Lent in a time of war: a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Lent in a time of war: on being marked with the Cross

At the Parish Eucharist on the Second Sunday in Lent, 2022

Philippians 3:18

Last Sunday was the First Sunday in Lent for Western Christians.  For our brothers and sisters in the great Orthodox Churches of the East it was ‘Forgiveness Sunday’, the day before Lent begins.

Observing ‘Forgiveness Sunday’ means that Orthodox Christians enter into the fast of Lent acknowledging how they have sinned against their neighbour, how they have failed to see their neighbour as a child of God.

And last Sunday, ‘Forgiveness Sunday’, 120 kilometres north-west of Moscow, Father Iohann Brandin, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, was preaching at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in his small, rural parish.

In the sermon he told of how Russian forces were shelling Ukrainian cities and killing citizens of Ukraine, those whom he called “brothers and sisters in Christ”. 

He had earlier written on the website of his parish, “We cannot bashfully close our eyes and call black white, evil good”.

Later on Forgiveness Sunday, Fr. Iohann was arrested by Russian police on charges of “discrediting Russia's military efforts in promoting international peace and security”.

On the same day, in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, was also preaching.

He justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine, declaring “We are talking about something … much more important than politics. We are talking about human salvation”.

The invasion of Ukraine was necessary in order to protect “human civilization” against violations of God’s Law.  He focussed on one particular issue to demonstrate how the Russian invasion of Ukraine was protecting “human civilization” - that issue was, believe it or not, gay pride parades.

There was no mention in his sermon of Ukrainian cities being shelled; of Ukrainian women and children being killed; of a peaceful country being attacked by a much stronger neighbour.

No. But gay pride parades were mentioned five times.

There you have it: ‘Holy Russia’ needed to invade Ukraine and bomb Ukrainian cities because of the immense, terrible, looming threat posed by gay pride parades.

Which of these clerics is witnessing to the Cross of Christ, the revelation of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation?

And to which of these clerics do the words of the Apostle Paul, from our first reading, apply: “for many live as enemies of the cross of Christ … Their end is destruction … their glory is in their shame”?

How is it possible to view the grave evil and deep injustice being inflicted on the people of Ukraine - cities ruined, innocents killed, an unjust war unleashed - and somehow think that gay pride parades justify this?

How is it possible to view the grave evil and deep injustice being inflicted on the people of Ukraine - cities ruined, innocents killed, an unjust war unleashed - and believe that this reflects the will and purposes of the God revealed in the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of the Crucified Lord?

As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote in ‘The Times’ last week, attempted religious justification of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a “shocking - not to say blasphemous - absurdity”.

For the first time in living memory for most of us, we are observing Lent in a time of war on the European continent: invasion, air raid sirens, millions of refugees, tanks and artillery shelling historic cities.

And we must, of course, take the themes and readings of Lent and apply them to this situation: the Christian Faith addresses this world, not some abstract ideal untouched by dark, painful, sinful realities.

But we cannot stop there.  It is easy to point out how Patriarch Kirill is radically failing to witness to the Cross of Christ when he seeks to give spiritual justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The words of Saint Paul, however, do not just address Patriarch Kirill this Lent.  They also address us.

On the Sunday before Lent in our parish, we celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We heard the words spoken as the child was signed on his forehead with the Sign of the Cross: “Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of the cross. Live as a disciple of Christ …”.

Each of us has been marked at our Baptism with the Sign of the Cross, a sign that calls us to live as disciples of Christ.

To be bearers of his grace, mercy, and forgiveness. To see our neighbour as Christ sees our neighbour - as a child of God, created in the image of God.

For this to be so, we need to be rooted in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, for it is here that the love of God is revealed and manifested, forgiving us, healing us, restoring us - so that we can be bearers of the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God in Christ.

As a congregation of moderate, modest, reasonable Anglicans in the West, I am guessing very few - if any - of us are tempted by Patriarch Kirill’s agenda of harsh fundamentalism, extremist nationalism, and support for an unjust war of aggression. 

Our temptation is more subtle.  To quietly fit into a secular society, to slowly but surely abandon any talk of cross and resurrection, to consider creeds and sacraments, prayer and confession as rather outdated, and then, one day, to find that there is nothing that distinguishes the Christian or the Church from the culture around us.

Then we empty the Cross of its meaning and significance: no longer the revelation of the love and grace of God, where we encounter mercy and healing, but just an empty symbol.

Then we find that Saint Paul’s words apply to us no less than to Patriarch Kirill: “for many live as enemies of the cross of Christ”.

Lent is a time for self-examination.  A time in heart and soul to acknowledge how and where we fall short in the call given to us as those marked with the Sign of the Cross, to live as disciples of Christ.

This is no less true when we observe Lent in a time of war, as a European country is invaded, ancient European cities are shelled, and European people flee in their millions.

We are called now to be faithful disciples of Christ, not “enemies of the cross of Christ”.

Now, as we witness the blasphemous absurdity of these evil acts being justified in the name of Christ, we are called to demonstrate that following in the Way of the Cross is the way of love, of forgiveness, of grace.  

We are called to show that the toxic mixture of religious fundamentalism and extremist nationalism is not the Way of the Cross.

We are called to show that the Cross is not an empty symbol in a secular society, but a life-giving encounter with the Crucified.

So may this Lent in a time of war draw us closer to the Crucified, that we may more truly, more faithfully live out and witness to the grace, love, and mercy of God revealed in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.


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