Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 9 November 2014: Year A, Remembrance Sunday
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The most natural thing in the world when you lose a loved one or a friend is to grieve. Remembrance Day developed out of a national need to grieve following the tragedy of the first World War, and today many will grieve both old friends and loved ones. Yet in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul wrote ‘…you should not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope’ (1 Thessalonians 4.13 REB). And in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul says: ‘If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied’ (1 Corinthians 15.19 REB). Note that both these sayings include the word ‘hope’. And that both of them invite Christians to think differently from everyone else.
For Paul to say that someone should not to grieve seems almost heartless. Everyone grieves, including Christians. But it seems to me that Paul is saying here that for Christians, for those who have hope that death is not the end, Paul is telling us that our grief should be different. Paul is saying that Christians should not grieve like everyone else, because Christians have a hope which other folk do not have.
For our Christian hope is based on Jesus Christ. Today we read from John’s Gospel some words of Christ which give some clues to the nature of that hope. In this passage Christ speaks to his disciples of his love for them, a love which ultimately comes from God. Those who can learn to live close to Christ experience the love of God, and are then able to love others- even their enemies, as we pointed out to the children earlier. So, he says: ‘love one another’. And even be prepared to give your lives for each other.
Christ asks a lot of us! But this is asked of us because God himself has shown his love for us. ‘The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them’, says Christ, and who could disagree with him? We have all heard the stories of men and women who risked their lives or even died for the sake of their comrades. Yet when Jesus says this he is applying it also to himself. For he then goes on to say to his disciples- and to us, ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you’.
At my family’s parish church at Bonhill, there they have a banner hanging in the sanctuary on which are words of Christ: ‘You are my friends’. I don’t know how they came to choose those words, but hanging in that Church they make a powerful statement. For here is Christianity in its essence. Here is Jesus, whom we believe to be God’s ultimate representative, saying to whoever walks into that Church: ‘You are my friends’.
Years ago I met a man who told me he couldn’t go into a Church building. For whenever he’d been in the past it had too many bad memories. He always recalled the fire and brimstone preaching of his youth. Preachers always seemed to be telling him that he was not good enough, that he could never be good enough. And so God seemed to be like the harsh father he had, a man whom he could never please. Years later I walked into Bonhill Church and I saw that banner, that unequivocal statement that said, on behalf of God, ‘You are my friends’, and I remembered that man and wished I could take him into this church. For too many people, God is distant, aloof, unforgiving and judgmental. But the miracle of Christianity is that the Jesus shows us that God is not like that. The Christian God has come into the world in Jesus Christ and called us his friends. Our God is a God who loves us before he judges us.
For those who can believe that God is love, and that God loves them, then it should be an easy step to therefore living lives of love themselves. And yet that is not easy. Christians, too, go to war, sometimes against other Christians. This year we have been recalling the beginning of the First World War. Europe in 1914 was a continent seemingly steeped in Christianity. Churches on both sides assured their people that their nation had God on their side, and that the battle was for the preservation of Christian civilisation. Little wonder that many in Europe gave up their belief in Christianity after the slaughter of that Great War. For those who called themselves Christians seemed to be unable to put into action their Master’s command to love one another.
Since then our culture has become increasingly uninterested or even hostile to Christianity. I wonder if that is because many people know that Christianity is, at its heart, a religion of peace, and that they are unimpressed when they see Christians apparently unable to live in love with one another? If we were really serious about peacemaking, about finding alternatives to war and lobbying for those alternatives, would not folk take us more seriously?
All of which is, of course, difficult. We need some hope to sustain us. As St Paul also wrote, ‘If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied’. For it is hard to try to live as Christ lived. It is difficult to work for peace, to resist the temptation to take revenge, to love your enemies. Paul says to us: Christianity is hard. So if the hope we have only applies to this life- if there is nothing to hope for beyond this life- then we are to be pitied, we poor fools who try to live as Christians.
Some people try this, though. There are people who reduce Christianity to a way of life, a set of ethics, an attitude to live their life on earth by, but who don’t really believe that there is any life beyond this. Paul says to them: I pity you, because you are struggling to live a Christian life without the hope that there is something beyond this life.
Christians suffer persecution and misunderstanding as they seek to live as Christ does, and if that was all there is, if there was nothing more than that, then we should be pitied. For the Christian life makes no sense unless there is a hope for something beyond this life. Don’t grieve like other people, and when living as a Christian gets hard, do not give up- for we have a hope beyond this life. Without such a hope, trying to live a Christian life could drive you to despair: those who try are, as Paul said, to be pitied. The Christian hope of eternal life is what gives point to our struggles. When things are difficult we all need to have some hope that what we are doing is not in vain.
Whatever you think of the politics of recent conflicts Britain has been involved in, you have to admire the professionalism and courage of those who serve in our armed forces, and hope that some good might come out of their involvement in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But the price of modern warfare is very high. Nowadays, 90 per cent of the casualties in modern wars are civilians: well over 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq since 2003. As the last British troops pull out of Afghanistan, it is still unclear what, if anything, has changed for the better of the ordinary people of that tragic nation, where between 18 and 20,000 people have been killed since 2001 . Even as we meet today, the civilians of Donestk are under artillery bombardment, the tragedy of the Syrian people goes on.
We need to be continually reminded of the human cost of war, and not easily decide on military solutions to conflicts around the world. We ought to be encouraging peacemaking across the world, and not arms sales. For Christian people, indeed for anyone who thinks about it seriously, war is always the result of human failings- what Christians call sin. War is the ultimate human failure, for the consequences are little short of catastrophic for the ordinary folk who are increasingly in the firing line.
Meantime, for those who are the victims of war- soldiers, sailors and airmen, their families, and all the civilian victims, and, yes, those whom we call today or have called in the past our enemies- what remains? What can be said to those who grieve for those who died, whether they think it was in a just cause or whether they see it all as merely pointless? Sometimes there is not much to be said. Sometimes the thing to do is to remain silent, as we did at the beginning of the service. But staying silent as long as we also stay alongside the victims, and somehow assure them that we have not forgotten them in their grief.
As a very young and inexperienced minister I once went to visit a young woman who had been released from hospital in order to die at home, surrounded by her family. And while I was there, she slipped away peacefully. After I’d said a prayer with the family, I felt very helpless- what more was there to do or say? So while the son phoned the doctor, I made the tea. I could not do everything, but I could do something. When words are not enough, it is enough just to be there, and to be kind.
For when we stand alongside people in their grief, we are doing what God in Christ did for us. St Paul wrote to the church at Rome: ‘For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below- there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord’. These are amazing words, words which remind us, if we will believe it, that we have a God whose love will not let us go.
For the God of Jesus Christ, this God who calls us his friends, is indeed the very best kind of friend we can have. Here is a friend who will stand alongside us, and will not desert us in our hour of need. Here is a friend from whom even death cannot separate us- nothing can separate us! If God can be such a friend to us, cannot we also try to be such a friend to those who need someone to stand alongside them in their times of grief? If God does not forget us in our times of grieving, then let us also not forget our friends and even our enemies in their times of grief.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo