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Sunday 22 September 2024 Trinity 17, Twenty-fifth in Ordinary time, Proper 20

We are not powerless in the face of war and conflict

James 3:13-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

By Canon Jonathan Brandon

Parish Priest, St Vincent de Paul, Altrincham


Context: a well-educated middle-class parish in South Manchester that is being enriched by the increasing presence of immigrants from India, Hong Kong, and several African countries

Aim: to show how the Scriptures offer us real wisdom in the face the challenge of peace in our current world context

Over the last few years, we have witnessed an aggressive war on our European continent and a renewed outbreak of war in the Holy Land. For those of us who live in the West it is a painful reminder of the fragility of peace. While others here today have direct experience of war in their country of origin. It is estimated that there are more than 110 armed conflicts in the world today.

In the face of these grim ‘facts on the ground’, our first understandable response is discouragement or despair born of a sense of powerlessness or, worse still, indifference. ‘What can I do? I am not a world leader. I am not powerful or influential.’ None of these responses is adequate to our call as Christians.
The living word of God in the Scriptures that we have just heard speaks directly to us and the situation of the world today. This word offers us wisdom, consolation, and a profound realism to challenge the Realpolitik of our world. ‘Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start?’ asks the letter of St James and points us precisely to the human heart. ‘Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? You want something and you haven’t got it; so, you are prepared to kill. You have an ambition you cannot satisfy; so, you fight to get your way by force.’
If we look at any of the conflicts in the world today, is it not true that, when all the complex realities of geo-politics are stripped back, war originates in the human heart – in its restlessness and overweening ambition. Is war between nations not the overspill of war with our very selves? Can not the natural and authentic love of our country, community, or ethnicity be corrupted into nationalism, tribalism, and ethnic hatred. Where does this corruption take place but in the human heart? This is the realism offered by the Scriptures. But the Scriptures offer us wisdom and consolation. If the human heart is the place of corruption, it can also be the place of wisdom, truth, and healing.
James’s letter also points us to pray as the solution. ‘Why you don’t have what you want is because you don’t pray for it …’ Prayer is how the human heart is healed, prayer is the means by which God’s peace is given to the world. All of us, however powerless we may feel, have this great instrument in our hands. But we are tempted to see prayer as a pious retreat from the problems of the world. Is it not the atheist that lies hidden in our hearts that sees prayer as an inadequate response to the great challenge of peace? The letter of James offers us an understanding of prayer that is authentic and real. ‘… when you pray and don’t get it, it is because you have not prayed properly, you have prayed for something to indulge your own desires.’ When we pray, we are not seeking to persuade God to give us something that he does not want to give us. We are not seeking to change his mind. We are collaborating with God bring about what God wants. Through authentic prayer our disordered desires are healed, and we become instruments of God’s will. His will is our peace and the peace of the human family. When we pray for peace, we can be sure that we are praying with God and not ‘against God’.
Peace negotiations, UN resolutions, diplomacy, advocacy, work for peace, are all undoubtedly necessary and indispensable. Politics is a noble profession, yet it is one few of us are called to. Without the transformation of the human heart all these efforts are futile. The battle for peace begins in the human heart, passes through all those political realities and must take root in the human heart.
The Gospel brings us face to face with our human tendency to seek glory in competition with others and so we too can become obstacles to peace in our work, homes, and communities. Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer, die, and rise again. They spectacularly fail to understand. They occupy themselves with questions of power and prestige. Jesus does not deny the human desire for greatness. It is not that we desire too much; it is that we desire too little. Our greatness is to be found not in power and domination but in love and service. The way to glory and peace passes by the way of the Cross.
The Scriptures give us two antidotes for war and conflict: prayer and love expressed in service. We who believe are not powerless in the struggle for peace.

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