Sunday, 3 April 2005

Sermon on the death
of Pope John Paul II

The Revd Patrick Comerford

Southern Regional Co-ordinator,

Church Mission Society Ireland (CMS Ireland)


Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin.

Sunday, 3 April 2005: 2nd Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday),

Readings: Acts 2: 14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31.

May all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise and glory of the Eternal Trinity, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

“Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you.”

We find this phrase three times in this morning’s Gospel reading. It is a phrase spoken by the Risen Christ three times, with a Trinitarian resonance that reminds me of the three times God says to Moses, “I am …”, or the three visitors who receive hospitality from Abraham and who remind him of God's commitment to fulfilling his plan for all creation.

This phrase “peace be with you” is a saying in the post-Easter story in Saint John's Gospel that identifies the Risen Christ, now living in the Glory of the Trinity, in the same that the phrase "Be not afraid" is phrase that identifies the Risen Christ in the post-Resurrection narrative in Saint Matthew's Gospel.

That phrase, “Be not afraid”, kept being repeated by commentators and analysts on all the media channels over the last few days as they were asked to comment on the pontificate of Pope John Paul II as they waited for his death. But as I was working my way through this Gospel passage in the past week, I realised that this other phrase of the Risen Christ, “Peace be with you,” was equally significant as I thought about the significance of Pope John Paul, and his impact not just on his own branch of the Catholic Church, but his significance for the whole Christian Church as one, his impact on the world-wide community of faith, beyond even the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and his significance for the whole world.

In some churches, we can be too glib about that phase, “Peace be with you,” when it comes to exchanging the sign of peace. We can be a little glib, not just with our handshake, but with what we are actually wishing each other, in our hearts.

The peace that Jesus wishes his disciples is not the usual sort of peace that we often wish one another on Sunday mornings: Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, it has become yet another saying robbed of its real significance, with no more heart-filled meaning than the supermarket till operator who says, “Have a nice day, missing you already.”

The peace Christ is bringing to his disciples this morning is not a cheap way of saying “Good morning lads.” It is a peace that the Disciples sorely need. It is a peace that a deeply divided church needs. The Disciples have been sorely divided by the dramatic and traumatic events of the previous week or so. They know they are a deeply divided body of believers.

One of them has betrayed Jesus, perhaps sold him for a pocket full of coins. Why, there are even rumours that he has now run off and killed himself, or that he is speculating in property with the money.

Another, a most trusted disciple indeed, has denied Jesus, openly, not once, but three times, in public.

He and another disciple went to the grave on Sunday morning, but weren't quite sure of the significance of the open, empty tomb. Indeed, it took a woman to wake them up to the reality of what was taking place.

And yet another disciple is refusing to believe any of this at all. Was he calling us liars? Was he ever a true believer? Was he thinking of quitting? After all, he hadn’t turned up for a few of the last meetings.

It is to this deeply divided body of Disciples that Jesus comes, breaking through all the barriers, physical barriers and barriers of faith, and says to them, not once but three times, “Peace be with you.” It is not a mere greeting. It is a wish, a prayer and a blessing for those Disciples. And it is a wish, a prayer, a blessing that Christ still has for his Church today.

We are still divided, separated from each other, in the same way as those early Disciples were separated and divided. These divisions are not necessarily along the old traditional fault-lines that once marked the separation between the different branches of the church: rather, they cross those barriers so that conservative Catholics and conservative Presbyterians find it more easy to make common cause with each other than with other Catholics or other Presbyterians who hold more liberal views.

We are like those Disciples: mutually suspicious, thinking others may not have realised the full significance of the message of the Risen Christ; finding it easier to know how others have denied Christ than to face up to our own denials; demanding of others a proof of faith that we would not demand of ourselves.

Those silly, petty divisions that were hurting and breaking the early Church are similar in many ways to the silly, petty divisions now threatening to tear the Anglican Communion apart. If we kept our eyes on the Risen Christ, rather than trying to make the worst of other's intentions, then we might allow ourselves to see that the same Risen Christ breaks through all barriers, physical, geographical, spiritual, the barriers of time and space, and the barriers that separate liberals and conservatives, Protestant and Catholic, the radical and the Orthodox. The Risen Christ breaks through all those barriers and wants to gather us together into one, healed and whole body.

I found it surprising over the last few days how generous most of the commentators were in their assessment of Pope John Paul's Papacy. As I watched some of the prayers on television, I remembered how [the Revd] Kevin Moroney used to say that the dedication of this church was celebrated on the feastday of Saint John Lateran. It is possible today for us to be more generous in our responses that we might have been in an Anglican Church a few generations ago, even an Anglican Church in the Catholic tradition, as a Pope lay dying.

Our first concern, I suppose, should be for our neighbours. In love, we should understand their grief, mourn with them, grieve with them. For Irish people, not just for Roman Catholics, it was an honour that Ireland was one of the first countries he had chosen to visit after his election.

Next, perhaps, we should hope that in the weeks to come, as his successor is being elected, they look for a Pope who will be a true witness to the Risen Christ; a Pope not afraid to say that the words "Peace be with you!" need to transform the whole Church, so that as the Body of Christ we reflect not the broken body on the Cross, but the Risen Christ; and a Pope not afraid to say that the message of the Risen Christ, “Peace be with you!” has real significance for the world today.

Meanwhile, we should be ready to give thanks for the life and witness of Pope John Paul II. Who can forget him kneeling in silent and humble prayer beside Archbishop Robert Runcie in Canterbury Cathedral? Like many, I have been frustrated with the way the ARCIC process of dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions has been stymied and stalled, often facing insurmountable roadblocks during this Papacy. But then there have been surprising moments of hospitality, when Anglican bishops have been welcomed as “brother bishops” by the Pope in the Vatican.

This Pope managed in a joint statement with Lutherans to publicly state that the differences between Lutherans and Rome at the time of the Reformation were differences of language and emphasis that should never have resulted in a breach or rupture.

This Pope has tried to mend fences with the Orthodox world, with his visits to Eastern Europe. If only the Orthodox Church in Russia had been prepared to be as open and welcoming in Moscow as John Paul was in Rome and in going to Athens, Jerusalem, the Ukraine and Romania.

John Paul will be remembered as the first Pope to have visited and prayed in a synagogue, to visit Auschwitz, to visit Yad Vashem. His dignified, silent prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was no mere gesture: it was faith-filled proof that the God we worship is the same God Jesus worshipped in the synagogue, the same God the Disciples worshipped in the Temple, even after the Resurrection and Ascension. It was a faith-filled moment full of the resonances of sacramental healing needed by our post-Holocaust generations.

And yet, despite his deep-hearted empathy with Judaism, he was not afraid to speak out for the rights of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank ... whether they were Christians or Muslims was almost irrelevant. He was the first Pope to be open to the Islamic world. He visited mosques, met Muslim leaders, and continued throughout his papacy to take an active interest in Muslim-Christian dialogue.

He was a significant Christian leader who could challenge those post-modern trends that would sideline and marginalise religious voices, and say instead that Christianity is not merely a matter of private belief but has a crucial message for the world today. And despite his age, he could go against the trends, and make religion appealing to a younger, much younger generation.

In the past few days, commentators have emphasised his role in bringing democracy to his native Poland. But this was no selfish nationalism: its implications for all of Eastern Europe, indeed for all of Europe, have been broad and immense in the past 15 or 20 years.

Some women will object to his opposition to the ordination of women or his stand on contraception and abortion. Yet he was outspoken in promoting women's rights at work and in political and civil society. What has been labelled a “pro-life” stance was, at least, principled, for it extended to every aspect of life. That was why he appealed passionately in Drogheda for the IRA to abandon violence, why he took a principled stand against torture, the death penalty, wars of oppression, nuclear weapons, and the invasion of Iraq.

You may not have agreed with him on one, indeed on many, of these points. But he was a Pope who made it acceptable once again to say that the Gospel of the Risen Christ is a message not only for individual believers or the Church, but for the whole world, secular and political as well as religious.

If we are Disciples of the Risen Lord, then we cannot stay locked away in the Upper Room waiting for God to put everything right at the end of days. We must take courage from the Risen Christ, we must have an Easter faith that allows us to take to heart that message “Be not afraid”, and go out with the message, “Peace be with you”, a message that must be made real in the lives of our own section of the Church, throughout the wider Church, and that must have the power to transform the world we live in today.

This Sunday in Easter is traditionally called “Low Sunday”. But we can be in high spirits because of the Risen Christ. “Peace be with you!”

And now may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise an glory of the Risen Christ, Amen.

This sermon was preached in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 3 April 2005.