A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Remembrance Sunday & Centenary of the Armistice
Sunday 11th November 2018
The picture on the front of your order of service today was one I took myself during our church pilgrimage visit to Flanders in the late spring. Graves at Tyne Cot War Cemetery. More striking, but less easy to reproduce, is the panorama shot I took from the central memorial which shows the scope of the slaughter at Passchendaele, with ranks and ranks of graves arranged like a parade ground of the dead. Almost 12,000 lie buried at Tyne Cot. A short drive away 44,000 Germans lie buried at Langemark. War is an equal opportunities killer.
The people who die in war are broadly young. It’s great – and I realise long overdue – that our cadet detachments are sitting here downstairs at this service, rather than up in the gallery. I think it’s right that young people should sit right alongside those who have served and with our politicians, local national. Because if, God forbid, war were declared again, you guys here would be the ones who would be asked to fight. I recall a conversation with our former MP after this service, who was only too aware of the responsibility upon her to consider the human cost as she agonised about how to vote on whether to commit troops, men and women in their teens and twenties in the main, whether to commit them to conflict. It is the toughest call of any politician, which is why we should pray for them, alongside those who we send into conflict zones. We pray for you Marsha, and we pray for our local politicians as they offer local support to service families, and those who return as casualties.
The First World War was the first conflict where mechanised warfare permitted mass slaughter. Many of us who can recall knowing people who fought and we will know how little they were prepared to talk about it. Wilfred Owen, himself dead a hundred years this month, was discovered with his last poem on his body when it was recovered. In it, he talked about those returning from war remembering, “superhuman inhumanities, long-famous glories, immemorial shames.” “Why speak not they of comrades that went under?”, were his final poetic words. Rather than speaking about the horrors, instead, what returning veterans from both world wars brought back was a determination to make life better for future generations, to ensure that what they fought for – which for most in the end was their own survival, not God, Queen and Country – made a difference for their children that survival permitted, and that their mates and pals did not die in vain. So we see periods of progressive politics in postwar Britain – enfranchisement of women after World War 1, the reforming 1945 Attlee Government and the founding of the NHS after World War 2. Not even great Winston Churchill was spared the determination of people to make a better world.
This is why I think we find ourselves more connected to the realities of war, not by being overwhelmed by the mass casualties of which the war cemeteries remind us, but of the individual stories of survival, death, ongoing trauma and recovery. Sarah’s story of Lt Alex Scott moved us in a very special way in Flanders. To that you or I could remember Great Uncle William, who fought in the trenches, Great-Grandad Cedric, who went down with all hands at Jutland, or whoever it is – serviceman, auxiliary nurse or civilian – who stare out from those sepia-faded pictures that we keep in that drawer in the spare room. They tell us something about war’s realities that make us the more determined to seek peace and justice wherever possible, even if hard realities remind us of the need to make preparation for defensive war. Perhaps we should add today, in our age of drones and over-the-horizon warfare, that those we bomb or those who bomb others with our weapons exports, have children, parents and families as well. “Our boys,” may be the language of the tabloids or the politician who wraps themselves in one flag or another, but they are not, and never should be, found on the lips of Christians. Nationalism and Christianity are different, competing creeds. Our armed forces deserve respect, support and loyalty, but as far as the Gospel is concerned, God loves the British soldier no more or no less than her enemy.
We are in church this morning, of course. So let me offer you something from within the Christian tradition, that has its roots in work of God in Jesus Christ, as we mark this moment when as I see it, World War 1 becomes history rather than memory. And it is this: remember the human face of war. I said a few moments ago that, while the mass casualties overwhelm, it is the individual stories that move us to remember. Remember the particulars.
The reason why I say this is because, for Christian people every Sunday is Remembrance Sunday. This is the day we remember the death of the one particular man, the founder and source of our faith. It it worth pausing for a moment today and remember the individual story of this man, for amidst this moment of national remembrance we gather in a place dedicated to his story and its place in our history and present-day realities.
This is a man who sought to renew the faith of his people, who reminded them all of how far much they had forgotten God’s purposes for them. He broke the religious rules by prioritising the poor, the marginalised and the forgotten – the last, the lost and the least. He reminded his people that God was not just the God of their national religion, but that they were to be a light for the nations, a sign of hope of God’s commitment to everyone. For this, the religious leaders of his day, who had the most to lose, sought his death.
This is a man whose commitment to God his Father earned the suspicion of the military and political occupiers of his day. He talked about God being King, which meant of course that no-one else, including the head of state, in his case the Emperor, was king. Some mistook him for a military conqueror, but he talked about conquering through love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion. The people of his day heard it as an expression of national solidarity and hope. For the Roman occupiers, though, he was a dangerous rabble-rouser, and they sought his death.
And this is a man who, ultimately, was so true to his word and his calling that almost everyone in the end – Romans, religious leaders, even his closest followers who were too frightened to stand by him – colluded in his execution. This is the one we remember today. His name was Jesus.
That could have been the end of the story. We could be treating his death today like those of the countless heroes of World War 1 – a moving example, but a futile one. What a waste, we would say. And we would be right.
But this is the man whom God so loved, because God so loved the world, that he vindicated this man by raising him from the dead. Remembrance Sunday is every Sunday because every Sunday is Easter Sunday. There is no great meaning in the life of Jesus unless he is Jesus risen from the dead. Christians believe that this man is not just Jesus of Nazareth, a good man who died a martyr’s death. We believe he is the Christ of all time and all places. Such was his humanity – humanity in its fullest potential, the way in which he was faithful to his Father God that his early followers came to see him not just as human, but as divine, not just Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus the Lord. His commitment to peace, justice, mercy, compassion has universal significance because it goes beyond national identity, and the priority of one group over another, and because his way of seeking these things is present in his risen life, for ever. And those of us who take Jesus and his teaching seriously, who believe it to be the best hope for humanity, we see significance far beyond the one man’s death and resurrection. We see it as universal it is meaning and potential, a person to follow in teaching and example. We see it as truly hopeful teaching, a promise for all who trust in Jesus for life in all its fulness now and in the world to come, which on this day when we remember 41,000,000 victims of World War 1 alone is powerful, and poignant and meaningful. And we see it shining forth in those who have followed his teaching to the extent that they too suffer with him, even to this day. “Faith without works is dead,” taught the apostle James. He means, among other things, that perhaps the best way to end the sort of human behaviour that leads to conflict, is to live like Jesus, not just in word (which is easy), but in deed, in lives of self-giving love. That is the way to be peacemakers. I urge us all to consider the true meaning of the life, example and death of Jesus, for the sake of this uncertain world.
“Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friends,” taught Jesus the Lord. I do not claim today that every single person who fell in battle 100 years ago and to this day, have done so for the sake of Jesus Christ. Our world has had enough of religious wars. Rather, what we see in those who died – not for God, King and Country as I said earlier – but for their friends, their spouses and their future, gave of themselves in a way that Jesus would have recognised as in some way connected to his way of life.
Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori – it is these words that Wilfred Owen described as the old lie – “it is good and fitting to die for one’s country.” Thank God we no longer believe it.
But dulce et decorum est, pro amicis mori – that is the greatest of loves. It is good and fitting to die for one’s friends. Thank God for all who have done that. And, as World War 1 becomes history, let us look to Jesus Christ as a model on which to build a better future. Amen.