This is a sermon I delivered at Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Church at the beginning of July. This was the first Sunday after the referendum on British membership of the European Union had been held. It was also the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. There were two readings, both from the New Testament: Matthew 5:21-24 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 6:11-13. They both deal with the theme of reconciliation in different ways, the first coming from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the second from Paul’s heart-felt appeal to the early Christians in Corinth to love one another.
This morning, I would like to talk a little about reconciliation. In doing so, I would like to take us to three different places in three different times.
The first is the ancient Greek city of Corinth in about the year 55 AD, and specifically to the hundred or so early Christians there, who were the recipients of the letter that we just heard read.
Christians know a lot about reconciliation and the New Testament, in particular, speaks about the subject fairly frequently. Unfortunately, this is largely because Christians have been very good at disagreeing and fighting each other! The last 2,000 years of church history has been pretty much one bust-up after the other over nearly every aspect of church life. The Methodist Church itself is effectively the product of such a disagreement, in fact. And although such things are unknown to us here (!), sadly too many Christian churches have been riven by factions and cliques over the years.
That was certainly the case in ancient Corinth. That was a congregation truly at war with itself, and with its nominal leader, Paul. Exactly why they were at war with each other remains a matter of great scholarly debate. In part, though, the differences seem to relate to theology, in part to personality, and at least in part to power. And sadly the latter two have continued to cause problems in our churches ever since!
In this most personal and heartfelt appeal to those first Christians to be reconciled with one another and with himself, I believe that Paul also speaks directly to us and his words remain deeply relevant.
First, he gives the Corinthian Christians, and us, a very specific job. He calls us to be “ambassadors for Christ” (6:20). And what is the most important job of such an ambassador? It is to make peace with the party or country to whom she or he has been sent. It is to end tensions and distrust, bring conflict to an end. It is to engage in what the apostle so rightly calls the “ministry of reconciliation” (6:18). A word that we may translate as meaning something like ‘start talking again’ or ‘sit down and engage with one another once more’. It is the state to which all Christians should aspire.
Paul does not stop there, though; he goes on to give the Corinthian Christians, and again us, a model for this reconciliation. That example to follow, is of course the person of Jesus Christ: God made flesh. Now I know that in a very clichéd way Jesus is always the answer but in so many ways Christ provides the perfect model for those seeking true reconciliation.
How? Well, to begin with, as Paul says, the very incarnation of God in the person of Jesus was an act of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). It was God reaching out to his creation. Not waiting for us to make the first move but crucially exposing himself to hatred and rejection by opening his arms in love to each one of us. When he appeared among us, again as Paul says, he did not count our wrongs against us but started a new page: gave each of us a fresh start. This was not the begrudging, ill-tempered reconciliation that so many of us were forced to make as children by our parents but a genuine ‘forgive and forget’ generosity. In all he did and said, Christ sought to break down the barriers that his creation had so effectively erected between themselves: barriers of class, race, gender, age. Barriers that sadly we humans seem desperately keen to cling onto.
Most importantly, his offer of reconciliation was not a quick, ‘take it or leave it’ moment. It was – and is – an offer that kept on being made. Whatever the world threw at him – whatever hatred and bile – Jesus kept turning the other cheek, and kept on offering the free love and forgiveness of God to all who would listen. Even on the cross, he cried out in pain to reach out to those who crucified him, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Not even the cross and death could end his ministry of reconciliation.
Now, whether or not the Corinthian Christians heeded Paul’s message is unsure. What we definitely know, though, is that sadly, God’s creation has repeatedly fail to heed the call to true reconciliation, with disastrous effects – both in the church and in the wider world.
That failure of reconciliation was perhaps nowhere seen better than in our second time and place: the Battle of the Somme, June 1916.
Many of you will have seen or heard some of the events that were held across the country on Thursday and Friday to mark the centenary of the start of that dreadful battle. I will not rehearse all the details again but some of the statistics are absolutely horrendous. Over 19,000 British soldiers killed on the first day – the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. At the end of hostilities, five months later, the British had advanced just seven miles and had completely failed to break the German defences. In total, those seven miles of muddy quagmire would cost more than a million dead and wounded on all sides, including 420,000 British, about 200,000 French and around 465,000 German. A complete and utter waste of precious human life, to add to the other such centenaries we have been celebrating of late: the Battle of Jutland, the Battle of Verdun, and so on.
We could spend a lot of time reading the accounts of the Battle of the Somme, of the horror and the stupidity of it all. The written memories, the poetry and the eyewitness testimony that has been left to us, serve – just like the enormous memorial at Thiepval – as terrible warnings of the futility of war. Two of the names on our own war memorial met their ends in that terrible conflict. A chilling reminder of how close the horrors of the Somme came to the quiet streets of Bushey and Oxhey.
I have talked about the events of World War One here before, not least during the exhibition at Bushey Academy in 2014. What we always have to remember about the terrible events of that conflict is that it didn’t come ‘out of a clear blue sky’ as is sometimes thought. It came about because for years, Europe’s leaders and politicians had completely neglected the need for reconciliation. Christopher Clark’s excellent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914, describes in great detail how our continent descended in to the madness of war. Itspeaks about the simmering causes of the war over decades: disputes over trade, borders, the treatment of minorities, colonies, spheres of influence, national pride and prestige, fears about the future, fears about losing the upper hand, prejudice and basic racism. What he makes absolutely clear was how the war was not just about German aggression but how all the nations of Europe were involved in creating this pressure cooker atmosphere, including the United Kingdom. How leaders acted as though reconciliation was something for others to do, not themselves – reconciliation meant others recognising how stupid their claims were, and how valid their own were. He also makes clear how leaders and politicians were egged on to pursue war – by the media, by intellectuals, by populations, who all refused to recognise the need for reconciliation and wanted simplistic solutions to vastly complicated questions. For me, one of the most striking facts was that the book is almost 500 pages long yet there is practically no mention of the churches or Christianity at this time actively speaking out for reconciliation. Tragically, they too often acted as national cheerleaders. A role they would soon find themselves forced into when war actually broke out.
Despite this being allegedly the most Christian continent in the world, the leaders of Europe before 1914 failed utterly to heed the lessons of the church in Corinth. They failed completely to follow the example of Jesus Christ, as I set out earlier – opening themselves up to rejection by offering terms of peace, taking the hard road to reconciliation, as opposed to the easy one to cheap headlines, refusing to come back to the negotiating table after a minor setback, or even perhaps to go to the table at all. The Battle of the Somme, where so many innocent men died horribly, came about for exactly the same reasons that Christ died on Calvary: because too many fallen and sinful humans believed that hatred and violence was a much better and easier solution to problems than forgiveness and reconciliation. The men of the Somme died – not because they wanted to fight for King and Empire – they died because their politicians failed them, and failed them utterly. Because too many people away from the battlefield – in newspaper offices, in London clubs, in Britain’s churches even – valued their own prejudices and sense of national honour more than the lives of the men who would die on the fields of France and Belgium. And the greatest tragedy of all of the Somme, is that it would take another global war before Christ’s message and example of reconciliation would even begin to be heeded in Europe.
The third and final place I’d like to take us to today, is Britain in the summer of 2016. There is allegedly an old Chinese curse that states, ‘May you live in interesting times’. Well, we are certainly living in such times now, aren’t we?! I cannot really remember another time when day by day, we had news headlines and breaking stories that rival even the soap operas for their twists and turns.
Whatever the future holds for us, though, I fear that none of us can reflect with real pride on what has happened in this country during the referendum campaign. Commentators are already calling this one of the worst political campaigns they have ever seen – with many comparing it to the dreadful rhetoric of the Trump campaign in the USA. On both sides of the debate, the truth suffered and we were overwhelmed with lies, damned lies and statistics. In the heat of the battle, with so much seeming to be at stake, things were said that should not have been said. Language was used that has no place in a modern democracy and deep-seated tensions were laid bare. As a Christian, I was appalled by some of the wicked lies and simplistic solutions that were peddled – solutions that all relied on blaming ‘the other’ for our problems and taking no responsibility for ourselves.
This campaign and its associated debate opened up deep schisms in our society. It turned neighbours, friends and even families against each other. I know that the subject had to be banned in many pubs and family dinner tables to prevent fracas. There was even an article in the Evening Standard a month or so ago entitled, ‘How to survive Brexit disagreement in your marriage’. The divisions within our country were cruelly exposed by the vote and we now have to think how to bring ourselves back together: town versus country, Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England and Wales, London versus the rest.
Very worrying was the deep division by age in the results, with only 27% of those aged under 24 voting to Leave, compared to 60% of those aged over 65. One of the hymns that I often choose for the start of our services includes the lines “Join the hands of friend and stranger, join the hands of age and youth.” How are we to do that now?
Perhaps most disturbing of all, though, are the deep-seated racial and ethnic hatred that this campaign seems to have unleashed. Since the result of the referendum came in, police have reported a five-fold increase in hate crimes. Attacks on a Polish cultural centre in west London, the fire-bombing of a halal butcher’s shop in Walsall, the daubing of racist graffiti across the country. Perhaps most worrying have been the attacks directed at children and random strangers on the street. A Swedish mother with her two children told to ‘F*** off back to your own country’ on the streets of York. A British Sikh radiologist in the West Midlands asked by a patient, “We voted for you to go home; when are you leaving?”. Postcards with the slogan ‘No more Polish vermin’ left on doorsteps in Huntingdon.
Whatever our views on the referendum, we need to recognise that there are a lot of very frightened people in our country at present. People who have often lived and worked in this country for years, who have worked in our public services, paid their taxes and sought to contribute to British life and society. And suddenly they feel threatened and insecure. And as the months go on, and the reality of what we have done as a nation sinks in and tough economic decisions have to be made, I fear – along with many others – that these tensions will simply get worse. As we suffer at the hands of globalised, anonymous financial forces, I fear we will do what we always do in Europe: blame ‘the other’.
As Christians, now is the time for us to witness to the reconciling love, power and example of our Saviour Jesus Christ. We cannot go back in time and heal the Corinthian Church or stop the Battle of the Somme before it starts. But we can serve this age, and this country, and this situation. All of us have the power to reach out in love to our neighbours and to those with whom we brush shoulders every day, and witness to our belief in reconciliation and healing. We cannot solve our economic problems, most of us cannot even elect our new Prime Minister, but we can reach out in love in Christ’s name.
We have to remember that just as war starts as hatred and prejudice directed at individuals, so too does an end to war and the beginning of reconciliation. As Paul tried to tell the Corinthian Church: reconciliation began with God reaching out to a fallen humanity in the form of a single man, Jesus Christ. It didn’t start with grand gestures, and international peace conferences, it began with one human telling another human that they were forgiven, loved and free. It began with one human – divine, though he was – putting aside his bitterness and hurt. It began with one human saying that the barriers of class, gender, age, ethnicity, and all the rest of them didn’t matter.
And today, here in Bushey & Oxhey in 2016, if we truly desire reconciliation for our country, for a future free of the carnage of the Somme and the horrors of the 20th Century, then we have to recognise that reconciliation begins with us. Let us heed Paul’s heart-felt appeal. Let us each be an ambassador for Christ, bringing healing and reconciliation wherever we go. For the ministry is not just mine; it is a ministry to which we all belong, and to which Jesus Christ himself calls you today. As Paul urged those first Christians so long ago, “open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:13). Amen.
Images: Street in ancient Corinth. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia. British Mark I male tank near Thiepval, 25 September 1916 – taken by Ernest Brooks. Imperial War Museums. Public Domain. Source; Wikimedia. EU Referendum. Source: publicdomainpictures.net. Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery – Wernervc. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikimedia.