Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday, 9th Nov 2014
John 15:9-17 – Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

I wondered whether tonight I should just read you some of those stories of heroism and self-sacrifice which perhaps we all know, and which Remembrance Sunday reminds us of. They are almost sermons in themselves. For example:

Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest imprisoned in Auschwitz, who volunteered to take another prisoner’s place when the Nazis selected ten men at random to be starved to death after someone had escaped; or

Jack Cornwell, the boy sailor, ‘Boy’ Cornwell, who was only 16 when he was mortally wounded at the battle of Jutland in 1916, who stayed at his post by the ship’s gun which had been hit and put out of action. He stayed there, although all the rest of the gun crew were dead, ‘in case he were needed’, as he said before he died. Or

Robert Leiper Lindsay, the superintendent of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company oil-well compound in ‘the side of Persia that slopes down into Mesopotamia’, as the story in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia [Arthur Mee, ed., c.1922 (undated), London, The Educational Book Company Limited, vol.9, p.6194] puts it, who died shutting down an oil leak to a furnace and saved 300 colleagues. This was one of my favourite stories when I was about ten, and it still moves and shocks me.

‘The quick mind of Lindsay sees at once that the pumps must be stopped and the supply of oil feeding the furnaces must be cut off; so he calls to his assistant to shut off the pumps, and sets off to cut off the furnace supply. But to get to the furnaces he must pass through the fountain of streaming oil, and arrive at the furnaces with his clothes saturated with petroleum. He knows what the end will be, but he does not shrink. He passes through the oil shower, turns off the oil tap of the furnaces, and then turns away, and falls, a blazing torch.’

Terrible stories. So moving. Would we be so brave, we ask ourselves. The first two stories were from wartime: Father Kolbe in the Second World War, and Jack Cornwell VC in the First. Robert Leiper Lindsay was in 1918. As you will know, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, that he worked for, became BP.

Jesus’ great saying, ‘Greater love hath no man ..’, is about love. He has said, ‘This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you’ [John 15:12]. It isn’t the sort of soft love, companionable love, that Jesus means here. This is sacrifice, violent, painful. Like Lindsay, a ‘blazing torch’.

We can say amen to that. We know what terrible sacrifice Jesus went on to make, how He suffered.

But the mention of Jack Cornwell and Maximilian Kolbe, those wartime martyrs, and the fact that we are remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice in wars, makes me think, what is the point of all that undoubted bravery in war? What was it for?

It is reported that, before Jack Cornwell, Boy Cornwell, died, he was told that the Battle of Jutland had been won; and he was pleased. ‘The strife is o’er, the battle done.’ He had died for his friends.

Similarly Maximilian Kolbe and Robert Lindsay, by their sacrifice of themselves, saved others. They died in order that others might live.

Now there are two other sacrifices which we have to consider today. First, our forces – now in harm’s way again in Iraq. Who will their sacrifices save? It is very difficult to be sure. We have seemingly moved a long way from the Ten Commandments and ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Even back in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas restated the ancient Roman doctrine of the ‘Just War’. He suggested three criteria (Summa Theologiae vol 35, 40(1)):

war must be waged by the ‘due authorities’;
The cause must be just; and
Those waging war must intend to promote good, and avoid evil.

Right authority, just cause, right intention. Even so, Thomas must have reflected that his concept of a ‘just war’ didn’t sit very easily with what Jesus had said, notably in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matt. 5:39).

Thomas wrote, ‘The Lord’s words, “I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance”, must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self-defence if the situation calls for that.’ That begs the question when ‘the situation’ would call for resistance to be abandoned. What could be such a situation?

Why would one make war in the first place, why would one feel justified in going against Jesus’ command of peace and non-violence: His commands, not only ‘thou shalt not kill’, but also ‘turn the other cheek’?

St Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, writing, in the fourth century, much earlier than Thomas, identified another reason for which a Christian might be justified in using force, which I think is perhaps the only really good reason – as a matter of charity: to go to the aid of his neighbour who was being attacked.

This is clearly a really difficult area; when it isn’t a case of going to the aid of Poland, when it isn’t a case of a threat to our own independence, but a bloody dispute between governments whose legitimacy is in some cases questionable, and who have shown brutality and a contempt for the rule of law, on the one side, as, say, may be argued to be the case in Syria and Iraq, and opposing factions upholding a particularly vicious and intolerant type of militant Islam – who are killing Christians and other non-Moslems simply for not being Moslems, unlike their opponents, the dubious governments, so unsatisfactory in so many ways, but who at least allow freedom of religion. Where is the ‘just war’ in this context?

But I have left to the end the biggest self-sacrifice, Jesus himself. Greater love hath no man. ‘This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins’ (The Communion, at p.256 in the Book of Common Prayer). Greater love hath no man, than that he die for his friends. Is it, die instead of his friends? That was Maximilian Kolbe. Or was it to help his friends? That would be like Jack Cornwell or Robert Leiper Lindsay.

The idea is said to be like taking someone else’s punishment for them – again like Maximilian Kolbe. We are sinful; instead of punishing us, as He could, God put up His own son, and punished him instead. ‘Who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’: that’s what the Prayer Book says, in the Prayer of Consecration on p. 255.

I hope that God isn’t really like that. The language of human sacrifice – or of blood feuds: having ‘satisfaction’ is the language of D’Artagnan, the language of duels – ‘redemption’, paying the price, the price of sin, does not really square with the idea of a loving God. The idea of ‘substitutionary atonement’, as it’s called, seems to me to be very barbaric.

We may be fallen people. We may indeed be sinful. But what does that really mean? It surely doesn’t mean that we have a price on our heads, which has to be paid, or else we go into the fires of Hell.

‘Sin’ isn’t a question of persistent badness, or criminality, or just plain evil. All those things might be signs of sin, but they aren’t sin itself. In the New Testament, ‘sin’ is the translation of the Greek ‘αμαρτία, from the verb ‘αμαρτάνω, I ‘miss the mark’, I don’t hit the target. It has a connotation of distance, separation from the goal. So sin is separation, distancing, from God’s kingdom. ‘Remission’ of sins is forgiveness, release from prison.

I would like to emphasise not only the sacrifice, Jesus’ greater love, on the Cross, but also the Resurrection. God is assuring us that not only are we grateful for Jesus’ taking upon himself the punishment that perhaps we might have deserved, but also that it isn’t a story with a sad and pointless end – like the story of so many wars.

Here ‘The strife is o’er, the battle won’; but instead of a posthumous VC, we have a living God, who raised Jesus from the dead. What a sign! Let us indeed remember them: let us remember those who gave their lives in order that we might be free. But let us always remember that biggest, that most meaningful, sacrifice. Greater love hath no man – Jesus had that love, and it was for us.

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