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Sermon on 31st August 2014

Augustine lived most of his life in relative peace: he was a Roman citizen at a time when Christianity was tolerated – his mother was a devout Christian, his father a pagan, who became a Christian on his death-bed. Of exceptional intelligence, he studied in Carthage and then in Rome, before being appointed to the highest academic office at the time, and moved to Milan. During all of this time, he was evading the Christian faith which his mother so much desired him to adopt. But in Milan, he came under the influence of the wise and saintly Ambrose, and eventually he came to faith – he tells of how he was sitting in a garden one day and hear a child’s voice singing “Tolle, lege” – literally, “Pick up and read” and he picked up the book that was closest to him, his mother’s Bible, and read there from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which the apostle exhorts people to turn away from licentiousness and drunken carousings – something which was a feature of his life at that stage. He had once famously prayed, “Lord, give me chastity – just not yet.” This reading of the scriptures changed his life and from that moment on, dedicated his life to following the path of a faithful and devout Christian – and an answer to his mother’s prayers. He returned to North Africa and became Bishop of Hippo (now Annaba in north east Algeria) where he remained for the last 35 years of his life. He wrote extensively, and his theology had a profound effect on the development of the church’s theology. Possibly the most enduring element of his thinking concerns the “Just War” theory – he was the first to use the phrase, and asserted that  peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin. He was the first church leader to assert that a Christian could be a soldier and serve God and his country with honour. It was 900 years later that St Thomas Aquinas developed Augustine’s ideas, and came up with the conditions under which a war could be seen as just – and some of his arguments are very current, such as the condition of proportionality, which states that Combatants must make sure that the harm caused to civilians or civilian property is not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by an attack on a military objective. Many questioned the Israeli bombing of Gaza as it did not seem to fall within the above condition of proportionality. Augustine died just as the Vandals arrived at the gate of his city to destroy it, and kill many of his people.

The second saint we remembered in the past week was, of course, St John the Baptist. Cousin to Jesus and his forerunner, John is the only saint we remember who died before Jesus – and we remembered on Friday his martyrdom at the hands of King Herod. The story is very familiar. King has arrested John because he criticized the fact that he divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. At his birthday he is showing off to his guests, and his step-daughter Salome captivates everyone with a provocative dance, and as a reward he says he will give her anything she asks for. Prompted by her mother, she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Reluctantly, and only because he doesn’t wish to go back on his word given before his guests, he orders the Baptist’s execution. Many images can be found depicting this event – and the Priory is not without its own stained glass window of the beheading of St John the Baptist. And in previous generations, it was, of course a depiction of a biblical story, showing a barbaric act of murder but far removed from our own time and culture. True, the Tudor period had its fair share of decapitations, and the last state sponsored beheading was of the Jacobite rebel Lord Lovat in 1749, but all of this was in the dim and distant past, was it not? But the terrible days of violence in which we live has, tragically, seen a rise in this most brutal form of murder, and its espousal by the extreme Jihadist group the Islamic State is using its very brutality to terrify those who would stand in its way as it seeks to introduce a new Caliphate in the Middle East. Innocent civilians are not spared, if they belong to the ‘wrong’ religion, such as Christianity, or the wrong ethnic group, such as the Yazidis of northern Iraq, or even if they are foreign journalists trying to communicate the plight of the people. And of course they believe they are doing this in the name of their God. They are of course, very wrong in this, for their actions in no way represent Islam – any more than execution of the 2700 Muslim prisoners who were beheaded on the orders of Richard the Lionheart after the Battle of Acre in the 3rd Crusade represented Christianity. Times have always been brutal, so it seems.

Our readings today come from different contexts, and yet they all share the same understanding of the brutality and violence of the age: Jeremiah – in our Old Testament reading is being persecuted for his faithfulness, despite the apostasy of his own generation, as the kings of Judah. The land is suffering from drought, and neither the king nor the people will hear Jeremiah’s call to repent and turn to God. Though he promises to them that God will be for them like a wall of bronze, they will not listen to him: instead they mock and persecute him. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome knows that they are living in fear for their lives, for Christianity is not as yet permitted by the Emperor, and the saints are vulnerable to a brutal execution. In this context he is exhorting the saints in Rome to love one another, and to rejoice in hope, supporting those in need, extending hospitality to strangers. Wonderful advice – but even more so in the context of a hostile state in which they lived. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Caring for enemies is the command: this is because evil cannot be overcome with more evil – that is only going to create yet more evil in the world: only goodness can overcome the power of evil. And finally, Jesus, in the Gospel reading today speaks of his own future suffering. Peter tries to save Jesus from the suffering, but Jesus confirms that the essence of the Christian faith is only to be found through suffering: his own suffering, that of his immediate followers, and those through the ages, and right down to our own times, who would witness to God through suffering, and indeed, through martyrdom. Both Paul and the earthly Jesus, however, expected the second coming to be imminent – Paul’s whole theology was based on the fact that he did not expect to die before he saw Jesus return in glory to save the world. Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading suggests that he would return in glory within the lifetime of those who were hearing his words that day. So – from the time of Jeremiah to St Paul and Jesus, to Augustine and to the Crusades and to the present day, there has been violence and persecution. Sometimes the Christians have been persecuted and sometimes they (or should I say, “We”) have been the persecutors –as in the Crusades over the years roughly from 1100 to 1300 when appalling atrocities were committed by those who were ostensibly seeking to free the Holy Land from Muslim oppression, but who were actually little more than soldiers of fortune, seeking to extend their wealth and influence.

To paraphrase what St Paul said, fighting evil with evil only increases the evil in the world. The crisis in the Middle East is notoriously difficult to understand and fathom – where did it begin, where will it end? Who can say?

But one thing is sure – the present conflicts cannot be understood without first understanding the history of the Christian crusades of the 12th , 13th , & 14th centuries and the irreparable damage done then, to the relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world for the succeeding generations. The actions of our present day, without doubt, have their root in those centuries of misguided imperialistic conflict. Apologies have been made for the Crusades – most recently by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000, but the Church needs a real sense of repentance for those appalling acts of violence carried out in its name by Christians of a former generation.

Only with a heart full of humility for the actions of our predecessors can we look with hope for the coming of the time of peace and love to replace the time of violence and brutality for our children and their children, if not in our own time. May God give us the grace, the humility, and the love, to work together for that time of peace – and what we need to do is all to be found in St Paul’s words in today’s epistle – to rejoice in hope, to be patient in times of suffering, and to persevere in prayer.