Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
[Proper 33], rcl yr b, 2021
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; 1 Samuel 2:1-10 as canticle; Mark 13:1-8
Before the end of World War 2, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would join the Abwehr plot to assassinate Hitler. In April, 1945, he would be executed for it at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp.
But a decade earlier, Bonhoeffer gave two speeches in which he would speak of war and peace in very different terms. Bonhoeffer had spoken of war as “certain self destruction” and “absolutely destructive … of the inner life and the external life.” “Today’s war,” Bonhoeffer said, “destroys soul and body.” Not much later, as it was becoming more and more clear that Hitler’s intentions were war, Bonhoeffer would speak unequivocally about the Christian obligation to seek peace: “peace on earth is not a problem,” said Bonhoeffer, “but a commandment given at Christ’s coming.”
This commandment, along with the commandment not to kill, were simply to be followed, for to Bonhoeffer; there are no exemptions, exceptions, or exclusions. They are simply God’s commandments, and God’s commandments are to be followed.
I think of Bonhoeffer often around Remembrance Day, perhaps because he captures something of my own equivocation. On the one hand, to know that God’s command is peace; and on the other, that sometimes we would put ourselves in danger for the sake of a neighbour who is in danger; and that sometimes this means taking drastic means against an aggressor.
Any of these rationalizations of war, though, must contend with passages like the ones we hear today. Our Gospel reading from this week is a small portion of Mark’s Little Apocalypse, a dense chapter of foreboding prophecy. And in this reading we hear Jesus speak of war and rumours of war; and a time when nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
And when Jesus speaks here of nations setting themselves against one another, and of the wars that can come of it, he is speaking of war the way Bonhoeffer spoke of it: as not just something that sets itself against the body, but that also sets itself against the soul. In fact when Jesus speaks of war here, he is speaking of forces so utterly destructive that they attack not only the whole person, but the whole of creation. There are governors, kings, and worldly authorities that are possessed by desires so resistant to the gospel of peace that they will do violence to people of faith; these are the ones who are also willing to pit nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and to wage war to satisfy those desires.
And the forces that would attempt to destroy body and soul through war and conflict are the same forces bent on the destruction of all the good things God has made: forces and powers that would even shake the natural world’s foundations through earthquake and famine.
And if this is true, and Jesus speaks of the war of nations in terms of the elemental destruction of person and world, we would be very cautious about speaking of war in terms of glory. Bonhoeffer himself would not speak of war in terms of glory; nor would he speak of his involvement in an assassination plot in terms of glory. Even as he participated in the plot, even as he seemed to see it as necessary, he would speak of such things not according to glory but according to God’s judgment. Bonhoeffer knew that as he participated in the Abwehr plot, that he wasn’t just putting his body on the line, but that he was putting his soul on the line too.
In the end though, even if Bonhoeffer was right to say that peace is a commandment of God, peace is also more than a commandment. As a commandment, it is one among others; there is, too, the commandment to love your neighbour. And it can’t be love to stand idly by and to watch a neighbour die, can it?
But even this apparent conflict between the commandment to love the neighbour, and the commandment of peace, is not a conflict known in the life of the triune God, a life in which three persons subsist in both peace and a love overflowing. In the Triune God there is difference between persons, but not the sort of difference that sets person against person, or nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom. In the Triune God there is difference without violence.
And this Triune God creates—long before violence is known—the abundance of difference that we find in this world, including the difference between persons, nations, and kingdoms; and so difference itself has its origins not in violence, but in the love and peace of the Triune God. At its heart the creation is already non-violent, social life is already non-violent, and is where difference is not overcome, but known according to its primordial divine peace.
And this is the promise of Jesus—the one who descends into this world where we’ve grown to think and act as though difference can be overcome by violence and love might not have a place; he comes among us as the one who is handed over to worldly authorities who think they can bring peace through his destruction; but the authorities, the governors and the kings unwittingly make the sacrifice that restores peace to the world.
The crucified victim of state aggression does not resist, nor does he take up arms against his assailants, but instead lays down his life for the sake of his neighbour, thus fulfilling both the commandment to love and the commandment of peace.
Our God is a God of both love and peace, seen in Christ because it is first found in the life of the Triune God, the life of God that finds us again through a resurrection and ascension that bring us back into the light of the presence of God, restoring us into the life of the Triune God, into the one in three where there is difference without violence; restoring us, and the whole of creation, into the divine peace and love of God.
The Revd Preston DS Parsons, PhD