Fr David's Sermon
9th November 2003
'The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying," Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you"'. Jonah 3.1
The Bible begins with a Garden and ends with a City. Expelled from the Garden of Eden in Genesis, lost mankind only finds home again in the City of God in Revelation at the end of the New Testament.
Today we would be more likely to take the journey in reverse. For us the city is the place of alienation and the garden the focus of imagined rural and pastoral bliss.
Yet for the great thinkers of antiquity the city represented the ideal. St. Augustine's great work of political philosophy, 'The City of God' is the most famous example of such a view. The word 'city' shares the same root as 'civilisation', 'civic' and 'civil'. In contrast the word 'pagan' is dismissive of the rude virtues of country dwellers, the last to receive the civilising influence of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
In contrast the Old Testament is rather ambivalent about cities. Sodom is remembered for its immorality, the cities of ancient Egypt as places of enslavement, Babylon as the city of exile and captivity. Only Jerusalem is viewed favourably as the site of the Temple.
Nineveh is likewise remembered for its iniquity, save that when the Prophet Jonah finally obeyed God's call to preach God's judgement it repented in sackcloth and ashes and was spared destruction.
With the coming of another Remembrance Sunday I found myself thinking about cities, not least because I have just finished reading Antony Beevor's, 'Berlin. The Downfall. 1945' It finishes the story he began with his earlier book 'Stalingrad'. Both books tell of the horrific clash of the two great totalitarian systems of the Twentieth Century, with Stalin coming a close second to Hitler in terms of evil, save that he was then on our side. For good reason did the defeated Germans hope to fall to the British or the Americans.
Two things struck me, the utter futility of war especially as it impacted on civilian populations and the necessity of being prepared to resist the enemies of freedom by force of arms as the lesser of two evils.
On Remembrance Sunday we remember with gratitude all who gave their lives for our freedom as well the terrible human cost of conflict.
As well as looking back we also look forward. We only have to think of the more newsworthy cities of our own time, New York, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Belfast, to realise that we are still far from the vision of the city of God in Revelation. All to often the modern city is the place of violence, oppression, crime and injustice.
Something is obviously wrong and is in need of putting right. The traditional Christian categories of sin and redemption describe the problem and the solution. The writer to the Hebrews describes how Christ has 'entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.... to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself'.
In the midst of suffering and evil we begin to glimpse a way through in Christ. We have our part to play in that. Just as Jesus called the fishermen to be fishers of men so he calls us too, to follow him. Our Christian discipleship places on us the imperative of being agents of peace and reconciliation in an anguished world. That inevitability means a willingness to be compromised in the necessarily messy process of politics, the art of ruling the city. The democracy others fought to safeguard stands in urgent need of renewal.
Remembrance Sunday with its poignant reminder of the sacrifices of past generations is a good day for rededication to such lives of Christian service and discipleship.
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Last updated 08/11/2003 19:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd