Not fake news, but good news!

newspaperThis is the sermon I preached at Putney Methodist Church on Sunday, 25 November. This is the Sunday usually called ‘Christ the King‘ in the Christian calendar. It is the day when we reflect on the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus preached so often, and what it means for us as Jesus’ followers to acknowledge him as our Lord and King. The set readings were Revelation 1:4-8 and John 18:33-38a.

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38). Like some of you, perhaps, one of my pleasures in life is to sit over my breakfast in the morning, listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. I now read the paper on my iPad but little else has changed since the days when we were not allowed to disturb my father until he had worked his way through The Telegraph every morning as children. It is one of the little morning rituals that allows me to face the day ahead!

On Thursday, though, I did something that I have not done for a long while, and that was skim through the paper and then simply put it down. I simply could not face the seemingly endless articles about the state we were in as a nation, and the lies that seemed to be routinely accepted as the truth in our mixed-up world. Instead, I did what I should have done beforehand anyway and began to reflect on the Bible readings for this Sunday. What, if anything, I wondered have they to say to our age of ‘Fake News’?

The truth is often hidden

The first thing I think they have to say is fairly obvious: the truth is often hidden from us.

On Friday, we finished the ‘Bible Course’ at Barnes Methodist Church. This excellent course has taken us through the entire Bible in eight weeks (no mean feat!) and in the last session we looked at the book Revelation. I had been slightly dreading this section but the course actually gave a very good introduction to a very difficult book.

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Patmos

Revelation is probably the best example of apocalyptic literature in our Bible. The key to interpreting it, is to understand its context. It was written by someone called John in exile on the Greek isle of Patmos during a time of severe repression in the Roman Empire, probably under Nero or Domitian. It was written in a climate of fear and a time of repression. It was an era too of ‘fake news’ – Christians were used as convenient scapegoat for a whole raft of empire’s ills and lies about this strange cult were commonly accepted as truth. For example, that Christians were actually cannibals, eating flesh and drinking blood in strange night time rituals in the catacombs of Rome.

In this febrile atmosphere, John does what all apocalyptic writers sought to do: to reveal the hidden truth about the world. As the Bible Course reminded us, ‘apocalyptic’ actually  comes from Greek apocalypto meaning ‘revelation’. It is meant to be like drawing back the curtains, a revealing, showing the truth behind the facade (like the reading from Daniel we had last week). In this case, John was seeking to show his readers that the world was not as they immediately saw it. Despite the immense power of the emperors and the Roman imperial system, it was not Caesar who was Lord, but Jesus: “Jesus Christ … the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Rev. 1:5). It was Jesus Christ, the spotless lamb upon the throne, who actually held the fate of nations in his sway and who judge the nations with justice and grace.

“Hold fast!” he says to his persecuted readers. “I will show you the real truth about this world. Fix your eyes not on the things of this world, but on the world to come.” And he goes on to show them the real truth about their future. Not more oppression and fear but of an end to bloodshed and tears, and a time when women and men will live in harmony with their God (Revelation 21:3-4):

God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

This is the truth of how the world really is, John is saying to his first readers. This is the eternal truth and hope to which we cling, and which will remain when all the powers and dominions that you now see have passed away.

Christ before Pilate (Duccio, 1311)Although coming from a different part of the Bible (and almost certainly a different John), we see something not wholly dissimilar in our gospel reading. There again, things are not what they first seem to be. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, seemingly represents power and authority in this scenario and the penniless, itinerant preacher in front of him should be grovelling for his life. Instead, of course, it is actually Christ who holds the balance of power here; he is in charge of his own fate and the confusion in the conversation is only too clear: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. … Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ (John 18:36-7)

On this Sunday, ‘Christ the King’, we are recalling that Jesus is a very different kind of king to the one that Pilate, Herod, and even the disciples envisage. The truth is hidden from them all and will only be fully revealed on the first Easter Sunday morning, when the curtain is drawn upon the empty tomb

In our own day and age, the hidden nature of truth is only too evident, and I could have picked a hundred news stories from the last few days to illustrate my point. Too often, the truth is hidden from us, often because those in power do not wish us to have a moment of revelation, sadly. Many of you will have read or seen news items about the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, who recently undertook a 12-day tour of the UK, examining poverty and its causes in this nation. Like John in the book of Revelation, he drew back the curtain on the true condition of some of the poorest in our own country. A country that simultaneously boasts of being one of the largest economies in the world, whilst one in four of its parents admit to having skipped meals in order to feed their children. Shocking truths that shame us all. (See the churches’ response to the UN report here.) No wonder that many people in authority have preferred to shoot the messenger, and have criticised Professor Alston or telling us the truth rather than engaging with his report.

Good people, on all sides of the political spectrum, wish to reveal the truth to us. We – like Pontius Pilate – must decide whether or not we wish to stay to hear that truth.

Christ wants us to know the truth

The second thing that I think these readings have to say to us today is that Christ wants his followers to know the truth.

The book of Revelation, and apocalyptic literature in general with its strange language and complicated imagery, has always given rise to some, shall we say, esoteric interpretations. If you Google most passages of Revelation on the internet (and I strongly advise you not to!), you will come up with some truly bizarre web pages that tell you how Barack Obama is the Antichrist and the world will end next Tuesday teatime! This is nothing new and for centuries people have been using the book of Revelation to peddle their distorted version of the truth.

One of the earliest, and most persistent Christian heresies was indeed based on this idea of secret knowledge. It is generally referred to as Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis meaning ‘knowledge’. It’s actually a portmanteau term referring to numerous beliefs and cults in the first centuries after Christ. They nearly all shared a common characteristic, though, and that was the idea of secret knowledge, or hidden meanings within scripture, or private information passed down orally, outside of the Bible. If you joined the cult and took the prescribed actions, you too could share in this knowledge. The same thing has happened for 2,000 years with similar cults and conspiracy theories, ranging from the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Da Vinci Code. And all of them are, of course, complete nonsense!

Alpha and OmegaBiblical writers like John the divine and John the evangelist actually wrote with the express purpose of giving people the truth, not hiding it. That’s why the last book of the Bible is called “Revelation’ not ‘Hidden’! John, writing on Patmos, wanted us to know the truth, that we worship the one who is “the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). And when people came to Jesus seeking guidance and healing, he did not offer them secret words and amulets. He did not insist they pass through a series of trials, each more difficult than the last. Nor did he force them through complicated initiation rituals. He simply said ‘follow me’. He taught and spoke using simple language and memorable stories about everyday things. Jesus did not write theological tomes but gave us all the information we ever need to know about how to live a good life in two sentences: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37-38). Jesus wanted people to see the truth about our world: to see that life is more than what we eat and drink, and our possessions; to see the possibilities of healing and forgiveness; to realise that God wishes to be in a relationship with each one of us.2560

Sadly, though, in our own day and age, too many people seem to want to prefer the route that the Gnostics took and believe that we are not meant to know the truth. One newspaper reported this week that 60% of us believe at least one conspiracy theory. This ranged from conspiracy theories about alien contact to Muslim immigration. The results underlined the sad truth about how little we seem to believe those in authority, especially our politicians, journalists and company bosses. The article reminded me of nothing so much as the 1990s television series ‘The X Files’, with its strap-line: “the truth is out there”!

The real truth, though, is that just like the Gnostics’ claim to secret knowledge and all the mad cults throughout history, these theories are all lies and nonsense. What is worse they give people the excuse to do nothing about the state of the world and instead just pander to all their worst and most sinful prejudices. Instead of attempting to make the world a better place, we can just hold up our hands and say there’s no point even trying because it’s all the fault of the Jews / the Muslims / the Socialists / the Bilderberg Group / or whomever.

As Christ’s followers, we are called to pursue the truth and to seek it out with all our heart and soul, for as Jesus said, elsewhere in John’s gospel: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Christ does not want us to sign up to crazy conspiracy theories or shirk our duty to learn the real truth about our world for ourselves. Christ wants us to know the real truth about our world – the truth that is often staring us in the face – so that we may be truly free.

The truth will cost us something

That leads me to my last, and final point: the truth is a precious commodity and greatly to be valued. But like all precious commodities, it will cost us something.

We see this very clearly in the book of Revelation. It is a book written by a man forced into exile, taken from family and friends, and from his Christian community. He is a man living in fear of his life in a time of terror and persecution. A man who took enormous personal risks in order that we might know the truth about our world, and hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Revealing that truth cost John dearly, just as it cost Peter and Paul, and so many Christian apostles and missionaries over the last two millennia.

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Paved street in ancient Laodicea

Learning the truth, though, did not just cost John the author something, it cost his readers something too. Earlier this week, we celebrated the installation of the new vicar at St Margaret’s Church, Rev’d Dr Brutus Green. Rather bravely I thought, one of the Bible readings for the service came from a few chapters later in this book of Revelation, when John is writing to the seven churches in Asia. There he tells them the honest (and often brutal!) truth about themselves – and, as we all know, the truth can be painful. Perhaps most famously, he was unafraid to pass on the Almighty’s damning verdict on the church in Laodicea: “‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16). That was a hard truth and to accept it would have cost that church a lot. Far easier to ignore it and, as with the UN rapporteur I mentioned earlier, simply shoot the messenger! Down to our own day and our own community here, how costly it is for churches to hear and accept the truth about themselves

antonio_ciseri_ecce_homoThis truth is perhaps best illustrated by our gospel reading, though. Jesus is in chains, facing torture and execution because he has brought the truth to his contemporaries. He is ready and willing to pay the ultimate price in order that we might all know the truth and, through it, be free: the truth that even death cannot separate us from the love of God. Unwillingly into this scene comes Pilate. “Jesting Pilate” as Francis Bacon famously described him, who asked that most timeless of questions, “What is truth?” but who “would not stay for an answer”. Pilate knew the truth – that Jesus was an innocent man, facing trumped up charges from the petty politicians who wanted this troublemaker out of their hair. They speak a different language and wore ‘funny’ clothes, but they are no different to the Mafia or the drug lords of our own day, bringing innocent women and men to the corrupt local police chief to silence them. Pilate knows all this and desperately tries to get out of having to make a decision that he knows to be wrong – to execute an innocent man. Upholding the truth will cost him something, though, and he knows it. The chief priests and his cabal threaten him with an appeal to Rome, an appeal that could lose him his job and his position (John 19:12). Pilate is not willing to pay such a stiff price for the truth and washes his hands of the responsibility. Better to let a falsehood stand, than risk your career, seems to be the moral of his sordid tale.

Would we have acted differently, I wonder? What value do we place on the truth? Are we really willing to hear the truth about ourselves, our nation, our politics? One good friend of mine still reads a newspaper whose views he stopped agreeing with a long time ago. When I ask him why he still puts up with all its lies and mistruths, he always smiles and replies, “Well, I’ve got used to the way their crossword compilers work now, and it would be very hard to start again elsewhere.” For him, the cost of learning how to do a new crossword puzzle is too high a price to pay for reading something closer to the truth each day! What is too high a price for us to pay, I wonder?

Conclusion

The challenge of today’s readings is what value do we place upon the truth?

  • do we really want to pull back the curtain to reveal the truth about the world in which we live?
  • do we prefer to live with half-baked truths and conspiracy theories?
  • are we willing to pay the price of learning the truth – of sacrificing long-held preconceptions and habits in order to open our minds to the reality of our world

As Christians, the answer to all those questions must be ‘yes’. We believe in ‘good news’ not ‘fake news’! Too many women and men have died in order that you and I might know the truth and that that truth might set us free. Free form hatred and malice. Free from envy and prejudice. Free from fear itself. For we know the greatest truth of all, brothers and sisters, that this world is not all there is. That one day heaven and earth shall pass away but we shall not. That we are forgiven, loved and free because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Let us not be afraid of the truth, as Pilate was, but lead our lives bearing witness to it, and sharing its power with the whole world.  Amen.

Truth will set you free

Texts for troubling times

Are these the ‘end times’? Despite appearances, probably not! This is the sermon I preached today about some of the apocalyptic writings we find in our Bible, at Barnes Methodist Church. The texts were: Daniel 12:1-13 and Mark 13:1-8.

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“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” (Dan. 12:1) Reading those words on Thursday, as event unfolded at Parliament and in the Cabinet, I began to wonder if our reading from Daniel was referring to Brexit. But then I read on and knew it definitely was not: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky [and] lead many to righteousness”! Instead, our two readings today take us to two very dark periods of Biblical history, times that might even make Mrs May believe that things could always be worse!

Both readings come from times when the very existence of God’s people seemed in doubt and when the future was very uncertain. Both come from what is called the ‘apocalyptic’ genre of Biblical literature – from the Greek ‘apocalyto’ meaning ‘to reveal’ – and they sought to provide some insight into the heavenly truth behind the grim earthly reality faced by their first audiences. We shall seek this morning to understand a little of what lays behind these confusing writings, and discern whether they have anything to say to our own, troubled times.

The Temple

Solomons TempleWe need to begin with a little history and particularly the history of the great Temple in Jerusalem, which is central to the interpretation of both passages. I promise to be as brief as possible, though, and to illustrate what I am saying with some photos from my own time in Jerusalem a few years ago.

The first temple in Jerusalem was, the Bible tells us, built by Solomon, perhaps around 1000 BC or so. The scriptures provide a fairly detailed description of its dimensions and what it looked like, and there are numerous ‘artist’s impressions’ of its appearance on the web. By the time of the last kings of Judah it had become the centre for the worship of the one true God, Yahweh (or Jehovah). Around 586 BC, however, the Temple was destroyed by the invading Babylonians and left a pile of smouldering ruins, where faithful Israelites came to weep and lament (see Psalm 79).

After the return from Exile, the Temple was rebuilt, and is often referred to as the ‘Second Temple’. What it looked like we do not know, because no descriptions from that time have come down to us. All we can say is that the lack of money and resources after the disaster of defeat and exile meant that it was certainly not as impressive as its predecessor. As we read in Ezra, at its dedication, “old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house” (Ezra 3:12). Not the greatest architectural review! However, worship resumed and Jerusalem was once again the centre of the Jewish religion.

The ‘desolating sacrilege’

Antiochos_IV_EpiphanesA degree of mystery also surrounds what happened in the Temple a few hundred years later around the year 168 BCE. This is important because it is these events that lie behind much of the book of Daniel. At that time, Judea and a large part of the Middle East was under the rule of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (here seen on one of his coins), the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. (The Seleucids are most easily described as the descendants of Alexander the Great and his army.) Judea had lived peaceably under their Hellenistic overlords for many years by this point, and had been allowed to live and worship their strange god in relative obscurity. For various reasons, though, they seemingly rebelled against this particular king. In turn, he sought to crush their insurrection and, we are told, in a fit of anger effectively tried to eradicate the Jewish faith. The inter-testamental book of 1 Maccabees tells us that he ordered the Jewish people to “profane sabbaths and festivals … to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised” (1 Macc. 1:45-48). All who refused to obey were threatened with execution.

The king also, we are told, defiled the great Temple in some way. The book of 2 Maccabees tells us that he polluted it by re-dedicating it to “Olympian Zeus” (2 Macc. 6:2). Our reading from Daniel today adds to this by telling us that he caused “the abomination that desolates” to be set up in the Temple (Dan. 12:11, cf. 9:27, 11:31), also known as the ‘desolating sacrilege’. Now, the trouble is that whatever was done in the Temple was so distressing, so blasphemous and so ‘abominable’ that no Biblical writer could quite bring himself to actually record exactly what the king did in the Temple that was so awful. Most people assume that the king ordered a statue of the Greek god Zeus to be erected on the temple mount but we are not completely sure. All we do know is that whatever the king did was considered so bad that the whole temple had to be purified and re-dedicated afterwards (2 Macc. 10:1-8).

Understandably, all of this caused great distress throughout the land, and it was against this background that much of the book of Daniel seems to have been written. Not the earlier stories in the book with which we are most familiar – Daniel in the lions’ den, the fiery furnace, etc. – but the later chapters, like the one we heard from today. Chapters that are written in strange-sounding language, often using allegory and complicated imagery to describe what is happening. I could go into much greater details about all this, but suffice to say for now that, for Daniel’s first audience, this was indeed, “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (Dan. 12:1). A time when their lives were threatened and their very existence as a separate people seemed in doubt. Ultimately, though, the popular rebellion was successful and, against all the odds, the little kingdom of Judah managed to regain its independence for some time.

The Temple in Jesus’ day

Second_Temple_viewIf we fast forward two hundred years or so to the time of Jesus, then the Temple in Jerusalem looks very different. It has been enlarged, enriched and greatly beautified by King Herod the Great. (Famous from the story of the Three Wise Men, of course.) In a bid to win popular support, he had initiated a massive building project on the Temple Mount some years before Jesus’ birth, which would not be completed until long after his death. It is this Temple that may be most familiar to us through pictures of reconstructions and models, like this famous one at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Arch_of_Titus_MenorahAs you can see, it was indeed an incredibly impressive structure and no wonder the disciples marvelled at it as they wandered through its precincts in Mark’s gospel (Mark 13:1). As we heard, though, Jesus warns them that all of this will soon be destroyed and in 70 AD that is precisely what happened. Once again, Judea is under the rule of a foreign empire, this time the Romans. Once again, the people rebel but this time ultimately unsuccessfully. And so, once again, the Temple is destroyed – this time never to be rebuilt. Whether Mark wrote his gospel before these terrible events or afterwards, we are not sure. It seems hard not to believe, though, that Jesus’s words on the Mount of Olives took on a much greater significance once his prophecy about the Temple’s destruction had come so distressingly true.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday in Jerusalem, it is possible to get some idea of how the Temple may have appeared and glimpse some of the destruction wrought by the rampaging Romans. The most famous surviving part of the Temple is, of course, the Western, or Wailing, Wall. This was not the wall of the Temple itself – which stood on top of what is now called Temple Mount – but the great supporting wall, built under King Herod to enable the massive extension of the Temple complex. Soon after the destruction of the Temple, scholars believe, this became a site for Jewish pilgrimage and prayer, primarily to lament the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people, and it continues this function OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtoday. You can also catch sight of part of this wall underground in Jerusalem – a fascinating place to be in such an ancient city! – where the tour guides will happily show you some of the “large stones” that Jesus’ disciples marvelled at, one of which is allegedly the same weight as two fully-laden jumbo jets! You can also see the some of the stones of the Temple that were pushed off the mount by the Romans during its destruction and which have lain undisturbed ever since. It brings home vividly the scale of the devastation that Jesus warned his hearers about in our passage from Mark.

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How long?

That is more than enough history and holiday photos for one Sunday morning, you will be delighted to hear! I hope, though, that that has given you some insight into the realities that lay behind our two passages today. And it is vital to stress that word, ‘reality’. What we have heard about today are not picture book fantasies. These were real people, living in real times and places, and facing real times of terror and persecution. Just because we do not have live footage from the BBC or CNN of their suffering does not make it any less real. These passages are clear examples of God’s Word breaking through into the reality of our won word, and it is vital we recognise that.

It also vital that we recognise how both passages are linked in so many ways. Both speak of the Temple. Both talk about times of terror and persecution. Both are addressed to audiences living in fear of the future. Both centre upon the seeming survival of the people of God. And both are also written in the strange, elliptical language of apocalyptic literature, which is so hard to understand.

1200px-Jerus-n4iCrucially, in both people want to know how long their suffering is going to last. The disciples quiz Jesus on the Mount of Olives: “when will this be”? (Mark 13:4). In Daniel, one of the mysterious figures standing by the river asks, “How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?” (Dan. 12:6). How long until a Brexit agreement is signed, ask our newspapers and commentators? In all cases, the answers are unclear and confusing!

In Mark, Jesus does not give the disciples a precise date and time, as perhaps they had hoped. Instead, he warns them about false teachers and describes some of the signs of the tribulation that is to come: “wars and rumours of wars …. earthquakes … famines” (Mark 13:7-8). Words that have been applied to every nation and every age since.

In Daniel, we come across a regular feature of apocalyptic writing: the use of numbers with apparently hidden meaning to denote individuals, events and particular time spans. The most famous example of this is ‘666’ in the book of Revelation. At times, this seems to have been used as a sort of code to protect the authors and readers at times of persecution. At others, though, we simply do not understand what lies behind verses like those we heard today from the end of the book of Daniel, and its references to 1,299 days and 1,335 days (Dan. 12:12). It has not stopped endless speculation, though, and I strongly discourage you from Googling these references on the internet. If you do, you will immediately discover that they refer to the Pope, Hitler, President Obama, the EU or pretty much anyone else you could imagine, and that the world ended last Thursday tea time! Instead, we need to echo Daniel’s prophetic words: “I heard but could not understand.” (Dan. 12:8). These are deeply mysterious writings, whose full meaning we shall not discover in our own lifetime, I believe.

Abiding hope

What on earth, then, are we meant to take from this confusing mess of history, temples and strange writings? Well, we take the other factor that links our two readings today.

What is most important in that passage from Daniel is not the talk about strange figures beside the river or the bewildering numbers. It is the hope that is given to Daniel of ultimate deliverance – the hope of the resurrection:

There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Dan. 12:1-2)

For the first time in the Old Testament, a prophet is offered the hope that the dead shall not simply descend to Sheol, never to see the light of God’s brilliance again. (See, for example, Job 30:23.) Instead, there is the promise of eternal life: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) We see clearly the unfolding revelation that is granted to God’s people in our scriptures; a God who continually reveals new truths about his plans for his people: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you” (Jer. 29:11, NIV).

resurrection-pieraThis promise to the prophet Daniel is realised and fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who sat on the hillside of the Mount of Olives, gazing down upon the splendour of the Temple. Who, like the martyrs of Daniel’s day and the good people of Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city, faced the reality of terror and murder at the cruel hands of those in authority. But who took the horror of the cross and turned it into the glory of the resurrection, by triumphing over the grave on the third day. An event as historical and real as any we have discussed this morning.

The writer of Hebrews, in one of the other set texts for today, expresses it far better than I ever could:

when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” … And the Holy Spirit … testifies to us …  saying … “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith … Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:12-25)

Daniel’s confidence, Christ’s confidence, and our confidence does not lay in our knowledge of history or of secret numbers. It does not lay in temples, buildings or institutions, for as we shall sing shortly: “Tower and temple fall to dust.”. It lays in the promise and the reality of what God has done through his only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection. It is that which allows us to speak to all peoples, in all times, in all places, offering hope in seemingly hopeless situations. It is that hope which allows good people to oppose evil and fight for justice even today in our world, where the tyrants are no longer kings and emperors but presidents, generals and dictators.

We are not meant to know the future, brothers and sisters. We are not meant to scan the pages of our scriptures or the distant horizon, looking for “wars and rumours of wars”. We are not meant to be prophets of doom, warning people that now, truly, the ‘end times’ are upon us. We are meant to point to the hope that Daniel offered his contemporaries and which Mark offered to his. The hope that lies in a God who is faithful and just, and who will ensure that in a world that often seems so violent, confusing and fallen, ultimately justice, truth and grace will always triumph. Let us seek to follow Daniel’s example, therefore, and in a dark world “shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) Amen.

Subversive God,
deconstructing
temples of power
in which we would keep you
trapped and tamed:
lead us through violent times,
unafraid to speak for peace,
untempted by those
who promise easy answers;
may we follow him alone
who renews the world in love;
through Jesus Christ, who sits at God’s right hand.
Amen.

(Prayer taken from ‘Prayers for an Inclusive Church‘.)

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Have we been moved?

This is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church. Today is Remembrance Sunday and, of course, the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. The set texts were: Micah 4:1-7 and John 15:9-17.

2010, May 23 Iarmaroc Fest-13As a church here in Putney, we should be very grateful to one of our members for his hard work in ‘breathing life back into our war memorial’. He has spent a huge amount of time and effort researching the 22 names on our war memorial, and shedding new light on their lives and their service for this country. The results are fascinating, and you will have a chance to see the fruits of his labour after the service in the exhibition he has mounted. I commend it to you.

War memorialEarlier this week, I spent an afternoon taking David’s hard work and putting it onto our church website, making it a resource for a much wider audience. (See here.) I found the experience of reading through the stories of these young men – the vast majority of whom died in the first world war – a profoundly moving one. I was amazed at how our little war memorial here was at one and the same time so local and yet so global. The men came from houses that are mostly still standing today and in streets that are largely a few minutes’ walk from here – Oakhill Road, the Upper Richmond Road, Fanthorpe Street, Hotham Road (literally a few hundred feet from where I am standing now). They walked along the roads we shall take as we leave church today, with their packs on their back, waving goodbye to loved ones perhaps as they left, probably heading to Putney Railway Station, which most of us know so well, to begin their journey to the war. Yet they served across the world: by land, by sea and by air. They died in the mud of the Western Front, the deserts of Mesopotamia, the icy cold depths of the North Sea. They served in battles whose names we know so well – Ypres, Gallipoli, Jutland – alongside some of the most famous names of their day – General Allenby, Lawrence of Arabia, Admiral Jellico. Their service covered the entire length of the war, with one, Gerald Chick, dying a few months after Britain entered the war in November 1914, and another, John Rogers, dying just 17 days before the armistice was signed, in October, 1918.Austin T C

Inevitably, individual stories stand out. The youngest casualty on our memorial: Henry Gee, who died aged just 17, along with his entire ship’s company of 900 men, at the Battle of Jutland, and who has no grave but the North Sea. The families who lost not one but two sons to the conflict: the Chicks and the Heaths. Ernest Heath’s body was actually retrieved from no man’s land during the Battle of Loos by two other members of this church, we believe: men who had enlisted together, like so many “pals’ divisions”. A particularly poignant story for me is that of the first name on our list, Captain Thomas Austin, the son of the then minister of this church, Rev’d George Beesly Austin. He died in one of the greatest military disasters of a disastrous war, the siege of Kut in what is now Iraq. I can only imagine how his father and mother must have felt as the messenger, bringing the fateful telegram that so many families received, stopped outside the manse.

As I said, a deeply moving experience, and a deeply poignant snapshot of a global conflict. A moving experience that stands alongside so many moving experiences associated with this time of commemoration, as the focus of our remembrance focuses, rightly, on that terrible ‘war to end all wars’.

11_poppy-(Read-Only)For some of us, it have been personal research projects on members of our own family who served in the war, and I am sure that many of us will have seen numerous stories about research projects like David’s across the nation. For others, it may have been engaging with some of the numerous events, talks and television programmes over the last four years. Perhaps we watched the Festival of Remembrance last night from the Albert Hall, or plan to go to the special concert this afternoon at St Simon’s. We may have visited the Tower of London, either a few years ago, with the ceramic poppies marking each casualty of the war, or this year, with the sound and light display: ‘Beyond the deepening shadow’. We may even have witnessed one of the numerous local displays 171090128about today’s anniversary, like this one at Etherley Methodist Church in Bishop Aukland, where members decorated 2,000 plastic bottles to make this stunning poppy display (right). All moving displays of personal commitment to remember the events of a hundred years previously, and the sacrifices made.

For me, my most moving remembrance experience took place a few years ago, when I went with a number of other clergy in training to tour the battlefield and cemeteries around Ypres in Belgium. The tour was organised by the successor of the Toc H movement, which some of you may be familiar with, and aimed to help ministers reflect upon the themes of peace and reconciliation. Any of you who have travelled to the sites of the old Western Front will know that you cannot help but be moved by what you see and experience there. As you come across the cemeteries dotted around the Belgian countryside and the seemingly endless rows of neatly-arranged graves, it brings home – as nothing else can do – the huge number of casualties experienced by both sides in the war. So often, they bring home the futility of it all too. Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery on the Western Front, contains graves from both the opening months of the war and its last, reflecting how little the front lines moved over the entire four years of the conflict.

IMG_1292.JPGAll of us on that trip were deeply moved by what we saw and experienced but we also were changed by it. All of us had at least some of our preconceptions, and perhaps even prejudices, challenged by what we encountered. We all noted how Christians crosses on the tombstones, mingle with Stars of David, Muslim crescents and other religious symbols, reminding us of the vast multinational and multi-religious effort involved in the war. We noted the age of so many of the war dead, so often not even seeing their 21st birthdays. We visited the place of execution for so-called cowards, and stood in the condemned cell, where they had spent their last night. We noted how even in death, divisions of race and ethnicity still seemed to prevail. In the corner of many cemeteries, you will find graves like this one (above, left): a Chinese ‘coolie’, brought across the world to fetch and carry. And perhaps most striking of all the distinction between the Commonwealth and German war cemeteries. The former being immaculately laid out with as much space as was needed for each body: the land made as a perpetual gift to the dead. The latter being buried in mass graves, containing up to 10,000 dead.

Crucially, though, we were not just emotionally moved by what we saw. By moving in time and space, by undertaking this pilgrimage, we also moved our viewpoint upon war, conflict and the world. We were different people from those who had begun the journey together from Cambridge. Our opinions, attitudes, even beliefs were not quite the same because of that shared experience. Because we had come face to face with the reality of war and its consequences. And that is the journey that all of us are called upon to take this day, and each Remembrance Sunday, if we are to create the vital space necessary for peace and reconciliation in our world. It cannot just be an emotional response – just to be moved for a moment and then carry on as if nothing had changed – Christ calls us to move, to shift our viewpoint and be changed by what we have experienced.

81P6suQo84LSadly, that transformative journey is one that too few people seemed, or seem, willing to take. Four years ago, as we marked the centenary of the outbreak of war, I read this fascinating tome: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark. In incredible detail, it sets out how Europe slid into war without seemingly intending to. It goes beyond the old clichés about Prussian militarism and British heroism. It sets out how the leaders of Europe placed concepts like national honour, economic gain and territorial ambition, over the interests of their own flesh and blood. It reminds us how demagogues and newspapers were able to exploit and enflame racist stereotypes and ethnic divisions to justify conflict and hatred. It points the finger of blame for the deaths of the young men listed on our war memorial firmly at all the nations of Europe and their leaders.

1001004001820890This year, as we prepared for the centenary of the armistice, I took up another book that I would heartily recommend to you all: Peacemakers by Margaret Macmillan. It describes the bizarre world of the Paris peace talks in 1918-19, which culminated with the signing of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. What is utterly depressing, is how seemingly nothing had changed between these two dates. We meet different leaders, and we encounter some half-hearted idealism, but there seems to have been no recognition that anything was different. We find the same unbridled nationalism and imperialism, the same racist prejudices and stereotypes, the same belief that an elite group of white men in Paris could draw lines in the map of the world and claim ownership of peoples they have never even heard of. The same ignorance, the same justifications for war and domination. There seemed to be no self-awareness nor even the slightest desire to move perspectives and opinions. No desire to reflect meaningfully upon the terror that had been unleashed upon the world. Little wonder that so many of the problems we face today – from Israel and Palestine to unrest in the Balkans – can be traced back to this war to end all wars. What makes it even more distressing is that neither book, in describing the ‘golden age’ of Christian Europe, when our churches were full and nearly everyone was nominally a Christian, indicate that faith in the risen Christ affected our leaders and their actions one jot!

Too often, as people over the ages, and today, gather to remember conflict they make the same mistake. They may say prayers, and hear words from holy books, but they move not one inch from the prejudices and opinions that launched the conflicts in the first place. The fact that this week we celebrate not only the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One but the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht should teach us something.

imgID10398964By contrast, I hold up the example of ‘Woodbine Willie’, a man known by reputation to many of you, I am sure. Properly titled the Rev’d Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, he was one of the numerous clergy who volunteered for the army chaplains’ department during the war. He soon became a familiar sight at the front line and elsewhere, dispensing Bibles from one haversack pocket and Woodbine cigarettes from another, hence the nickname Woodbine Willie. Like too many clergy, Studdert-Kennedy embraced the war with enthusiasm in 1914. He wrote in his parish magazine in Worcester:

I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. There ought to be no shirking of that duty.

(Quoted from Woodbine Willie: An unsung hero of World War One – Bob Holman (2013), 31.)

If we are honest, Christians like Studdert-Kennedy had not done enough to speak out about the horrors of war and Christ’s call for peace and reconciliation in the years before 1914, and too many effectively became recruiting sergeants once war had broken out. People remembered this fact in the years after the war, and it is little wonder that many commentators trace the beginnings of the decline in church attendance in this country to 1918.

Studdert-Kennedy followed his own advice, though, and served throughout the conflict, as close to the front line as possible. Unlike the politicians at Versailles, though, he was a changed man by 1918. He had not only been deeply moved by the horrific suffering and senseless slaughter he had encountered but his whole outlook on the world had moved. One of his most famous poems sums up the change in his perspective since his days in Worcester:

Waste

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth,
Waste of blood and waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of glory,
Waste of God.
War!

Like so many of those who served in that war, and wars ever since, he had been moved in a way that went far beyond a mere emotional response. He was not just moved; he had moved.

IMG_1277.JPGAnd that is what is required of us today, if we are serious about a belief in peace in our world. If we wish truly to turn our backs on the lies and half-truths that created the conditions for the conflict that took those 21 men from their families in this church a hundred years, and indeed most conflicts. We must be moved – not just emotionally but mentally. We must undertake a journey, whereby we see the world from a different perspective. As we look at the history of peace-making in our world, and think about the end of conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland, we see that peace does not come about when the warring sides think and act in exactly the same manner as when the trouble began. Real peace comes about because those involved have been changed by the conflict, and have begun  shift their perspective and perhaps just begun to glimpse the world from the viewpoint of their sworn enemies. As one of the canons of Coventry Cathedral, Sarah Hills, wrote recently – a place which has chosen to become a centre for reconciliation – it is a long journey that is so often required. A journey involving “truth, acknowledgement, remembering, story-telling, lament, repentance, forgiveness, justice” and restitution.Jerusalem War Cemetery

As I bring my remarks today to a close, I should like to return briefly to our own list of war dead here in Putney and to one name in particular: Private Clifford Marels, who died in November, 1917. He served with General Allenby and T E Lawrence in the Palestinian Campaign against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign made famous by the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He died during the first British attack on Jerusalem, trying to seize a hill that at the time was of enormous tactical importance but which is now just a hill outside Jerusalem. When I Googled an image of his last resting place, I discovered this photo. It shows the usual immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery but this time in the blazing heat of Israel, and with an incredible view over the Old City of Jerusalem. From here, I think you could glimpse the sites for many of the mast famous incidents from the life of Jesus Christ, not least the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I wonder how a local lad from Putney would have reacted to that view.

As Christians, we are invited to share Private Marels’ perspective on the world. To see the world through the vision of the life, death and resurrection of our Jesus. To reflect upon the magnitude of Christ’s suffering;  to recognise the magnitude of what God has done for each one us through Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice; and, most importantly, to be changed by that experience. If we come here to worship today, if we encounter Jesus in our reading of scripture, if we meet him at the communion table, and are not changed by that experience, then it means nothing. Just as if we come to our war memorial with the same prejudices and hatred and ignorance then it means very little. The invitation this Sunday, and indeed every Sunday, is not just to be moved emotionally by what we have seen and heard: to have a form of sensory experience that temporarily moves us to tears or uplifts us to joy. It is to be transformed heart and soul: to be moved in our whole being – our thoughts, our opinions, our hopes and joys. To see the world from the perspective of Christ’s cross, and to open our arms wide in embracing all of God’s creation, just as Jesus did.

This Remembrance Sunday, let us not just be moved by what we have seen and heard. Let us be transformed through the power of Christ’s love and resurrection, offering hope and the possibility of reconciliation and renewal to a world that so desperately needs to hear good news this day. Be moved today but move as well, and see this world through the eyes of Christ, the prince of peace and God of love.

Heavenly Father, whose heart is selfless love,
Take pity on our divided world
And grant that we may follow in the steps of your Son
In giving ourselves to the service of others
And reaching out to the marginalised and despised,
That peace and justice may triumph
And your kingdom come on earth.
In Christ’s name we pray.
Amen.

 

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