The Quest for Peace

This article was originally written for Orbisology, and can be read here.  

September 21st is the International Day of Peace, and as I come to write this, preparations are under way for prayer services, vigils, and advocacy focussed on that day.

Peace has a spiritual quality; in my own tradition it is described as one of the “fruits of the Spirit.”  It also has very concrete and complex social, relational, economic, political and legal aspects.  All of this means that the quest for peace has about it something of the quality of a “wicked problem.”

This leads my reflections in two different directions; one is to note for you the existence of the organisation, Science for Peace.  You might be interested in checking out their list of current working groups, here: http://scienceforpeace.ca/current-working-groups

The other is to note how often a lack of peace is a failure of compassion.  We do not have compassion for others, especially those we judge to be less powerful than ourselves, and so we feel free to resort to the oppressive use of power in serving our own interests.

So my challenge to you all is; on this coming day of peace, or at any other time, what might you do to seek peace and pursue it?   Whether that’s within yourself, in personal relationships, or on a wider scale, how might you contribute to a more peaceful world?

And if that seems too abstract or overwhelming, here are some questions to prompt reflection:

  • What experiences in my past make it easy or difficult to be compassionate with myself?
  • What is it like for me when people are compassionate towards me?
  • What makes someone deserving of my compassion? Undeserving?
  • What attitudes and emotions surface when I relate to emotionally needy or dysfunctional people?
  • Read an account from someone caught up in a situation of conflict (see here for examples). Imagine yourself in the situation faced by that person.  How does their experience impact your perspective?

 

Come, O Justice, come, O Peace:
come and shape our hearts anew;
come and make oppression cease:
bring us all to life in you.

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Thriving in the storm

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 6:10-20.

I wonder, do you have a favourite mug?  Something with a pithy quote, maybe, or a cute picture, which you go to when the day is just not going your way and you want to smile or find inspiration along with caffeine?

I definitely have one (see image below).  It’s black, with a picture of a woman in armour, and it says:

‘The devil whispered in my ear “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”
Today I whispered in the devil’s ear, “I am a child of God, a woman of faith, a warrior of Christ.  I am the storm.” ‘

Some days, I need reminding where my strength comes from.

I reckon some days, the Ephesians needed reminding where their strength came from, too.

This morning’s reading from Ephesians is the letter’s grand climax; over previous weeks Paul has set out his vision of God’s absolute reign, and unpacked for his hearers the implications of that in their lives.  And here he gets to the last bit of his argument: finally!  Finally, be strong.

And put on the whole armour of God; the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

But all too often what I have seen is Christians who take up the belt of certainty; the breastplate of self-righteousness; the shoes of triumphalism; the shield of ignorance; the helmet of exclusion; and the sword of judgement. And with those firmly in place, have taken their stand against anyone who challenged them.

I wonder if you’ve known anyone like that? If I’m totally honest, I can remember a younger and harder version of myself which might have found some of those things familiar and comfortable.

But why do we do it? What is it that makes us reach for certainty over truth, and so on?

I suspect there are at least two contributing factors.

One is that it is easy to read a passage like this as if it is about our emotional state. To read the exhortation “to stand” as if it is about being free of anxiety, doubt, or trouble. And therefore to reach for whatever will give us immediate relief from our anxieties, doubts or troubles… without stopping to ask whether the easy answers, in emotional terms, are always the right ones.

But I think that, for Paul, as he wrote this in his own context, the idea that this would be read as a kind of psychological exhortation would have been quite foreign. When he talks about our struggle being against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, he isn’t talking about our internal anxieties and doubts but about very concrete, external realities; about any of the political and social or bigger-than-individual forces which were in any way oppressive, abusive or destructive.

The other contributing factor, though, is that often we don’t have enough depth in our own Christianity. You can’t, for example, put on the belt of truth unless you’ve thoroughly apprehended that truth first. Unless you’ve really grasped that the truth you’re supposed to take up is the gospel, and you have therefore steeped yourself in the gospel so that it shapes your whole approach to life, then when you hear the exhortation to take up the “belt of truth” you might well end up reaching instead for whatever you feel certain about.

It takes a certain humility, a willingness to admit that the resources for the Christian life are not all internal but come to us as gift, and that we need our relationship with God, we need Scripture, we need the church, the people around us to help equip us for the struggles of the Christian life. We need to admit that Truth is bigger than just what we feel but has an objective, external reality which we need to work to apprehend.

Earlier in Ephesians the author says bluntly that “truth is in Jesus,” and points out that righteousness and salvation are part of the new self, the new creation, which is the work that God does in us; not something we can create for ourselves. He also says that Christ “is our peace.” Earlier, in Romans, Paul had argued that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace,” and I think this passage is expanding on that line of thinking; “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…” but rather we need to be aware of what the Spirit is doing, in bringing the life and peace of the reign of God.  It’s partly an exhortation to keep our focus on the right things, and not get distracted by stuff that, ultimately, really doesn’t matter.

We might note also what Paul said earlier in Ephesians: “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”

This is the faith we’re meant to take up as a shield; our access to God in boldness and confidence, knowing that confronting the powers of evil at work in the world is part of the eternal purpose of the wisdom of God.  We only need to stand; it’s God who ultimately carries the day.

I think perhaps to make sense of the “sword of the Spirit” we need to look a little beyond Paul and note what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews said: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The word of God and the Spirit of God are, in Trinitarian terms, working together in a way which we can’t separate; the sword of the Spirit is, it seems to me, the wisdom to discern good from evil and light from darkness.

My point fundamentally is this; unless we are so deeply rooted in our faith that we have a good, deep, robust sense of the truth, the peace, the faith, the salvation and the Spirit of God, a true connection with the living God which animates and nurtures us, then when push comes to shove we are likely to make the mistake of accepting poor substitutes. It makes perfect sense, then, that the author finishes this portion of the letter with instruction to pray at all times and to persevere in supplication for all the saints; because it is on that living connection that everything else depends.

Where does my strength, my resilience, my courage come from?  Not from my own internal resources.  But from my identity in Christ.

If we’re to be people who have the strength, the resilience and the courage to be vibrant and effective as a community of faith, the same has to be true of us.  To not only withstand the storm, but thrive within it… we have to draw our strength from God himself, constantly renewing ourselves in prayer.  Then we’ll be able to look any challenging circumstances in the eye, confident that they don’t define or control us.

 

Ethics and eschatology

This is a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:17-5:2.

You might remember, if you were here, that two weeks ago I preached from an earlier reading on Ephesians, about what it is to be “rooted and grounded in love.”

Today’s reading carries on in that train of thought, as Paul begins to unpack what that should look like in the actual fabric of the day-to-day life of the Ephesian church.  Paul’s argument runs like this:  This is how gracious and amazing God is, and as you grow in relationship with God, this is how your own character should be formed to mirror God’s character.  And the evidence should be in how you behave.

So Paul draws a sharp contrast; this is what people without God in their lives are like; indeed, what the Ephesians were like before they became believers.  But now, his instruction is, don’t be like that but instead be like Christ.  His vision is of a total and radical personal transformation.

For those of us who’ve been raised as believers this is sometimes problematic.  We don’t have a clear “before Christ” in our lives, and so the idea that somehow we still need to undergo this total and radical personal transformation, when we’ve known Christ as long as we can remember, becomes tricky.

But all of us – definitely myself included – develop patterns of thought and habits of behaviour which really have sin at their root.  I recognise, for example, in my case, that I eat badly and fail to care for my body because comfort eating is a quick fix and an easier way to deal with a lot of difficult emotions, than doing the hard work of dealing with why those emotions are difficult in the first place.

There’s a failure to trust God, there.  There’s a lack of self-discipline, and so on.  But my point is that for all of us, in this lifetime, there is ongoing work of recognising, and letting God be at work to change, what is in us that needs that radical transformation that Paul’s on about here.  It’s not just for new converts.

And this emphasis on radical transformation tells us that Paul is doing more than moralising, here.  He’s not just telling the Ephesians to be good boys and girls and play nicely together; he’s setting ethical instructions in the context of the grace of God, in the context of the death and resurrection of Christ, and in the context of the Holy Spirit’s work in giving life.  It links traditional morality – because Paul’s actual moral instructions here aren’t really anything very original – with the growth of the church, both in terms of conversions and in terms of maturity.

The central claim underlying Paul’s whole argument here is that the grace of God makes it impossible for us to live as if nothing has really changed.  It’s not just people who undergo radical transformation, but in Christ, all evil is defeated.  In Christ, all darkness is driven back.  In Christ, all that is broken is healed and restored.  Including us, and therefore, we can’t possibly be the same any more either.

So Paul tells the Ephesians that they entered this process of personal transformation by having “learned Christ.”  Not “learned about Christ,” as if you could learn to recite the Creed and then remain indifferent to it; but to learn Christ.  To be formed by Christ; to have your character and conduct re-shaped profoundly by who Christ is, what Christ does, and who Christ calls us to be.  It’s a dynamic and present Christ, a Christ who still speaks to us today, and whose speech still creates new things and brings forth new life, a new life lived in response to Him.

When Christ speaks today, we hear the truth about ourselves and about our world and about God; and about what God wants for ourselves and the world.  We hear the call of God’s good future, and we hear the call to personal discipleship, and we need to realise that these are two sides of the same coin; because it’s in and through our faithful obedience and discipleship that God’s good future is brought about.

To give a live example, I was really struck this week when someone here asked me, “What would we do differently if we thought of ourselves as a church plant?”  That is, a newly created congregation who had come here deliberately to establish and grow a church community where there had not been one before.  And I was turning that over in my mind when I was at a training day on Wednesday, which had an English bishop and experienced church planter as the keynote speaker.

And what struck me about what he was saying was that he was describing church plants where really quite small groups of people – say 20 people – went somewhere and grew a church very quickly into much bigger membership.  And the difference between those groups of 20 people or so, and us, wasn’t that they were all younger, or better educated or qualified, or better resourced, or anything like that.

The difference was mostly one of attitude.  Those church planting groups had an understanding that:

  • They were on a mission to grow the church by introducing people to Christ, and every person had an essential part to play in that.
  • Their mission meant they needed to build relationships with people outside their own group; outside the church.
  • Within those new relationships, they needed to create opportunities for meaningful conversation which could touch on matters of faith, and invite deeper exploration.
  • And, everything they did as a church needed to be intentionally structured for those who were not part of the church yet.

No magic formula, really; just a very clear and intentional focus on creating a network of relationships around their church community which would allow them to offer people opportunities to explore faith.

The point about that is, those people who took up the challenge to be church planters heard the call to a form of discipleship which pushed them to form relationships beyond the church; and in doing so, they were able to invite people into the good future God had in store for those people.

The call of God’s good future and the call to faithful discipleship, lived out together in ways which transformed communities and established thriving churches.  And there’s nothing there that’s beyond us to do, if we were to adopt the same mindset.  There’s an example of what Paul means by “learning Christ.”

There’s self-sacrifice in this, of course.  There is giving up of our own preferences for the sake of others’.  This is why this passage ends with urging us to be imitators of God and reminding us of Christ’s sacrifice.

We sometimes forget, in our culture, how much sacrifice in the ancient world wasn’t really about the personal cost but about how much sacrifice was believed to make things happen.  Sacrifice was believed to be effectual.  Christ’s sacrifice – as we’ve already noted – was in Paul’s thought the single most effectual event ever in human history; the single event which changed everything forever.

We can’t repeat that sacrifice but we can imitate both the attitude behind it and the effectual nature of it.  We can give of ourselves in ways which change lives.  As with the earlier part of the letter, to do with being rooted and grounded  in love, it’s about the quality of relationships we nurture; and about being intentional in creating those relationships in the first place, so that other people have the opportunity to know the radical transformation into which we are all called.

 

Who is my enemy?

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent, and refers to Psalm 69.

Reading today’s psalm – like so many psalms – it struck me how much ancient Israel must have been a competitive and conflict-driven society.  So often the psalmists pray about, and from the context of, deep awareness of being surrounded by enemies who hate them and wish them physical violence or social ruin.

When we then make their prayers our own, we are at some level confronted with the question of what these verses mean in our own lives.

I suspect that most people do one of two things; either they turn this mentally into a Christians-vs.-everyone-else situation, and see as their enemies the militant atheists, indifferent governments, and socially destructive commercial forces which surround the church.

Or they spiritualise it, and see as their enemies the demonic forces of temptation and despair, just waiting for an opportunity to slip past our guard and bring about our downfall.

I’m not saying that either of these readings are wrong; but I’d suggest that both of them, if not reflected on critically, might lead us to unhealthy attitudes and behaviours, as we retreat into a siege mentality and start seeing everything beyond our own comfort zone as a threat.

I wonder if there is another way to read these ancient prayers; aware that we ourselves are not surrounded by personal enemies in the same way, but still drawing inspiration for our own courage and resilience, in the face of our own personal struggles, from the honesty, faithfulness, and integrity of the psalmists?  Seeking to reflect the attitudes, rather than the circumstances, of the psalmists, in our own contexts?