On Sunday 3 September 1939, the Elders at what was then St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Walton-on-Thames had a arranged for a wireless to be brought into the church, and at around 11.15 am the whole congregation was able to listen to that famous speech by Neville Chamberlain announcing the start of World War Two. Eighty years ago, this year. A few of you will be old enough to remember that.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the first national Two Minutes Silence, in November 1919. As many of you know, the Two Minutes Silence first began in Farnham in 1916. The mathematicians among you will have already calculated the 100th anniversary of the first commemorations of the end of the First World War and the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War makes for not much more than twenty years between wars, which is not long. Most historians now largely agree that the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty ending the First World War, left matters in such an unfortunate position that a second war. The 75th anniversary of the Normandy Campaign – D-Day – also falls this year, and those old to have seen active service then will now be at least 93 years old.
There’s another anniversary of a rather different nature which also falls this year, being the 90th anniversary of Stanley Spencer’s painting the Resurrection of the Soldiers, completed in 1929, a copy of which you have with your service paper. The Sandham Memorial Chapel, near Newbury, is a giant war memorial filled with Stanley Spencer’s paintings. The Resurrection of the Soldiers, fills the far end wall, behind the altar.
The soldiers are mostly engaged with daily tasks, and in his design of the picture Spencer’s intention was to create, by means of the crosses and the intimate spaces in between them, a series of waves, receding upwards and backwards.
The first wave brings with it varied states of consciousness as the men greet each other and gain awareness of a change state. Things are the same and yet different. Belongings are returned.
In the next wave a more reflective stage emerges, such as the soldier reaching out to stroke the tortoise (each regiment in the Greek army had its own pet tortoise). Here there’s also a sense of rest and remembrance: crosses are to be leant against or reflected on, as one figure does lying on his stomach above the two central mules. The necks of those two mules push us up and on, to a place where the soldiers take active hold of their crosses: crosses which Spencer regarded as ‘their last piece of earthly impediments or equipment’. Finally, the soldiers hand in their standard issue crosses to Christ, who sits near the top of the wall, much in the same way that, after the Armistice, army equipment was handed in. It is almost as if the Armistice has been transposed to a heavenly register.
From whichever side they come, these soldiers carried a cross on behalf of their nation, but their crosses may not have been very noble. They may even have acted cruelly or selfishly but they were also carrying a burden which was not their own sole responsibility. And so Spencer paints their resurrection as a handing in of their crosses. They look into the eyes of the man who first carried ‘the’ cross and hand back to him the whole bloody mess of their lives; and he looks at them with, we believe, an expression of forgiveness and love.
You may be struggling to see the figure of Christ, pushed far into the background, muted, indistinct. Yet it’s his presence that translates this crudely physical vision of crowds of morally-compromised soldiers into a resurrection. And so those crosses become symbolic also of burdens carried today, amid our own confusion and the moral chaos of the world in which we live. Spencer envisages the after-life mostly by holding up a mirror to life, and, in so doing, delivers an understanding of divine intervention and the sacredness of human life. The suggestion in this Resurrection scene is that the activity of God is to be glimpsed in and through humanity in all its multifariousness.
They say a picture paints a thousand words, and I only found 496 words to say something about a deeply profound painting which is, in many ways, beyond words. The question I’m left with is where do we go from here? And I found an answer in another anniversary. 1939, eighty years ago, also saw the publication of a small book, “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was written in a German context, conscious of the rise of the National Socialist Party. It’s one of the most important religious works of the 20th century, without doubt a book “of its time” but it is also a book for all time. “Of its time” because it was one Christian’s reaction to an evil regime whose actions were visible to all who had eyes to see; “for all time”, because it speaks of how Christians should live in the face of evil whenever and wherever it may appear.
Bonhoeffer was executed in the dying weeks of the war, just 2 weeks before the US Army liberated his concentration camp. He’s regarded as one of the 20th Century martyrs and his statue is on the West front of Westminster Abbey.
Bonhoeffer’s work led me to six suggestions for we might live our lives today:
First, acknowledge our prejudice.
Do we have a bias (conscious or unconscious) against another group, or can we accept that we are all made in the image of God, and that “difference” is a gift to help is see Christ in all our neighbours and those around us?
Second, speak into silence
Silence can shelter the abuse of power. Conspiracies of silence have covered up much that is wrong. The vulnerable and marginalised have to be given the opportunity to speak for themselves that their voices may be heard, and heard as God among us speaking to challenge and unsettle our complacent quiet.
Third, address ignorance
The resources are here among us if only we have ears to hear the stories of those in our midst who have been excluded, victimised, seen as “other,” and even persecuted.
Fourth, casting out fear
We are told in the Bible that “perfect love casts out all fear” and yet we are still afraid to do what we know to be right because of the fear of criticism.
Fifth, admit hypocrisy
All are valued and loved on the basis of Christ’s redeeming love, his life, death, and resurrection. Absolutely no one is outside the love of God.
Sixth, pay attention to power
In the church, as everywhere else, there are dynamics of power. Some of us have power, others don’t, but power has led to abuse and inequality, so we need to commit to a spirit of service one to another in the Spirit of Christ.
If we can find ways to try to put these kinds of principles into practice, this is how we honour the memory of Bonhoeffer, how we honour the memory of the soldiers that Stanley Spencer resurrected, how we honour the memory of those who served on D-Day, how we honour the memory of those who heard the news of the outbreak of World War Two, how we honour the memory of all who have served in war and conflict. May God help us to do that.