July 10, 2016

Genesis 13:1-12
Romans 12:9-21
Philippians 4:4-9

“The Fruit of the Spirit is PEACE”

This week in St. Catharines Ontario, over 400 young Presbyterians gathered to learn, play, and worship together at the Canada Youth 2016 conference.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, about 300 people were killed when a large car bomb exploded in a busy market. In the U.S., two black men were shot and killed by police for no good reason, and five police officers were killed and others injured by snipers in retaliation. In Bangladesh there was yet another terrorist attack, with people throwing homemade bombs at police who were standing guard outside a prayer service marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And when I looked online at a listing of violent incidents and attacks this month alone, it went on and on and on.

You might assume that the Presbyterian youth would go on with their program, likely unaware or at least unaffected by such terrible incidents so far away. But in fact, part of the CY program included learning about and responding to the world refugee crisis – the crisis caused by unrelenting violence against civilian communities and families.

And when they gathered for worship, they prayed sincerely and intensely for peace in the world. The CY Choir, made up of young singers from across the country, sang the old gospel song, turned civil rights anthem, turned hymn of faith and hope once again. They sang “We shall overcome” as their parents and grandparents had sung so many years ago in the face of injustice, violence, and war.

“We shall live in peace. We shall live in peace.
We shall live in peace some day…
Oh, deep in our hearts we do believe
We shall live in peace some day.”

One of the greatest human desires is for peace: peace between nations, peace between neighbours, and peace within our own minds and hearts. The New Testament Greek word that is translated as “peace” is eirene, meaning harmony or concord between individuals. It includes a calm, harmonious absence of conflict that this world has never yet known.

Recently, Nick and I have been watching old episodes of the Star Trek Voyager series on Netflix. I’m not a big fan of science fiction, but there’s something about the Star Trek shows that is quite different. They are less about the science, and more about reflecting on human nature, relationships, working out conflicts, struggling with ethical issues, and choosing to do what is right, even when it requires personal sacrifice.

The premise of the Voyager series is that the starship has been pulled through a rift in space into the far-away Delta quadrant… so far from Earth (which is in the Alpha quadrant) that they are expecting it to take them 75 years to make the journey home again. On one of their adventures along the way, they come across a planet with a society of human beings. The unlikely scenario is that a few other humans were taken from Earth many years ago to this place, and they set up their own cities on a planet in the Delta quadrant.

The crew members from Voyager visit the planet and feel almost like they have come home. The people are human, and the world is quite similar to the Earth communities to which they are longing to get back. Captain Janeway marvels at how the two human communities developed so similarly. She says that “just like on Earth, they have formed societies in which both poverty and war have been completely eliminated.” Both poverty and war have been completely eliminated.

As Christians, we share with the authors of Star Trek, the vision of a world in which all people will live in peace some day. The Star Trek version of how that world will come about involves advances in human intellect and emotional maturity, combined with technological advances that actually make providing enough food, shelter, and resources for everyone a manageable task.

When we consider the world today, it is difficult to imagine us creating a peaceful and just society for all through such a process any time soon. And yet, as people of faith we are called to hold on to the hope that we have for a world made new. We are invited to receive the gift of peace in our minds and hearts, even now, even in the midst of conflict, even before that vision is fulfilled. And we are compelled to participate with God in building a world of peace through our own efforts, choices, and priorities each and every day.

First of all, we must hold on to the hope that we have for a world made new.

As God promised to the People of Israel in the Book of Leviticus: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land.”

As the prophet Isaiah foretold: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

As John wrote in his revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

We sometimes gloss over these visions of peace in Scripture as impossible or idealistic. But the more people are inspired by a vision for peace, the more realistic these words become.

And our summer theme on the “Fruit of the Spirit” reminds us that PEACE is not only something that we are called to make in our relationships and societies, but it is a gift of the Spirit. You may remember what Jesus said to his disciples as he was preparing to die and to send them the Holy Spirit as their comforter and guide. He said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”

The fruit of the Spirit that is PEACE is a gift that Jesus gives to us now. It is not the fullness of the Kingdom of peace that we long for and pray for, but it is the peace that we are able to experience even now in the midst of the troubles of our world. It is the peace that fills us with courage and hope despite the conflict and violence that seems to be all around us.

I wasn’t at CY when the youth were praying for peace in the world and singing “We shall overcome” together, but I imagine that they must have felt the Spirit’s presence and peace as they sang – helping them to hold on to God’s vision of a peaceful world, praying that it might come to be soon, and committing themselves to be a part of making that peace a reality in our time.

Although God’s vision of peace is big, and difficult, and seemingly so far from the current reality, we are invited to participate in making peace in our own relationships and contexts, in small but significant ways.

The passage we heard this morning from the Book of Genesis showed Abram doing just that. Abram and his nephew Lot were travelling together, but their possessions were too great and their herders began bickering and fighting over grazing land. Abram came to Lot and said: “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” And he did. And they went their separate ways in peace.

The problem between Abram and Lot seems almost too simple, so easy to resolve because Abram made an accommodation by letting Lot choose where to go, and because both of them were reasonable with each other.

I wonder how many conflicts and disputes between us could be resolved so easily if we humbled ourselves, made a few accommodations, and let God guide us to solutions that could be good for us all? Could we work out the arguments that flare up in our families? Could we resolve the differences that lead to protests or stand-offs between organizations? Could we find ways to make peace between nations?

I don’t know about the big, complex, political negotiations… but I know that God is calling us to be a part of the peacemaking process in the world. Paul writes to the Christian Church in Rome: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” So far as it depends on you… live peaceably with all.

It reminds me of a peace song I learned as a child – one that we sang at church, but we also sang at school, together with Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and others:

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father, brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now.
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow…
To take each moment and live each moment with peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

I want to conclude with a story. This was shared by Chuck McKnight on a Mennonite website called, “Third Way: Simply Following Jesus.”

Pastor Larry Wright was leading a New Year’s Eve prayer service in a downtown Fayetteville, North Carolina, church when a man entered the building armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle.

We know how these stories end. People die. Loved ones grieve. Social media becomes outraged. And then nothing changes. We wait for the story to repeat.

But this time, the story went a bit differently.

The man walked in with his gun in one hand and an ammo clip in the other. Pastor Wright says he was unsure whether the man had a round chambered in the rifle. Some church members screamed; others ran for the door; one woman instinctively grabbed her granddaughter and sheltered her in case bullets started flying.

At this point, depending on which church the man had targeted, armed members of the congregation might have started shooting at him. Thankfully, that’s not what happened either.

As soon as he saw the gunman, Pastor Wright stepped down from the podium and began walking toward him. He asked the man a simple question: “Can I help you?”

Wright later stated, “If he was belligerent, I was going to tackle him.” But it turns out that wasn’t necessary.

The gunman responded by asking Wright to pray for him.

He allowed Wright to disarm him and pat him down. Four deacons came and hugged the man, welcoming him to their church. As Wright prayed for him, the man fell to his knees crying. He was then invited to the front pew, where he sat as the service continued.

“I finished the message, I did the altar call and he stood right up, came up to the altar, and gave his life to Christ,” Wright said. “I came down and prayed with him and we embraced. It was like a father embracing a son.”

The man then spoke to the church, apologized for his actions, and confessed that he had intended to do something terrible.

“We shall live in peace. We shall live in peace.
We shall live in peace some day…
Oh, deep in our hearts we do believe
We shall live in peace some day.”