The Centre’s Director, Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, is currently writing and researching while on sabbatical in Hong Kong.
While there he was invited to preach at St John’s Cathedral. The text of this morning’s sermon is below…
As many of you know, Cantonese is a very difficult language to learn. Two years ago, I married into a Cantonese family. On honeymoon, my wife and I came to Hong Kong, and there was a celebration banquet. I wanted to say a few words of Cantonese, but this was a dangerous idea. When I tried to say doh tze dai ga (which is ‘thank you everyone’) what I actually said was doh tze dai ha (which is apparently ‘thank you big prawn’).
Even when you get the words right, it is impossible to make a complete translation between English and Cantonese. For example, no English word quite captures the Cantonese yee(t)-naow – it really means “a joyous, noisy gathering, which might be in the home or outside, might be a party or a parade.” This is an example of a more general problem of translating between tongues – words in different languages often have slightly different meanings. So we face this same problem when we the Bible is translated into English or Cantonese, Mandarin or Tagalog. The translation never quite captures the meaning and nuance of the original Hebrew or the Greek.
Today, the word “peace” was in all three Bible readings. Even in English, “peace” can mean more than one thing. Sometimes, it just means “no violence”. But there is another kind of peace which means more than that. At the end of today’s service, Fr Desmond will give the blessing. Listen to its words: The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. When Fr Desmond uses the word “peace,” it means more than “no violence”. It is a positive peace; a peace which draws us into the love of God. This is a deep peace which we feel in our hearts. From speaking to some of you at coffee after this service, and from seeing people come to the cathedral during the week I know this is a place where people experience that deeper peace.
But what about the word “peace” in today’s Bible readings? The Hebrew word which is translated here as “peace” is “shalom”. Robert Linthicum tells us shalom appears 397 times in the Old Testament, and its Greek counterpart 89 times in the New Testament. Both of these words have a far richer, wider meaning than the English word ‘peace’. So shalom is sometimes translated as ‘peace’ – but at other times it is translated as welfare, wholeness or rest, security, prosperity or perfection.
We miss this when we read the Bible in English or Cantonese – we miss the fact that each time “shalom” is used in the Bible, it means all of these things: peace and welfare, wholeness and rest, security, prosperity and perfection. So, in today’s Gospel reading, when Jesus sends out his disciples to say “shalom to this house” and to find “shalom of peace,” he means all of these things.
When the Jewish people were in exile – taken from their homes in Israel to a land far away – God told them through his prophet Jeremiah to “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.”
In a sense, Christians are always in exile in our earthly cities. In both Hong Kong and in London, many people are far from their earthly homeland. But wherever we come from, as Christians we all have another home. Whatever is on the front of our Passport or ID card, we are citizens of another country, the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes we think the Kingdom of God just means heaven. We may think that God’s peace is something we will only experience in the next life. But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is dawning, here and now. When we read the Gospels, and see what Jesus does, we learn what that means. The Kingdom of God dawns when ill people are healed, when people of all races and social groups eat at one table, when wealth is shared so that everyone has what they need. We see God’s shalom when human beings are no longer strangers to one another, no longer just in competition, when those with wealth share it with those in need.
The Anglican poet T.S. Eliot spent much of his life in London. In one of his poems he asks:
What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle together because you love each other? What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together to make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
That is a good question to ask – both in London and Hong Kong. What is the meaning of our cities? If we simply dwell together to make money from each other, then we only need the peace that keeps us safe – the peace, which means “no violence”. But Jesus invites us into a deeper peace. It involves fellowship with God and with neighbour. It draws us together, not merely because we are useful to each other, because we can cut a deal and make some money, but because we see in one another the image of God.
While I have been in Hong Kong, I have seen the many ways in which the church seeks the welfare –the shalom – of this city. I have seen the way this Cathedral and the wider Province offers space for inner peace, and takes practical action to help those in greatest need.
Inner peace and practical action go together. We see the connection right here, at this Eucharist, for at this altar that we receive God’s greatest gift of peace. In bread and wine we are drawn into Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross wins us peace with God, and draws us into fellowship with one another. At this service, we don’t just sit in our individual seats, we take communion together – we walk forward together, we kneel together, we drink from the same cup.
The bread and wine used in communion comes from the earth, and is produced by human work. It shows us how God wants to use all the things we grow and make. Every good gift – food and drink, homes and wealth – is given to us so that we can grow together in fellowship and love. Our sharing of bread and wine is a sign of that shalom to which God is calling us here on earth, and which will be made complete in heaven. It changes us from strangers into friends, who recognise in one another the face of Jesus Christ.
We come to God together, which is why we share the Peace before we receive communion. To share the Peace you have to open your hands, just as you have to open your hands to receive Jesus Christ at the communion rail. We receive God when we have open hands and open hearts.
And we are not just called to open our hands in church. At the end of the service we pray Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory. God calls to open our hands to those in need in our daily life and work. In Deuteronomy, God tells his people: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”
When we open our hands to someone else who is in need, we once again meet God. Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison, we meet him in those very people. Jesus tells us he is present in the poor, that the Kingdom of God first of all belongs to them.
What is the meaning of this city? If we want to see London, or Hong Kong as Jesus sees it, we must start by asking how it looks to its poorest inhabitants. In their shalom, their welfare and peace, our cities will find the peace of God.
We cannot, of course, do any of this in our own strength. Sometimes when we talk about the Kingdom of God, it seems so perfect, so ideal, that it is hard to relate it to our daily lives. But Jesus tells us another story, to encourage us. He says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: that God takes the tiny bit of faith and love we offer, and makes it into something great. So I invite you to ask yourself three questions
• Firstly, where do I feel most deeply at peace, and sense God’s presence with me?
• Secondly, where do I encounter people who are different from me, and have an opportunity to turn strangers into friends?
• Thirdly – whether I am rich or poor, how can I serve Jesus in my neighbour who is in need, and work with Jesus to build a more just and generous city?
In answering these questions, we begin to see where God’s Kingdom is already dawning in our lives – where his Spirit is at work. This will help us to work out how to take the next step, how to build on what he is already doing, on where he is already present. Nothing is too small to be the starting point on this journey of faith. From tiny mustard seeds, he can make great things. Amen.