Sermon for Sunday, 10 May 2020 VE Commemoration
By Revd Canon John Robertson
Director of Ecumenical Mission, Milton Keynes Mission Partnership
Bible readings: Micah 4: 1–4 & Revelation 22: 1–5
Lord God, in whom is our healing and our hope, grant us courage and faithfulness that we may follow the way of the cross marked out by Jesus and so join the joyous triumph of his resurrection.
Today seems very odd.
Great things were planned: a celebration of 75 years of peace in Europe, of the beginning of the end of a global conflict that sucked a whole generation into its violence and evil, of the courage and sacrifice of many, those who lost their lives and those who bore the scars, of those, who, with a vision of hope for a different future toiled through the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation to create a new and lasting peace. That planned-for celebration feels thwarted by events. In the face of the very different threat posed by COVID-19, with its uncertainty and fear, its immediate legacy of pain, death and grief, this feels an odd moment to celebrate. And yet here we are. Sometimes celebration is not easy.
Celebration would not have been easy for the first recipients of that extraordinary book we know as Revelation. In many ways, ‘locked down’ by the Roman Empire, life for the fledgling churches of Asia Minor was a serious challenge. With the ever-present threat of persecution by Rome, the temptation to conform to their surrounding culture and stay under the radar would have been very real. When John writes to them, he doesn’t sugar-coat his message, exposing the sorry attempts to conform: the individual letters to the churches which fill chapters 2 and 3 do not hold back in their criticism, identifying a range of unacceptable practices from eating food sacrificed to idols to consorting with a Jezebel figure and some shady characters called Nicolaitans. The net result from John’s perspective, is a lukewarm church. John’s criticisms are all very well, but for those living under the shadow of the Roman Empire, life is not that simple: Rome dominates all horizons, being out of step risks suspicion, poverty, death. Rome is the reality with which everyone has to do. The psychological effect of Roman power on day-to-day life cannot be underestimated: it becomes difficult to imagine a different world. The churches have become trapped, unable to see beyond the obvious reality of Roman power.
It is that situation which John addresses for the rest of his book. And so he writes to open the eyes of the churches, to enable them to see things differently. He offers a vision, a door standing open in heaven (4: 1), by which his readers may perceive a bigger picture. Through the door lies a picture of God seated on a throne, Lord of all that is and surrounded by praise:
‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.’
Over against the apparent day to day reality of Roman power, John places the absolute reality of God, before whom all other pretensions to power pale into insignificance. Lift your eyes, says John, and see that there is something much greater than Rome, snap out of your limited vision, see Rome for what it is, live from a different perspective altogether. The emperor may claim to be a god, but such a claim is utterly empty in the light of the absolute reality of God.
Not only so, but through a series of fantastical visions, John exposes Rome as the puppet of evil, a tyrannous regime manifesting all that is opposed to God. The Roman empire is not something to accept easily, not something to which to conform, but is to be resisted as the evil which it is. And be in no doubt, says John, the victory of God over evil is assured, this new Babylon of Rome will fall, evil will be vanquished, there will be a new Jerusalem, the river of the water of life will flow from the throne of God (22: 1). So, in the face of the oppression of Rome, John gives the beleaguered churches hope, he gives them a vision to live towards, he encourages faithfulness and courage, he gives them a God to believe in.
The Revelation of John is a tract against tyranny. It was understood as such by the Germans within the churches who resisted Nazism. Victory in Europe should never be understood as a victory over a nation or a people, but as a victory over tyranny. But what is the nature of that victory? How is victory to endure and open into peace? How is it to avoid the easy descent into a tyranny of the new victors? Here again, Revelation points the way.
At the heart of that final vision of the throne of God in chapter 22 is the figure of the Lamb. ‘The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city’, says John. John first introduces us to the Lamb at the beginning of his vision in chapter 5, where, rather than an image of power, John sees a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the centre of the throne. John points us towards Jesus, and particularly towards Jesus on the cross, entering the suffering of the world, bearing the consequences of human evil and violence, absorbing them into God, drawing their power, neutralising them. It is this Jesus, now risen and ascended, who stands at the centre of the throne of God. It is this Jesus who has triumphed over evil on the cross, whose victory is assured. It is only by way of the cross that any victory is meaningful, for the cross breaks the cycle of violence which sets people against one another, the cross opens out a path of forgiveness and reconciliation, the cross makes peace, real peace, possible. On either side of the throne of God and the Lamb in John’s vision grows a tree of life, the leaves of which, John says, are for the healing of the nations (22: 2). The victory of the cross is one which issues in lasting peace. It is only, then, as we allow the cross to shape our lives that we can continue to celebrate a victory of peace.
That last remark is important. For a VE Day celebration looks not only to the past and its heroes, but to the future and the continuing battle against all forms of tyranny in which we are all enlisted. We are called to live those cross-shaped lives which work for peace, resisting evil, offering reconciliation and hope. Whilst we celebrate 75 years of peace, we cannot be complacent about our present or our future, but continue to root ourselves faithfully in the cross of the risen Jesus and in his victory over evil that we may live in hope for a peaceful future. And if we find ourselves now in the strange new world shaped by COVID-19, we do well to recognise the challenge to peace that it may well represent as nations jockey for resources, economies falter, businesses fail, unemployment and poverty rise, xenophobia grows, uncertainty and fear set in, for these are the very soil from which tyranny and violence may grow once more. We will need to be vigilant. We will need to dig deep into our faith.
It is not easy to celebrate today. Yet it is important that we do so. Not perhaps with bunting and balloons, but with the deeper joy which comes from the knowledge of peace once achieved and with the courageous hope that peace is always possible through the cross of the risen Jesus.