St Bride's: Sermons

The Peace of God

Luke 12:49-56

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49 I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?

50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!

51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:

52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.

53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

54 And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is.

55 And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass.

56 Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?

As those of you who have visited Iona will know, it is a very small island, with one village, a few cottages and farmhouses, about 120 residents, and a large number of sheep.  The landscape there is breathtakingly beautiful, in a rugged and austere and dramatic kind of way.  The Abbey itself stands on the seafront, overlooking the rocky shoreline of the Isle of Mull.  And last Sunday morning on Iona there were gale-force winds howling round the Abbey, and the sea was so rough that all the ferries were cancelled, so there was no way either on or off the island.  The contrast with St Bride's, set here in the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world, in the balmy climes of the south east of England, could not have been more extreme.

And yet, what was going through my head this time last Sunday morning was the precise opposite of that.  Because I found myself overwhelmed by a profound sense of a connectedness uniting Iona Abbey and St Bride's - something with the deepest of spiritual and historical roots. Because, interestingly enough, we share a story.

In the year 563, St Columba and twelve companions sailed to Iona from Ireland and founded the Abbey there.  At around the same time, give or take a decade or two, another small group of religious, probably associated with the order of St Bridget, travelled from Ireland to London and established the first Christian church here on this site in the early sixth century.  Two small groups of Irish Christian missionaries, risking uncertainty and great personal danger in carrying the faith to new peoples and places, and founding churches there.  We share a story.

Like many clergy I have a discipline of going on retreat once a year, which is why, as I said a moment ago, I was on Iona.  Now you might mistakenly assume that my reason for doing so is to go away to somewhere quiet and peaceful in order to try and find God there.   In fact, the reason why I go away somewhere quiet and peaceful is in order to help me to find God here. Because it is here that matters.  It is here that God is at work.  But sometimes one needs to step out of the busyness and complexity of one's normal routine to be able to rediscover that anew.  And for me that means rediscovering the presence, and the love, and the grace, and the call of God here in Fleet Street.

The Iona of the sixth century was a rather busier place than it is today.  Far from being a remote pastoral idyll, it was situated on a significant maritime trading route; indeed, a few days ago I heard the present leader of the Iona Community describe it as the equivalent of a 'motorway service station'.  The Irish missionary monks and nuns took their message to where people were, and they did so during turbulent times.  It was an era of famine, plague, foreign invasion and conquest.  The model they adopted was not one of escape from the difficulties of life, but rather of full engagement with them.

And it seems to me that this is perhaps quite a good starting point from which to begin to make sense of this morning's very challenging and perplexing gospel reading, in which Jesus proclaims that he has not come to bring peace on earth but division, setting even family members against one another.

Jesus said a lot of things that were, and are, very shocking.  He did so in order to jolt us, his hearers, out of the complacency of our normal assumptions and attitudes, to enable us to look at our lives, and our conduct, and our understanding of God, in a radically new way.  These days we sometimes lose sight of quite how provocative and controversial Jesus was, because so many of his stories and sayings, now worn smooth by many centuries of familiarity and retelling, have lost something of their razor-like edge.  The God whom Christ proclaimed was indeed a God of peace - but peace is itself a notion that human beings can very easily misunderstand - and it seems to me that part of what Jesus is challenging in this passage is precisely that misapprehension.

Peace is not something that we can achieve by withdrawing ourselves from difficult situations, or by cutting ourselves off, and insulating ourselves from the difficulties of life.  On the contrary, true peace can only be achieved by taking the risk of travelling to the very heart of that difficult place, a journey that is likely to be both costly and full of risk - and engaging there with the dark, and the dangerous and the uncomfortable.  Because it is out of that engagement that the peace of God comes.  Will Rogers famously said - 'The best way out of a difficulty is through it'.  And there is a parallel truth to that lying at the heart of the Christian Gospel. 

As chance would have it, the preacher at the service I attended last Sunday morning on Iona was another Irishman: Padraig O Tuama, the leader of the Corymeela Community in the north of Ireland - a Christian organisation that since 1965 has worked tirelessly to bring about peace and reconciliation in the most fractured and divided of societies.  He preached extraordinarily well on the story of Abraham, observing how, contrary to our expectations, it is often within the places of greatest destruction and darkness that God can be found most powerfully at work.  The point being that we need to be prepared to go to such dark places to discover for ourselves the truth of Christ's Gospel of healing and reconciliation, and, by the grace of God, to become agents of transformation there.

That is part of what our Gospel reading is about.  But what are we to make of the even more challenging statement that Jesus came here precisely in order to bring division, and to divide family members one from another?  It seems to me that the point he is making here is complementary, but different.  One of the problems with goodness, and indeed with virtue of any kind, is that the presence of such qualities in our midst can have the effect of exposing our own sinfulness and selfishness, and hardness of heart.  And our all too human reaction may well be one of resentment rather than gratitude.  Because these are truths that most of us would prefer to keep well hidden.

Many years ago I knew a junior college lecturer, who was unbelievably diligent, hard-working, reliable and responsible, but who, sadly, was both resented and disliked by some of his more established colleagues.  Keen to do everything he could to earn their favour he worked ever harder - but the harder he worked, the more deeply he was resented.  Until one evening, at the end of a rather bibulous staff social evening, one of his fellows finally cracked and said to him [I shall replace the actual expletives used] - 'Why have you got to be so blinking perfect all the blinking time!'  The young man's diligence was serving to expose his colleagues' laziness and lack of commitment to their work.  Which was why he was so unpopular.  And the harder he worked, the more they disliked him.  A sad, sad comment on that institution and the people within it, but an all too recognisable human situation.

And that is why the Christian calling, like the calling of Columba and his monks, and the calling of those who founded this church of St Bride back in the sixth century, can never be an easy one.  We are called to be people of peace - but to do so, not by insulating ourselves against conflict, but by engaging with it.  And we are called to be bearers of the light of Christ, but in the knowledge that the brighter the light, the more dust and cobwebs and filth can be revealed, and the deeper the shadows that are cast.  It is a calling that will inevitably leave us vulnerable, and which will take us into difficult and dark places.  It is a calling that may well leave us feeling unappreciated and undervalued - resented even - by the very people whom we seek to serve.  And that is why the Gospel can be so profoundly divisive, as part of its process of deep healing.

The light of God's love reveals the dark deeds of our inner hearts. But that is the path to peace.  The peace of God.  A peace that passes all understanding, but that is the most profound and lasting and healing peace of all.

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