Christ’s own Peace

This sermon was written in the days leading up to Easter VI. News reached us overnight of the passing of Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ, one of my heroes of the faith. I hope he would have approved. 

Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you

(John 14.27)

Every Christmas had its own rituals when I was a child, and for the most part it was marvellous. I say ‘for the most part’ because there was one thing that would be said, every Christmas, that would leave a sour taste in our mouths, and it was meant to. It was Mum who would say, it, usually after Mass, when we were on the way home to demolish any food that stood in our way. Mum would reflect on the fact that we had prayed for peace during the Bidding Prayers – specifically peace in the Holy Land, which seemed, every year, to be caught up in great controversy, turbulence or even violence.  And so it was. Violence in the place of Christ’s birth, and Christ in the Prince of Peace. We found it profoundly ironic, and we moved on, saddened by the futility of war, and the sadness in the heart of God that it should be so. And from the age of seven until well after the Good Friday agreement, we prayed for peace in Northern Ireland, for an end to the troubles. We went on one of the Peace Marches organised by those brave Belfast women Mairéad Corrigan and  Betty Williams, the winners of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize.  It has set a trend for the rest of my life. Like every Christian in the world I am concerned for the revealing of the peace which Jesus talks about in this morning’s gospel, a peace which is far more than any earthly peace, a peace which can only come from God. Jesus bequeaths this peace to his friends, whose successors we are, and so one of the prime activities in which the church engages is in the business of revealing that peace which is part and parcel of the Kingdom of God.

This divine peace has many references in Holy Scripture.  The Psalmist draws the distinction between the inner peace of the individual and the peace which should exist between peoples, nations, communities and neighbourhoods. Isaiah refers to the Messiah at the ‘Prince of Peace’ (9.6). Matthew lists peacemaking as one of the blessed states of the Beatitudes, and Paul’s letters are full of blessings of peace for the fledgling churches.

Currently 67 nations in the world are at war – in some cases, like Syria, there are multiple conflicts going on in the same country. This includes responses to terror threats and insurgency. Last year the United States of America spent $596 billion on its defences. Here in Britain we spent less than a tenth of that, but still came fourth in the league table of who spent what. The United Nations has estimated that it would cost $30 billion dollars to feed all the hungry in the world – that’s just over half our defence budget. The government is in favour of replacing Trident at a cost of around £100 billion. This money would be enough to fully fund A&E services for 40 years, employ 150,000 new nurses, build 1.5 million affordable homes, build 30,000 new primary schools, or cover tuition fees for 4 million students.

The whole thing is an utter mess, and is a very, very long way from the biblical references to peace I mentioned earlier.  The nature of modern conflict is in part secretive, intelligence based, and less accountable to people. The ripples of our conflicts reach down through the ages, forming destructive parts of family narrative, bringing about tales of those who went to war and did not come back. Then there is the fear, the backdrop which covers people who believe themselves to be under constant threat of attack. It colours and shapes people’s lives, and is the very opposite of what God wants for us – not merely peace, but the wholeness of life and abundance which is our promised inheritance.

So where is this gift of peace? How is it to be understood? A gift is a gift, but it still needs to be unwrapped. We, as people of faith, have to unwrap the gift of peace in the world, not merely here in Ettingshall but as far as our vision and understanding can take us. Having spoken about war and conflict, it would be easy to think that somehow bringing all these wars to an end would usher in peace. But it’s harder than that. Peace is more than the absence of conflict. Rather, it’s an inner disposition, something we recognise and acknowledge, a characteristic of the Christian person.  To find, it, however, we must commit to living nonviolently, as Jesus did, for blessed are the peacemakers.

Nonviolence does not mean standing by. No. It is the most daring, creative, and courageous way of living, and it is the only hope for our world. Nonviolence is an active way of life which always rejects violence and killing, and instead applies the force of love and truth as a means to transform conflict and the root causes of conflict. Nonviolence demands creativity. It pursues dialogue, seeks reconciliation, listens to the truth in our opponents, rejects militarism, and allows God’s spirit to transform us socially and politically. as with all issues about how we live our lives, it begins and ends here, at the Eucharist, where one of the very last things we do before we receive communion is to exchange the sign of peace with one another. In the sacramental presence of Jesus we embrace, or extend a hand, and pledge the blessing of peace on our neighbours. Think hard before you do it today.

It is no less than a pledge to live, act and speak nonviolently in the days of the coming week.  We may see with horror the dreadful actions of Daesh, or read of the criminal activities in the streets of our cities: we have a human instinct that desires revenge before solution. In truth, reflecting upon all this brings us onto the horns of a dilemma, which I freely acknowledge. It is a dilemma in which we are guided by the rhetoric of defence, of safety, and therefore of fear, which leads us to follow other paths. But I place before you the witness to death of Christian martyrs. It has been estimated that there is a new Christian martyr every five minutes at the moment, and that Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world. In the third century Tertullian reminded the church that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, and it is certainly true that a persecuted church is a growing church.

The turbulence of our world demands that  Christians, and other faith groups, witness to a peace which does not come from us but which is God’s alone to grant. Let us turn our hearts to him again, challenged by what we have heard, and seek to take further steps along the road that leads to the peace which the world cannot give, and to life in all its fullness.

In memoriam Daniel Berrigan, Priest of the Society of Jesus. Jesus, mercy. Mary, pray. Berrigan

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