Congregational Choice Sermon Topic preached by Canon Simon Butler
Romans 2:1-16; Luke 21:5-11, 20-27
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 4th September
Ukraine and the Evil People Do
Romans 2:1-16; Luke 21:5-11, 20-27
It came as no surprise to me when we invited members of St Mary’s to suggest sermon topics back in the late spring that the first one to come back asked for a sermon on the war in Ukraine. More particularly the person suggesting it said this, “How can God allow the appalling cruelty, brutality and destruction of war, indeed many believe that there cannot be a God if he allows this, though not me. Also how can people who call themselves Christians, followers of Christ, behave like this to fellow human beings and Christians?
I want to take on the second question more than the first this morning. To the first question – the ever-present question about God and suffering – let me simply say this, noting our sympathy for the plight of the Ukrainian people and their desire to be free. Would you like to live under tyranny, where your every choice was controlled or dictated to by an external power? Because, if your answer is no – which I’m assuming it would be – then the question about God and suffering changes direction. Instead of a question about whether we would want God to oversee and intervene in every aspect of life in order to prevent us from acting in ways that harm other people, which would constrain human freedom to an unimaginable extent, focus on the moral responsibility we human beings have for our action and decisions. Who is best in a position to prevent the cruelty, brutality and destruction of war? Well, how about those who cause it?
So let’s explore the question of human responsibility and our response to the reality of human evil in the world, and let’s do it from the perspective of faith.
The current tragedy in Ukraine brings war closer to home. For the first time in many decades Europe has a war of aggression on its soil (the last invasion in Europe was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974). Horrifically, this is a war where Christian is fighting Christian, where we have seen apologists for the Putin regime like the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, blessing and encouraging troops who, as he will well know, will go off and commit the most unspeakable acts.
Ukraine belongs to what the Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls, in a book of the same name, The Bloodlands. Since the 1917 Russian Revolution, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States, together with parts of Western Russia have borne the brunt of global conflict. Ukraine has seen the Holodomor, the systematic starvation of up to 5 million people in 1932-33, it has seen about 1.2 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, it has seen a total loss of 7 million people in World War 2 (2 and a quarter million of which died in Germany as slaves). Only Russia itself with about 14 million deaths of the total of 27 million Soviet deaths suffered a worse number of casualties. By way of contrast, British casualties, civilian and military, in World War 2 were 450,000. These are stark figures and stand alongside the figures that can only be estimated for the current conflict, where maybe up to 100,000 have been killed and wounded, civilian and military so far.
This is a part of the world steeped in blood, conflict and human cruelty. Stalin is reported as saying, with typical cynicism, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Whether he meant that to justify himself for such mass murder is difficult to say, but he does capture ironically something central to the challenge we face and the horror of any Christian perspective on war, namely that any death is appalling and unacceptable. The fact that the current Russian invasion is entirely unnecessary and calculated makes its evil far more difficult to accept.
What can a Christian person say and do in the face of such a terrible legacy of violence, human cruelty, which has erupted again in Western Ukraine? What does the Jesus of the Gospels – perhaps a different and more complex figure than the gentle Jesus of our upbringing and imagination – have to say about all this?
When we look at Jesus teaching his disciples in the Gospel reading, he is speaking a rather florid language that scholars call apocalyptic, which reveals the work of God in the events of the world. We tend to skip these passages all too easily, or reserve them for their annual appearance on Advent Sunday. But there message is clear: it is the Advent message. Wake up and get real, says Jesus! Look at the world around you and see that evil and human cruelty, war and struggle, are very real things. This is not a world that is yet won for Christ; God’s kingdom has not yet fully come. So, until it does, the reality of the struggle between the good purposes of God at work in the world, and those forces which seek to do evil and grasp power remain very much active. Today is not the day to debate whether Jesus expected all this to come to pass soon after his resurrection, as some believe, because that allows us off the hook into the safer world of speculation. Whatever else this appalling situation in Ukraine reveals, it reveals that the world is not necessarily progressing towards some liberal utopia, or what Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, calls “the best of all possible worlds.” Christian people should be realistic and understanding about the nature of the world, fallen as it is. One of the consequences of human sin is the way in which it intertwines between people, and grows – often through no one person’s fault (although Putin and maybe Donald Trump are good examples of people with a malignant ability to bring out the worst in others) – to such an extent that one person’s sin is multiplied and amplified into what becomes great and awful evil. Jesus sees himself – and his disciples – as people who need to be aware of that and who, as those who will through their faithful actions and service of God, will be exposed to the great consequences of such evil. Clearly, the Ukraine conflict is not an example of overt persecution of good people by bad, of Christians by the enemies of Christian faith – but it is, as war always is, even a just war – the opportunity for evil to intertwine itself with human sin. War removes the skin of respectability from people and invites those who fight to do bad things even sometimes for good causes. Responsibility for war obviously belongs at the door of the Russian regime, but its consequences for so many – military and civilian – in terms of the way in which sin and evil are magnified are incalculable. Wake up, says Jesus; this is the way of the world in which you who follow me live. Even though the Daily Mail may not like it, being ‘woke’ goes a long way back before Black Lives Matter. Being ‘woke’ is an entirely biblical virtue – it signifies being alert to the way power is used and abused in the world. Strive to be faithful in the face of this reality of evil, Jesus says.
If the critics of ‘woke’ have a point, it’s that it’s easy for those who are awake to see themselves as virtuous and those who are not as less virtuous. It’s a real danger. But, to return to Ukraine, and to the evils people inflict in war, the Christian Gospel speaks very clearly of the shared responsibility we all have for sin. In the Second Chapter of the Letter to the Romans, Paul lays this out to the Jews of his day (he speaks as a fellow Jew of course). Having pointed the finger elsewhere in Romans 1, to the sin of the pagan world, Paul then turns to his fellow Jews and says, in short, you too are fallen sinners. So, verse 1, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” At the centre of Paul’s worldview is the idea that the human capacity for sin and participation in evil does not lie between religions or cultures, tribes or nations, but cuts through the very nature of all of us. As he says elsewhere, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This is a radical idea, which paves the way for the extraordinary scope of the death and resurrection of Jesus to save, to rescue humanity in ways that go beyond religion, culture, tribe or nation.
It is perhaps one of the great failures of the way in which our faith has evolved that Christians remain too wedded to identities other than that of being, to use another of Paul’s phrases, “in Christ.” We are too wedded to religious, cultural, tribal and national identities, too easily swayed by demagogues and dictators who appeal to these badges. One of the greatest, and most universal of sins continued to be perpetrated by Christians is to allow the ‘in Christ’ identity to be relegated to the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘private’ spheres. This is why those who outwardly confess the name of Christ, even Patriarchs and Bishops, can be coopted to the sort of nationalism that we see driving Putin’s war in Ukraine. Perhaps more than any other Christian tradition, Orthodoxy is wedded to national identities, making it particularly susceptible to nationalistic pressures. Although, in the spirit of Romans 2, the relationship between Christian missionaries and colonial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries means we are in no position to judge.
One of the ideas we most like to avoid in the bible comes into play in the face of our shared responsibility for sin, and regrettably we don’t have too much time to explore it today. The idea of the “wrath of God”, something which if you look at Romans 1 & 2 again is very much present, tells us something about how God responds to human sin and evil in the world. Let me invite you to see that idea of “wrath” not as a word about emotion but as a word to do with justice. When something is not right, when we see injustice in the world, we experience anger. And that anger has two sources – one is emotional, in that in our humanity we hate seeing people suffer; but the other is motivated by a sense of justice, that we want to see the victim get justice for what has been done to them. It is this latter sense that helps us to see what Paul means, and what can be helpful for us right now, when he talks about the wrath of God. The God who is, as we’ve just sung, the “God of justice”, is wrathful in that in God’s righteousness God wants to put the wrong things right. Wrath in this understanding isn’t about angry God punishing humanity, but about God’s attitude to injustice. Divine wrath is therefore about God’s righteous anger against evil and sin. If you have a problem with God being angry at injustice, sense your own anger at injustices in the world, and you will perhaps begin to see what wrath might mean. There is therefore, a reckoning against injustice in God’s purposes: we call it God’s judgment, and even if we cannot see justice yet coming to pass in Ukraine, make no mistake: those responsible will have to face the Almighty; and even if we know, because God shows no favouritism, that mercy is at the heart of God’s purpose for all of us, how God disposes of the world’s great evildoers remains something hidden to us. Might it be possible that someone is so lost and immersed in evil that they cannot even find it possible to accept the mercy of God? We can only speculate.
To turn this to the positive, Paul says this, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” For the follower of Jesus Christ, who will says Paul, “be repaid according to what they have done”, what we can do is perhaps what matters and what drives us. We can do a number of things.
We can speak truthfully. I was struck by talking to a Russian recently about, to use an infamous Trumpian phrase, the “alternative facts” that Russians are being told by their media outlets. We live in a post-truth world and it has become more difficult to discern who is telling the truth. Even our own government seems prone to the temptation to undermine the globally-respected BBC for political reasons. Learning to discern the truth, questioning what we are told, and checking facts before we pass them on, verbally or through social media, this is something we can do, for truth matters. Truth is often the first casualty of war, and all claims coming from Ukraine need to be treated with caution. But increasingly, and not just in Russia, truth is under attack. And, in our own small individual ways, we should do our best to uphold the truth.
And we can act lovingly. Among our great traditions in this country is our willingness to be charitable. Almsgiving is one of the great practices of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and we can do that both financially and practically. It can be overwhelming in the face of so many competing claims on our compassion – not just Ukraine, but now Pakistan and our own cost of living crisis – but giving of our time, our talents and our treasure – these things are at the heart of being a follower of Jesus. We can use what we have to encourage justice and practice mercy.
And we can and must pray. Prayer seems such a feeble response sometimes, doesn’t it? But perhaps of all the things we do, Christians can do this while those who do not believe cannot. A Church of England survey this week showed that younger people are praying more than older people these days, which is interesting. But, given what I’ve said about God’s justice and mercy, when we pray we come into communion with the Source of these great divine gifts to humanity. If the world needs more mercy and more justice, spending time placing Ukraine, the Ukrainian and Russian people, and yes, even Vladimir Putin, prayerfully in the stream of the love of God in prayer, is perhaps the gift that we can give to the world that no-one else can give.
Many of us were moved by the videos earlier in the year of Ukrainian Jews and Christians praying Psalm 31 as they began to shelter in bunkers from Russian missiles. Perhaps as we end this sermon, which I offer only as personal reflection on a horrible and wicked war, we too can direct our thoughts towards God. Katy, our organist, will play quietly and I’ll say the psalm as a prayer for Ukraine.
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the Lord.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery
and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbours,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord,
for I call on you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled
that speak insolently against the righteous
with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter
from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the Lord,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm,
‘I am driven far from your sight.’
But you heard my supplications
when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the Lord, all you his saints.
The Lord preserves the faithful,
but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.
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