Remembrance in a time of war

Jonah 3:1-5 &10
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 1:14-20

Possibly not since the 7th century dispute between the Celtic and Roman Churches over the date of Easter, and certainly since the 17th century dispute between Puritans and Churchmen over Good Friday (a dispute that led those who closed their shops on Good Friday to be prosecuted during the reign of Oliver Cromwell, and those who opened them to be prosecuted during the reign of Charles II) has there been so divisive a day as Remembrance Sunday.

Although, in order to have any real memories of World War Two, we would need to be at least 75, all of us have known people who lived through, and fought in, at least one, if not both, world wars, and even more so those wars and conflicts since then. We have known those who year by year turned up in church on Remembrance Sunday proudly wearing their own medals, or the medals awarded to a husband or father who fell or was grievously wounded. We have also known those who faithfully and regularly attended church every Sunday except for Remembrance Sunday, when they chose to stay at home, either because they found the act of commemoration too painful, or because they felt it inappropriate.

There are those who believe that Remembrance Sunday, while once helpful and even necessary as a way of coping with both the national and the individual grief that followed the carnage of World War One, and to a lesser but still significant extent, World War Two, should either be abolished, or perhaps just allowed to wither away, like several other once significant dates. Trafalgar Day on 21 October, Oak Apple Day on 29 May (not a festival ever particularly popular in non-conformist circles!), and the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November, were once huge, but are now much diminished or almost entirely forgotten. Remembrance Sunday, they argue, should be no different. Now, they may be right, and in a year when there have been public ceremonies to commemorate Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the argument for treating Remembrance Sunday similarly might seem strong. But, let us remember Jonah! Jonah was charged with a message to the Assyrians. He was sent to their great capital city to deliver it, and although he tried his best not to deliver it, he ended up in Nineveh proclaiming its destruction.

Now, it’s not clear why Jonah attempted to run away. Was he afraid that his message would not be heard, and that he himself would suffer? The Assyrians had a reputation for cruelty even by the standards of a cruel era. Or, was he afraid that his message would be heard, and that the Assyrians would hear his message, that they would repent, and that God would change his mind? We don’t know, although that second possibility does seem the more likely. But in any case, in the context of this day, it’s actually irrelevant.

There’s also something about an unpopular message in our gospel reading. John the Baptist, despite, or perhaps because of, his great popularity and influence with the general public, had been arrested and imprisoned by the King. This might be seen as a sign of a political clamp down on wandering preachers with unpopular messages, yet here was Jesus proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand and recruiting followers. This is neither a popular message, nor a wise action, but it is one which is necessary.

And this is why, when we look at these two stories we see why Remembrance Sunday is too important just to be abandoned, or allowed to wither away. This is the day when the Church has the chance to tell the truth about war! Now within the Church there are a number of different views about war. There are those who will defend the concept of the just war; those who see it as sometimes the best option because all the others are worse; those who oppose all war absolutely, and probably a whole range of views around and between those, but what all agree upon, and what Remembrance Sunday reminds us about, is, war is hell. Remembrance Sunday is about the cost of War. Jonah in the midst of the City of Nineveh, and Jesus and his disciples on the banks of the Sea of Galilee knew that what they were saying was dangerous, and probably unpopular, but necessary.

We, in remembering the cost of war, in commemorating the men and women who left town and village, church and chapel, to fight and die, or sometimes as nurses or non-combatants of various kinds, still to die, and also in remembering, as many of us do, the mothers and fathers, wives and sweethearts, who were damaged and destroyed by what happened to their loved ones, not to mention the children whose only memory of a father was a photograph, we have the opportunity, even more the duty to proclaim how terrible a thing war is. In so doing we do not necessarily deny the necessity of war, nor should we deny the bravery and self-sacrifice of those who died. Rather we do the very opposite. On Remembrance Sunday we remember that sacrifice and its cost.

The reading from the letter to the Hebrews contrasts Christ’s sacrifice of himself with the rituals of the Day of Atonement when the High Priest made his annual entrance into the holy of holies with a sacrifice of blood not his own. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that the annual commemoration of the sacrifice of those who fell in two World Wars, and various more recent wars and conflicts, is a commemoration of our sacrifice, and one that forces politicians, who might otherwise be easily tempted to react impulsively, to think long and hard before entering into any military endeavour.

The Gospel of Christ is a Gospel of Peace; and Christ’s messengers, those who proclaim the good news, must proclaim it as a message of peace and of love, but they can only do so honestly if they recognise that even that proclamation can have a cost. Today, in part, we remember that cost. We remember those who died and those who were damaged. We remind ourselves of the cost of war and pledge ourselves to the cause of peace and of reconciliation.

In Westminster College, Cambridge, there are a number of memorials to its students who died in far-flung corners of the earth. Mostly these commemorate missionaries, but there is a small War Memorial. (Colleges for the training of Ministers do not generally lose many of their alumni in wars.) Most of the names on the list are British. Indeed, as might be expected for a Presbyterian College, there is a strong Scots flavour, but not all. Some are German. Former students who served as chaplains or as soldiers in the German Army are commemorated alongside those who served in the armies of Great Britain and its allies.

Likewise, Mansfield College Oxford, through the endeavours of Principal Micklem, brought many German Pastors to this country in the 1930s, and helped them to become English Congregational Ministers. Also, after World War Two, the Congregational Church began a partnership with a German Church, the Evangelish Kirche der Psalfz, in the late 1940s, long before it was socially acceptable for British and German people to be nice to each other.

And this is the other thing that the Church needs to say on Remembrance Sunday. It must be a time for reconciliation. The cost of war falls heavily on every side. The love of Christ, and the sacrifice that we commemorate and proclaim, falls equally on us and on those who were our enemies. In remembering the evil of war in the context of a God of love, we must claim that love for all humanity, not just for ourselves.

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