A sermon preached by The Dean, The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, at the Commonwealth Observance Service held on Sunday 7th May 2017.

On my 18th birthday I, along with all my school friends, went off to spend 12 months training how to be a soldier. This was compulsory National Service and began with the dehumanising process of having all our carefully grown long hair lopped off, our civilian clothes packed into trunks, and ill-fitting boots, jungle fatigues, combat jacket and steel helmets issued. We were, or so we were told, a peace-keeping force in our country – keeping at bay those who wished to invade, rape, pillage and kill the unsuspecting and peaceful inhabitants. As I learned later, there is always more to that sort of rhetoric than meets the eye, and the ‘enemy’ were in fact citizens of my own country fighting for their place in the sun.

As a birthday and going away present my mother gave me a little book of meditations on a particular prayer said to have been written by one of the best loved Christian saints, Francis of Assisi. Every night, before I went to sleep, I would read a few pages, and think deeply about what was written. Quite how I juggled the rifle drill and leopard crawl during the day, and the challenging words of St Francis I am not quite sure. But the book and the prayer remain important to me – perhaps more than ever.

The opening lines of the prayer are these:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

And it was that very personal prayer, ‘make me’, that I wrestled with. How could I, an eighteen year old, possibly be a peace-maker? What might it mean to be an ‘instrument’ of peace? And in any case, what is peace?

That’s a good question, one worth asking. What is peace? Is it the cessation of hostility and war, the patching up of a family quarrel until it breaks out next time, the righting of injustices, the invitation to the broken of the world to come and share the ‘boundless plains’ of this country? Each of the readings we have heard tonight, coming as they do from a number of quite different world faiths, speak, in some way or another, about peace. There are any number of words and concepts we can associate with peace

  • Hinduism offers auspiciousness, fullness, prosperity, being happy, looking to the good of others
  • Islam reminds us that humans are created male and female, nations and tribes that ‘you may know one another’; creation itself, with all its beauty and variation is a sign for those who know
  • Judaism asks of us ‘justice’ as an essential to peace, not pitting charity/love against justice but holding them hand in hand
  • From Buddhism comes the idea of living gentle, honest, peaceful and upright lives
  • While Christianity offers what are called the Beatitudes, those sayings of Jesus beginning with the word ‘Blessed’ and including ‘Blessed are the peace-makers’

Now let’s be honest and say that these ideals are all very well, but, in reality, are all too often observed in the breaking rather than the keeping. Terrible things have been, and continue to be, done in the name of religion and by people who will happily quote from their holy writings. And lest those who have no faith think they are let off, even a cursory knowledge of atheistic thinking will see the same sorry traits of a propensity to live anything but peacefully.

In this Cathedral dedicated to St Peter we are in the season of Easter. A few weeks ago we spent time reliving, rehearsing, remembering the days leading up to the death of an unknown man in a backwater country – Jesus of Nazareth. Today we call the day of his death on a cross “Good Friday”, and with good reason. It is the belief of Christians that Jesus lived, and died, in such a way that he continues to be the supreme example of a peace-maker. No, he was not one of those brave so-called ‘white helmets’ in Syria; nor did he wear the blue beret of a United Nations peace-keeping force. He simply moved around a small patch of country, gathering a few friends, talking to different people, and being welcoming to everyone he came across. No one was too important, or too insignificant, to escape his attention.

On the night before he died, at an event Christians remember as the Last Super, Jesus did an extraordinary thing. It was both simple – and profound. He wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his friends – including one who had already made plans to betray him. And then he gave them his final teaching: Love one another, as I have loved you. Love one another. As he was being nailed to the cross, he looked at his executioners and prayed that they might be forgiven. Shortly before he died, he commended his mother into the care of one of his closest friends, and he to her.

In her Commonwealth message for 2017, read publicly for the first time in Westminster Abbey on March the 13th, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth encouraged the 2.5 billion people who collectively make up the Commonwealth to remember the cornerstones of peace – respect and understanding for one another, working together, defending the dignity of every individual and community.

It really is quite as simple as that – this peace-making business. Putting the other before me makes them special – especially when I know that they are doing the same thing. Of course, it is not at all a simple or simplistic thing to be a peace-maker; it takes commitment, dedication, determination, great love and courage, and a deep sense of humility to put the interests of another ahead of my own.

Tonight, at this first of what I hope will become a regular service in this Cathedral, we will end by making an act of affirmation to the Commonwealth. While this is something specific to the Commonwealth, the act of commitment and affirmation is in fact relevant to all humanity and should be practiced across the board – in our own homes, our schools and places of education, in board rooms and ward rooms, no matter what our beliefs or specific religion, race, culture and language. Let the act of the foot-washing, interpreted into a myriad of individual situations, become a symbol of peace-making.

I started with St Francis. Let me end by inviting you to join me in praying the whole of his prayer.

 Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.