As a child, it was common practice that the names on war memorials were read out. In those days there were still some who remembered personally those named on the memorials, but as they died out, so did the practice of reading all the names. We never read all the names at school aloud, because there were over 600 from the first war, and over 300 from the second. Those 600 plus from the First World War was as many boys as there would have been in the whole of the school during an academic year. All lost.
Few families escaped a loss or other tragedy, one way or another. In the face of such horror, one phrase stands out for me in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “What then are we to say?” What indeed? The war poets were perhaps the most thoughtful of the responses. Wilfrid Owen was one who tried to make some sense of it all. “My subject,” he wrote, “is war, and the pity of war”, and that’s something that I think many of us respond to: beyond the awfulness and the death and the destruction, the question Why?
How could it be that people and countries, so often good and sometimes great, could be caught up into such a spiral of slaughter and waste? How could the forces of good be faced with no other option than to engage in that slaughter and waste themselves? And how could that be when so many are convinced that our good God is working his good purpose out as year succeeds to year, and that all our times are in his hands?
So, what are we to say? At first the answer has to be nothing. Silence is where I begin. The silence of remembrance, of respect, and of unknowing in the face of things too great for us to understand. And a silence together, because this is something that affects us all.
But we cannot stay silent. Paul goes on to ask, “If God is for us, who is against us?” He is not making some sort of simplistic claim that God is “on our side”, even if and when our cause is just. The truth goes deeper than that. The deep good news is that the God who made us and all things is deep-down and irrevocably good; that he is for us, the people made in his image that he has called into being; and that come what may his love will be there with us, for ever. And because of that, we can have hope, even in our darkest hours.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” “None of the above” is Paul’s simple answer, in fact nothing in all creation; nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I think that what Paul is trying to say is that God is for us and we can have hope. It’s a life-changer. John Wesley always looked back to, and drew strength from, the time when as a child he was rescued from a fire at his father’s Rectory in Epworth, plucked as a brand from the burning, as he put it. John Macgregor, descendant of Rob Roy, founded the Royal Canoe Club, and he too was saved as a child from a shipwreck and had a similar sense of God’s great providence. He earned his living as a barrister, but paddled round the world with just a change of clothing under his seat and Gospels to give away. When the penny drops that God is for us – as it did for those two Johns – nothing can separate us from his loving purpose, come death or distress, peril or persecution: and that is as true for ordinary people like you and me as well as for the heroes whose names still inspire us.
“If God is for us, who is against us?” Remembering God’s goodness and love puts the forces which seek to work against him, and indeed against us, into perspective. Today we remember many who have died, many who have suffered, many who have served far above and beyond the call of duty, many who served not through choice, many who bear the scars: but in every case, they are conquerors – not because of their own holiness or heroism, though those draw out our recognition and our respect, but because in the greater conflict between good and evil of which our own struggles are just a small part, the victory has been won by God himself, and however horrific our earthly story, we have in Christ the knowledge and the hope that that is not the last word, but that as Mother Julian of Norwich put it, in the end, “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
This is our hope, but how can we, be so sure? This is where that phrase at the end of the reading matters: “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We live in a world of many faiths, and of many who have no faith. It is not my place to judge others, nor to speak about their own honest choices; but those of us who call ourselves Christians must rest our case for hope entirely on Christ himself, and on his sacrifice of himself on the Cross, that saw him to go as one who was both God and man right into the heart of the darkness, and then amazingly, miraculously, put death itself to death, turn the tables on the forces of destruction, break the old curse, and rise again to new life, a new life that is ours in him as well.
This is the faith in which we stand, and at times like this we need to remember the essentials, or we will find that we have nowhere to stand, no sure foundation on which to rest the hope we need. So today, it is again to Christ that we turn, and take up again the greatest adventure, the greatest journey, the greatest pilgrimage, that any person can undertake – the life of those who are unashamedly setting the example of Jesus Christ before them and seeking to follow in his way.
And that way, the way of the Good Shepherd, the way of the pioneer and perfecter of our souls, is also the way of peace, for ourselves, for our communities and for the world: for that same Jesus Christ is for ever the Prince of Peace, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Today in faith we remember him, and so today too we can say in hope and love: we will remember them.