Last Friday, sitting in a small office that could have been in any voluntary sector/public sector building, I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard in my life and then we prayed.
There were just two of us in the room, and the young man with whom I was meeting as part of my work with Near Neighbours did not claim to have a strong religious faith. He is part of a group of young men who have left the world of gangs to enable reconciliation and peace on the streets of Birmingham. Their story is part of a documentary which I hope to watch in the next couple of days. The film and the organisation are called One Mile Away.
Joel talks about the day he and Simeon decided to found their organisation and sat down to count the cost. He can remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. He said to me: “Me and Simeon were talking about doing something to end the violence and hatred and Simeon said to me we could get killed doing this. I said we could have got killed gangbanging and we could get killed stopping it but I am not running away from this.”
Never before have I so clearly understood what Jesus meant when he said to save our life we have to lose it. Hatred can kill us, great love can kill us: only living a life of mediocrity, living in hiding or running from the challenge is safe. But Jesus called us to pick up our cross and follow him. In that little office it made perfect sense.
I really enjoyed studying Rowan Williams’ writing on Church when I was at Queens and one of his phrases that has stayed with me now for several years is that there is no-one inside or outside of the Church who cannot help us read our Bible better.
I agree absolutely with him and I think there are particular people who have learned not to cling on to their life, not to prize security above everything, not to put safety first who can help us live our Bible better.
Our conversation moved on to peace and the need for self-awareness and acceptance before trying to be a peacemaker. As we ended our meeting Joel read this prayer aloud. It was a prayer that had been used the day before as Faith Leaders in Birmingham remembered the anniversary of 9/11.
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
chinese philospher – lao-tse – 6th century bce
We can only find peace when we have decided, like Joel, that serving a God of love is more important than keeping safe. Jesus showed us that by his living and dying, the central narrative of the Christian faith, the cross and resurrection, remind us that love is stronger than death and death will never have the last word. We find our life when we are no longer terrified to lose it because our understanding of the love of God has permeated to the core of our being.
In a small office in Aston last week I learnt that again. Last week we heard the story of the Syrian woman who understood the breadth of God’s love. Her words of faith led to the healing of her daughter. It’s not only in church that we hear good sermons if we have the ears to hear them. And it’s worth asking ourselves how our words and lives help others read the Bible better.
Matthew 16:24-28New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?