imageSermon for Evensong on the 15th Sunday after Trinity, 8th September 2013

John 5:30-47 – ‘The works that the Father has given me to complete, … testify … that the Father has sent me.’

Last week I had a few days’ holiday in Italy, in one of Palladio’s villas, outside Vicenza. You’ll be relieved to know that I will spare you my holiday stories – and you’ll be even more relieved that you won’t have to soldier through the 383 pictures that I took. No lantern slides here at St Mary’s!

What I do want to mention is something strange which happened last week, which actually happened to all of us; it was on the news, not just in Italy. But it struck me perhaps more than it would otherwise have done, because I was getting the news each morning by downloading my English newspaper on to my iPad; it was my only source of news, as I wasn’t listening to the radio or watching the TV – indeed the Villa Saraceno didn’t have a TV.

I’d flown out on Tuesday and I stayed through till Saturday afternoon. When I set out, the situation in Syria was very bleak – as indeed it is today. The new development then was the dreadful use of chemical weapons, most likely by the Assad regime, and the way in which the USA and our own government were shaping up to react. ‘Assad must be punished’ was the line. There was a perception that the United Nations was deadlocked, and that it was unlikely that there would ever be a resolution from the United Nations permitting military action against the Assad regime.

So the government proposed a motion in the House of Commons which would lead on, if it were passed, to a further motion which would authorise British forces to attack Syria.

I should pause at that point, before everybody in church walks out, and say that nearly everything one can say, in this context, is capable of more than one interpretation: so I should say that all that this is describing is my perception, and I’m quite prepared for somebody to tell me that my perception, for example of the precise meaning and intention of the motion which was proposed to the House of Commons, is not exactly accurate. The important thing, from the point of view of this sermon, is what it looked like to me, and on that I can be a reliable guide.

So on Wednesday and Thursday, my friends and I in the Villa spent the days against a background where we felt that it was highly likely that within days there would be military action against Syria by British and American forces. Indeed there was evidence of a major military force in the Mediterranean – American warships, British Typhoon jets and so on – all being assembled.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up on Friday morning, switched on my iPad and downloaded the newspaper. I saw on the front page a headline to the effect that the motion in the House of Commons had been defeated – convincingly defeated. The Prime Minister had said, ‘I get it’ and had assured everybody that there was no longer any question that Britain would become involved in warlike activity in Syria.

I have to tell you that I have not recently read the front page of a newspaper and had such a feeling of excitement and surprise as I did when I read the front page of the paper as it appeared on my iPad last Friday morning. I quickly pulled on my dressing gown and went out into the breakfast room, where my friends were already gathering for breakfast.
The friends I was with are Americans, so there was perhaps an added poignancy about the situation. I told them what had happened. The interesting thing was that they were not upset. We all expressed a great feeling of relief and joy that our parliament had not done the conventional thing and supported the Prime Minister’s motion. As the day unfolded, we did make an effort to look at the BBC website, and we saw that there were already people saying that the special relationship with the United States was over, that Britain had forfeited its position in the world, that Mr Cameron had been inept in the way he had prepared the motion, and so on and so forth.

But we did not feel any worse. Neither side, neither the American friends nor I as a Brit. Rightly or wrongly, we felt that something greater was at work. Indeed, we dared to think that perhaps the Holy Spirit was at work here. Everybody acknowledged that what was going on in Syria – what continues to go on – is truly dreadful, that something must be done to stop the suffering and the killing.

But we also really doubted whether more warlike activity was going to produce the peace and security that Syria so badly needs. Can you really change the mind of a brutal leader by launching a cruise missile at him and killing some of his people – probably together with some other people as well, who are not involved? What would the consequences of a major attack by ourselves and the Americans be likely to be? Somehow this message had got through to enough of the MPs in Parliament for them not to accept the proposal, and to vote for peace instead.

In so doing they were definitely doing something unconventional. They were breaking a lot of the conventional rules of so-called good government. If a government threatens against another government, ‘If you do this, then we will do that’, and they do this, then conventional wisdom says that you have to do that in response. But we didn’t. Somehow the MPs perceived a higher force, a greater principle, than just the narrow question of the conventions of the English constitution.

I think you can look at our story from St John’s gospel in much the same way, and I think from it one can gain some real encouragement that what has happened in relation to Syria so far is a glimmer of hope, and it shows the Holy Spirit at work, it shows God at work.

If you read the whole of chapter 5 in St John’s gospel, before the passage which we had as our second lesson, the background is that Jesus healed a sick man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been ill for 38 years, lying by the pool but unable to get into the healing water: and Jesus did it on the Sabbath day. The Jews went after Jesus, saying that he was wrong to heal people on the Sabbath. Jesus answered them, ‘My father is still working, and I also am working’. He was working – just as I think God is working in relation to the rather unconventional position taken by Parliament in relation to Syria.

God is working. The Jews were even more incensed, because they thought that Jesus was blaspheming in referring to God as his own father. It never occurred to them that He was in fact God. Jesus gives an explanation to them. ‘I can do nothing on my own. I seek to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me,‘ and so on, contrasting the witness of John the Baptist with the witness of Jesus’ heavenly Father at the moment when Jesus was baptised: you will remember, a voice from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’, (Luke 3:22).

This passage was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It begins, ‘Now in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, there is a pool, called in Hebrew, Bethesda’. That would imply that when John was writing this, Jerusalem was still intact. So it means that this account was written no more than 30 years or so after Jesus‘ death. It is authentic – but what it described was extraordinary. It broke the rules. Jesus did the sort of things that no-one had ever seen before.

But nevertheless He did them. As Jesus said, ‘The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me’. This is much greater authority than the law of Moses, than the tradition of the Jews.

Well I don’t know whether it’s completely fanciful, but I am hearing echoes in my mind of the situation last week. Unheard of for Parliament in effect to disobey the government of the day in a context where foreign affairs were concerned and there was the imminent prospect of major warlike activity. If the Prime Minister says ‘War’ then the parliamentary convention is that Parliament supports him. But they didn’t; they didn’t, because they perceived something higher.

Maybe not many of them would acknowledge that it was the Holy Spirit at work, but it might explain my reaction, when I saw that newspaper headline, first thing in the morning in Italy; the strange warmth I felt. My heart lurched. Something very special had begun to happen.

Of course God moves in very mysterious ways. The poor Syrians are still fighting. The G20 summit did not produce any agreement between the various great powers. But nevertheless America and Britain are now looking much more carefully at whether the use of force is a complete solution, or whether there might be a better alternative that does not involve more death and destruction.

On the one hand, the law, the law of Moses. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Punishment, the punishment to fit the crime, perhaps. On the other hand, a recognition that two wrongs don’t make a right, that what is needed is not more violence and force.

I believe that what happened last week showed a glimmer of hope. It may not have followed the rules, just as Jesus didn’t follow the rules in Bethesda – but it showed that God is working.