It is, admittedly, with some trepidation that I have come to lead us all in Evensong this evening. After the horrific events earlier this week at the 16th century St Etienne’s church in Normandy, there is, unfortunately, a small amount of fear in coming to church, to worship God together, at all. I suspect mine was not the only mind whose thought this crossed tonight.
For, as I’m sure we’re are aware, on Tuesday morning, whilst saying mass with a small, faithful congregation in an ancient church, Father Jacques Hamel was murdered, martyred at the altar, by two young men, eager to perpetuate and escalate a religious war.
I am very glad to see that you are here with me this evening. I am glad to see that you have, consciously or not, made a decision to not let the main weapon of terrorism – that of fear – win over your desire to congregate and to worship God together.
I’d like, this evening, for us to think about Father Jacques, and the reaction of the world to the events of this week.
While planning tonight’s sermon, I came across the following piece Father Jacques had written in his church newsletter earlier only a few months ago, to celebrate Easter and encourage his congregation. I’d like to read it to you now; please excuse my (and Google Translate’s) potentially poor translation. It is, being about Easter, not particularly topical in terms of the Church calendar. In terms of the spirit of the piece, however, I think it is particularly of the moment:
At the end of Lent, we celebrate the risen Christ. It's the biggest party of the year. It is a culmination. This festival tells us why Jesus came into our humanity. He came that the whole world might be saved.
In this year of mercy, Easter fully reveals the merciful heart of God. He gave us his Son, and with Him, he gave us everything in order for us to live for love.
Jesus, face of the tenderness of God, went to the very ends of love. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lays down his life for his friends." And as much love as this could never be lost. God, his Father and our Father, raised him. And in this mystery of faith, each of us has already been risen with him.
Easter is also a time when we renew the faith we stated in our baptismal vows. This faith, a gift of God, calls us to be witnesses of the merciful Father. We are baptised to witness to God's love for each and every person. Because we are all brothers and sisters. Let us, then, live as children of light, radiating the love of God.
"This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be joyful and be glad in it." A joy that is born of our participation in the life of God, the knowledge of his presence in us, and the experience of forgiveness, both received and given. Christ is risen! It is a mystery, a secret; a secret that God gives us to share.
If we have doubts or fears, if our faith is small, or even if our faith is more mature, let us continue to follow Christ. Our world needs so much hope! Let us concentrate on serving God’s Word. It constantly tells us of the merciful heart of God.
His breath within us, the spirit of freedom and joy.
Father Jacques' message is a poignant message in the light of his death, and the manner in which it occurred. It is a message that speaks of resurrection, of hope, and mercy, and love. From what I have read of the man, it is not one he would want to retract now, were he even able to do so.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s events, the Pope spoke of his horror and sorrow, and the Catholic bishop of Rouen stated that the Church’s only weapons against terrorism were “prayer and brotherhood among people of good will.”
This is, of course, correct. If we, as Christians, are to follow the example of Christ, and, indeed, of Father Jacques, a priest, representing Christ here on earth, we cannot return violence with violence. Christ showed us a way – the only way – to break this vicious cycle; to refuse to fight and to turn the other cheek.
As Gandhi reportedly said, referring to Old Testament law, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” If we only ever return killing with killing, all we will end with is mutually assured destruction. The pattern must be stopped. Christ, too, as we know referred to this law, telling us how to change the story: “you have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also.”
We are called to follow Christ, even unto death should that be the call. “Do not resist an evildoer.”
This isn’t wimping out, or giving up; it is the answer to extremism. It is the real extreme of Godly activity; not humankind being willing to kill for God, but God being willing to die for humankind. Only this way can the cycle end.
Martin Luther King once said the following – I suspect you know it:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.
Christ spoke of that, too – “You have heard it said ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’, but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
He showed it too, his words on the cross, praying for his own persecutors and killers – “forgive them Father, they know not what they do”.
I hope we can pray that this week, for those around the world who believe that violence is a solution, for those who cry out for revenge over reconciliation, and for those who believe that killing is the work of God.
We must strive to love our enemies. We must pray for those that persecute us.
We must pray for the souls of those two young men, who took the life of Father Jacques, and for others who may be planning similar things. We must love them. We are commanded to.
Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.