Sunday 14 August 2022
James was a 28-year-old trainee paramedic when he was killed with a single punch to the head by a 19-year-old man named Jacob. James’ mother, Joan had to walk the hard road of terrible grief and deal with her own anger at this young man who had taken her son’s life and yet received a very short prison sentence. With the help of counsellors and victim support, Joan decided to pursue the answers to her questions by making contact with Jacob, the man who had killed her son, via a restorative justice project for offenders and their victims. Joan describes her first meeting with Jacob saying;
“When I told him what James was like as a person, I saw Jacob’s eyes fill up. We all shed a few tears. I could see he was deeply remorseful and that gave me hope he could change. We agreed to build a future together by talking publicly about restorative justice and raising awareness of the catastrophic effects of a single punch.”
Restorative justice practices – where victim and perpetrator are brought together in carefully structured and supported dialogue- I believe to be the most Christian, as well the most divisive, projects to carry through in any institution or society.
I have seen the transformative power of restorative practices in schools…particularly in situations of bullying. However, it is a far from an easy road for any justice system to attempt, be it in schools or in wider society. It is also slow, as time is taken to understand the feelings of all and for the practice of respectful, clear and truthful speech to be acquired. If you are interested in some examples of restorative practices, I would recommend reading some of the stories on a site called The Forgiveness Project where you will find many like the one I quoted of Joan, James and Jacob.
Joan and Jacob have maintained a long friendship that has been healing for them both. Jacob described what has happened to him, saying;
“If they had never challenged me with those difficult questions I would most likely still be in prison today. It’s extraordinary to think that the people I harmed the most were the people to judge me the least.“
It is apparently the absence of judgement that has led to healing and peace. Yet strangely, it is this suspension of judgment that actually is too difficult… a bridge too far…for those who oppose Restorative Practices. Peace, it appears, requires a relinquishing of the desire to punish, judge or to exclude. Peace is demanding.
In our Gospel text today, we hear the demand of Jesus, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?”
We might be forgiven for being confused. After all, every Christmas we sing “Peace on earth and mercy mild..” as what the new born Saviour of the world brings. It is surprising to hear then, that Jesus in this impassioned speech says, “No, I tell you, but rather division!”
I will not pretend to resolve into some neatly understood formulae everything that Jesus is saying here. I will say, though, drawing on the wisdom of John Shea, that this speech is not about what Jesus would teach us so much as an observation he is making about the effects of his teaching. Some people will accept his teaching and follow, and others will find the task too confronting or demanding of them and walk away. Wherever that happens, there is division. Jesus offers peace and reconciliation, but he is unflinching in his acknowledgement that mercy…peace…forgiveness…all of these can be the cause of division when they are resisted and not received with humility.
As another example, let us turn to a story also found only in Luke’s Gospel: the well-known parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’. In that story Jesus tells, we hear of the astonishing love of a Father who would race down the road to enfold his son in a welcoming embrace on his return- this son who has hurt and shamed him. He then goes to the older son who is angry and resentful at his younger brother’s welcome, and begs him to join the party. What is interesting is we never hear the final outcome of that story. Does the elder son remain in his bitter resentment and exclude himself from relationship? Or does he humble himself, recognise that his Father sees his pain, accept the love that is always there for him and join in celebrating his brother’s return? If he does not, would there have been a permanent and painful rupture in their relationship?
Peace is not always welcome. Sometimes we have become accustomed to a familiar nursing of injustice and a sense of victimisation. Sometimes we want nothing more then for someone to be judged, punished and excluded. When we do that, we can find ourselves the instigator and sustainer of division…a division that is alien to the God of mercy who loves all and would forgive all if we allowed it.
We also build walls when we create ‘in and out’ groups within Christian communities based on morality or ‘right’ beliefs. Once we begin drawing ‘lines in the sand’ we are placing ourselves in the role of God, judging and determining the worthy from the unworthy. Instead of such judgement, perhaps we need to be reminded to heed Jesus’ call to ‘read the signs of the times’. The peace Jesus brings and gives involves the ordering of proper relationships of justice, mercy and compassion. If our religion does not reveal and promote justice, mercy and compassion then we need to reconsider our religion. Where can we see signs of injustice and harsh judgement that does not seek to understand but only condemn? These are the signs that lead us away from life and joy. Jesus in this passage gives us some very earthy examples of weather patterns which in our day speak with a prophetic edge. Are we heeding the signs revealed on earth and pursuing Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation that it may extend to all creation? On a global scale we hear of conflicts arising from our responses to climate change, and we are aware, for example, of the vastly different points of view between the economic giants of this world and small island nations facing rising sea levels. Peace and justice in practice are divisive and controversial.
How then, can we be a part of welcoming the unwelcome peace that Jesus brings…a peace that opens us to the transformative Spirit of justice, mercy and compassion even when it is confronting, costly and inconvenient?
While acknowledging the immensity of the problems and suffering in the world, I think that this word ‘welcome’ is a powerful way to begin. Part of the confronting nature of Jesus’ peace is that we can no longer draw lines that exclude. The God who loves and forgives us also loves and forgives those for whom we may feel little love or even respect. To be a community grounded in the peace of Christ is to be a family of the healed and forgiven…humble, grace-merry people whose expression of divine love offers an exuberant welcome to others. As an example of that, I would like to share a welcome notice that Bishop Cam recently spotted on his visit to St Paul’s Covent Garden. There are a few such signs in churches around the world, and this is a particularly good one;
“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well-heeled or down at heel, we especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.
We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woken up, or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over sixty but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, and junk food eaters.
We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps, or don’t like ‘organised religion’.
We offer welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids, or got lost in Covent Garden and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters… and you!”
Is our welcome like that? I think it is. But to fully practice such a welcome… beyond the smile at the front door… is not always popular. In fact, it turns out that the very thing that divides is the kind of peace that insists that there is no dividing line that can exclude anyone from love.
May we know and receive the demanding peace Christ brings, offering forgiveness and reconciliation, setting us free from the burden of judgement and releasing us to love and serve one another.
 John Shea, The Relentless Widow: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1992: 229.