Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 16th February 2014
16 February 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
The sermon follows this month’s theme: ‘The Fruit of the Spirit’. The previous two sermons on ‘Faithfulness and Gentleness’ and ‘Kindness and Goodness’ are already on the Abbey Website, and you’re very welcome to access them at your leisure. This morning I shall be talking about ‘Peace and Forbearance’.
These two gifts of the Spirit are crucially important to the wellbeing of God’s world. Only yesterday the world collectively groaned when the UN special envoy for Syria failed to break the deadlock in Geneva between the Assad regime and the opposition amid fears that the peace talks could collapse altogether. At a time when peace and tolerance are in rather short supply, we must continue to recognise that peace is not merely the absence of war and hatred, but also the presence of co-operation, compassion and world-wide justice.
The cessation of violence must be the top priority, but also the means used to achieve those ends are extremely important. In this, faith and conscience play a vitally crucial role because genuine faith moves us beyond our entrenched positions to care for the whole of humanity; through living faith we are ultimately freed to commit our entire selves to God. Without such commitment, there’s the danger that all we would really be doing is serving ourselves, and that in the end always runs counter to the common good and to the peace of all. CS Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, reminds us that serving the self always boils down to a kind of slavery in which the self is controlled by whatever desire happens to be at the forefront of our minds.
In contrast the Church works towards peace in the world by first of all bearing witness to the peace of God. Moving away from the self and being acutely aware of the humanity of others is the very essence of civilization. And so the fruits of the Spirit are allowed to flourish when we care for each other, when the Christian faith interacts and engages with a culture of peace. This happens in many different ways: through overt personal discipleship but also through literature and cultural bridges between nations, through humanitarian aid, responsible television, film, and media reporting.
History teaches us that the spiritual fruits of peace and forbearance are rarely realised through military force, politicians signing treaties or business leaders creating economic opportunities. True and lasting peace is realised through faithfulness to Christ, and through his death and resurrection we perceive peace as both promise and present a hope for the future and a gift here and now. True and lasting peace will be realised wherever there is forgiveness, gentleness, kindness and goodness. But we also need to be clear that peace is lost when injustice, poverty, disease, as well as war, inflict wounds on the bodies and souls of human beings and on society.
Last month in Israel I had the opportunity to participate in private discussions with both the PLO senior negotiating team at their headquarters in the back streets of Ramallah, with Mark Regev in central Jerusalem, the Druze in the wilds of the Syrian border, the Israeli military on the front line of Gaza. It brought home to me just how many ways there are of both responding to violence and of practising peace. How in the end, whether in Afghanistan or Palestine or Syria, we journey together, and share an ethic of peace that includes love of humanity, respect for others, gentleness and mercy.
And yet from recent wars we know that repairing the damage of violence takes far longer than the conflict that caused it.
Our New Testament reading from Acts speaks about how, in the presence of great provocation and adversity, Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel. A little later St Luke records his stoning, and like Christ himself, Stephen remains steadfast in his active non-violence even to death. There’s a challenge here for us: even in the face of extreme violence, many people today find the courage to keep on living despite great tragedy. The power of the gospel and the gifts of the Spirit enable them to leave bitterness and hatred behind and become peacemakers. There are miraculous stories of forgiveness, of real burdens being set aside and deep traumas being shared with others and with God. The Archbishop has recently witnessed such heroism in South Sudan and Rwanda.
Because God in Christ creates peace, Christians can lead others in the power of this peace, despite witnessing terrible atrocities around the world. And yet the importance of Christian education, faith and conscience cannot be overestimated. Earlier I mentioned the importance of literature, cultural bridges and a responsible media. But underpinning a culture of peace lies the important task of firstly showing how peace and justice find their energy in the roots of the Christian tradition, and secondly enabling others to apply their conscience and Christian understanding of peace in current war torn situations.
In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul speaks of peace as a gift given to those who, even in the greatest difficulties of life, turn to God 'in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving' he assures them: 'The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus'. (Philippians 4: 6-7). Likewise the gift of forbearance and by this I mean self-control, restraint and tolerance helps us to journey in the direction of peace and not in the direction of discord, dissent or hostility. For as St John tells us, when churches work in a united way for peace, their witness becomes more credible.
The impulse of love, which is of course the sharing of the Holy Spirit, and the life blood of the Church, undoubtedly points us towards this end. St Paul is clear: 'God is a God not of disorder but of peace'. (1 Corinthians 14: 33). The Holy Spirit continually stirs up our desire to establish peace in all our relationships, not just internationally but also amongst work and personal relationships. Let us all pray that we may be continually open to the promptings of God and faithfully committed to working through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.