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Sunday, 15 November 2015

How to live in wartime?

Here is the sermon that I preached at St Vedast-alias-Foster this morning:

How to live in wartime? That is essentially the guidance that Jesus gives his disciples in the teachings recorded for us in Mark 13. In the light of the horrific events in Paris on Friday, it is particularly pertinent to us today.

Jesus was talking about a very specific conflict that would affect his disciples in the near future and which occurred in AD70 when the Roman army attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple there. When this happened, as Jesus prophesied, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The result of this conflict was twofold; the Jewish faith refocused its community life, teaching and worship around the synagogue (a pattern of faithful living which continues to this day); and Christianity, forced to abandon its early focus on the authority of the church in Jerusalem, stepped up its missionary encounter with the wider world to become a world religion. Both results are relevant to Jesus’ teaching here because the essence of his teaching comes in verse 13 when he says “the good news must … be proclaimed to all nations.”

The conflict he describes and prophesies will, he says, be an opportunity for his disciples to tell the Good News, if they stand firm: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines … As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.” (Mark 13. 8 & 9)

That is what Jesus looks for from his followers in wartime and he promises his support and enabling in doing so: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” The situations in which we are called to do this change throughout history but what is unchanging is the call to tell the Good News, as here, in situations of military defeat, but also in times of victory, while the outcome is uncertain, and in times of peace.

In the past week of Remembrance we will have recalled particular examples of telling the Good News in and through the wartime experiences which are within our cultural memory, most notably soldiers who fought and died in order to win peace within Europe such as Harry Patch, who was the last surviving British soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War. Patch, in the moment when he came face to face with a German soldier, recalled the story of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, including "Thou shalt not kill", and could not bring himself to kill the German shooting him in the shoulder, above the knee, and in the ankle. Patch said, "I had about five seconds to make the decision. I brought him down, but I didn't kill him." We can also think of: civilians living through the Blitz and caring for neighbours while accepting the simple lifestyle imposed by rationing; Archbishop William Temple setting out an Anglican social theology and a vision for what would come to constitute a just post-war society in ‘Christianity and the Social Order’; and Bishop George Bell assisting refugees, arguing against the blanket-bombing of German cities and encouraging the role of the Church in the reconstruction of Europe after the war.

The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who took part in the plot to assassinate Hitler, was one of those who saw most clearly what was actually at stake in World War II, when he wrote at the beginning of the war: “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation.”

Our situation is different again, meaning that the ways in which we are called to stand firm and tell the Good News are also different. In our time, the battle is one of ideas, a battle which is explained well by the French philosopher Jean Luc Nancy: “1968 led to a process of transformation that amounted to adapting society to something that was leaving it behind: a new techno-political-economic world. This adaptation has had many negative effects. It unleashed the spirit of consumerism and ... completed the destruction of the frameworks, or references, of religious and emancipatory politics ... The resulting society has fewer foundations that it did before 1968. But society today is beginning to understand that a world and a civilization are disappearing and it has entered a change of the same magnitude as the shift from antiquity to the middle ages.”

In this changed and changing world, where, in the West, we are no longer part of a civilization which seeks to be built primarily on Christian principles, many people want to mount rear guard actions to retain as much of what they perceive to be the past as possible. So, for example, some seek to fight for a mythic mono-cultural white Britain which never actually existed while others seek to maintain the privileges that Christians have enjoyed in this country in the past instead of accepting the justice of the equality of faiths which is now enshrined in the law of the land.

The situation in which we find ourselves now equates to that of the Jews and Jewish Christians after the destruction of the Temple in AD70. Then there was no going back and Jesus sought to prepare his disciples for that reality. Instead of calling for rear guard actions to preserve as much of what had been as possible, Jesus sought to prepare and enable his disciples to go out into their changed and changing world and tell the Good News by standing firm in their faith. This remains the call of God on our lives and it is a task which requires the same bravery and courage as was shown by the Early Church in its missionary activity and as continues to be shown by serving men and women in conflict situations around the world today.

Jesus gives us the same marching orders that he gave to his first disciples: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” We are to trust that Jesus, through his Spirit, will inspire and enable what we are to do and say in this changed and changing world (as happened for Harry Patch).

We can also trust that he will give us surprising allies to stand alongside us as we speak. For example, at the very same time that Christianity has come under severe attack from the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, we find Radical Atheists such as Simon Critchley arguing that “to jettison [religious] traditions in the name of some kind of scientific rationality is simply philistine and counter-productive” and Slavoj Žižek stating that as a radical leftist he thinks “Christianity is too precious a thing to leave to conservative fundamentalists.”

The crucifixion, the resurrection and the Holy Spirit, Žižek argues, should be read as God trusting us by leaving his mission in the hands of a community which can be free of both liberal egotism and Christian fundamentalism; an argument which has clear synergies with what we have seen Jesus saying to his disciples in this passage.

Nancy argues that we should respond to our new techno-political-economic world: “not with politics or economics but with thinking, with imagination, with what I call worship: a relationship to the infinite. We must stop believing that economic measures or political models can respond to what is happening. What is happening ... is the spirit of the world being transformed.”

The Early Church saw the spirit of the world transformed by God as they stood firm in their faith and told the Good News. That is how we are called live in wartime - in the battle of ideas or clash of civilizations which we now face - to stand firm in our faith and tell the good news. The challenge of this passage is whether we can do and see that within our changed and changing world.


Talking Heads - Life During Wartime.

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