27th June 2024

A sermon for the third Sunday after Trinity

Sunday 16 June 2024, 3rd Sunday After Trinity

A sermon by Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury.

2 Corinthians 5: 6–17



I was looking forward to my eighth birthday. It was going to be extra special. We would be spending it with Pappou and Yiayia (which is what Greek children call their grandparents). We would be spending it at their summer house by the sea in Kyrenia, on the north coast of Cyprus. There would be ice cream, and swimming, and Yiayia’s dolmades – stuffed vine leaves – which were and are a favourite. Best of all, I had been told that Pappou had bought me a new diving mask, snorkel, and flippers, and I couldn’t wait to use them.

But it was not to be. Three days before my birthday the armed forces of Turkey invaded Cyprus by sea and by air, landing on one of the beaches where I was looking forward to swimming. There were four weeks of fighting across the north of the island. One thousand soldiers were killed. Pappou and Yiayia sheltered in the basement of their flat in Nicosia before coming to stay with us in England. The house by the sea was lost – together, presumably, with the diving mask, snorkel, and flippers. Cyprus was divided in two, and occupied by Turkey. Aged eight, I found it very hard not to take this international incident very personally.

I mention it now because last week we celebrated the feast of St Barnabas, the first bishop of Cyprus, and because next month it will be fifty years since that invasion took place. Fifty years, and although Britian was a guarantor of the sovereignty of Cyprus its occupation I doubt it will feature in any election manifesto. Fifty years, and nearly one thousand people are still missing from those four weeks of conflict. The occupation has become normalized. Holidaymakers swim from the beach where I had hoped to swim fifty years ago, the beach where the troops landed, and my grandparents’ house remains in the hands of the Turkish military.

Barack Obama had some beautiful words woven into a rug for his Oval Office: ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Beautiful, but dangerous. They suggest that the arc of history is an actor, that it has agency, and that it directs itself along its chosen trajectory. If in the case of Cyprus the arc of the moral universe has done its bending then its destination – a decades-long stalemate – does not appear just to many Cypriots. I think they would argue that their arc of history has further bending still to do. Fifty years have passed: the arc is not merely long, it is very long indeed.

In the two parables that comprise our Gospel reading Jesus speaks not of the arc of history but of the kingdom of God. And he makes two points. The first concerns the inexorable nature of the kingdom’s growth. The seed is scattered on the ground, and it sprouts and grows; the tiny mustard seed is sown upon the ground, and it becomes the greatest of all shrubs. The second concerns the total dependence of the kingdom for its growth on God, and the unnecessariness of human involvement in its growth. The scatterer of the seed sleeps and rises, night and day; the seed sprouts and grows, and Jesus adds, ‘he does not know how. The earth produces of itself’. The kingdom of God is coming, and human effort is powerless either to hasten its progress or to halt its progress.
Obama, of course, borrowed those words from Dr Martin Luther King, and I can’t help wondering whether the great preacher had these two parables in mind when he spoke them. ‘The arc of the kingdom of God is long, but it bends towards justice’. That places the just will and just purposes of God at the beginning and end of human history. The kingdom of God is coming, and human effort is powerless to hasten its progress or halt its progress.

That reflects a theological worldview that I encountered when I was in another occupied territory, East Jerusalem. Some of you have heard me speak about Khalil Farhan, the Executive Director of the Municipality of Al Ram, a town just inside the West Bank. The waste disposal station for which he was responsible had been demolished by the Israeli military three weeks earlier, and when we met him he poured out his heart. His whole life had been coloured by the occupation. He had been imprisoned aged fifteen; more than thirty years later he still walks quickly and refuses to smile when he is on the street, for fear of attracting attention. When he leaves for work in the morning, he doesn’t know whether he will return home. ‘But I trust God’ he said, ‘I trust God’s wisdom; my eternal life is with God is Paradise’. Khalil believes that the arc of God’s rule is long, but that it bends towards justice – even if that is not established in his earthly life.

Khalil’s articulation of his faith was deeply humbling. His conviction that our lives are in God’s hands and that in the fullness of time God’s justice will be known and will be made known is the conviction of one whose life has been distorted by injustice. It’s his only hope.

But is it enough for us? I don’t think so – not when the Cyprus stalemate remains unresolved, not when the assault on Gaza continues, not when the sovereignty of Ukraine is violated, and not when we are called to make choices about how we will be governed and by whom for the next five years. It’s not enough.

It’s not enough because St Paul writes ‘…the love of Christ urges us on’. The love of Christ urges us on: it urges us on to live for the one who has died for us, it urges us on to live no longer for ourselves, it urges us on to live for Christ. Our lives are in God’s hands and in the fullness of time God’s justice will be known and will be made known. But there’s a snag: you and I know that, and, knowing that, we cannot escape the obligation that it lays upon us – to love as we have been loved; to serve as we have been served; to live as the Holy One has lived in our midst. Not because our doing that will ‘build the kingdom of God’, in one of those theological errors that Christians make all too easily; not because our doing that will change God’s mind; not because our doing that will force God’s hand; but because we have been plunged into the baptismal waters (as Lydia and Henry will be later this morning) and because we have been raised from them.

We cannot but challenge injustice, whether in the Levant, in Eastern Europe, or in the Home Counties. We are the moral universe, and while our destiny is in God’s hands it’s in our hands to bend the arc.