Sermon - 15th November 2015
The way of peace
Scripture - Mark 13:1-8
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
There can be few generations since the time of Jesus which have not experienced “the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away”, or as another translation has it, “wars and rumours of wars”. And we shudder when we reflect on how many of those battles and wars have been fought in the name of some kind of religious belief.
If the human race is the crowning glory of God’s creation - the God we proclaim as the God of love, seeking to establish a kingdom of justice and peace - why are we so warlike? Why do we so easily set aside what we have in common and give way to hugely destructive conflicts over what divides us?
There is a theory that, as the crowning glory of God’s creation, we have received a unique gift - which is also a curse. The theory argues that, alone among the many forms of life in our world, human beings are aware their own mortality. In our deepest conscious awareness of our existence, we know that we will die at some point in the timeline of the world we inhabit. And this awareness of our mortality makes us continually fearful of our future. We no longer live just in the present moment: we occupy much of our time planning how we will survive, perhaps at the cost of others’ survival. And that deep-seated fear makes us protective of our own lives and of the cultural values of the tribe that we happen to belong to. Take that analysis a little further and you soon reach a level of fear at which I will seek to kill you before you get the chance to kill me.
Religion can be one of the ways in which human beings deal with the fears they experience as they walk through their lives always watching that horizon when life may be predicted to end. Churches are never as full as when a community is seized by fear, or when our fragile mortality is highlighted by some particular incident such as a natural disaster or catastrophic accident.
So, how are we to respond as people of faith when we face the violent upheavals of our world? What does it mean to trust in God’s grace and protection, to live out the peace and justice of God’s Reign in a world of war, fear-driven conflict and injustice? The call to peace is always a difficult one to answer, both personally and collectively, but it is a call which is deeply embedded in our Christian tradition.
As they leave the temple, Jesus’ disciples are amazed and impressed by the size and beauty of the building, but Jesus predicts that it will be destroyed. When the disciples ask for a sign, Jesus warns them about false messiahs who will come, reports of war, earthquakes, and famines. But, these, he explains, are just the beginnings of the end.
Violence, destruction, war and assaults on our personal values and identities are common troubles that we all face in the world – perhaps even more so as we seek to follow Christ. The temptation is to respond in kind, offering violence for violence and using force to overcome force. But we know that the way of Christ, revealed through the Scriptures, is the way of peace, forgiveness, and faith in God’s ultimate justice., expressed so personally in Jesus’s self-giving on the cross.
It is interesting that, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s warnings are associated with the disciples’ amazement at the splendour of the temple building - something which, in reality, represented great wealth and considerable power, partly spiritual and holy, but largely political and corrupt.
Jesus’s message, when his disciples marvelled at the Temple, is that when we get absorbed in the trappings of power and wealth, we risk becoming violent, oppressive and caught up in the politics of corrupt power. Jesus taught a way of “powerless peace” which brings us into a right relationship with God, and enables us to support and encourage one another.
So, what is our response to a world in which war and violence are a constant reality? Well, do we really have any doubt that our fear-laden human addiction to wealth and power inevitably creates both competition and oppression – winners and losers, powerful and powerless, obscenely rich and desperately poor?
If that scenario is not the world we seek, then Jesus challenges us to embrace his way of “powerless peace”, in which we trust in God’s justice and love, even when the world seems to be descending into chaos and anarchy.
When Mark and his community were putting together the gospel that bears his name, their world was descending into chaos and anarchy. The words he gives to the disciples about the visual glory of the Temple were probably a poignant reference to the fact that, as Mark was writing, the Temple lay in ruins after it had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. For Mark, looking at his world that seemed to be coming to an end, and a culture that has been beaten into submission, it would have been personally and tangibly important to capture Jesus’s teaching that we should not give way to fear but hold on to our faith in the way of peace.
Of course, power-plays and violence do not only happen on national and global scales through wars and revolutions. Every human community and family has its share of power-plays and conflicts – some of which may turn violent. Often the most simple form of peacemaking is refusing to retaliate, refusing to hold a grudge, and letting go of the hurt by way of genuine forgiveness. Every person, and every community, has been hurt by someone else, or some other group. Our response to our in-built fearfulness is to try and hurt them back, to even the score. But, the way of peace is to respond in love, forgiveness and acceptance.
The way of peace is not a “quick-fix” alternative to injustice. Nor is it an apathetic, inactive resignation which accepts reality without trying to change it. It is a painful journey that takes a long view of human history and encourages peacemaking to rise up against violence and injustice.
In the world we see today, it sounds impossible. And when we do it, things may get worse, and oppressors and tyrants will use greater violence and threats to try and silence the peace and justice-making. But, when we remain steadfast in our faith that God is at work in our world, and that God’s purposes of justice and peace will continue to overcome violence and oppression, perhaps we can find the strength to withstand the pain, refuse to respond in kind, carry the cross, and do what we can as we work for the coming of God’s kingdom.