Devonport Park, 14th November 2010
Over the past few months I have been clearing out the effects of my late mother. One of them was a silver-topped glass inkwell inscribed with the name of “W.C.Woods 1904” – a bit of a mystery really as no-one in our family has ever borne the name of Woods. However I thought no more about it until I came across the Bible of my mother’s great-aunt who died unmarried in her 90s in about 1960. There tucked away in the back of the Bible was a letter written to her in 1916 by one Sergeant W.C.Woods. Not exactly a love letter, but obviously a letter special enough for her to keep in a safe place for the rest of her life. It finishes with these words, “Don’t think there’s any other reason why I haven’t written – I’m just fed up with this war, that’s all”. So, was that the last letter Sergeant Woods wrote to my great-great-aunt? What exactly was their relationship? What ultimately happened to Sergeant Woods and will we ever know?
It seems to me that as we gather on Remembrance Sunday we do so not only to remember the many who have fallen and so courageously given their lives. We also remember those who through the violence and confusion of war are left with the incomplete stories, the questions that have no answers, the missing pieces of information. As we come today to remember the ordinary men and women of Devonport who lost their lives in the war, we also think of those left behind who for the rest of the lives are left wondering and waiting and hoping against hope for some kind of closure. Of whom there are still sadly so many today. Because even today when there is so much information available and we are so used to public enquiries, war keeps on throwing up the unexplained actions, the “if-only” scenarios, the things we can only speculate about.
So how does the Christian faith begin to help us in our heartache and our grief? Well, the reading we heard just now suggests that in some way Jesus can be a source of encouragement and comfort to us. Now I guess as soon as I mention the word Jesus some of you might have a picture of a Sunday school Jesus peacefully strolling along in the bright warm sunshine of a calm, peaceful countryside. But the world Jesus actually lived in was far rougher and far more violent than we sometimes realise. After all, Jesus grew up in a land under occupation. His birth sparked off a violent massacre by the local dictator called Herod. He knew all about the atrocities committed by both the ruling authorities and the terrorists who wanted to overthrow them. Indeed He Himself at one point comments on an occasion where the local Roman ruler mixed the blood of animal sacrifices with the blood of those who were trying to offer them. And so it’s not really that surprising so many people flocked to Him. Because what Jesus showed was a different kind of kingdom, not based on might and power and fear, but on justice and truth and love, and He promised life in this kingdom to all who would believe and trust in Him.
Of course I realise this message of Jesus is one that has often been lost or at least distorted over the centuries by bishops leading armies, and churches conspiring with the rich and the powerful, which is why I, for one, find Remembrance Sunday always involves an element of repentance. But when we get back to the actual world of the Bible we find that the people who responded to Jesus were not those with the influence or the wealth or the education. It was the ordinary people. The widows, the tax collectors, the outcasts. Because Jesus’ message of comfort and encouragement was, and is, precisely directed to such kinds of people. To people like you and me. And when about twenty years after Jesus’ earthly ministry Paul wrote the words of today’s reading, he was still writing to ordinary people, some of whom were free, some of whom were slaves, all of whom who knew what it was to work hard for a living.
And the challenge Paul issues to the church, and it’s one that still relevant to us today, is not just to talk about the comfort and the encouragement that Jesus brings, but also to use it to shape and mould the world around us. After all, there are enough people who act out of selfish ambition or vain conceit – that is on the whole how wars start, as one country or one ethnic group decides it wants something somebody else has. But the real challenge to those who decide to follow Jesus is to live by a different set of values, to build a community where we genuinely look out for the interest of others, to love one another as Jesus first loved us. And it seems to me that Remembrance Sunday is as good a time as any to pledge ourselves to work towards that community, or indeed if we’re already at work in building up and developing the local community, to carry on with that work even when the going gets tough.
But let’s be clear – nobody said living Jesus’ way would be easy. It’s all very well standing up and talking about loving your neighbour as yourself, but your neighbour may not want to be loved. He or she may see your attempts to look out for their interests as a sign of weakness. He or she may simply ignore your best attempts to get to know them. But what should encourage us to keep going, and to keep loving, is simply the example of Jesus Himself. For Jesus didn’t come to give us some kind of vague ideal we remember once a year, or to promote a theoretical teaching. He actually lived a perfect life of truth and justice and love, and showed what it meant to encourage and comfort the heartbroken and the grief-stricken.
How exactly did He do this? Well, in about six weeks’ time we will be celebrating Christmas. And I guess the fact we all know the Christmas story actually blunts the surprise and wonder of that wonderful event. Because, as Paul writes here, Jesus’ coming to earth was all about Jesus making Himself nothing. After all, as the Son of God He had every right to be born in a palace or temple or any other place of luxury. But He chose a feed-trough used by animals, as a sign that right from the very beginning He would identify with and fully share the lives of ordinary people. And as He grew up He knew what it was like to be tired, to be hungry, to have no roof over His head. So when people flocked to hear His teaching, they found someone who understood and shared in their experience.
Of course there were those who found Jesus all too much to handle. The religious who could not stomach Jesus identifying with the impure and the outcast and the sinner. The rich and the powerful who saw value only in the well-off and the successful. And so they did what those in authority have done throughout the ages down to the present age. They silenced him. Not of course without a show trial and some trumped-up charges to make it look like He was guilty. But they silenced him nonetheless, in one of the most horrific and barbaric means known to man, by nailing Him to a cross.
Yet here’s the rub. Because three days later the ruling authorities began to hear strange stories of this Jesus being risen again. What’s more, when, they came to investigate they found no evidence to refute these stories. And it seems to me that another powerful reason why we gather on this Remembrance Sunday is also to remember the improbable yet nonetheless real victory which Jesus has won over the forces of violence and death and evil. Because although it sometimes seems we are trapped in an ever-ending cycle of war and suffering, the historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead tells us this is not the whole story.
You see, although at the moment Jesus’ kingdom of love and justice and peace may seem fragile or even hard to recognise, it is this kingdom that will in the end prevail. Although at the moment it is as if we are looking through a glass darkly, Paul in our reading reminds us that one day Jesus will return to set this kingdom up for ever. And I believe it is important that on this Remembrance Sunday we look forward to that day. For then we will have answers to those questions that now have no answers, we have the endings to the stories that now have no ending. The comfort and encouragement that we now experience in part we will know in full. And the actions of those who have acted out selfish ambition and vain conceit will be finally judged, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is Lord.
So as we come today to remember, to give thanks for the sacrifice others have made, let us also commit ourselves to working towards that day by placing our faith and trust in Jesus who died for us, and resolving to follow His example of loving others as ourselves. For that, I believe, is the true path towards peace. Not just peace in the sense of the absence of war. But peace in the positive sense of a right relationship with God, with others, with ourselves.
For surely it is this peace that we all long for above else. And the hope Jesus offers to each one of us is to find that peace in Him. So my prayer is that each one of us might be willing to receive that peace this day. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.