Two promises: Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2018

100 years ago, as the bells rang out across the nation and as communities battered and broken by a bitter war faced up to the future, two promises were made:

‘We will remember them’ and ‘never again’.

‘We will remember them’ and ‘never again’.

And on this great anniversary, precisely 100 years to the hour since the last shot of the war was fired I wonder, how have we done with those two promises; ‘We will remember them’ and ‘never again’.

On the first, it seems fair to say that we’ve done ok. One hundred years is a long time, and yet here we are, hundreds of us - and there are hundreds of thousands of others gathered like us up and down the country. And at the heart of every service of remembrance are the names of those who died. We do remember them.

How about that second great promise? Never again. On that, we cannot claim to have been so faithful. We all know that only 20 years after Armistice Day, war swept Europe again and in the carnage it caused, 60 million people died.  And since then, by one calculation, another 34 million people have died in war - that’s nearly 100 million people who have died in violence since we made the promise - ‘never again’.

Even today, there are 60 conflicts going on around the world. 

Never again?

So what do we do? Do we conclude that peace is an impossibility and that violence and war are the normal state of things? Is peace really just - as one person put it - ‘the pause before the next war’? mHow do we continue to commit ourselves to that promise that was made - ‘never again’ - when we’ve failed so spectacularly?

When the soldiers were sent off to the trenches in the First War, many of them were given one of these. It’s the ‘Active Service’ copy of St John’s gospel. On the front the words - ‘Please carry this in your pocket and read it every day.’ And we’ve got replica copies here for anyone who’d like to take one home. 

Within this little book are four great truths which might help us with our question - which can help us work towards that great commitment ‘never again’, even while we acknowledge the reality of our broken and violent world. 

The four truths are:

Every life is precious; believe in the possibility of peace (one day); acknowledge that we are part of the problem; and Do not be afraid.

First, Every life is precious. 

John’s gospel says - ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. He loves the world; He loves every part of his creation; every life is precious, precious enough for God to give that which is most precious - his own Son. And our work for peace begins when we hold before us the knowledge that every life, every single life, is precious enough for God to give his life for. Every one of those whose names we will shortly read out is of infinite value; every one of the millions of names inscribed on war memorials around this country and the battlefields of Europe is precious enough for God to have given his life for. The person sitting next to you; the person you love most; the person you can’t stand; everyone. Every life is precious. That’s where we begin.

Secondly, believe in the possibility of peace (one day)  

To do a great work, you need a great vision. Peace is a great work, this book holds out a great vision - the greatest of all visions. In the midst of a messy world, John’s gospel tells us that God is working in all things to bring about the day when creation is at peace. Those soldiers in the trenches would have claimed that vision in words that we still say - ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ - On earth as it is in heaven. God wants things here on earth to be like they are in heaven - where there is no war and no violence, no gas, no bayonets. Where there is peace. And Jesus says that’s our job - to hold before us that vision - of a day, when heaven and earth are united in peace.  

Martin Luther King once said ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’ and today we might replace ‘justice’ with peace. ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward peace’. We don’t know when that day will come, but come it will; the day when war will cease, and things here on earth will be as they are in heaven. That is our vision, that’s our destiny. Our calling is to believe in the possibility - the certainty - of peace one day, and to do all we can to make it real today.

Every life is precious, believe in the possibility of peace.

Thirdly, acknowledge that we are part of the problem

It’s easy for us to see the problems in the world, and to decide that we know where the cause lies and who’s to blame. But John’s gospel says ‘This is our judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness more than the light.’ Or, in the words of the great Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, ‘The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.’ Sure there are some bad people out there - but let’s not pretend that each one of us doesn’t have the capacity for terrible things. Who here can say they don’t say things, do things, think things and wish for things that cause harm to others? Which one of us has clean hands? 

Because every act of unkindness, every moment of rage, every time we tolerate or perpetuate violence, every failure to reconcile, every one of these makes us party to a broken world. 

We are all part of the problem, and as long as we are unwilling to acknowledge that, the problem will stay.

Every life is precious, believe in the possibility of peace. Acknowledge that we are all part of the problem.

Finally, Do not be afraid.

It’s one of the most frequently used phrases in the bible - by one count it’s said 365 times. And it’s there in John’s gospel - Jesus says it to his disciples - ‘do not be afraid’. Fear is a deep instinct in all of us - the fear of failure, the fear that things will go wrong, the fear of others, fear for our children, fear for our future, fear about fear. We are all afraid of so much. And Jesus says - do not be afraid. 

Why? Because when we’re scared we kick into ‘fight or flight’ mode. That’s great when we’re facing an immediate risk - a car is driving fast towards you and fear says ‘run’. And you do, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not so good when we live with fear all the time, when we’re fear-ful. Because then we’re looking for dangers everywhere, we’re expecting to have to fight or flee all the time. 

And that kind of insecurity makes us much more likely to do something we regret, or something that someone else resents.  Something that contributes to a world without peace. So do not be afraid. And Jesus goes on ‘for I am here’. Do not be afraid because we are not on our own. The Universe isn’t empty and without meaning. Violence isn’t in charge. We have a vision before us. And at the heart of everything is love. ‘Do not be afraid. God is with you’.

Every life is precious, believe in the possibility of peace. Acknowledge that we are all part of the problem. And do not be afraid.

That is the wisdom of this little book, carried by many of the men that we remember today. 

We have remembered them, as we promised we would.

Now the question is asked - will we commit to the second promise that was made; ‘Never again’? 


Hugh Nelson