When I was younger various folk, teachers mostly, used to occasionally ask me 'why do you always have to have the last word?' Funnily enough I always had the sense not to reply.
But today's gospel reading is about not last but first words.
And, the first word used, twice, in today's gospel passage, by Jesus, is peace: he is the bringer of peace; we are to be bringers of peace. Peace is an important concept in Christianity, just note how many times the word is used in our liturgy.
So here's the question: 'what does peace mean in explicitly theological terms?'
The biblical word which we translate as peace is Shalom, which translates as 'right relationship.' Peace in Christian terms doesn't simply mean the absence of violence or injustice, nor does it mean feeling good about ourselves. Peace is not to be reduced to sentimentality. Peace or shalom is all about relationships. Righteous relationships with God, righteous relationships with each other. And if we are serious about our discipleship we need to strive to be bringers of peace. We need to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi who famously prayed 'make me a channel of your peace.' We need to allow ourselves to be inspired by the likes of Desmond Tutu who understood that right relationships, or peace, only become a possibility when we seek truth and reconciliation, when we become willing to let go of bitterness and resentments and when we say to the past that it cannot govern the future, for surely this is, in part, what takes place through the resurrection? If we wish to be children of the resurrection, we must be prepared to give hurts, pains and failures back to God, so that we can move ahead forging better, more righteous relationships.
But, how can we do this, for we need to be clear and honest? Sometimes our failures, or suffering, and our rightful indignations seem to have the upper hand. Well, the gospel again provides the answer: through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Are we prepared to sit here this morning and allow the Holy Spirit to be breathed over us, into us? Are we prepared to receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit?
I would like to suggest that if we are serious about our aspirations, the three H's, hospitality, healing and holiness we need to allow ourselves to be shaped, nurtured and inspired by Jesus' post resurrection gift; the Holy Spirit. And if we do permit ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit something even more remarkable might happen:
We will become the sort of community where the living God is experienced as real and tangible. Where the honest doubter, the modern day Thomas, stands a chance of being met and greeted by Jesus, where doubt becomes the raw material of faith. We will become a church that can do no other than to grow in number and in holiness; a church where people perhaps find themselves saying somewhat unexpectedly: 'My Lord and My God!' Surely that's an exciting vision?
Sometimes churches can become a little snooty about those on the periphery, those who come to church only occasionally, those whose faith doesn't appear to be fully formed. What I say is let's pray that our periphery expands, let's welcome the cynic, doubter and occasional worshipper as a gift from God.
Pope Francis recently wrote that when someone starts hanging around with Christians – just as Thomas did, even though apparently he didn't believe- 'they need to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner when they stand at the threshold, when they start to feel nostalgia for God.'
These are wise words, which we should pay to attention to, for our role is to welcome all who approach us and to trust in the Holy Spirit. It is God who converts not us. As St. Francis also said 'go and preach the gospel everywhere but use words only where necessary.'
This does not imply that we should be passive, or avoid words for sometimes they are necessary. I do however think it implies that we should be concerned with the quality of our own community and the message that it gives out.
Are we a community into whose very DNA is breathed peace, right relationships, reconciliation and truth, Shalom in other words? I hope and pray so. Amen.
Rev Andrew Lightbown