Thinking Anew – Easter shows us there is a way through

The hope of “a new heaven and a new earth”

I first met John (not his real name) at the door of a church back in the 1970s. It was Holy Week and we had just finished an evening service with the hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away.

That hymn, said John, brings back memories, and sensing that he wanted to talk, I listened.

He told me that he had served with the British Eighth Army in North Africa in the second World War and that on the eve of the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, a padre held a service for the troops before they went into action. The service ended with the singing of that hymn, and for John, hearing it again brought back memories.

First, the desert location. There wasn’t a blade of grass to be seen anywhere; the green hills he was thinking about that night were at home in Co Down and his family so very far away.


Then there were the close friends killed and wounded in the bloody battle that followed; he still grieved their loss. And finally troubling questions decades later about the morality of war.

Was it possible to reconcile being a Christian with making war?

We may well ask the same question today as we respond to the war in Ukraine.

Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, we mark the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem cheered on by crowds of people, who saw him as a leader who might free them, the Jewish people, from Roman rule, by force if necessary. But he rides a donkey, a sign that he comes not as a militant revolutionary but as a non-violent peacemaker, a position made clearer later that week when Peter drew a sword to protect Jesus at the time of his arrest only to be told by Jesus to put it away. The peace-seeking Jesus of Holy Week may not make much sense to us, but Isaiah explains why with this insight into the mind of God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, And my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while an outspoken critic of the Nazis during the second World War, was initially opposed to using force against Hitler. Nonetheless he recognised that there are times when words are no longer enough; that circumstances may require action: “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Years ago I had an opportunity to spend time with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, who was visiting Dublin. I knew that he had been a tank commander during the second World War so, while taking a morning walk with him, I asked how he reconciled his war service with his Christian vocation.

He paused for a moment before saying that he had struggled long and hard with the question early on, but that all changed when he turned his tank into Belsen concentration camp and witnessed the awful scenes there.

We may look to the Jesus of Holy Week, the Prince of Peace, and think that in this imperfect world that his way is not realistic. We might even go along with the atheist and accept hatred and violence as defining facts of life; that’s just how it is.

But in Holy Week Jesus does these two things. He acknowledges the imperfection of our world, the deadly reality of evil and suffering by submitting to it. For him the terror was real but not final. He goes on to show there is a way through, that beyond the imperfections of this world, no matter how terrible, there is the hope of “a new heaven and a new earth”. The signpost reads Easter.