The Lord God says this:
‘My plans for you are for peace, not for disaster;
To give you a future, a future filled with hope.’
‘My plans for you are for peace.’ (Jer 29:11)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Dear friends and people of good will
The news and images from Ukraine in recent days are truly devastating. Our eyes are filled with tears; tears of anguish and tears of sorrow. Our hearts are heavy, weighed down with immeasurable sadness. God’s plan for his people is peace, not disaster, not war. But peace in Ukraine has been stolen and the consequences are disastrous.
Before I say anything else, it is so important for you to know, dear brothers and sisters from Ukraine – and for your fellow countrymen and woman suffering in your beloved homeland – that we stand with you. We stand with you shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, and soul to soul. We stand with you in undivided solidarity, as must every person and nation that believes in peace.
I am British by birth; but like so many people across the globe I have become Ukrainian in spirit. We are one with you. We are one with you in faith, one with you in prayer, one with you in grief, and one with you in hope.
The invasion of Ukraine is an act of unjustified aggression against a democratic and sovereign nation. It has brought war to your people and to Europe. Since early Thursday morning we have watched in desperate disbelief as your country has been violated; and it continues. The death toll is rising. Each day loved ones are being killed. Families are being torn apart and people displaced. Those who, only a few days ago, were residents are now refugees. The sick and the elderly, babies and young children, are forced underground as life is threatened and homes are destroyed. This is outrageous. It is outrageous before Almighty God, it is outrageous before the world.
Dear friends, no right-thinking person, no right-thinking nation, can possibly believe that, in our day and age, this attack is acceptable in any sense. Unwarranted oppression casts its dark shadow across your country and our continent; and we weep. We weep before God who demands that war must cease. We weep before God who demands this war in Ukraine must end. We weep before God for all those who have already lost their lives.
I am not a politician. I am not a statesman. I am a disciple and a shepherd. I follow the Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. I, with so many others, long and yearn for all God’s people to be gathered in unity and harmony. Christ our Saviour commands that we love one another; and he permits no exceptions. This is not some fanciful ideal. His commandment to love our neighbour cuts to the heart of what it means to be human, of what it means to belong to the human race, of what it means to share the earth as our common home.
When anyone chooses violence to achieve their goal, nobody wins. Everyone loses in war and the face of humanity is disfigured. We cannot, none of us, be indifferent to the evil taking place in Ukraine. We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We each have responsibility for one another, person for person, and nation for nation.
Today, we heard the Gospel of the Last Judgement as recorded by St Matthew. It makes for exacting hearing, but we must listen attentively. ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters,’ says the Lord Jesus, ‘know that you do it to me.’ Actions have consequences. Everyone, one day, will stand before God to give an account of their choices. What have we done to others? How have we treated the weakest and the poorest? When could we have acted for good, acted in love, acted for peace, but chose not to? When could we have protected the innocent, defended the helpless, and strengthened the weak, but instead imposed our will, trampled down human rights, and extinguished hope? Not all justice is achieved in this life. The ultimate judgement belongs to God. Let the words of Christ thunder from the heavens: ‘What you are doing to the least of my brothers and sisters you are doing to me.’
My friends, we can feel paralysed in the face of military might and political will. We ask ourselves, what difference can I make? I am nothing; nothing but a powerless witness to bloodshed, to a country and people torn apart. There is, and will be, material support that we can and must give. But there is another battle in which we can take up arms from afar. It is the spiritual battle for conversion which can only be won by prayer.
Every war that plays out its ugly terror is first conceived in the heart. It comes from within, from a fixation to dictate, from an obsession to dominate by force. When the Bible speaks about the heart, it refers to the deepest truth of the person. ‘It is from within,’ said the Lord Jesus, ‘from within the human heart, that evil plans emerge.’ (Mk 7:21)
We must pray for the conversion of heart of all those who think war is the answer. We must pray they come to their senses. We must pray the scales fall from their eyes to see that nothing enduring, nothing honourable, nothing true and nothing holy, is ever built through warfare. We must pray that everyone committed to war has their heart broken; broken open to embrace peace.
As we pray in earnest for the people and government of Ukraine, we pray also for the courageous people of Russia who are raising their voices to say ‘no to war.’ Only hearts that seek peace can lay claim to civilised humanity. War should have no place in anyone’s heart. War only ever destroys our present and poisons our future. No to war, yes to peace. Through our words and actions, through the words and actions of governments, we must make this real. No to war, yes to peace.
Today’s Gospel places a question on all our lips: ‘Lord, when did we see you in need and did not come to your aid?’ When did we see you bombed and wounded, oppressed and persecuted, driven from your home, terrorised with fear, and not help you? ‘I tell you solemnly,’ said the Lord Jesus, ‘in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you neglected to do it to me.’ Lord, break every war-filled heart, and give us new hearts for peace. Lord, break every stubborn, arrogant, and selfish heart, and give us new hearts for justice.
We turn to our Blessed Lady, to our Mother Mary, Queen of Peace, and we beg in prayer that she intercede for all her suffering children.
May God’s plan for peace triumph; may God bring forth a new future filled with hope. May God bless everyone who is working for peace. Amen.
+ John Wilson
Metropolitan Archbishop of Southwark