Tag Archives: Conflict

The Silence where God speaks: Commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Seventieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the presence of the Consul-General of Japan, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 August 2015, marking Hiroshima Peace Day:

450px-Cenotaph_HiroshimaThis morning’s readings (1 Kings 19.1-15, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, and John 6.35-51) challenge us to make sense of destruction and disaster as places where God himself is present, invite us to see the hope of resurrection even in the midst of great loss and devastation. They tell us that it is when we work for reconciliation and shun bitterness that we live the lives that God intended us to live when he made this world, and declared it to be ‘very good’.

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On this day seventy years ago, the city of Nagasaki was struck three days after the world’s first atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. On impact, the bomb destroyed five square miles of the city of Hiroshima, and a square mile of the hillier city of Nagasaki. Home of the Mitsubishi works, which had been commandeered to produce armaments for the Japanese war effort, most of the Mitsubishi armament factory and almost all of its steel works were destroyed by the raging fire unleashed by the bomb, as winds of up to 1,000 km/h fanned fires of up to 3,900 degrees.

It is a miracle that 12% of the city’s dwellings escaped destruction. The two explosions claimed more than 129,000 lives on the day they were launched, and probably another 120,000 or so lives in the following months, as people died from the effects of the severe burns or radiation sickness. At the time, the aim of the two atomic devices was to cause ‘prompt and utter destruction’. Although the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused greater destruction and loss of life than the two nuclear bombings, it was the immediate and utter destruction caused by the bombs, and their use in a sequence of terror, three days apart, as a ‘rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth’, as President Harry Truman put it, that brought to a rapid end the Pacific War (Truman Papers 1945-53, 97: ‘Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference, 9 August 1945’).

While Truman acknowledged the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’, the device was intended to be used ‘until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war’, the President declared after the destruction of Nagasaki. ‘Only a Japanese surrender will stop us’, Truman concluded. On the day after the destruction of Nagasaki, the first steps to surrender were set in motion. A week after its destruction, the war was over. For the past seventy years, the world has tried to make sense of the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’ and to control its use. The boundaries between perpetrators and victims of destruction became terribly blurred in devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, no atomic device has been used in the countless acts of warfare since these ‘twin shocks’ (Truman Papers, 97).

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Our first lesson, from the first book of the Kings, is written from the perspective of a survivor of great devastation. The prophet Elijah himself was at once a perpetrator and a victim of great destruction. Living some 2,800 years before the events we mark today, Elijah also had once brought down fire from the skies upon his opponents, killing the priests of the Canaanite fertility god Baal by fire and sword (1 Kings 18.33f). Now he is facing the consequences of his greatest triumph: hunted, persecuted, laid low, Elijah fled from his homeland into the wilderness, walking through the desert to the place where God had first called to himself a people. On this reverse exodus, tracing the journey of the people of Israel back into the desert lands, Elijah, too is sustained by heavenly food: the bread made by angels sustained him, fortified him at the time at which was ready for his own life to be taken away, to starve himself intentionally to death.

At the mountain, Elijah is commanded to make ready to encounter God: he leaves the cave in which he had hidden himself, and awaits God. And the destroyer of God’s enemies by fire and sword clearly expects God to reveal himself in destruction: a terrifying wind that split mountains and rocks, a devastating earthquake and a great fire ‘passed before the Lord’. But God was not in the signs of destruction. God was neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. ‘After the fire there was a sound of sheer silence’, and it was in the silence after the fury, in the empty space after the destruction, that God was. God meets the perpetrator turned victim in the silence of destruction of fire, wind and shattered rocks, and hears and answers him. And God gives his prophet a new vision, and a new direction; he sends Elijah away to consecrate new rulers for a new era: Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his own disciple.

God is in the silence following the destruction. God is not the means of destruction. Which is why for many of us, President Truman’s thanksgiving prayer for the fact the atomic bomb ‘has come to us; … and we pray that God may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes’ may strike a jarring note (Truman Papers, 97). Yes, God is there where the high winds of destruction battle the landscape so that rocks crumble. Yes, God is there where the devastating fire scorches all it consumes. Yes, God is there where the earth quakes and destroys. But God is neither the earthquake, nor the whirlwind, nor the fire: neither at Mount Horeb, nor at Nagasaki. Yes, God is there where the world is shaken and destroyed, but God is not the source of destruction – even if called down by those who, like Elijah and President Truman, firmly believed themselves to be on God’s side.

Instead, God is there in silence, ready to give new direction, to inspire to choose new and better rulers, to sustain and uplift. God is there in the silent space that enables his people to take stock of the devastation, and to begin to breathe again where fire and wind fanned flames that killed and destroyed. That sheer silence that is a sign that God himself is present.

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That silence is not an empty space. It is a space for life, a life-giving space. In our Gospel reading we see that silence filled with words, filled by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 6.35-51). Jesus speaks words of hope and trust into the silence left by destruction and devastation, suffering and sadness. Jesus speaks words of life into this world of so many deaths. ‘This is the will of the Father who sent me’, Jesus says, ‘that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’. And just so that we can take comfort and hope that this promise is not an empty space, but a life-filled, life-giving space, Jesus makes his promise again: ‘This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who believe in the Son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6.39-40).

The fruits of this life-filling space that is promised for all who have ears to hear, to listen out for it in the midst of even the greatest catastrophe; the fruits of this life-giving space are forever just as they are for now. Yes, Christ will raise up those who trust in him on the last day. Those are the eternal fruits of that life-giving space of God’s presence. But there are fruits to be reaped in every generation. Fruits that stand at the heart of our reading from the epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4.25-5.2): fruits that flourish where we ‘put away from us all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice’ (Ephesians 4.31). Fruits that flourish where we are ‘kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us’ (Ephesians 4.32). Fruits that will bear real fruit now: and fruit that will last (John 15.16). We bear this lasting fruit where we become ‘imitators of God’, see ourselves no longer as different, but as family adopted by God, ‘beloved children who live in love’ (Ephesians 5.1).

We bear this precious fruit where we live in the way ‘Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5.1). Christ calls us to bear that costly fruit, and promises us that when we bear the fruit that lasts, God the Father will give us ‘whatever we ask in Christ’s name’ (John 15.16).

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‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’, Jesus tells his hearers (John 6.47). As we stand in silence and contemplate the horror and terror of war, both conflicts past, such as the cataclysmic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and conflicts present, it is my prayer that, in our silence, we may find the life-giving space, life-shaping space where God reveals himself.

It is my prayer that by our living as imitators of God we may attune our ears to listen out for that God-given space, that God-given word, even in the midst of the din of destruction, and the clamour of conflict. And it is my prayer that having heard God’s word to us, we may recognise the God among us in our neighbours, committing ourselves to the work of reconciliation and peace, ‘for we all are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4.25).

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21).

God’s Angels: Messengers of hope in a world of conflict

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels 2014:

Angels

Today’s readings (Daniel 7.1-18, Revelation 11.9-12.10, John 1.45-51) set before us dramatic visions of the end-times that tell of the terror of destruction and war: they remind us of the political, military and spiritual causes of conflict, and paint a sweeping picture of the disregard for human life when powers wage war against one another. At the same time, our readings set before us the assurance of a just ruler, ‘one like a Son of Man’, who will break this cycle of violence, who will prepare a place of safety for his own and, ultimately, will bring in his realm of peace. Until that time, our readings assure us, the people of God journey together protected by the hand of God, and aided in hope by the ministry of Michael and the angels whose festival we mark today.

Our first lesson, from the prophecy of Daniel (Daniel 7.1-18), retells a terrifying night vision the prophet received in the form of ‘dreams and visions of his head as he lay in bed’ (Daniel 7.1). In his blood-filled dream Daniel saw four mythical animals, each representing an ancient middle-Eastern empire, each riding to power on the crest of a tidal wave of war, each animal devouring one another. In their struggle for political and military supremacy, many lost their lives: the prophet describes this incredible loss of lives in terms of a savage beast ‘devouring many bodies’ (Daniel 7.5). After the mass destruction of three successive empires raking across the nations of the Middle East, the final empire destroyed all that remained: ‘devouring, breaking in pieces and stamping what was left with its feet’ (Daniel 7.7). The motivation for this mass destruction is the human desire to affirm superiority: Daniel’s dream tells how the empire’s leader asserted the power he gained through terror and destruction ‘arrogantly’ (Daniel 7.8).

Where our first lesson speaks of the terror of human powers contending with one another, our second lesson from the Revelation of John the Divine (Revelation 11.9-12.10), speaks of another form of war: that of the powers of heaven; a spiritual war made visible in the message of our seer. The power of evil manifested in the form of a ‘great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns on his head’: a powerful beast that already holds many human empires in its sway—the seven crowns tell of the dragon’s temporal power—and that now contends for the power of heaven: ‘his tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth’ (Revelation 12.4). Its object of destruction is not only the firmament and the earth below but humanity and its relationship with God: ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12.1). In John’s vision humanity stands at the heart of the cosmos: the miracle of new human life in the form of a heavily-pregnant woman enrobed in the powers of sun and moon, yet at her most vulnerable, ‘crying out in birth-pangs in the agony of giving birth’ (Revelation 12.2).

The object of destruction in both end-time visions is vulnerable humanity. Temporal and spiritual powers contending to assert their authority over the created order. Both visions place the human race at the heart of God’s universe; both speak of human frailty when faced with such overpowering adversaries. And both visions clearly identify the source of this terror: human and superhuman arrogance—the inordinate desire to dominate and destroy, suborn and obliterate. At the same time both visions also speak of the timeless hope for those who contend with the—equally timeless—manifestations of the human struggle for dominion: the vision of a divine ruler who will break the cycle of violence and bring in his kingdom of justice and peace.

Daniel’s ‘Son of Man’ to whom was ‘given dominion and glory and kingship’, the One whom ‘all peoples, nations and languages shall serve’ (Daniel 7.14). The ruler foreseen by the Divine John, who will bring to the universe ‘the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God’ (Revelation 12.10). A ruler who is ‘like a Son of Man’, yet the eternal Lord: who is both human and divine. A ruler who was at the beginning and will have endless sovereignty: who holds together the eternal and the temporal in a single span. A ruler who shows his power in weakness: who defeats the powers of destruction by his own death; who receives glory and kingship by first ascending to the throne of the cross. That ruler is Jesus Christ, our Gospel reading tells (John 1.45-51).

It is the ascent to the cross, John’s Gospel asserts, that confirms Christ’s sovereignty over the people of God, and his identity as the Son of God. In the brief encounter between Philip, Nathanael and Jesus, that stands at the heart of this morning’s Gospel reading the two Galileans immediately identify the teacher seated under the fig-tree as the man of Daniel’s vision: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’, Nathanael exclaims (John 1.49). And Jesus tells Nathanael that he will ‘see greater things’ than a man who can judge the purity of his heart and know and declare him to be ‘an Israelite in whom there is no guile’: ‘Amen, amen, I tell you: you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1.51).

John’s Gospel leaves no doubt that the moment at which Nathanael’s ‘greater vision’ is fulfilled is the moment at which Christ breathes his last on the cross and confirms, ‘it is accomplished’ (John 19.30). Where the bystanders saw Jesus breathe his last, the universe witnessed the sending out of the Holy Spirit, and ‘heaven opened’ to reveal God’s glory and sovereignty (John 1.51, 19.31). Where the bystanders saw an ignominious death, the universe witnessed the triumph of the war of heaven: the Archangel Michael and ‘his angels fighting against … the deceiver of the whole world’ (Revelation 12.7-8). Where the bystanders saw the execution of a condemned man, the cosmos saw the restoration of the connection between heaven and earth by the ministry of the angels: ‘angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ on the cross as on a ladder (John 1.51).

The dramatic and disturbing visions held before us this morning are as much visions of the past as they are visions of the future. Some aspects of them might even seem to us to be visions of the present, as the nations of the Middle East once again ride the precarious crest of a tidal wave of destruction and turmoil. Yet they also assure us that held against the human tide that seeks to destroy and sever the relationships between humans and God, is God’s tide of grace: grace that has been won on the cross, grace that already has restored, and forever continues to seek to restore, the relationships between God and humankind.

In this ebb and flow of human ambition, arrogance and sin, and divine grace, it is the angels of God who are the messengers of our hope. For they continually make known the message of heaven open and grace bestowed as they ascend and descend upon the crucified and glorified Son of Man. With the cross a ladder that spans heaven and earth, and that forever recalls the Fount of Grace, God’s angelic messengers proclaim on earth the message of a righteous ruler and judge, who seeks the friendship and welfare of all people. Just as they have done at the time of the birth of the Son of Man and Son of God in Bethlehem, when they sang of God’s vision for his world to become his kingdom of peace and goodwill for all humankind, so they still make known the message of that kingdom today.

We may not be given the vision to behold God’s angels as the winged warriors of heaven led by the powerful Archangel Michael. Yet we will, without doubt, encounter God’s angels as we journey to God’s kingdom. The Greek word, angelos from which we derive our word ‘angel’, first of all means ‘messenger’: a messenger of the Good News that God will guide his people through the skirmishes of life to a place of peace. We all will have encountered angels that shared this hope with us in times of difficulty—they may have been a neighbour, a friend, a member of your family, a colleague, or your priest. We all are called to share in the ministry of the angels, are all called to become messengers of God’s Good News: that warfare and terror will not have the final word, that the ultimate conflict has already been fought and won, and that God seeks peace for his world and his people.

As we give thanks for the many messengers of God, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we too might become messengers of God’s hope in our own generation: share here on earth the ministry of his angels, his messengers, in heaven.

Now to him, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him, to him be glory in the Church now and and forever. Amen (1 Peter 3.22).