09 November 2014
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Third Sunday before Advent (Remembrance)
Revd Simon Cowling
Isaiah 9. 1-6; Matthew 5. 43-end
A few months after he became Prime Minister, David Cameron led a trade delegation to China. During that visit, which took place during the month of November, Mr Cameron politely declined a Chinese request for him and the delegation to remove their lapel poppies. For the British, and some other Europeans, poppies are a solemn symbol of remembrance of those who fell serving their country in war; and the unprecedented response to the vast poppy installation at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, is evidence of the enduring power of this symbol. But for the Chinese people poppies are a symbol of military, political and economic humiliation at the hands of Europeans, principally the British, in the nineteenth century opium wars. They remind the Chinese that tens of thousands of their ancestors were killed by superior European weaponry, and that their humiliation was compounded by subsequent deeply unequal trade treaties and the British occupation of Hong Kong in 1842.
A few years ago the Christian think-tank Ecclesia called for churches to offer people the opportunity to wear white poppies as well as red ones. Despite the fact that this suggestion was actually first made in 1926, Ecclesia’s press release provoked a good deal of comment, much of it hostile. One journalist asked, rhetorically, what his readers should do if they saw someone wearing a white poppy. His answer? ‘(They) should give a cheery wave not involving the use of all (their) fingers.’
The point of these two poppy-related stories is not to offer you the opportunity to pass judgement on the relative worth of Chinese or British sensibilities, or on the relative merits of red versus white poppies. The point of the stories is to highlight the moral, cultural, and theological ambiguities that surround our annual rituals of solemn remembering around 11 November. These ambiguities, in turn, are no more than a reflection of more general moral dilemmas about war and violence that have been present in our tradition from the earliest times. Christian pacifism can be traced back to the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘Put your sword back in its place’, Jesus says to Peter after the impetuous disciple has cut off the ear of the High Priest’s slave. Writing in the very early third century about this incident, the theologian Tertullian declared that ‘in disarming Peter, (Christ) unbelted every soldier.’
On the other hand there have also been many devout Christians who have considered violence to be a legitimate means of furthering a just cause: the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is among them. Bonhoeffer joined in the plot to assassinate Hitler because he thought that not to do so would be a greater crime. He believed that the Christian life was less about adhering to a set of rules than responding to what he called ‘the actual given world in which one lives.’ Bonhoeffer’s actual given world took him down a non-pacifist path, for which he was prepared to give his own life.
Moral, cultural, and theological dilemmas about war and military intervention are present for us today as well of course: think Syria; think Islamic State; think Ukraine. But what surely cannot be doubted by any Christian is that warfare, and the violence it brings, are the fruits of fallen humanity’s tragic disfigurement of the divine image, pointing us away from the Kingdom of God and blurring our awareness of what God has created us to be.
In this context, the Gospel for today has a particular resonance. This passage from the Sermon on the Mount comes as the climax of a whole series of contrasts. Jesus is teaching his disciples how to understand the Jewish Law in all its fullness. His final contrast is between the traditional view that you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy, and the more challenging and radical view that you should love both your neighbour and your enemy. Jesus undermines a common human stance that straddles time and culture, and which is present in our own political discourse: antipathy towards the threatening outsider. Jesus comes, in the words of the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, ‘to transform us to be worthy members of the community of the new age.’ The new age that we are to understand as God’s Kingdom.
But transformation takes time, and the new age proclaimed by Jesus, God’s kingdom of justice and joy, mercy and grace, is not yet here. We can only glimpse it, as St. Paul says, as a dim image in a mirror. Yet as disciples, called and journeying together; and as a faithful community in pilgrimage, we are to be transformed into the image of God’s glory, attending carefully, prayerfully and faithfully to the life of Jesus Christ. It is from this life, from this Jesus, that we can learn the perfection which will enable us to love our enemies and to break out of the paradigm of the present age so distorted by violence, warfare and injustice.
In a moment we shall stand in silence. In this silence we are asked to remember the victims of war – military and civilian, past and present, adult and children. But let us also pray into this silence; pray for the coming of God’s peaceable Kingdom, for the grace and strength to play our part in growing the community of the new age, an age whose hallmarks are the mercy, forgiveness and love in which God’s essence is fully and truly revealed. Amen.