Sermon: What is Peace? What is Freedom?A Sermon for Swiss National Day 2022
Readings - Isaiah 2:4; Matthew 5: 1-13
Being at peace is something many people aspire to – that sense of not having to worry about anything, of being in control of things, of being calm, serene, mindful! And peace between nations, the absence of war, is what we pray for every Sunday – especially at this time when war is almost on Europe's doorstep through the conflict in Ukraine. That sense that if only we could beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks, then we would have peace. We would have no war. Both these aspects of worldly peace seem to work in negatives: not worry; not war. And then we have freedom – the absence of controls; the absence of regulation; the absence of something or someone telling us what to do. I do what I want: I do it my way.
Peace and freedom. These are two great concepts in Christianity. But are they just absence of something or is the Christian approach to peace and freedom about something more positive? Jesus famously uses the Jewish greeting Shalom: Peace be with you, when he meets his disciples after the Resurrection. He isn’t taking something away but giving them something. Giving them peace: peace be with you. His peace. And Jesus goes on to explain that this peace is not like the world’s peace, an absence of turmoil, conflict, disturbance – it is more than that – it is a gift, something given by God to us. As the hymn goes: Peace perfect peace is the gift of Christ our Lord. And it is through this gift of peace that the world recognises Christ’s followers. Rowan Williams in a lecture in 2015 describes this Christly peace as not an absence of conflict but an interdependence between peoples – the acknowledgement that we are all connected, that our lives depend on each other: what my neighbour does affects me, what other countries do affects our country. It reflects that African idea of Ubuntu made famous by Desmond Tutu: I am not human unless I recognise the humanity in others. Our humanity is tied to that of others. By recognising the humanity of others we accept the gift of peace, of interdependence which Christ offers us. We can be at peace, only if we see others as ourselves: the second great commandment: love your neighbour as yourself. See your neighbour as yourself. See your neighbour as reflecting the image of God, just as you reflect God’s image. Peace. As Malcolm Guite writes:
Not as the world gives, not the victor’s peace,
Not to be fought for, hard-won, or achieved,
Just grace and mercy, gratefully received:
An undeserved and unforeseen release, …..
A path that must be taken, hand in hand,
Only by those, forgiving and forgiven,
Who see their saviour in their enemy.
So reach for me. We’ll cross our broken land,
And make each other bridges back to Heaven.
And so to freedom. If peace requires us to act, and puts restrictions on our behaviour, then are we free? Surely true freedom is the ability to be free of all restrictions, to be able to do what we want, when we want? To say what we like to whom we like regardless of the consequences and the feelings of others? Is that the freedom we gain in Christ? Not according to Bonhoeffer: “None can learn the secret of freedom, save by discipline”. Freedom for Christ is not the ability to do whatever we like at the expense of others. That negates the gift of peace by ignoring the interconnectedness of humanity, the requirement to recognise that all are equal before God, and made in God’s image. Freedom in Christ can only be achieved by committing ourselves to live by God’s rules, to accepting the burden of responsibility and regulation that loving God brings: as the wonderful collect puts it: serving God is perfect freedom. We gain our freedom by following God’s commands to put others first. Again, freedom is a gift: to quote Rowan Williams again, it is a freedom to do what we know we have to do – not what the world says we should do, or even what the devices and desires of our own hearts tell us to do. It is a freedom to act as a follower of Christ, to love our neighbour as ourself, to love our enemies, to work for the coming of the kingdom of God. It is a freedom to accept that God’s will be done, as we say regularly in the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come; thy will be done. A freedom to be who we are called to be in Christ.
Christian ideas of peace and freedom both turn the concepts as recognised by the world on their heads. But by doing this they offer true freedom, true peace: that peace which the world cannot give. To finish with another quote from Malcolm Guite:
You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter in his peace,
To seek his Way amidst our many ways,
Find blessedness in blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.
Rev'd Jackie Sellin, Assistant Chaplain
More information on Malcolm Guite's work is at https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/