Learning the Ways of Peace

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on Advent Sunday 2016:

I remember well the first day I travelled to the city of Jerusalem. Like the pilgrims in this morning’s Psalm, I was journeying up to Jerusalem from the Jordan Valley. Through the ragged peaks of the mountainous Judean desert, from the lowest town on earth, Jericho, some 250m below sea level, to the height of the mountains that surround the Holy City. As I was travelling, I prayed the words of our Psalm – ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the House of the Lord”.’ I was journeying in a bus, and not on foot, but the sense of anticipation and joy was just as great as it would have been to any pilgrim making their journey to Jerusalem. I was heading to the city ‘where the pilgrims gather in unity … to give thanks to the name of the Lord’.

There is a sense of wonder when see Jerusalem for the first time from the heights of the Mount of Olives: the city lies at your feet, the Temple Mount with the golden Dome of the Rock, the churches and synagogues, the tall bell towers and minarets that make up an iconic skyline so instantly familiar to us. I was filled with joy as I set eyes for the first time on the City, was thrilled when I passed through its historic gates – ‘now our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem’. The City with its great wall, and gate-towers, still gives the impression of unity and strength that the psalmist sings about: Jerusalem, built as a city that is compacted, that is at unity in itself. Peace be within your walls, was my prayer.

I have been a regular visitor to Jerusalem since, have navigated the busy roads of the city on foot, by tram, and as a driver myself. In my extended stays in the city I have learnt to distinguish between the ideal of a city that even in its historic fabric, surrounded by a great protective wall, appears to be at unity, and the reality of life in Jerusalem, where many communities with different values, different faiths, and entirely different aspirations for the future live side by side. Jerusalem may be built as a city, but it certainly is not at unity in itself. The different ‘tribes’ of the city still go up, but they gather not in unity. They coexist, but they do not live together. They live next to one another, but often are not neighbours.

This morning’s readings invite us to hold in our hearts the ideal that God has for his cities – the city of Jerusalem and the other places where he dwells. They invite us keep longing for that ideal, to keep alive in our hearts the desire to see God’s cities at peace. They invite us to be active in our longing: not only to watch for the day when God will bring peace to Jerusalem and the places in which he seeks to dwell, but to work for the peace he seeks to bring to this world in the places where we live – our homes, our neighbourhoods, our churches and our communities.

In our first lesson, from the prophecy of Isaiah, we hear words of hope that the City of Jerusalem, though now a place filled with empty treasure and idols, will one day be the place where all nations can encounter God. In censuring the people of Jerusalem for their reliance on other gods – idols of old, treasures of silver and other riches – Isaiah holds before them the image of their city as a place where God’s glory will dwell: God will himself live in the city, will establish his home on the mountains that surround her, will himself teach the world the ways of peace. And because God himself is at the heart of the city, all nations will seek God’s presence and peace: ‘Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord … that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’.

Because God himself is present at the heart of his city, the city is at peace and unity; is truly enabled to be Yerushalayim – the City of Shalom, the City of Peace. People will turn from the self-seeking, self-serving ways of the past: will turn from the worship of riches and the armed struggles to accumulate greater wealth, influence and power. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, will plant rather than destroy, will build up community rather than tear down and divide, will ‘walk in the way of the Lord’, whose will for his city and his world is peace.

Our gospel reading, from the final chapters of Matthew’s story of Jesus, also takes us to Jerusalem. Jesus had just left the Temple. His disciples were admiring the imposing beauty of the Temple precinct, when Jesus told them that the wealth of the City they admired would not be lasting: ‘not one stone will be left here upon one another; all will be thrown down’ (Matthew 24.3). Sitting on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the stunning panorama that greeted me on my first visit to Jerusalem, Jesus teaches the disciples to recognise the signs of the end of the age.

The age will come to an end, when the Son of Man returns, he tells them: he will come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and he will divide the nations. Those who have long-waited and worked for his coming will be united with him, and have a share in the building of his City of Peace. Those who have only ever laboured for their own inclinations, only ever gratified their own desires – as our epistle puts it – will be left behind to await the destruction of the rich walls of Jerusalem. They will find shelter in strong walls that only ever gave a semblance of a City at unity in itself, and will find the same walls they built destroyed.  Those who have laboured for the unity of God’s people and the cities in which he seeks to live, will long have turned their swords to ploughshares and began the arduous work for peace.

When the Son of Man returns, Jesus tells his friends, there will be those who will not enter into the City of Peace. When the Son of Man comes, God will judge between the nations, and arbitrate between many peoples. Those who sought his peace will share his peace, and practise the arts of peace. Those who sought a land filled with silver and gold, sought to build walls, will be left behind in the shells of the protection they created, will be left with empty riches they have accumulated in vain: ‘one will be taken, and one will be left’, Jesus tells his disciples, as he weeps over the City of Jerusalem.

The City that should be at peace has turned away from the ways of the God, has only sought the prosperity of its palaces, and not its peace; has only sought the protection of its walls, and not its unity; has neither sought its good nor given thanks to God for his word – in fact it has consistently killed God’s messengers: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! … See, your house is left to you, desolate’ (Matthew 23.37).

How do we learn the ways of peace? How do we live so that the ideal of the City of Peace that God holds before us as the place of his dwelling, may truly come to be built in our midst? Our epistle reading from the Letter to the Romans gives us a guide to living in peace. The way to peace, Paul tells us, is the way of God’s commandments: the guide to living that God gave to his people on Mount Sinai – ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal or covet’. The way to living in peace is the way of holding the lives of others in the same esteem in which we hold our own. Know the lives of others as sacred to God in the same way in which he sees our life as sacred. Love the lives of our neighbours in the same way in which we love our own: ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’, Paul exhorts the Roman church.

When I first travelled to Jerusalem felt that I recognised a city that I felt I had long known. I instantly recognised its landmarks, felt that I knew the mountains that surround the City, and longed to enter its gates. My prayer was that of the pilgrims who travelled there more than 2,500 years before me: ‘I will pray that peace be with you’. God still seeks to be gracious to the cities and places in which we live; especially to that still un-peaceful City of Peace, Jerusalem. He asks us to work with him in fulfilling his law of love, so that his City may be at unity in itself; that all our cities may be places where people seek for the good of others, and the peace of its communities.

This Advent, may the same eagerness that the pilgrims felt on knowing that their journey would take them once more to Jerusalem mark our time of watching for the signs of God’s love in our world. This Advent, may the same determination that led the pilgrims of old to face the arduous journey to God’s city, mark our working for the fulfilment of God’s law of love in the places in which he seeks to dwell. This Advent, may the same gladness that the pilgrims felt on setting out to travel to Jerusalem be ours, as we commit again to walk in the light of God’s love, and expectantly await the day of God’s coming.

© Andreas Loewe, 2016