On Active Service: Three Priorities in War and Peace

“High Noon” released in 1952, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, is one of my favourite films. Gary Cooper was the sheriff of a small western town. Earlier a gang of four outlaw brothers had terrorized the town. The sheriff had brought them to justice and sent them to prison. 

In prison they vowed that when they got out they would kill the sheriff. The movie focuses on one particular day. The sheriff has just married Grace Kelly. She happens to be a devout Quaker utterly opposed to all violence. The sheriff resigns from law enforcement and the couple are to leave town on their honeymoon. He is going to start a new life as a rancher. Suddenly word comes that the outlaw brothers have been released from prison and are due to arrive that very day on the noon train. Everybody urges the couple to get out of town quickly. They ride away, but the sheriff is troubled. Finally, he turns the wagon around and heads back to town, much to the consternation of his bride.

He cannot stand to run away from his old enemies. He pins the badge back on his shirt. Quickly he tries to round up a posse. It’s a Sunday morning. Lots of people are in church. The sheriff interrupts the service, explains the emergency, and asks the men of the congregation to help him form a posse. Several people stand up and respond. One of them says, “We’d like to help you, Sheriff, but we’re not trained gunmen. That’s what we hire sheriffs for.” Then another says, “You know, Sheriff, we Christians don’t believe in violence.” Still another says, “Sheriff, you’re a brave man but it would probably have been wiser if you had not come back to town.”

The Sheriff turns and walks out in disgust. In the background you hear Tex Ritter singing the theme song-“I do not know what fate awaits me; I only know I must be brave, and I must face the man who hates me, or lie a coward, a craven coward, or lie a coward in my grave.”

How does the movie relate to today Remembrance Sunday? With global events broadcast virtually in real time on our TVs and radios, and the ability to travel to the other side of the world in a day, the world could be compared to a small western town. The United Nations, the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court. These bodies identify who the outlaws are. And the role of sheriff is thrust upon Presidents and Prime Ministers. We are like those citizens in church. What is our responsibility? If you haven’t seen the film I won’t spoil it by telling you the ending. But our Bible reading from Acts 3, leaves us in no doubt as to our three primary Christian responsibilities, whether in time of war or peace. Remember that at the time the church in Jerusalem was living under a harsh and brutal foreign occupation. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured and executed. The police and civil servants, even the religious authorities, were cooperating for the Romans. Spies and collaborators were everywhere. Crucifixions were a daily occurrence. Palestine was a war zone.

So what did the church do in such circumstances?
What the church in Syria is doing today. What the Church in Nigeria, in Iraq, in Iran, in Pakistan, in China are doing – what in fact the church has been doing for 2000 years. Our three primary Christian responsibilities?

  1. To Care for the Vulnerable in Jesus Name

This is so simple, it is easy to miss it. But notice,

1.1 Peter responded to someone in need

Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.” (Acts 3:2-5)

Instead of ignoring the beggar, Peter treated him with respect, as a human being. But Peter knew that money was not his primary need. If we respond to the people around us in need, God will be glorified and people made whole. Are you noticing the needs around you? Peter responded to someone in need.

1.2 Peter only offered what he had

“Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6)

Peter didn’t worry about what he didn’t have – silver or gold. He didn’t have theological training. He had little experience of healing either.

Except what he had seen Jesus do. But Peter offered what he did have. He trusted God for a miracle, and God did not disappoint. Peter’s trust in God made all the difference. Are you trusting God to use you?
Peter responded to someone in need. Peter only offered what he had.

1.3 Peter took him by the hand

“Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. (Acts 3:7-8)

Are we willing to take someone by the hand? Lift them up? Give them hope? In what ever state you find them? We may feel helpless as the Ebola outbreak spreads. What can we do? We are not scientists or doctors> But we can give £2,000 of our mission contingency fund to support Tear Fund’s Ebola Appeal. When we reach out to people with the love that God has shown us, miracles happen. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Never underestimate the power of simple acts of kindness. Our first priority? To care for the vulnerable in Jesus name.

  1. To Oppose Evil in Jesus Name

“While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 3:11-15)

Peter gives Jesus the glory for this man’s healing, but accuses the crowd of being complicit in the death of Jesus. Peter holds them accountable. Only then could the Holy Spirit convict them of their guilt and need of forgiveness. Four times he says “you handed Jesus over to be killed… you disowned him before Pilate… You disowned the Holy and Righteous One… You killed the author of life. But God raised him to life.” If we really love people and see them going astray we will warn them, correct them and, if necessary, rebuke them – not to condemn but to convict. When evil reigns we must speak out. The prophetic role of the church is no less important than the pastoral role. For human suffering is so often the result of greedy or selfish behavior.

Satan is alive and well on planet earth. You don’t have to look far to see. No one in their right mind would defend the utterly evil, atrocities being committed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq or those who threaten terrorist attacks in the UK. But who is funding ISIS? Who is buying the $6 million dollars worth of oil ISIS exports from Syria every day? Look at the map. Its not hard to figure out which countries are profiting from this black market oil. How did the early church see its role in war or peace? Pastoral and prophetic. What are our priorities as a church? To care for the vulnerable in Jesus name. To oppose evil in Jesus name. Our third priority?

  1. To Promise Salvation in Jesus Name

“Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord… Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people.’ “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days… He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” (Acts 3:17-26)

Peter shows from the Bible that what had happened to Jesus was not a tragic accident but was all part of God’s sovereign plan. Because of his great love, God wants to forgive and to bless but it is only possible through trusting in Jesus. Peter spelt out carefully what they must do and what God promised to do.

3.1 Repentance Commanded

“Repent, then, and turn to God”. This is not good advice but a divine command. Repentance means to turn back to God, turn away from our wicked ways, turn toward the Lord Jesus sent to rescue us. Repentance commanded,

3.2 Forgiveness Assured

“Your sins will be wiped out.” Peter promises. Wiped out. Gone forever. No record of them. Forgiven.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18)

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

This is why the message of Jesus is good news! Repentance commanded. Forgiveness assured. And

3.3 Blessings Promised

“That times of refreshing may come…”

“all peoples on earth will be blessed” The reviving blessings of God’s Spirit. The rejuvenating blessings of eternal life. The refreshing blessings of being adopted into God’s family. When we trust in Jesus we are literally born all over again. Repentance commanded. Forgiveness assured. Blessings promised. In our passage this morning we have discovered what our purpose is: To care for the vulnerable in Jesus name. To oppose evil in Jesus name. And to promise salvation in Jesus name. But you may be thinking – but I am not the Apostle Peter. I don’t have the faith for God to use me to perform miracles. I am not articulate or brave enough to speak out against evil. And I’m certainly not an evangelist or preacher. Then remember the scene in the church in High Noon when the sheriff came in looking for a posse. God expects us all to be on active service. We all have a role to fulfill.

During World War II when Britain was experiencing its darkest days, the country had a difficult time keeping men working in the coal mines. Many wanted to give up their dirty, thankless jobs in the dangerous mines to join the military service, which garnered much public praise and support. Yet their work in the mines was critical to the success of the war. Without coal the military and the people at home would be in trouble. So one day, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, gave a speech before a large crowd of coal miners. Churchill painted a picture of what it would be like when the war ended, of the victory parade that would honour the people who fought the war. First would come the seamen of the navy, he said, the people who continued the Tradition of Trafalgar and defeated the Spanish Armada. Next would come the brave few pilots of the Royal Air Force who saved the day in the Battle of Britain. Following them would come the soldiers who had gallantly fought on the beaches of Dunkirk. Then last of all would come the coal-dust-covered men in miners’ caps. And Churchill insisted, if someone from the crowd asked, “And where were you during the critical days of the struggle?” the voices of ten thousand men would respond, “We were deep in the earth with our faces to the coal.” Yes, God expects us all to be on active service. The questions is – are you? Are you on active service? Or have you yet to be enlisted in the Lord’s army?

When you came in today, you should have received this little booklet, “Active Service”. It is a facsimile of the Gospel of John given to service men and women during the First World War. Scripture Gift Mission distributed 43 million items of scripture and this has been reproduced to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War in 1914. Field Marshall Frederick Roberts, was the last Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, a position he held for three years until 1904.

Appointed to the Order of Merit, Roberts died of pneumonia at St Omer, France, during a visit to Indian troops in 1914. After lying in state in Westminster Hall, one of only two non-Royals to do so in the 20th century, the other being Winston Churchill, he was given a state funeral. Inside the gospel is a short message from Lord Roberts, written before he died,

“I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness, and strength when you are in adversity.”

A hundred years on, I am asking you to do the same today. Put your trust in God. He will indeed watch over you and strengthen you in his active service.

In the back of the booklet you will find a decision form.
It was added at the request of chaplains. Men and women were invited to sign it as a gesture of commitment, for their own assurance as they faced their fears of death. Many did drawing comfort and peace from their decision.

Let me read to you the decision many service men and women read and signed 100 years ago.

“Being convinced that I am a sinner, and believing that Christ died for me, I now receive him as my personal Saviour, and with his help I intend to confess him before men.”

If you prayed that prayer for the first time, put your name in your booklet and confess what you have done – tell someone before you leave today. If you prayed a similar prayer in the past, put your name in it today and confess to others what you have done and why.

Together on active service, let us be the church God intends in our generation. Caring for the vulnerable in Jesus name. Opposing evil in Jesus name. And promising salvation in Jesus name.