Peace be with us?

Sermon Holy Trinity Church Hurstpierpoint 14 August 2022: Trinity 9
Hebrews 11.29-12.2 & Luke 12.49-56

There are many aspects of my ministry that I really enjoy, but preaching is certainly one of my favourite things. Actually, it is not the preaching itself that I particularly like, but I love preparing a sermon. Because it is a way to really engage with Scripture, and trying to listen to what God is saying in this place, at this time. Often, I discover something new about God myself, something that I didn’t know before, or something that I suddenly know on a deeper level.

And especially this week, I was really looking forward to writing a sermon. Firstly, because I could return to a reasonable length sermon, after having been told to preach for at least an hour when I was in Zambia a few weeks ago. But also, because I had just returned from a retreat in North Wales, spending a week with the Jesuit community at St Beuno’s. In their spirituality, rooted in the teachings and practice of Ignatius of Loyola, the personal encounter with Jesus is central. And, as one of the brothers said on the last day, the hope is that this encounter makes us a little more open, a little kinder and a little gentler.

So with great expectation I turned to today’s readings, to see where I would find this gentle and loving image of Jesus. Well, the Lectionary clearly wasn’t on my side this week … There is a lot to say about today’s readings, but we don’t see the image of the Good Shepherd or the little baby Jesus readily appearing. Today’s readings speak about judgement, conflict and persecution. For many of us, they are challenging our Sunday-school image of who Jesus is. But it is good to be challenged, so let’s see what these passages may have to say to us in this place at this time.

I’d like to start with the letter to the Hebrews. We continue today where we left last week, with a series of examples of people and peoples who achieved things through their faith. However, what they achieved through their faith, we may not particularly aspire to in the 21st century: the destruction of cities, victories over foreign armies, and let alone the sacrifice of a child. The crucial verse to understand this is the opening verse of Chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” 

This verse explains that yes, we should indeed take courage from all that God has done in the lives of our ancestors. However, it also points out that we need to run the race that is set before us. Our challenges are different from those of which we hear in our reading. One of the greatest differences between us and the people Israel, is that we trust in the universality of God’s love in Jesus. No longer is there a distinction between God’s chosen race and those who are outside, there is no longer an us and them in the same way. Indeed, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that there is neither Jew nor Greek, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

But wait, Jesus doesn’t particularly speak about unity in this reading from Luke’s Gospel either. On the contrary, he says that he has not come to bring peace, but rather division. And indeed, one way in which this reading has been explained is that there is now again a division between people: some Christian traditions maintain that there are people chosen by God, and others not. Other Christian traditions strongly emphasise the division is between those who have confessed a believe in Jesus, and those who have not. 

I find both explanations at odds with what I believe about God, both on a theological level, but also much deeper. Indeed, one of the reasons is mentioned in this very passage: the division of the household. My parents are not churchgoers and have never been. Because of their upbringing and personal experiences, they feel that the church has very little credibility. But yet, I don’t believe that they are fundamentally different from who I am: they are as much human beings, created in God’s image and love, trying to make sense of what they believe and who they are.

So where is the division? When we look closer to the text, Jesus says, I have not come to bring peace to the earth. The Greek word for earth here can also be translated as land. So one way of understanding this passage is that this is not a prophecy, but a reality: the division between faiths, understandings of God, and understandings of our humanity is real, and the Christian faith – a belief in Jesus – is a part of those divisions. It is indeed one of the reasons people use for turning away from religions: the divisions and conflict they have caused in human history.

And it is not just between religions, or between those of faith and those without that divisions exist. Anyone who has seen any news about the recent Lambeth Conference knows that also within Christianity, even within the Anglican Communion, divisions run deep. Maybe that is the division of which Jesus is speaking: a very human division. That means that the peace he is speaking of here, is also a human peace – a peace on earth – he is not referring to God’s everlasting peace: the peace for which we long, the peace we share in our service a little later, and the peace we see glimpses of in prayer, service and worship.

So when we see these divisions amongst ourselves, we should not attribute them to Jesus, but rather accept our inability to understand and to know fully. Ultimately, it is not Jesus who is the cause of these conflicts, but we are. Through our limited understanding shaped by our culture and tradition, or at times through our self-centredness, we find ourselves disagreeing painfully, sometimes with disastrous consequences. 

Maybe that is where Jesus is referring to when he calls the disciples, when he calls us, hypocrites: we can forecast the weather – and so many other things – but we cannot understand our own motives, nor how we are complicit in the conflicts and crises of our time.

One of the ways to counter our short-sightedness is to remember that we are not alone, to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are not the first generations to experience all this, but we stand in solidarity with those who have gone before us, those in whose lives God has been at work. That gives us comfort, not to become complacent, but to know that there is hope, to know that through faith we can find the perseverance to run the race that is set before us.

One last thought on that race, I suspect that one of the things on our minds is the current drought and the alarming signs of climate change. There is no time to be complacent, and we need to change our behaviour. But, this drought itself is no reason to despair and give up: in any historic account, we read of droughts, and the terrible effects they had. We are not the first, and I trust that with the appropriate action, we won’t be the last.

So with confidence, let us run that race that is set before us, in this place at this time. Always looking to Jesus with sure and certain hope that he will be with us, and he will never let his people go. Amen.

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