Sunday, 8 July 2012

Reflections on a Theme of Silence

Leader: Phil


·       Today there are only a few of us but it gives us an opportunity to do something different
·       We’ll be reflecting on silence. 
·       This could be a very short and quiet time together, but silence is more than an absence of what happens when words run out.

Conserving Silence

·       Isaiah 34:11-13; 35: 7-9a
·       When Anna and I were house-hunting we came across a house in Highams Park on Sky Peal road.  Huge house by Epping Forest with a forest gate at the bottom of the garden.  But blighted by noise of road.
·       Conservations talk a lot about endangered species but silence itself is endangered.  Defra maps shows noise pollution [picture 1 – noise map, from]. Shared quiet spaces are in retreat.
·       Our reading from Isaiah shows a two-way process
·       Can anyone guess what [picture 2’( Coptic forest ) is?
·       Ethiopian Orthodox Church preserves forests around their churches as pictures of Eden.  Known as Coptic forests.  Planted to prevent prayers being lost to the sky.  Churches surrounded by sounds (silence) of the forest.  Creates a haven for creatures and clean springs where 95% of forest felled.  35,000 forest like that in Ethiopia. 
·       What would it mean if every church adapted the same principle around our places of  worship.  Some positive UK examples in old churchyards

The Wild Wood

·       Silence not just what happens in absence of noise.  Refers to listening (attentiveness) as well as what we hear or don’t hear in the outside word.  Bloom p.108
·       Many different kinds of silence: quiet of a Quaker meeting, an awkward silence, a pregnant pause, silence that gives depth to words (Bloom p.6), silence that happens when people are afraid to speak up, birding stillness, silence of space, silence of a place far from human settlement – only the sound of wind and water, a contested silence (e.g. Friars garden).  Silence can be restful, inspiring but also frightening.  Silence in forest.
·       Maitland reading p.173  and [picture 3 - ratty]
·       Also in Lord of Rings – watchful, unsettling silence in forest 
·       Silence exists not only in space but in time.  Silence of a forest is older than we are. 
·       This is a wild silence. Wild, wilderness – beyond our control.  Silence is untamed by words. 

Finding Ourselves in Silence

·       Anabaptist tradition is largely community minded.  Peaceable like Quakers but noisier. 
·       Not wholly true in first generation. 
·       Means we have something to learn from traditions that have an emphasis on silence (Quakers and Trappists)
·       Maitland Reading p.155  [Picture 4 – Henry Thoreau  - Walden]
·       Silence and solitude good to get priorities straight – to know what’s important
·       Early monks went out in desert – found themselves in silence
·       They went to meet God and themselves (demons)
·       Our world is a human construction.  Based on lies – that we can exist on our own.  Silence and solitude teaches us how we are ‘related’ and who we are.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Peace in the family

Preacher: Sue

This is the second in a sermon series devised by Veronica.  The sermon titles move progressively outward, in concentric circles, starting with “peace in the soul” 5 weeks ago and then looking in turn at Peace in the home/family (today!), Peace in the church/es, Peace in the workplace, Peace in the local community, Peace in the nation and Peace between nations.  Peace is a key Mennonite concern and this structure helps us to remember that peace begins at home – or even closer to the core of our being than that.

I found it hard to know what to say about peace in the soul because I felt so ill-qualified by my own life to talk about the subject.  That applies today as well.  But it’s also hard because I’m just not sure there is a clear biblical message on peace in the family.  The bible is full of not very peaceful or functional families.  Jesus’ teaching and throwaway comments on family are far from straightforward.

Let’s start with the first issue, and here I’m going to ask you to do some of the work.  I’d like the people on this side of the room (you can work in pairs or small groups) to come up with some suggestions of families in the bible where there is not much peace, preferably the least peaceful families you can think of in the bible.  And I’d like people on this side of the room – and I think your task may be harder! - to come up with some suggestions of families in the bible which do seem to have peace, preferably the most peaceful families.  I’ll ask both groups to report back in a few minutes, not just with names but also telling us what made you put them in your category.

So, we have an interesting pattern here…

In our founding stories, there is a rich mixture of family experience, including plenty of very troubled relationships.  Maybe that prompts us to turn away from the stories in search of greater clarity in instructions and commands about family.

But here too it’s a bit of a mixed picture. 

In the Old Testament of course there’s the commandment, one of the ten commandments, to “Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”  And in Proverbs children are told to keep their father's instruction and not to forsake their mother's teaching.  There’s plenty of encouragement to strong discipline.  We might see that as a way of having peace in the family, a clear pattern for the flow of authority from parents to children and of respect from children to parents. But imagine a parent who’s tried that and somehow it just hasn’t worked and there’s conflict and clashes in the family.  They’re at their wits’ end…  Maybe they turn to the Old Testament for advice on dealing with a wayward teenager.  Deut 21:18-21 has some advice, but it’s not instantly recognisable as a peaceful means to a peaceful end:


18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. 

Now of course our prime example and teacher is Jesus, who conveniently both is part of a family and comments on his own family and families in general.  So let’s have a look at how he behaved in his birth family and what he had to say about his own family and families in general. 

Artists over the centuries have painted countless pictures of the “holy family”, usually looking calm & contented if not busy fleeing into Egypt. Christmas carols tell us that Jesus slept perfectly as a baby, never cried on waking and grew up mild, obedient and good…  But then in Luke 2 we find him lingering in the temple chatting while his parents go half-crazy with worry at having lost him.  At best you might describe this as teenage lack of awareness of others, at worst as thoughtlessness & disobedience.  And he doesn’t seem to put his immediate family before all other concerns.  Let’s hear Mark 3:31-35.

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." 33 And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Not exactly a recipe for a smooth relationship with his family (or indeed the stuff of “family values” rhetoric).  And in Luke 14 it gets worse. 

25 Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.  …  33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. 

And Matthew 10 is no better:

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 

Hardly peace in the family…  It seems that to follow Jesus we have to “hate” our closest family members, and that it’s fully Jesus intention that following him will bring conflict and disagreement in the family.

I think this a helpful corrective to what CS Lewis has described as a kind of idolatry of the family.  But it isn’t the whole story.  I think in its context this instruction to hate our family is not about hating – just as we don’t have to hate our time, money and possessions in order to be willing to give them up as necessary.  Rather we have to give them their proper place in our priorities and passions, not letting them displace God, and we are called to be ready to part with them or give them away generously when necessary. 

Of course there are settings – the early church, the early days of the Anabaptist movement - where these choices would have been stark.  For us it may be less obvious how to give proper weight to these words of Jesus.  Perhaps they’re a warning against selfish choices ostensibly made for our family’s sake because they actually appeal more to us.  It may suit us very well, to take a rather crass example, to say that we have to earn lots of money and live somewhere comfortable & affluent because that is what our family needs.  Or perhaps it cautions us not to be so determined to do the best for our families that we are willing to sacrifice everyone and everything else to that cause.  Some of you here have made choices about what is the right way for our communities to work in general that have had implications for your family life in particular, for instance where your children grew up, what privileges they did or didn’t have, and I think this may be one way of living in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching

But, as usual, there’s a balance to be struck.  Let’s hear Mark 7:9-13

9Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, "Honour your father and your mother'; and, "Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, "Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this."

So while we need to be careful not to idolise family or let keeping the peace in the family become an excuse for acting selfishly, it’s still important to work at relationships that are peaceful and show that flow of respect from children to parents that we talked about earlier.  This passage is partly about the hypocrisy of a religious establishment giving permission for people to give lots of money to the temple instead of to their parents.  But here Jesus also emphasises the need for children to take actual care of their parents, not just fulfil some other civic or religious duty instead.  We can’t say, “oh, I have a peaceful and generous relationship with God and with my church and Jesus says we may have to hate our family so it’s OK for me to ignore or mistreat or fight with my family”. 

These two apparently opposite strands come together in Jesus’ words on the cross in John 19:25-27.

25b  Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 

On the one hand, in letting his mother lose her son and his brothers lose their brother, Jesus is prioritising the call of the God and the bringing in of the kingdom of God over the preferences and needs of his family.  On the other hand, he’s remembering an apparently contradictory call to honour his mother and to cherish and care for her in her old age, and making sure that someone else can do this in his place.  (And in an interesting twist the person who will do this is not another relative but Jesus’ close friend, a reminder again that in the kingdom of God it’s not only family that count and not only the nuclear family that can be family.)

So, just as I feared when I started preparing this sermon, it’s a mixed picture.  In a way I find that comforting.  Our families can be where we feel most safe and treasured or where we suffer the most pain, partly because there is often the most at stake.  Or both at different times.  Or both at once. 

So if things are not always plain sailing, if we don’t always seem to make a good job of maintaining peace with our family members, if we make a mess of conversations in our families that in any other setting we would sail through with wisdom, maturity and gracious generosity – then maybe it’s reassuring to think that there is not one simple biblical model or command that we are wilfully ignoring or failing to live up to, but that families can just be quite difficult… 

And maybe the best we can do here is remember Romans 12:17 – 18.  “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  It’s both wildly ambitious – live peaceably with all – and recognises that sometimes in a family there is more going on under the surface and in others than we can hope to deal with.  So all we are called to do is what we can do, as far as it depends on us to “live peaceably with all”.

Friday, 11 May 2012


WGMC Sermon 11 March 2012

Preacher: Veronica

Psalm 19:1-10

1      The heavens are telling the glory of God;
      and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2      Day to day pours forth speech,
      and night to night declares knowledge.
3      There is no speech, nor are there words;
      their voice is not heard;
4      yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
      and their words to the end of the world.
      In the heavens  he has set a tent for the sun,
5      which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
      and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6      Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
      and its circuit to the end of them;
      and nothing is hid from its heat.
7      The law of the Lord is perfect,
      reviving the soul;
      the decrees of the Lord are sure,
      making wise the simple;
8      the precepts of the Lord are right,
      rejoicing the heart;
      the commandment of the Lord is clear,
      enlightening the eyes;
9      the fear of the Lord is pure,
      enduring forever;
      the ordinances of the Lord are true
      and righteous altogether.
10      More to be desired are they than gold,
      even much fine gold;
      sweeter also than honey,
      and drippings of the honeycomb.

John 2:13-22

13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
WGMC Sermon 11 March 2012

Before I started writing this sermon, I wanted to talk about the grace of God.  A simple definition of grace is that it’s the undeserved, freely given love of God towards us, regardless of any moral worth of our own. Then I looked at the lectionary readings for today and found that they included the Ten Commandments, and the praise of the Law in Psalm 19. I realized that I would have to talk about law first, and the complicated relationship between law and grace. So here goes.

Christians, though not Anabaptists, have often been keen on trying to recall society to the Ten Commandments. When I was young there always seemed to be  some Christian campaign happening to bring the nation’s attention to these ten rules for living;  though  like many  Christian campaigns they never seemed  to have much impact. Nor did John Major’s ‘Back to basics’ campaign which was in some ways a secular version of the same thing - and one has to note the irony that the man who was calling the country back to traditional morality, had  himself broken the seventh commandment by having an extramarital affair with Edwina Currie. So much for back to basics.

There’s nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments in themselves. They’re one of the best sets of rules around for living a God-centred life and caring for your fellow human beings. David Armes shared with us not long ago how the Ten Commandments had helped him in his quest for mental health. And although Christians often dismiss Judaism as a rule-based religion,  the Old Testament is actually full of praise of the law as a great gift from God, a sign of God’s love. There is no sense in Psalm 19, which we read together,  that the law is burdensome, or impossible to keep. Rather, just as we can discover God’s presence through the beauties of the created world, so we are to sense and enjoy God’s goodness in the moral law. The law was, in fact, for the ancient Jews (and perhaps too for modern ones) a sign of God’s grace.

The trouble is, it’s so easy to slip from respecting the moral law,  into thinking that to please God, all we have to do is obey certain simple rules (which always seem to get more complicated the deeper you go into them). And when you start basing your spiritual life on a set of rules, it’s only a step away from  becoming rigid, judgmental and hypocritical, as so many Christian sects have.

In the past I’ve heaard Christians say that the work of the Holy Spirit in our life is to help us to obey God’s laws. I’ve always felt uneasy with this. John’s Gospel  tells us Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and of grace, but  Jesus himself repeatedly broke the Jewish law:  Sabbath laws, laws about purity, laws about how men were supposed to relate to women and to Gentiles (preferably as little as possible), and all sorts of other rules of the Judaism of his day.

Of course there is an easy way to get round Jesus’ repeated law-breaking: you simply say that the Jews of the day had added all kinds of unbiblical extra laws, which God never wanted, to the simple biblical law. Then you say it was only these laws that Jesus broke. Unfortunately, this interpretation simply doesn’t work. There are all sorts of laws Jesus broke which are clearly there in the Bible - the laws against touching a dead body for instance.

Another way to slice this is to separate the moral law from the ceremonial law, and say it’s only the moral law that we are meant to keep, and that the Spirit’s job is to help us keep it. This has more mileage in it.  But apart from the difficulty of determining which is which, it also still leaves us with a religion which is essentially about how well we behave. Which doesn’t seem to have much to do with undeserved grace.

Of course you can err in the other direction, as Anabaptists have been keen to point out.  St Paul was very hot on the opposition between law and grace, especially in Romans and Galatians.   Many have interpreted this to mean that salvation is purely about accepting God’s grace through faith, and that how we live contributes nothing to our salvation. Some even say that once we are ‘saved’, nothing we do can erase our salvation. This is extremely un-Anabaptist.

In recent years scholars have come up  with ‘the new perspective on Paul’. This sees  him, when he talks about law and grace, as talking about more about the Jewish law, not morality or good works as such, which God still calls for. The new perspective has been welcomed by Anabaptists, who have for five hundred years insisted that the grace of God doesn’t mean we can disregard moral behaviour. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, but we still have to live a life of Christian discipleship.   When I lived in a theological college, the students were set an essay on ‘What are we saved from?’ This  struck me as a very odd question. I believe we are saved not just from something but for something: to live a Christlike life, to join God  in the transformation of the world. And salvation isn’t just about rescuing individuals from destruction, it’s about creating a community of salvation through whom God will make a new heavens and a new earth.

So it isn’t all about keeping the rules, but nor is it all about believing the right things. Faith and works, grace and law,  go together and can’t be separated without harm. But that still leaves me wanting to talk about grace, more than I want to talk about law. And one reason for this is that I suspect we Anabaptists have not been very good at grace over the centuries - particularly in the use of the ban. I actually think that when Jesus said in Matthew 18 that if your fellow Christian refuses to repent, you should treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector, he didn’t mean ‘shun them’, he meant ‘regard them as a non-Christian, since they are not behaving like a Christian’. What do we do with non-Christians? We proclaim the good news of Jesus to them.

Dealing with the relationship between law and grace, or faith and works, is a very fine balancing act. We Mennonites place a lot of emphasis on how we live our daily lives, and on Jesus’ life as a model for ours. This is a key conviction for us, and it is important that we keep to it. But we have a particular danger, along with other Christian denominations and especially evangelical ones. The danger is that when we emphasise right living,  we are only one step from losing sight of the grace that loves, rescues and restores us no matter how often we fall into sin.

It’s a supreme irony that the people who put most emphasis on God’s free forgiveness of our sins through Jesus, are often the most afraid of falling into any sins at all. However much we disagree with Luther on some things, I wonder whether we need to hear again his call to ‘love God, and sin on boldly’? I don’t think he was saying that if we love God, our sins don’t matter; but that if we truly love God and our neighbour, although we will still sin, we will be firmly on the road that leads away from sin to salvation. Augustine put it a slightly different way - and I don’t often agree with Augustine, but here I do: ‘love God, and do as you like’. Because if we love God, what we will come to like will be what God likes. Somebody, I think it may have been Dave Andrews, has said that we are either moving  towards Jesus or moving away from him. If we are on the road towards him, it doesn’t matter how often we stumble over the boulders on that road, so long as we stay on it.

There’s a second thing I had determined before writing this  - that I didn’t want to preach on the cleansing of the Temple, because we’ve all probably heard too many sermons on it already.  But I am going to say something about the cleansing of the Temple, and I’m also going to do something I rarely do: I’m going to spiritualize it.

Jesus’ given reason for driving out the traders was that they were ‘making his Father’s house a marketplace’. Where is ‘the Father’s house’ for Christians today? It isn’t in Jerusalem, or even in Westbury Avenue Baptist Church’s foyer. Paul made it clear that we, the gathered believers, are ‘the Father’s house’, the temple where the Holy Spirit lives. So I thought it would be interesting to ask the question: in what ways do we make the Father’s house - that is, the Christian community - a marketplace?

It would be easy to take a dig at the Christian bookshops and conferences where money (though not very much) is made out of selling people diaries, pens and greetings cards with texts on them. But I think that would be a cheap shot. It would also be easy to say that modern capitalism has made every area  of life a marketplace, so that politicians can even talk about ‘a market in health’.  But that might be a cheap shot too.

So let’s look at ourselves. Perhaps for all of us, there are subtle but destructive ways in which we introduce ‘market thinking’, or the idolatry of competition, into our faith and lives. In a culture where the market is king, it would be surprising if Christians weren’t influenced. Do we try to bargain or earn favour with God, expecting that God will have to bless us if we live a really just, low carbon, moral life? Do we unconsciously compete with each other, or with other churches, as to who’s got the best theology or discipleship?  At a church weekend away a long time ago,  I and some others, appearing as ‘Anna and the Baptists’,  sang a song I’d written based on the famous Monty Python lumberjack song. It  included this verse:

‘I share my goods, I share my lunch,
I share my colds and flu;
I thank my God each day that I’m
more radical than you’

This was followed by the chorus: ‘I’m a Mennonite and I’m OK, I pray all night and I work all day’. It was a joke, but sometimes I fear it was a joke on myself. Do I, somewhere deep inside, think that I’ve won the spiritual lottery and am much more Christian than any other type of believer? Because if I do, I am making the house of God a marketplace.

Especially in Lent, when some of us make extra rules for ourselves, it’s so easy to either pride ourselves on how well we kept away from chocolate, or to feel guilty and embarrassed that we lapsed and had a chocolate digestive. So let me make it clear, to myself as much as anyone else: God will not love you any more because you filled in your Christian Aid ‘Count Your Blessings’ leaflet every day in Lent, or love me any less because I ate a few desserts and haven’t lost as much weight as I hoped to. Because we’re under grace, not under law.

That doesn’t mean grace equals licence, as Paul made clear to the Romans: ‘Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’ .  Anyone who has really appreciated the grace of God, cannot feel good about doing things that don’t please God, or failing to do things that do please God. After all, children with good parents want to please their parents. So if you know that in God you have a parent who is not just loving but actually is Love, you would certainly want to please that parent.

The best parents, however,  don’t discipline their children by having large sets of rules to be obeyed. The best parents model their values to their children and try to foster a love in their children of what they themselves think important. Of course children have to have boundaries, because as a very good Mennonite parenting book says, they arrive on this planet as little aliens who don’t know the rules of earth behaviour. But as they grow up they need those boundaries less and less, because the boundaries have been internalized and the desired behaviour comes naturally.  And it’s the same with growing up into the full likeness of Christ; the Spirit in us helps us internalize what God wants, in the process that Alan and Ellie Kreider call ‘re-reflexing’, and we begin to live naturally as God wants. Rules imposed from outside are for our spiritual childhood.

We will never get the whole way to what Ephesians calls ‘the full stature of Christ’ in this life. Still, we have the body of Christ, the church,  to encourage each other to grow into it. In fact this is the first congregation I’ve been in that I feel really does that. And it’s something that can never be achieved just by rules.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Peace in the soul

Preacher: Sue 

This is the first in a sermon series devised by Veronica.  The sermon titles move progressively outward, in concentric circles, starting with “peace in the soul” today and then looking in turn at Peace in the home/family, Peace in the church/es, Peace in the workplace, Peace in the local community, Peace in the nation and Peace between nations.  Peace is a key Mennonite concern and this structure helps us to remember that peace begins at home – or even closer to the core of our being than that.  It’s all too easy to focus on questions about peace between nations and ignore issues of peace on our doorsteps or in our house.  It’s an elegant and helpful structure for the sermon series.

Even so I have found it hard to prepare this sermon.

I’m not sure I even know what “peace in the soul” means.  And I don’t mean by that to ask whether the word soul is the most helpful here or how it is differently understood in Hebrew and Greek thought and how that may influence our understanding.  I’m going to take this phrase “peace in the soul” to mean two things: some kind of inner peace with ourselves, and peace with God – which interestingly doesn’t appear anywhere else on the list.

“Peace with God.”  It’s the language of tracts and posters and evangelistic sermons and, if you’re old enough to remember them, tent missions.  “Available to all” promises the website  Or there’s which offers a “four-step journey to peace with God”. 

Of course I want to rejoice with anyone who after a long hard road draws comfort from these promises and finds that they open the way into relationship with God.  And googling “peace” and “soul” throws up all sorts of sites, including offers of tarot readings and similar paths to so-called peace in the soul which suggests that if we have some glimmer of how to experience peace in the soul we ought to be finding ways to get that message out there and might find a ready audience…

But I think we may also have some questions about peace in the soul.  I certainly do…

One whole cluster of questions comes from a suspicion that it may be at best short-sighted and at worst rather self-centred and self-absorbed to be bothering with peace in my soul.  And mightn’t peace in the soul be largely an accident of personality, birth order, early experiences, physical health and so on?  Is it desirable or even possible to have peace in my soul if there are people suffering injustice or loneliness or inner torment?

And anyway what does peace in the soul look like?  What does it mean in real life?  As Veronica put it as she sketched her ideas for this sermon series, “what does it mean to have the peace of God in our hearts, when a lot of the time we are anxious or distressed? 

Can we find a way of embracing and talking about peace in the soul without making it all sound at one extreme a bit too easy and too selfish or at the other extreme so serene and unruffled as to be unrealistic and out of reach?

Well, maybe it’s time to go back to our scriptures…  Let’s start with Philippians.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

What do these verses tell us about the focus of this “peace of God” and how that peace might happen to us?

It looks as though there are four things which might predispose us to experiencing this peace: rejoicing, being gentle, being aware of God standing close beside us, and dealing with our worries by converting them into prayers in which we not only cry out to God with our requests but also thank God. 

I find that quite reassuring.  In order to experience the peace of God, I’m not asked to reach a point where I am always at peace with every aspect of myself, never hate myself and my mistakes, never feel pulled in different directions as I take decisions, never panic and want to run away.  Admittedly the instructions are quite demanding – I can’t usually find that elusive off-switch for worry - but mostly they are about behaviours we can realistically hope to have a crack at even if it takes our feelings a while to catch up.  So maybe peace in the soul, peace with God is more about where we are headed than about how we feel.

Though of course our feelings can sometimes follow where our actions lead. 

To take a trivial example, 18 months ago Peter and I had a grim, icy and snowy journey to meet my family for Christmas.  Possibly foolishly as it turned out, we’d taken up a friend’s kind offer to lend us her car.  It took us around 10 hours to cover 170 miles.  After around 4 or 5 hours, feeling deeply discouraged and frustrated, we decided to have a cheerfulness competition, with a judging every half hour where we awarded each other points for cheerfulness.  The second half of the journey was still slow and exhausting but the atmosphere in the car – and in our souls – was much better.  (And, in case you are wondering, I think Peter won…  Just…)

In much more serious situations, I have seen three friends – including Lesley – live through the misery of losing a child with both honesty and a remarkable capacity to continue to find things to be thankful for.  They all radiated peace even as they also experienced and voiced intense grief.  I wonder if that was partly linked with their thankfulness.

I think this passage from Philippians acknowledges too that it’s quite hard to get our heads round this peace of God and how it works.  It does, after all, “pass all understanding”.

And there’s something similar in the verses from John’s gospel.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.” 
 “Not as the world gives.”  This phrase has many resonances which I want to talk about more – but its very language hints at the impossibility of understanding the peace Jesus leaves his disciples unless we learn to live and think by his values not those of the world.
 “Not as the world gives.”  A couple of chapters later, in John 16, Jesus promises his disciples peace – but in the same breath he warns that in this world they will have trouble.  So peace and trouble can go together – which I think gives us the beginnings of an answer to the worry that peace in the soul may be a selfish thing to aspire to.  The kind of peace Jesus gives is not a ticket to or a by-product of a free ride, coasting along happily with no responsibility and not a care in the world.  I guess that’s not surprising since presumably Jesus is the best example we have of someone who has peace in the soul and his life was emphatically not self-indulgent or passive.

This peace is independent of the trouble that the world brings – the trouble the world is likely to bring for the followers of Jesus since, as we learn another two chapters on in John 18, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  That pus the peace of Jesus directly at odds with the usual ways of this world, which may even lead us to places that look far from peaceful by this world’s standards – it certainly did for Jesus. 

So if the peace Jesus gives is not the peace that the world gives, what is it?  If it is not about things going smoothly or about a calm life without challenge or stress, what is it? And how do we receive it?

Isaiah 26:3-4 may give us some clues:  “Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace— in peace because they trust in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock. “  And Psalm 119:165 says: 165 Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.  

I like the solidity of that word “steadfast”.  And I think that “steadfastness” may be closer to what it means for a Christian to have peace in the soul than four-step programmes to personal forgiveness or dreams of an untroubled life.  Psalm 34:14 suggests that seeking peace is the twin of turning our backs on evil: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

Indeed there’s a hint in all these verses that peace in the soul is not our primary goal, something for us to strive for.  Rather it’s something that happens while we’re busy aiming for other things, as we depart from evil, are steadfast in trusting God, love God’s law, rejoice and are gentle and pray with thanksgiving.  Which might tell us something not only about what peace in the soul is but also how we receive it. 

Maybe one reason I’ve struggled with this sermon is that I’m not very disciplined at, well, spiritual disciplines of bible reading and prayer and meditation.  And I think they are important to experiencing peace in the soul.  But I think peace in the soul has other deep roots too.  It’s also about what and who we give ourselves to.  It’s about trying to live by Jesus’ values not the values of the world, about seeking good and pursuing it, about trusting God, rejoicing and giving thanks.  It’s partly about who or what is in control in our lives and about not getting in the way of the Holy Spirit but allowing some space for the fruit of the Spirit (of which peace is part) to grow in us. 

So, to come back to Veronica’s question, “what does it mean to have the peace of God in our hearts, when a lot of the time we are anxious or distressed?” I guess I would answer that the peace of God is not so much about how we are feeling at any given moment but about what and who we are aiming for and how we are acting.  It seems to be partly about a kind of singlemindedness, a focus towards God and others and a way of taking to God the things that threaten to throw us off course. 

I was struck by a comment Giles Fraser made as he was in the thick of controversy over the response at St Pauls to the Occupy camp and had just left his job – and with it presumably his home.  He wrote “The hassle of Christianity is something that does not feature prominently in its sales literature. People often say that faith must be a source of great comfort — and that is said mostly by those who don’t know a great deal about what a life of faith really feels like. They talk as if religion in general is some sort of metaphysical strategy for achieving beatific calm; as if religion were always painted in pastel colours. 

But in spite of this wish to debunk the idea of faith as a means to calm, a bit like a pastel coloured painting or a CD of splashing water sounds or whale song, Giles Fraser did acknowledge that “for all this, Christianity does promise the clear sense of purpose which has something in common with calm.  (Church Times 11 November 2011)

I think Giles Fraser is right that a sense of purpose and direction has something in common with peace in the soul, may even be part of the recipe for experiencing peace in the soul.  And that sense of purpose and direction and that kind of steadfast focus on God don’t protect us from swirls and gusts of hassle and anguish but maybe they can help us live through them well.  Perhaps they can help us live well with the tension between the call to serve Jesus in a world that seems infinitely and impossibly full of need and the tug to tend our relationship with God, ourselves and those close to us.  I suspect that part of peace in the soul is learning to live with our own inner dividedness and with tensions between two truths or two apparently opposite callings or insights.  Maybe part of finding peace in the soul is accepting that in this life we will never be fully at peace but finding that we can somehow make our peace with that.