THE WORD OF PEACE AND CONFLICT
Sermon delivered on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, the 16th July 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England (Cayman Islands).
Scriptures: Isaiah 55: 10-13 Romans 8: 1-11 S. Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
Romans 8: 2. "The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death."
The words of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans conveyed in our second Lesson today, outlining a potential resolution of the fundamental discord between two opposing principles influencing man's nature, and the words of our Gospel today giving the picture of seed being scattered upon inhospitable ground, remind us that if the Spirit of Christ is at work in our lives, we cannot but expect conflict and opposition to that divine work, both from within us and externally. Now of course we all have a hope of peace from God: that is what we pray for and indeed that is what we are mandated to pray for by both Scripture and the Church's liturgical tradition. We often pray of someone when he passes through death, "May he rest in peace". I believe that the atmosphere in this church can rightly be described among other ways, as a peaceful one, and I believe that there is a great measure of peace here for those who have made it their habit to worship God and meet together here at the weekly Eucharist.
Indeed, St. Paul himself talks of "the peace of God that passes all understanding." Since it goes beyond understanding, we would be right to expect that God's peace could be granted simultaneously with conflict; indeed, it is certainly my experience that God does grant an inner peace to those of his servants who wage spiritual battles in His name when they are relying upon Him in prayer. We must not therefore equate peace with the absence of conflict, and I consider that the words of St. Paul in Romans Chapters 7 and 8, which we have been thinking about last week and this, particularly show that even inner conflict is to be expected. The peace of God, paradoxically, is a great weapon of war with which to do battle spiritually both inwardly and outwardly.
Still, that peace of God is not limited in Scripture to being the means to the end, but an image of the end itself. In our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, an image of restoration is provided in which it is promised: "For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." The prophetic words may originally have been spoken or penned with the restoration of the kingdom to Israel in mind. We might now see in them an expression of the Kingdom ministry of Jesus, both in Galilee when He was on earth in the flesh and throughout the earth as the head of His body the Church. Or again, especially after thinking of the going home of some aged and beloved friend, we might see in such words an expression of the departed one's being led forth in peace, having been supplied with the fructifying word of God that accomplished in that one His purpose for the betterment of others, going out of the pains, troubles and sicknesses of this life, going out of all that in joy, and approaching the Paradisal lands that will supply all manner of living memorials and signs to the Lord that will never be cut off.
The farmer both cooperates with the natural elements and is in conflict with them. The Gospel today records Jesus' parable of the Sower, which perhaps could be termed more correctly the parable of the seed. We are made aware of the opposition to the Word of God that exists in a multitude of forms, and the description of the opposition recalls to me the enduring renunciation of the devil, the world and the flesh that is required of all baptised persons. Just as wild birds will come and pluck up seeds falling on a path, so will Satan come and snatch away the meaning of godly words from the conscience that he controls. Just as a crop needs a certain depth of soil for it to be able to survive the heat of the sun or the blast of the hurricane, so is it necessary for godly words to take secure root in a person's soul. The overly quick and superficial response to those words does not ensure staying power in the time of testing. Just as soil that is already occupied and colonised by weeds may prove to be inhospitable to seed scattered upon it, so the soul that is taken over by the cares and delights of money, power and prestige will not allow words from God to change it. Still, Jesus teaches us, for all this, take heart. The sower scattering his seed without regard to where it will fall, will still in the end bring about a good crop, if only he persists and is not discouraged from his task. Some seed, at any rate, will find good soil. The peace of God which passes all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds, and those of many in whom the seed of the word germinates, in the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, even when much of it falls on the deaf ears and the hardened hearts that much of the time we exhibit.
The word from God will therefore prevail and bear fruit, in spite of the conflicts it endures. St. Paul also proclaims, as in Romans 8:1f, that "There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death." ["law" here being equivalent to "principle"]. However, we need to take heed to what is said in the rest of the chapter as well as in these two opening verses. It's like somebody being released from prison after serving their time there. When you walk back out of the prison gates there is no more sentence time to be spent. But if you put yourself back into the same habits that got you there in the first place you will soon be back. The man who walks free will only stay free if he keeps away from the "law" of the underworld group he was with in the first place, and puts himself consciously under the laws of the land. So as Christians though we "walk free" from our spiritual and moral prisons, we too have to set our minds on what St. Paul calls the things of the Spirit rather than the things of the flesh. By the grace of Christ Jesus, this is indeed the transformation that is being worked upon us and within us. We are being changed from those who respond unreflectingly to our selfish appetites, to those who respond unselfishly to the signs, pointers and directions of the Spirit of God, whom Christ has granted to His people. May God continue to grant us this grace! Then finally may we go out with joy and be led forth in peace, with the mountains and hills of paradise before us breaking forth into singing, and may we see His eternal mercies to us as a living memorial, an everlasting sign.