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How  Many Times?
Dr Fred Nye, Reader Emeritus, 3 August, 2014

One hundred years ago today, Germany declared war on France; and tomorrow marks the centenary of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, on 4th August 1914.

In recent months we have heard much about the origins of the ‘war to end all wars’; the complex web of political, social and economic factors that was eventually to leave 16 million dead and 20 million wounded. And behind the explanations and the statistics there is a deeper story, the story of human fallibility and frailty. In all wars, all conflicts, we see the effects of human fear and  lack of security, the corruption and abuse of power, the injustices placed upon the weak by the strong, and the despair and smouldering resentment of the subjugated. And we see the devastating results of ideologies that put dogmas above humanity – whether the totalitarian dogmas of Communism or National Socialism or of fundamentalist Islam. Perhaps, more than any of these, we see the unthinking and often brutal depersonalisation of human beings: we end up referring to them as ‘terrorists’, or as members of an ‘evil empire’ or - most chillingly of all – just as ‘targets’. Modern warfare with its cold, remote, computerised killing - by missiles, air strikes and drones - increasingly distances itself from all human contact. So what chance now for compassion?

Jesus our Lord enters our world with an ideal and a vision so breathtakingly different that is difficult for us to grasp, let alone to share.  He encourages us to love our enemies – even more to turn the other cheek and try and do good to them: ‘if someone steals your shirt, give him your coat as well.’ He warns us against the hypocrisy that can’t see the lump of dirt in our own eye even though it is right there in front of us. And above all he tells us to forgive, and to go on forgiving, just as in Christ we ourselves are forgiven; ‘not seven times, but seventy times seven.’
Our Lord is the incarnation of forgiveness and reconciliation. In his earthly ministry he healed the sick and restored them to their families and communities. He befriended the poor, the alien, the sinner and the outcast, his care and concern extending to include the Jews’ religious and political enemies, the Samaritans and the Romans. And he added great poignancy to his own parable about hypocrisy by holding up, to his Jewish followers, the generosity of a despised Samaritan as an example of forgiveness and compassion.

And I hope you won’t mind me saying this, but I think we miss the point if we interpret Our Lord’s passion and crucifixion solely in terms of our own personal salvation.  Jesus’ radical vision of justice for the hated, and compassion for the enemy was anathema to the political and religious authorities of his time. When he went up to Jerusalem for the Passover, he knew that confrontation was inevitable. By entering the city on a donkey, and scattering all that money in the Temple, he was stating his position once and for all. In his Father’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of heaven, there was no room for corruption, or hypocrisy, or the abuse of power. And we know where those two acted parables were to lead him.

On the Cross we see the ultimate act of reconciliation. It was not only the veil in the Temple, the barrier between God and humanity, that was torn: all the barriers that separate us from one another were destroyed. As Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians:  ‘He is our peace: in his flesh he….has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’. We might think of the Berlin wall, or the West Bank wall, but sadly there is nothing new about either of them. Paul was almost certainly familiar with the wall in the Jerusalem Temple that separated Jew from Gentile, and which was death for a Gentile to cross.

We often give lip service to forgiveness, regarding it as a potentially ‘good thing’ rather than, as Jesus did, the very key to salvation. Perhaps this may be an unconscious way of trying to avoid it, as in our heart of hearts we all know how immensely costly and difficult reconciliation and forgiveness can be. It is very hard for us to risk losing face, to make ourselves vulnerable, to turn the other cheek, to make the first move. We have only to think of the recent hostilities and controversies that have blighted our own Anglican church: it seems that divisions among Christian communities are the norm rather than the exception. So how can we achieve the seemingly impossible task of embracing forgiveness and reconciliation, a task that seems so at odds with our basic human instinct of self-preservation?

Put simply, God does in us and for us that which we cannot do on our own.  But we have first to come to terms with ourselves, to love ourselves a little more, to understand ourselves a little better, and to realise the breadth and depth of God’s forgiveness for us. Unless we can do this, and go on doing it, how can we begin to understand, let alone forgive, anyone else?  Fortunately we are not left to struggle on our own: we are provided with what the Prayer Book calls the ‘means of grace’: the ancient gifts of the scriptures, and of prayer and self-examination. And I hope you won’t mind me putting in a ‘plug’ here for a great treasure, which as Catholic Christians we paradoxically tend to avoid, the Cinderella sacrament of confession. Perhaps it would lose some of its terrors if we remembered its other name, the sacrament of Reconciliation.

So here we are this morning – a rag-bag army of assorted and mostly aging Christians, all with different hopes and fears, gifts and failings, gathered round the altar in a half empty building. But this is the Lord’s table, and here we can all share equally, for we are all equally loved, accepted, and forgiven by the Lord, the Lord of Reconciliation. And startling though it may be He has provided plenty of empty places among us - perhaps (who knows?) to welcome people we might at first sight find different, or strange. Our Lord sends no-one away.

And we gather round an altar bearing a small jar of wine and some scraps of unleavened bread, perhaps enough to feed a few but certainly not a multitude. But remember how our Lord fed the five thousand.  If we can only allow it to happen all that love and grace that we receive at his table will begin to multiply and spill over from us, bringing reconciliation to others. In Archbishop Justin Welby’s words –‘To be the object of God’s grace should be utterly overwhelming, leading to far more than we contain’.

Every day on the calendar brings a reminder of some horrifying consequence of human conflict.  This coming Wednesday, August 6th, is the 69th anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. The world will not be fully reconciled, nor our souls fully transformed, this side of the grave. But with God’s grace we can make a start.

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