this peace bequeathed to us by Jesus is in His life; we must be compassionate and tolerant; and let things be. Peace, like love, is not about encirclement which is one of the great safety metaphors of peace, of enfolding and of security, peace, like love, is about space, a bout giving people room to be, of giving people freedom to be what they are.

So our first clue is listening to and discerning through the power of the Holy Spirit; our second is to model our lives on that of Jesus, to love one another as he loved us, the lesson of last week's Gospel. Which brings us to the story in Acts. It opens with Paul paying very particular attention to the Holy Spirit in yet another of those episodes where there is not much need of discernment; at that point in the Church's history, as I said earlier, everything was moving at breakneck speed. So Luke and Paul go to Philippi in Macedonia in mainland Europe. And on the Sabbath they went to pray and were heard by Lydia whose heart, we are told, was opened by The Lord; She and her family were baptised and she invited Luke, Paul and goodness knows who else, into her house. Now I am not saying that they did not spend some time haggling over the rent, the removal of sandals at the door, the importance of punctuality at meal times, but I don't get the impression that was uppermost in Lydia's mind. Blessed with the gift of Water and the Holy Spirit she made an unconditional offer; and here, for me, is the third clue, it is the unconditional offer.

This is not so alien to our experience as you might think at first sight. How often have we faced a terrible crisis and been all wound up about it, to a state of hysteria and then, having done all we can, attained a degree of profound peace, saying: "Lord, I have done all I can, it is now up to you". Which, not surprisingly, is an echo of the words of Jesus on the Cross, said within hours of His bequeathal of peace to His Disciples.

Of the three, listening to the Holy Spirit, imitating Jesus and making an unconditional offer to God our Father, this last is the most difficult. We understand the inner life of discernment even though we find it very difficult; we warm to the idea of imitating Jesus because our minds, if not our souls, are alive with the Gospel stories; but to give ourselves wholly to God our Father, without condition, that goes against that very human nature which God in his wisdom gave to us. This is not easy love; this is not easy peace; it is tough peace; it is not the peace of chocolate and roses; not the peace of the barbed wire fence and the burglar alarm nor even the exclusive hideaway; not the peace which comes of easy superiority; this is the peace of the Cross, not of this world but given to this world; given to us forever; and for now.

So what difference will this make when we come to greet each other at The Peace? Well, we may not easily overcome our social and cultural inhibitions; but let us remember that it is not our peace that we are giving and receiving, we are not exercising our own critical judgment. We are giving and receiving Christ's peace, as his creatures who see Him in ourselves and each other.

Let us, then, see Christ in each other; and rejoice!