Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Thursday, 17th February 2011
There is a story told of a lady greeting a clergyman at the church door on a Sunday morning, “I must say , Rector, your sermon this morning was like the peace of God”.
The clergyman is very pleased with himself at this comment and says, “Why thank you, why do you say that?”
“Because smiled the lady, it passed all understanding”.
There is more than an element of truth in the story – many sermons do pass all understanding, but, also, there is the sense that true peace is something beyond our comprehension. Sunday by Sunday at the blessing we speak of the peace of God as passinig all understanding. We believe that true peace, contentment and happiness are so far beyond us that they are a mystery.
Peace in Scripture is something very broad, something more than just a lack of violence between nations on tranquility in a home; peace is God’s shalom, a state of affairs where everything is right, everything is as it should be, where true contentment and true rest are possible.
Sinfulness, disobedience, going our own way destroy that shalom, they destroy God’s peace that humanity could enjoy. Sunday by Sunday, over many years, we would have have sung the words of the Venite, Psalm 95 as it appears in the service of Morning Prayer. The psalm speaks of God’s anger at his people because of their wilful refusal to follow his commandments. For years, we sang the closing lines of that psalm, ‘Of whom I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest’. God’s punishment of his wayward people was to deprive them of the opportunity of a place in his ‘rest’, they would not find the peace which they sought.
Peace, God’s shalom, is about wholeness, well-being, fulfilment in life. We think the idea of the holistic is something new, something modern, yet the Biblical understanding of peace is something that is holistic, something embracing every part of our lives.
Left to ourselves, we cannot find peace, though we persist in pretending that we can; the elusive things we seek, contentment, happiness are offered to us in a hundred and one theories. The whole New Age movement arises from a belief that there is some possibility of self-fulfilment being found in pursuing some particular path or other; follow this teaching or that philosophy and we will find the thing for which we are looking. Sometimes it seems that the more strange and esoteric are the ideas, the more committed are the followers.
In a Dublin hotel one day, I was rushing to meet with someone, when a lady called out,”Father, can I have a word?”
“It will have to be brief”, I apologized, “I’m meant to be meeting someone.”
“Would you say a prayer that my house will sell tomorrow?”
“Would you be content with Protestant prayers?”
“What do you mean? How do you know I’m not a Protestant? Anyway, why wouldn’t I want Protestant prayers?”
“Because some people in your tradition think we are not Christians at all; they would refuse us Communion”.
“Oh, I don’t hold with any of that stuff, besides I believe the Law of Unification. Do you know what that is?”
“Sorry, but I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, there’s the Law of Attraction and it’s followed by the Law of Unification.”
“Is it? I’m afraid I’ve heard of neither. In the times in which we are living, I wouldn’t be inclined to believe too many people’s laws”
“Well, you’ll pray for me, anyway”.
Later that day, I Googled the Law of Attraction, it’s a piece of New Age pseudo-science, not far removed from the prosperity theology of some African Pentecostal churches – decide what you want and it will come to you. It’s a searching for wholeness, for peace, in a way that fits in with a materialist age.
The best response I’ve read to this frantic searching, this embracing of more and more odd ideas, this belief that there must be some mystery that would allow us the way into eternal happiness, came not from any theologian, but from the Italian novelist Umberto Eco. In the novel Foucault’s Pendulum, a story in which the characters are constantly searching for a mystery that does not exist, there are lines which capture the truth and the problem of the Christian story:
“Yet someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbour. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words at the right time could turn a chunk of bread and a half-glass of wine into the body and blood of the Son of God, and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle? . . . And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp-do-it-yourself salvation- turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite. And they kept on scouring the Mediterranean in their boats, looking for a lost knowledge, of which those thirty-denarii dogmas were but the superficial veil, the parable for the poor in spirit, the allusive hieroglyph, the wink of the eye at the pneumatics. The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it.
…….. Chesterton said that when men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.
But everything is not a bigger secret. There are no “bigger secrets,” because the moment a secret is revealed, it seems little”.
Umberto Eco’s point is not that Christianity is too complicated, it is that it is too simple for people who feel that there must be some great mystery. Wholeness, shalom, peace is not a secret. Jesus makes it clear, plain and simple, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”.
God’s peace passes our understanding, but that does mean that it is beyond us. It is there in a person who offers it to us as a gift, for nothing. Peace is there, for us to reach out and receive.