‘Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Those familiar words from John’s Gospel are familiar to us from countless war memorials and graves from the two World Wars of the 20th Century. Seventy-five years have passed since the end of the war in Europe, and we mustn’t forget Eastern war didn’t end until August 1945 after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On May 8th 1945 though bells rang out to announce the end of hostilities. On Friday we fell silent once more, unusually in our homes.
We can be grateful our continent has been spared armed conflict on this scale since then. No complacency though: ask the people of Ukraine about that; ask London’s victims of global terror too. We must still be vigilant too: far-right neo-fascist movements seek to reawaken old hatreds gain a voice and hateful through social media. And Brexit notwithstanding, we must still nurture the vision that inspired the architects of the peace: a common European home where we have learned to live together as a community and heal past memories. You cannot stand in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, or in the Frauenkirche in Dresden without recognising this. Every human life lost in the war on either side was unique and precious. We do not forget that today. Because of this attrition, our nations have invested in peace. The memory of sacrifice demands it of us.
How might we respond as Christians as we look back to the 8 May 1945? In the Church of England, 8th May is also the day we remember one of England’s most extraordinary saints, Julian of Norwich, who lived in the fourteenth century. She gave her life to prayer as an anchoress, walled up in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich. People came to her for spiritual guidance. She became famous for the visions she had, which she called her ‘showings’. Julian wrote them down in her book Revelations of Divine Love, still in print and a classic of English spiritual writing. She said, you might almost think for VE Day: ‘He did not say, you shall not be troubled, you shall thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased; but he said, you shall not be overcome.’ She had this deep sense that, whatever life’s circumstances, whatever the trouble or difficulty or pain, whatever the hardships and sufferings, God’s nature and God’s name is love. So her most famous line: ‘all shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.’
That’s a good text for VE Day. When people took to the streets for their ‘brief period of rejoicing’ they began to look forward. They dared to believe that all might ‘be well’. They hoped again. They had suffered grievously. Now they looked forward to healing. Many had faced terrible conflict. Now was the opportunity for reconciliation. They had experienced death and destruction. Now they longed for life and love. I can’t imagine it was easy to think in such a way, because many privations remained. And so many had died. It was probably hard to say it in Julian’s day as well: the Middle Ages were cruel and dangerous for most ordinary people. There are times for all of us when it is still hard to say, and harder still to believe. But Easter, with its death and resurrection story, always requires us to take this massive step of faith. The first Easter day was a hoping against hope that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead. Easter faith dares to believe that God’s love conquers even death, the last enemy. All shall be well.
Sunday is always resurrection day for Christians. Back here in church, at least virtually we gather together on the first day of the week to give thanks once more that God raised Jesus from death and that he is alive forever in our midst and in the life of our world. We acclaim that Jesus is Lord of all things. He fills heaven and earth with his presence, as we shall proclaim on Ascension Day. That means all nations and rulers, the world empires, every human family and institution, even, in the New Testament, powers of darkness and destruction. Because he reigns like this, we can receive strength to do his work on earth. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, so we become peacemakers. Jesus is the Righteous one, so we work for justice in his name. Jesus is Lord of all creation, so we work to preserve the climate and the world’s biodiversity. Jesus is King of kings, so we bring hope in his name, especially when earthly kings prove so fallible. And because Jesus is also Lord of glory and still bears the wounds of the passion, we stand with all who suffer, willing to suffer in his name.
Recent events have underlined the fragility of our world. We in Europe and the United States have perhaps realised that this is more true than perhaps since VE Day 1945. 31,000 dead from Covid-19 and rising – soon five times as many dead as there were civilians killed in World War 1, approaching half the number of civilians killed in World War 2: this reign of the risen Jesus Christ is still to be realised. It is still to come, whether soon or perhaps later. We leave that to God. But the Jesus’s resurrection invites us into a movement of the Spirit of God, bringing his eternal love for the world as we seek to embody and live it in our love for the world and in our service of humanity. Listen to this morning’s second reading: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.“ We give ourselves for others “our friends” and – says Jesus – for our enemies, that all might be reconciled to God and one another. When we do this, we live out the meaning of the cross as the Spirit of Jesus seeks to remake us in his image. The same self-emptying, self-giving, sacrificial love of Jesus. That is how his love manifests itself in the ways his people are good, and merciful, just, and kind, that is to say, when we act out of our true God-given humanity and recognise, with Julian, that in all things, ‘love was his meaning’.
We face a challenging period in our national life, with the consequences of all that this pandemic will bring. As many have noticed, most of us (assuming we don’t succumb to the illness) will be relatively insulated from its consequence. But many of our neighbours won’t. Some in our church won’t. The lesson of the last war is that nationhood, like patriotism, is not enough. National renewal will be more than a few waved flags and a return to a narrative of prosperity narrowly described as economic wellbeing for the most privileged and to the rest the scraps. A better world for all was the vision that sustained those who fought and fell in the war, and the architects of the peace that followed seventy years ago.
Julian of Norwich gives us the inspiration to turn this hope into the prayer that all may be well because, as she says, ‘love is his meaning’. She says: ‘See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it. How can anything be amiss?’.