Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 26th January 2014
26 January 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Earlier this month I had the privilege to attend a fact-finding tour to Israel sponsored by the Council of Christians and Jews. Having never been to this country before, I was absolutely fascinated by the place, holy and special to both Christians and Jews. This is the land upon which so much has been taught and prophesised about the kingdom of heaven. One of the most moving and emotional aspects of the tour was our visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum. It was especially poignant to me as firstly the grandparents of my niece and nephew were murdered at Auschwitz, and secondly one of my relatives, Sir Charles Webster, was one of the official historians at the Nuremburg trials.
At the Yad Vashem Museum, there is a Hall of Names, and this is the Jewish People’s memorial to each and every Jew who perished in the Holocaust, a place where they may be commemorated for generations to come. The ceiling of the hall is dominated by a ten-metre-high cone reaching towards the sky, and displaying 600 photographs and fragments of Pages of Testimony. This powerful exhibit represents a fraction of the six million men, women and children from the diverse Jewish world destroyed during the Second World War. The victims’ portraits are reflected in water at the base of an opposing cone carved out of the mountain’s bedrock. I say this because tomorrow is the day we all remember the liberation of Auschwitz and many will keep Holocaust Memorial Day. Indeed today the letters of Heinrich Himmler (the architect of the Holocaust) will be published for the first time ever. Auschwitz was the largest camp established by the Germans. On January 27th 1945 the Soviet army entered and liberated more than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were mostly ill and dying. It is estimated that at minimum 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of these, at least 1.1 million were murdered.
A couple of months ago a service of Solemn Remembrance and Hope was held here to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht. Jews and Christians filled this holy building, and we prayed together for mutual understanding, for respect between our respective faiths, for trust in the God who makes and loves his people. During that service the Shoah candelabra from Belsize Square Synagogue was processed through this Abbey Church – and the candles lit.
This powerful image of light was picked up within our Old Testament reading today from the Prophet Isaiah (9: 1-4) when the prophet describes how God’s people are spoken of as a light to the nations. Today’s Gospel (Matthew 4: 12-23) also speaks to us afresh of the love that God has for all his people and reminds us that both Christianity and Judaism hold a common vocation in bringing people to God. Jesus himself intimately understands this; for in today’s Gospel he announces that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”.
Gathered here, surrounded by fantastic music and immense architectural beauty, we may well think that heaven is indeed very near, but Jesus is clear that the kingdom of heaven refers to God’s rule on earth. The kingdom of heaven “has come near”. It has come here to this world. The implication is profound. We live in what theologians call “the already, but not yet”. Our Gospel reading re-iterates the fact that the kingdom of heaven has already been inaugurated by Jesus in his earthly ministry, but not yet fully realised until Christ returns in person as King.
In the meantime we hold the tension between “the already but not yet” and as Christians we are called to live fully in Christ and the way we live should reflect the coming kingdom of heaven. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as any better than others, rather we are the ones who must accept the challenge of growing into God’s ways. The fact is God calls his people to many different vocations and tasks on earth. In all that we do we are called to live out the true reality: the reign of God that is coming from heaven to earth. When we look at our own situations it’s not too difficult to see that we are all called to do all this within the messiness and pain of life, and for some, within the horror of life and death. It was the same for Christ, experiencing terrible suffering and death at the hands of others.
This is a very poignant message, especially when put in the context of holocaust atrocities, and I have no doubt that all of us can learn from the scriptures (not least Matthew’s Gospel) about how to live as disciples of Christ in a fallen world. Today’s Gospel reading also includes that wonderful passage about the calling of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. Now days, not many of us are called to give up our ordinary jobs in order to follow Christ, but all of us who do follow Christ – are called to give up things that are contrary to God’s purposes. We are in the world, but not of the world. Without being too precious about it – we’re called to serve the new kingdom at a deep and significant level – just as Christ did himself. The words of St Paul to the Colossians come to mind: when you serve people because of your allegiance to Christ, “you serve the Lord Christ”.
This is more radical and challenging than it may first appear: A call to follow Christ and to work for the coming of the kingdom challenges us in how we live and how we treat other people. The way of Christ is marked by compassion, justice, truth and mercy. The opposite way is characterised by devastation, oppression, deceit and vindictiveness. If you have never read chapters five to seven of St Matthews Gospel (or have not read it for a long time) I urge you to read them afresh for they not only follow naturally on from today’s reading they give us the key of how to live in the new way and to find the kingdom of heaven.
I finish with a personal story, one that concludes the bit of family history I mentioned earlier. The grandfather of my nephew and niece, having fled Germany before his parents were taken by the Nazis, worked in South America which involved at one stage building the national railway system in Bolivia and living in that country. He was a devout Jew, and a charming man. Almost next door to his house in La Paz lived a courteous, successful and apparently upright citizen. To the amazement of his neighbours - he was later revealed to be Klaus Barbie an SS Hauptsturmfuhrer and Gestapo member – more widely known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ for having personally tortured prisoners of the Gestapo while stationed in that city.
When we attempt to live out those Godly characteristics of compassion, justice, truth and mercy – we may be taken to places in the kingdom of heaven that hitherto we did not know existed. It may be some comfort for us to know that almost every character in both the Old and New Testament struggled with trusting God at some point in his or her life. Like many before us we live in a world partly controlled by the old, corrupt ways of sin yet partly ruled by its true Lord, Christ. As Christians we put ourselves wholly under Jesus as Lord. Jesus teaches us that our lives on earth are now to reflect the coming kingdom of heaven.