Scripture Readings: Revelation 22.1-5
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In 2013, a few weeks before Remembrance Sunday, we were contacted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They had a project to put a sign on the gates of every graveyard containing one of their graves. We hadn’t realised it, but there is a World War One War Grave within the Old High Churchyard. That’s unusual, because most of those graves are, of course, near the battlefields where the soldiers died. Angus Fairrie of the Cameron Highlanders Association kindly provided some information about the young man who lies in our graveyard:
James Finlay McCulloch was born at 58 Shore Street, Inverness on 15 October 1894, the son of Finlay McCulloch and his wife Flora Smith. Finlay McCulloch worked as a fitter at the nearby foundry.
By 1911 Finlay McCulloch had moved with his family to Foyers where he worked as a fitter for the British Aluminium Company… His [then] 16 year old son James McCulloch had a job as a luggage carter at the Foyers Hotel.
In early 1915… James McCulloch volunteered for military service… Between March and July 1916, while serving with the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, James McCulloch was badly wounded and was evacuated to the UK. He died of his wounds in the University War Hospital in Southampton on 21 July 1916.
James McCulloch, baggage carter of Foyers, was 21 years old when he died. He is buried next to his parents and other members of his family in the Old High Kirkyard.
At both the Old High and at St Stephen’s, we have many memorials to those who died in war. On plaques and in remembrance books, there are long lists of names. But behind each name, there is a story, like that of Private James McCulloch. Stories of sons, brothers, friends who were taken from their families, never to return.
It’s important to hear the stories of war. In my last parish in Glasgow, I asked two church members to speak at a secondary school assembly for Remembrance Day. The teenagers listened in rapt silence as Archie spoke of his experiences as a soldier after D-Day. But they were equally attentive as his wife Helen remembered going down into an air raid shelter one night during the Clydeside Blitz, and emerging to find that her street had gone. Women, children and men continue to experience what Helen once did in Glasgow, as in recent years, villages, towns and cities have been destroyed in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Imagine what it would be like if the street you lived on were to be reduced to rubble by a cruise missile or a terrorist truck bomb.
For increasingly, it is civilians who bear the brunt of war. Nowadays, 90% of war casualties are civilians (during the First World War, 10% of casualties were civilians). Earlier this year we saw the horror of young teenagers being targeted by a terrorist bomb in Manchester, and in London and other places around the world, ordinary people going about their business being murdered by terrorists driving trucks into them. In places like Baghdad, terrorist bombs continue to kill hundreds of people. In Yemen and Syria, innocent civilians are being killed by aerial bombing. In Iraq, ISIS has been murdering civilians in a way reminiscent of the Nazis in occupied countries in the Second World War.
How long, O Lord, can this carry on?
It is no wonder that when prophets come among us, they often speak of peace, and dream of peace. For without peace, we humans cannot flourish. There can be no economy, no education, no art or culture, in places where lives are being shattered by war. But we have known that for thousands of years. And so the prophets dream of peace, and plead for peace.
In our first Bible reading, a prophet who lived in violent times dreams of peace. The Book of Revelation is a book of prophecy, and it’s often a very violent book because it comes from a turbulent time. Back then Christians were a tiny minority in the Roman Empire. Now, the official Roman religion was Caesar worship. The belief was that the reigning emperor, the Caesar of the day, embodied the spirit of Rome, and that the Emperor was therefore a god:
Once a year everyone in the Empire had to appear before the magistrates to burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and to say: “Caesar is Lord.” After he had done that, a [person] might go away and worship any god or goddess [they] liked, so long as that worship did not infringe decency and good order; but [everyone] must go through this ceremony in which [they] acknowledged the Emperor’s divinity.
But Christians wouldn’t do that. They confessed that ‘Jesus is Lord’, and would not confess that Caesar was equal to or superior to Christ. So when an Emperor absolutely insisted on being worshipped, and the Christians wouldn’t fall into line, Christians suffered Caesar’s rage- persecution, imprisonment, even death- for being true to their religion.
It was one of these persecuted Christians who wrote the Book of Revelation. John of Patmos had been sent into exile, and there he dreamed dreams which were, frankly, nightmarish at times. He had seen the violence which Rome had unleashed on his Christian friends- and he feared there was more to come. He wrote of dragons, plagues, wars, horse riders going into battle- violent language reflecting violent times.
Yet John did not write to frighten his fellow-Christians; he wrote to reassure them. For in John’s weird visions, there is one thing which is always true- the enemies of Christ never win. Eventually, he says, Christ will be victorious- for Jesus Christ is Lord. And in some of his visions he tries to imagine- with symbolic, poetic language- what the reign of Christ would be like.
So in the Book of Revelation, alongside John’s violent nightmares, we also find his dreams of peace- such as we heard in our first reading today. John dreams of a peaceful city in the future, where the one true God reigns, spreading only light. He paints a lovely picture of a city which is perhaps not unlike Inverness, for it has a river flowing serenely through it, with trees on either side bearing leaves which, he says, are for the healing of the nations.
We could do with something to heal nations. Nations at war with one another, nations are war with their own people, need peace, need healing. No wonder John of Patmos dreamt of a miracle cure which would heal the wounds of the nations.
But the dreams of the prophets are worthless if they do not inspire us. Can we find a balm for the healing of the nations? I’m sure most of us can think of examples of places where conflict has been replaced with peace-making- for example, in Northern Ireland, or in South Africa. I happen to know someone from Bosnia, where there is, certainly peace- a lack of violence- but there is a long way to go before the wounds of the Balkan wars of the 1990s are fully healed. That’s true for many other places around the world. Yet sometimes the results are remarkable. In all the controversy about the European Union, we can forget that it helped to make France and Germany allies and friends- a remarkable achievement, after almost a century of rivalry and war which almost destroyed Europe. Yes, he healing of the nations can be slow. It requires patience, and courage. But at least when the fighting stops, there is a space for healing, and a chance of lasting peace.
Because whenever human beings disagree- as we often do- things are usually made worse by violence. I don’t have much understanding of the politics of the Catalonia and Spain. But one thing I am sure of. Once you send the police into a political argument, once people start getting beaten up, once you to start to jail politicians, your case becomes weaker. For if you resort to violence, rather than talks, you start to stoke up resentment and fear. Emotions take the place rational discussion. I have no idea what the solution is for Catalonia; but I have been there, and Barcelona is a beautiful city in a lovely region of Spain, and so I hope and pray they will find a way to resolve their problems without any more violence.
I’m a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, and like John of Patmos, I call Jesus Lord, and he calls me to live in his way of peace. Today, in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus talking about how to live a peaceable life. Yet he lived in a time where it was easy to be provoked. For he lived in an occupied country, under the control of the mighty Roman Empire. There were those who hoped the Jews would rise up in a violent revolt and get rid of the Romans. But if they thought that the prophet Jesus would encourage the people a revolution, they were to be disappointed.
Listen again to one the sayings of Jesus we’ve just heard: ‘If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles’. This was the sort of thing which can happen to anyone in an occupied country. At any time, a Jew in Israel in Jesus day could be forced to help the Roman army in some menial way. You’d be ashamed if it happened to you- it would feel like an insult to your country to be forced to help the conqueror. But if you suddenly find yourself at the point of a Roman legionary’s spear, what can you do? Resistance would mean death or serious injury.
So this is not an unusual situation Jesus is speaking about here (perhaps, someone had asked him the question of what is the right way to respond to this situation). And Jesus comes up with a strange solution the conundrum. ‘If you are asked to carry the soldier’s pack a mile, carry it two miles’. Which is, in a way, an odd kind of no-violent resistance. You might just make the Roman feel a bit ashamed of himself if you do more for him than he asked of you.
And if you think non-violent resistance can never work- remember that this week we were marking the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. People overthrew the Communist dictatorship of East Germany by non-violent protest which often grew out of prayer meetings. There is a moral power to non-violence, as Dr Martin Luther King Jr in America, and Ghandi in India, remind us.
Another provocative saying of Jesus we hear today:
‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too’.
If you are slapped on the face, of course you have been insulted; but Jesus says to us- there is something more important than your pride, your honour. Sometimes you should swallow your pride- for retaliation often leads nowhere. For at the start of our reading, Jesus says these famous words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.”
This was a really controversial thing for Jesus to say, for the ‘eye for an eye’ rule was part of Scripture. When he says this, Jesus is directly contradicting the Bible. In fact, the rule was rarely enforced- few people lost eyes or teeth. But it is what many people think justice is all about- criminals should pay for their crime. At its most extreme, that leads to the death penalty for murder.
And yet, as we know, mere vengeance is very destructive? On the BBC News website today is a report about children in Albania who cannot go to school because they are caught up in family blood feuds. They are under threat because of crimes which took place before they were even born, which led to a cycle of revenge of which they are the innocment victims. An extreme case, perhaps- but a good example of what happens if we allow ourselves to be governed by thoughts of revenge.
So Jesus teaches his follower another way. We read in the Gospels of Roman officials and officers who sought out Jesus for his help and advice- and he freely gave it. He believed that the love of God encompasses everyone, not just people we like or people like us. The sun shines on bad and good alike; so no more hating your enemies, says Jesus- love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. This is the teaching he stuck to, even when the Romans executed him as a criminal. Dying on the cross, he prayed for his enemies: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.
To be a Christian- to confess that Jesus is Lord- is to believe that the way of peace which Jesus teaches is the way which will ultimately prevail. People who believe that Christ rose from the dead have the assurance that love overcomes evil. And that means that we are called to be peacemakers. We may not be diplomats, or politicians. But we can be good citizens, working for peaceful communities, constantly reminding our leaders that sending our armed forces to war must always be the absolute last result. And we can try to live lives in which we don’t harbour grudges or look for revenge, where we try to forgive, where we try to bring healing to broken relationships, where we refuse to be violent in our conduct and our language. Jesus calls us to be perfect- and we know that we will often fail. But can’t we at least try? For today is the day when we are reminded of the grim consequences when we fail to peaceable.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
Hymn 706 For the healing of the nations
 see my sermon of 10 November 2013
 From a speech by George Reid, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly, at the Military Chaplains’ reception at the Assembly
 Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Revelation p14-15