Preaching peace

Preaching peace

by Rt. Rev. Michael Hare DUke
Retired Bishop of St. Andrew, Scotland
Sermon 8 July 2001
St Peter's Kirkcaldy

Whatever house you enter let your first words be "Peace be to this house".   And if a man of peace lives there, your peace will go and rest on him; if not it will come back to you.  Luke 10, 5

Luke and Matthew both make the greeting of Peace central to the words of the disciples when Jesus sends them out on mission, either the Twelve or the Seventy.  They were to cure the sick and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God.  But at the heart of it all was the word 'Peace.'

We are living at a time when the Mission of the Christian Church seems to be floundering.  Just like those first days, the labourers for the Harvest are few.  Statistics suggest that in the next few years the numbers of ordained clergy will have halved. But more worrying is the fact that fewer people are interested in the message that they feel that the Church has to give.  At the same time there is a confusion amongst Christians as to what their fundamental meaning is.  There is fierce debate about the authority of the Bible or the nature of Christian morality.  People from the various parties unchurch each other, engaging in heresy hunts.  If you read the church press there are places, particularly in USA and in England where clergy are repudiating the authority of the Bishops whom they have promised to obey, on the basis of private insights about sexual morality.  There have been some sad letters in our own Scottish Episcopalian.  

These are the kind of disputes that arise in any institution that has lost its way and is frightened about its future.  It needs essentially for itself a message of Peace that can quieten its destructive fears.

In Luke's  narrative the Disciples have been through something of this process.  He tells the story of the storm on the Lake which Jesus stills when they wake him up with the cry 'Master, Master, we are lost!'  This is followed by the healing of the man on the shore of the lake who was full of demons which left him to go into the pigs.  The result of that was 'great fear' among the whole population of Gerasa

Now they are sent out as the messengers of peace.  But what is it that they are meant to convey?  

We are used to a model of mission which puts two people on our doorstep and their aim is to persuade me to think as they think, however improbable their theories may be. Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, I know what it is like to be at the receiving end.  They are not interested in who I am, they want me as another statistic for their conversions.  This rouses all my antagonism, they are not preaching peace, or demonstrating it.  They are invaders to be repelled.  Is there a danger that Christian mission can give the same impression?  

"Hello, we have come to recruit you; to take you away from your wrong-headed attitudes, to show you a better way."

Such an attitude immediately mobilises my defences.  This is not peace but ideological warfare!  To preach peace is to value me as I am, so that I can value myself and therefore live at peace with myself and with you.  But that is precisely what the Church finds it almost impossible to do.  

If people do not share our moral ideas, we try to change them.  Ever since the last Lambeth Conference the Anglican Communion has been tearing itself apart over divergent attitudes to homosexuality.  Bitter controversy floods out over the Internet as both sides attack each other, and if one has to take sides there is not doubt that the conservatives are the worst.  They do this in the name of Biblical truth, which means that they have little understanding of what the Bible understands by Peace.  

Peace, Shalom is the atmosphere in which people can grow to their own stature, in their own way. As we read the Gospels the atmosphere which pervades then is not the heavy argument to which you feel compelled to surrender but an enticing story that catches the imagination.  

Trying to capture the essence of shalom one scholar has written "It is a comprehensive word, covering the manifold relationships of daily life and expressing the ideal state of life in Israel"  It has about it the notion of wholeness, 'totality' 'well-being', 'harmony'.  The kernel of this is the community with others, 'harmonious community'â^À¦ 'every form of happiness and free expansion'.

It this just a dream which has not reality?  The Church is meant to be the place where we exchange forgiveness, we set others free because we ourselves have experienced forgiven.  Because other people have taken us seriously, we can take them seriously.  This is at the heart of every religion that cares about community.

In the Buddhist way, there is a custom that people greet one another by putting their hands together and bowing.   The joined fingers represent a lotus flower and the bow is a mark of respect for the divine quality in that person.  So the gesture can be summed up "A lotus for you, a Buddha to be"

What about our feelings as we exchange the peace at the beginning of the service or as we greet a friend.  Could we think something like "Strength and compassion from my hand to you, earth-sharer, God-bearer"?

Have we got time for each other or understanding within the life of the Church?  If we do not have is it surprising that when we talk of peace the words fall on dead ears?

We are living in a society where the bonds of society are breaking down.  The stranger is always a competitor, a rival, a person that we are ready to sue if we do not get our imagined due.  Bad experiences have built mistrust.  We feel smarter, more worldly wise if we are on our guard believing that nobody will take us in.  

So what do we do with to-day's Gospel

Whatever house you enter let your first words be "Peace be to this house".   And if a man of peace lives there, your peace will go and rest on him; if not it will come back to you.


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