1 Thessalonians 4:1-13-end; John 15:9-17
St Barbara’s 12.11.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
As we sat round our family meal table the other day, the subject of the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza and Israel came up. One of my children wondered whether we could be heading for another world war. It was a comment that brought me up with a jolt. I am of a generation that has never lived through a world war, never lived in fear that our house may be bombed, or that I or my children may be conscripted to fight. It has always felt such a remote possibility that it barely was worth thinking about. I know, however, that there are some here that know exactly what it means to live through a war, and what makes this day of remembrance so important for you.
My children aren’t alone in their wondering. Numerous journalists have wondered the question too. The frantic shuttle diplomacy of Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of State, in recent days, shows that the US are worried too. After all, some of the countries being pulled into these conflicts have nuclear weapons or nuclear capacity. That analysis we hope and pray is overly bleak, that the dangers of escalation will be avoided, but it does leave us wondering how we respond.
The words of the apostle St Paul that we heard this morning may be able to help us. He was writing to a community in northern Greece who were facing a future which they believed was imminently about to end. It was a community that had recently become Christian, that had responded to the news of Christ’s death and resurrection, to his remarkable demonstration of sacrifice and love, by becoming followers of Christ. In doing so, they opened themselves up to experiencing terrible persecution. They were thrown out of their families for failing to honour the household idols, and they were beaten and executed by the Roman authorities who saw their proclamation of “Christ as Lord” as a direct threat and act of treason against the Roman Emperor who alone claimed the title of “Lord”. These new Christians were convinced that what they were experiencing were the first steps in the coming of the end of the world.
As we look around our world, we may not feel that the end of the world is nigh, but we may feel less hopeful than we did even a few years ago. Our world feels a more fractured, more polarised, less tolerant place, a place where conflicts spiral out of control, where innocent civilians on all sides suffer horrendously, and where nations who once seemed the bastion of tolerance and peaceful, democratic ways of reaching consensus, such as the United States, now seem to be set on a whole different trajectory.
So what do Paul’s words to a community facing tough times two thousand years ago have to say to us:
Firstly, they have something to tell us about the importance of love. We are to love one another. That may seem a bland truism, until we begin to unpack what love actually means and looks like. Jesus speaks about it in our Gospel reading, We are to love one another as He has loved us. And what kind of love is that, but a love willing to sacrifice everything, even life itself, for others. On a day when we remember the great sacrifices made by so many in generations past, it reminds us too of the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for us, that we might have life and hope and joy, whether we choose to receive it or not. This is love. Willing, sacrificial service – a willingness to put the needs of others before ourselves. And such love, as we heard last week in our reading from Jesus sermon on the mount is humble, compassionate, servant-hearted, passionate for justice, merciful, peace-making, full of integrity and courageous. How our troubled world needs people of such love today.
Secondly, Paul’s words have something to say about the importance of humility. Paul urged the Christians in Thessalonica to “lead quiet lives, minding their own business, working with their hands, supporting themselves rather than relying on others.” Persecution would come, whatever they did, but they didn’t need to go out and manufacture it, as if it was a badge of honour to offend or upset people.
Maybe you like me are concerned by how quick we can be to polarise debates, to set one side up as good and the other side as evil, and to allow for no nuance, no grey areas in between. To shout condemnation of the other side as loudly as we can. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is far too complex to reduce down to a good versus evil or evil versus good conflict. All countries and peoples involved, including our own, have some share in the responsibility for what is currently happening. War is perhaps the inevitable outcome when two sides are incapable of seeing their own failings and only capable of seeing the failings of the other. In our personal relationships as much as in international diplomacy or in domestic politics, there is a need to dial down on the rhetoric and allow a quieter, gentler tone to prevail. The humility to listen, to seek to understand.
And thirdly, Paul’s words have something to say to us about the importance of hope. Amidst the calamity of war, as some here today know from personal experience, also comes the devastation of personal loss. War devastates communities and families. It leaves huge holes in people’s lives that were previously filled by loved ones whose lives have been cruelly and prematurely ripped away from them. As we see the grief of families in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza daily on our news, as we remember those who died in wars of the past, and particularly today those who died in the first and second world wars, there can be no glib answers to the sadness caused. The grief, the suffering, is terrible.
But nor should we lose hope. The Christian faith is about love in this life and hope in the next. Christ showed us what love looks like by living among us and dying for us; he shows us what hope looks like through his resurrection from the dead and his invitation to follow him when our time comes. For the great Christian hope is that death is not the end, it does not have the final word. That for lives cut tragically short, their death is not the end. For as Paul writes, “the dead in Christ will rise… we will be with the Lord forever.” As Christ says: “In my father’s house are many rooms, and I have gone ahead to prepare a place for you.” On this day, as we remember the countless millions who have died in wars in the last 110 years alone, we do not give up hope. We hold on to the eternal hope of God.
Love, humility and hope. May God help us to live out these qualities today as we seek to work for a better, more loving, more peaceful world.