Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 10th November 2013
10 November 2013 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Stephen Trott, Rector, Pitsford with Boughton, Diocese of Peterborough
There has always been a deep tension for Christians in the perception that we are not of the world, even though we are in the world. We are unmistakably in the world, for we were placed here in the very beginning by God, and the Scriptures provide us with an account of his dealings with us and with our rulers ever since.
Nevertheless, the Law which God gave to us was revealed to us by God from above, and there is prosperity for those who obey it, and disaster for those who oppose it. Solomon, who was so gifted by God with wisdom, was a great ruler, and built the first great Temple in Jerusalem in honour of the Lord. Some of his successors failed to honour the Lord or to obey his Law, and the nation was occupied and enslaved again and again; the Temple desecrated, defiled and torn down.
In the New Testament the dilemma for those who believe in God can be seen personalised in the life and ministry of St Paul. After he came to faith in Christ he was falsely accused on many occasions, wrongly imprisoned and beaten by the imperial powers, and ultimately martyred in Rome by the Emperor. He warned the Church in Rome
'not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.' [Romans 12: 2]
Nevertheless he urged the Church to respect rulers, because it is better for us to live in a world where order is maintained. He wrote in the next chapter, in Romans 13,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.
The supreme test of these two apparently conflicting pieces of advice, surely, is Remembrance Sunday?
Time and again throughout history, rulers have gone to war, some as aggressors, others in self-defence. Frequently people are conscripted, called up to serve in the armed forces, most of whom have no interest in politics or military service, who only desire a peaceful existence at home and at work in their community. Who will question the state on their behalf, who will test whether or not it is a just cause, and whether or not the means employed justifies the intended outcome?
I think of my late grandfather, Eric Paylor, a simple man with five young children who worked in a grocer’s shop in West Cumberland, one of the quietest places in rural England or anywhere else. After he was called up he found himself on the night of 5th June 1944 on a ship heading for the French coast, in uncertain weather and swelling seas, with a few weeks’ basic army training, a uniform, a rifle and a helmet. He told me how terrified he was by the landing on Gold Beach, as part of the British 50th Infantry Division, seeing his neighbours struck down by mortar and machine gun fire. Thankfully he survived D-Day and the battles which followed, and returned home to his family and to his old job in the grocer’s store, but was very reluctant to tell his story, because the memories were so painful to the end of his life.
It must be the duty of the Church to test the words and actions of those in authority, according to the standards set down for us in the Scriptures, for the sake of men and women like my grandfather, who are unable to speak for themselves. For Scripture looks to a higher authority than the flawed reasoning of this world, and seeks to discern what is the will of God as the criterion by which to examine the arguments.
There is no doubt that order is required in this world if human society is to flourish, and the defence of the realm has always weighed heavily in the scales. But if the reasons for declaring war have no moral basis, then the Church must be prophetic, and declare what no-one else may perhaps dare to say, that another course of action must be found. Reconciliation, however hard-won, is always preferable to the random destruction which war generates. Each and every dead soldier is a tragedy, as the Grave of the Unknown Warrior so poignantly demonstrates, and so is every civilian killed by falling bombs, and every refugee fleeing their home, never to return.
Accordingly, the Church must always remain detached from the world, in it but not of it. Too often local churches have endorsed the worst of regimes, having embraced the world enthusiastically when granted honours and status, or a place in government. It may be uncomfortable for Christians to oppose such regimes, and frequently dangerous, but a conscience formed by meditation on the Scriptures may conclude that there is no choice other than to challenge an evil political system or ideology, behind the Iron Curtain or in apartheid South Africa. In many places in the world today hope is kept alive by those who hold tightly to their bibles and to their faith in God, however many beatings they must endure, at whatever the cost to career, status, possessions or freedom.
St Paul’s conclusion, in our second reading today from Romans 8, is that whatever we suffer in this world on account of our faith, God suffers in solidarity with us, having given up his own Son to die for our sake, blameless and innocent and unjustly condemned by a cruel regime, but now raised to plead for us in the only court which ultimately matters, where God is the judge and it is God who justifies. The final victory belongs to God.
The faithful witness of Christians who are in this world, though not of this world, sets before nations the wisdom of Solomon, and the paradox of the Cross: resurrection is found by serving God rather than human pride. When Church and State co-operate each in their proper sphere, then this world itself may even begin to reflect the values of the kingdom of God for which we earnestly pray in the Lord’s Prayer, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Until then we need Remembrance Sunday, and the moving sight of the most important grave in this holy place, and a constant attendance in prayer like that of Solomon, and a shared determination to see to it that peace remains the highest ideal and aspiration of all the nations, until creation finally finds its fulfilment in the presence of God.
Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, now powers, not height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8.38-39]