It seems very hard to imagine, but 100 years ago today, the guns on the Western Front, from the Belgian Coast to Swiss border, fell silent. Soldiers put aside their rifles and the paraphernalia of war, and stepped warily out of trenches and dugouts into a world of peace. On a section of the line, an American sound recordist caught the moment the guns stopped firing, and the Imperial War Museum has posted the soundtrack on its website. Right up to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the artillery was laying down a fearsome barrage on the enemy, but as that hour struck, silence reigns, and within 30 seconds, birdsong can be heard. As humanity’s violence ebbs away, so the natural world reasserts itself. As humanity’s destructive urges are curbed, so God’s way of living returns.
This morning’s readings capture that as well. The remarkable passage from Jonah, where God changes his mind, describes a city-wide act of penitence that has world-altering effects. But Nineveh is no ordinary city. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire, situated on the east bank of the Tigris river, in what is now Northern Iraq. Mosul is the nearest modern city today. The Assyrians were renowned as the most ruthless people of the ancient near east. They were a by-word for excessive violence and vicious destruction, so as we read that God intends to destroy them, we feel a frisson of hope – they deserve everything that they are going to get. But God, who is always merciful, offers them the chance of escape if they repent – and they do, and God changes his mind and does not destroy them.
On this Remembrance Sunday, we read how Israel’s greatest enemy humbled itself before God, and was forgiven. On this Remembrance Sunday, we read that a nation can turn away from violence and bloodshed, and walk humbly in God’s ways. On this Remembrance Sunday, long-term enemies are transformed by the grace and mercy of almighty God. That is our starting point, that is what we have to cling to from the outset: God will forgive those who repent of violence and hatred, and he will transform the lives of our worst enemies because of his love and mercy.
That is why the Allies, in 1918, fervently believed in the potential of the League of Nations. They were exhausted by war, torn apart by grief and destruction and devastated by the flu epidemic that followed hard on the heels of the armistice. Whole rural communities had been wiped out, city streets emptied of young men who never returned, the countries’ finances in tatters, so that even returning soldiers couldn’t find anywhere decent to live. Peace was the only concern for the general population, and a way of living together that would not cause such a conflict again.
Alas, that hope was to prove vain, with the rise of nationalist and extreme political ideologies, that morphed from isolationist rhetoric to ideas of national purity to expansionist dreams of dominance of neighbours, and the whole awful cycle happened again. It is that repetition within human history, that inability of humanity really to sort itself out once and for all, that leads the writer to the Hebrews to contrast that with Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of himself on the cross. What God does once is effective for all time. It takes humanity a lot longer to catch up.
So how do we live, how do we organise ourselves, so that cataclysmic wars do not recur? How can lessons be learnt and past mistakes avoided? The Syrians haven’t learnt that yet, the people of Yemen are on the end of a dreadful replaying of geopolitical violence. Where can some good news be found, some Gospel?
Curiously, given all the passages about peace, about beating swords into ploughshares, about blessed are the peacemakers, we have read this morning the simple tale of Jesus calling Simon & Andrew, John & James, from their fishing businesses to follow him and “to catch people”. Why? The Gospel challenge is that it is in discipleship that the world shall discover how to live together, it is in following God With Us that we shall learn the way of God and be able to live it out. These four rough fishermen drop everything, there and then, to follow this itinerant preacher, who promises to show them the Kingdom of Heaven. And they have three years to watch him at work before they themselves will front the engine of the Kingdom of Heaven – the Church. And from those three years of hands-on observation, they are expected to have absorbed sufficient for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
What have they seen? They have seen this Jesus touch lepers to heal them, he has talked with Gentiles and Samaritans about the love of God and his power to transform. He has fed, not just a few, but thousands with enough to spare. They have heard parables that bend their prejudices back into Godly shapes, they have stood by while Jesus went toe to toe with Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious professionals and left them speechless. And then they have watched him turn away from violent resistance in the Garden of Gethsemane, endure torture in silence, express forgiveness as nails were driven into his hands and feet, show mercy to a penitent criminal and die in pitch darkness, acknowledged as the Son of God by a gentile soldier. Buried in a rich man’s tomb, they find him resurrected, alive for ever, challenging them to take his words and ways to the whole world. Ignited by the Holy Spirit, they do just that, turning the world back up the way it should always have been, and we are their successors.
Our discipleship, our close living out of the life of Christ, will be a means of maintaining peace, increasing peace, refusing the mistakes of the past. We have to be the current Jesus, touching lepers, bringing together those who are at enmity with each other. Our nation is split in two currently, in a seemingly unbridgeable way. The faithful disciples of Christ must work hard to ensure that narrow-minded nationalism does not gain a foothold in our community, and that principles of inclusion and social justice are at the forefront of the way we organise ourselves. We need to affirm visibly and practically that all are welcome here, amongst us, whatever they think, however they feel, whatever they believe, because we believe that all are loved by God in an equally generous way, so who are we to separate anyone from that divine love. If our worshipping community is open and welcoming, refusing hatred and bigotry and challenging unjust practices and attitudes, then that openness and welcome will spill out into the streets where we live, into the places where we work, and take Christ’s all inclusive love there.
This weekend happens also to be the 80th anniversary of Kristalnacht, the day that Nazi anti-semitic violence was fully unleashed on the Jews of Germany. Those anti-semitic sentiments can still be found today, amazingly – why, only last week a synagogue was murderously attacked in the USA, by someone spouting exactly the same rhetoric that was prevalent in Germany and Italy in 1938. There is no place for such thoughts, let alone such actions in our contemporary world. It was a joy yesterday to share in worship at Richmond Synagogue, as they marked on their Sabbath the centenary of the Armistice. But to be part of that service, your name has to be on a list of guests, and the locked gate carefully opened to let you in, for fear of violence and outrage. That happened at every synagogue in our land yesterday, and is a blight on our country. The Jewish Community is wonderfully welcoming, sophisticated and eat together like kings, and yet there is an underlying fear in all their hearts.
The winter night shelter project is another practical way in which the faith communities are expressing their discipleship, as they welcome that too painfully seen group of people, the rough sleepers, to the 7 centres across the borough. Lives are transformed by this project, not just saved in the cold of winter. Pray for the project, volunteer if you can (especially if you can do a Saturday night), donate socks and gloves and woolly hats, or send money direct to Glass Door. 3 primary skools are involved in feeding the homeless guests at St John the Divine on Thursday nights & St Matthias on a Saturday night – young lives influenced in good discipleship by this project. Therein lies the future of social inclusion, surely, and therein lies the future of peace.
It is easy to despair on days like this, to be ground down by the enormity of the sacrifice those millions of men, women and children made during two world wars and other conflicts. But the simple Gospel message of faithful discipleship offers us a practical way of drawing all society into the loving, peaceful ways of God. Penitence for past errors, learning the lessons of the past, and practicing inclusion and welcome passionately and realistically – that is God’s way of bringing this wonderful world into the ways of love and peace that he intends for it.