Most preachers I’ve talked to dread preaching on Remembrance
Sunday. There are several reasons why.
One is that you can be sure the congregation will hold
diverse and contradictory views on war. There are those who expect you to
affirm the importance of standing up to evil in the world. There are others,
such as the man who once told me, ‘There is only one thing to say on
Remembrance Sunday and that is that war is futile.’
And that is a tension I hold in my own life. As a teenager I
was a committed pacifist. Eventually I changed my mind and saw that there was
such a thing as a just war. However even then I don’t know how easily I could
kill someone, which may just make me a hypocrite. And in any case, determining
what constitutes a just war is difficult. World War Two is more easy to
classify as a just war, at least in principle, than, say, the Iraq War, where
it was easier to win the war against an evil dictator than win the subsequent
Another issue is that of the experience of war. My
connections are tenuous. I come from an RAF family, and one of my cousins
served in the Falklands. My uncle was a career
Air Force man, and worked with Bomber Harris, but that was after World War Two.
My own father was not quite old enough to serve in that war when it ended. The
nearest I have come to any contact was pretty slender: in 1982 I went to the
Post Office to apply for a Visitor’s
Passport for a holiday, only to learn that men of my age then were not being
allowed to apply for them. Clearly we were being held in reserve for possible
call-up to serve in the Falklands War. But the call thankfully never came.
So my own experience is not of outright war, but
predominantly of peace-time. I only know the culture of living under the threat
of possible conflict, be it the Cold War that lasted until the late Eighties,
or the climate of terrorism, either the current one with radical Islam or the
earlier threat of the IRA. None of this is the same as that which many of you
lived through in the Second World War.
Then there is our text today: in my translation of the Bible
it says this:
No one has greater love than this, to
lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
I remember seeing it (in older language, of course) carved
into the stone on the War Memorial in my home town. And as a Christian, I have
some difficulty with its use on Remembrance Sunday, because it is primarily a
text about Jesus and his disciples, not about the sacrifices made in war-time.
But nevertheless I feel it does have something important to say to us today,
and so I want to turn to those words as a theme for this sermon. I want to do
so in two halves, firstly considering what the words meant for Jesus and secondly
what they mean for us as his followers.
There is no doubt in my mind that when Jesus said, ‘No one
has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’, he was
referring to his own then forthcoming death on the Cross. This is where he will
go. It will not be a tragic accident. It will not simply be the forces of
history. It will not be against Jesus’ will, he says that he will lay down his life. It is deliberate and
purposeful. It is his intention. It is not that he will risk his life and
perhaps he will die; Jesus will consciously lay down his life in love.
But how can laying down his life be of itself an act of
love? George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once observed that a
young man does not show his love for a young woman by throwing himself off a
cliff. Laying down your life can only be a sign of love if it is done for a
particular purpose, if it is done to achieve something.
And this is where Christ laying down his life is a sign of
love. He demonstrates his Father’s love for the world by dying the death our
sins deserves in our place, so as to bring reconciliation. It is not that the
Father is angry with us and Jesus placates him but that they are in partnership
to bring sinful humanity back into the orbit of divine love.
But we do speak of Christ in his love taking the punishment
for our sins. We can do so because the Cross encapsulates both of the major
aspects of punishment. It is a matter of retribution in that it shows us our
wrongdoing and the unacceptable nature of it. The Cross does that, because it
shows us what our sin has done to God. And it is also a matter of reformation:
it is not enough to be punished; one has to learn to be better and different.
The Cross has great power for reforming people.
So Christ’s love in laying down his life for us is about
retribution and reformation. His death on the Cross shows us our sin, and in
doing so is meant to bring us to the point of saying, ‘O Lord, did I do that to
you? I want to turn away from such a way of life. Please forgive me.’ We then
find that because Christ in his love died in our place God does indeed forgive
And the reforming intention of punishment is seen in
Christ’s loving death on the Cross, too. He loves us enough to die that we
might be forgiven. But he loves us too much just to leave us as forgiven
sinners. He wants to change us. And through the Cross and Resurrection Jesus
offers us not merely an example but the gift of his Spirit, who enables us to
The death of Christ, then, is the supreme example in history
of someone laying down their life for others out of love. And it is a
sacrificial death to which we all need to respond. This is the great death to
win the war on evil. Christ absorbs and conquers evil, not by violence and
bombs, but by submitting to its worst and turning it around, much as a Judo
expert uses his opponent’s strength against him.
So when we think this Remembrance Sunday about the greater
love of laying down one’s life, let us respond to what Christ has done on the
Cross for us. Let us be deeply sobered by what the Cross tells us of our sins
and come in confession and repentance. But let us also come to the loving
Christ of the Cross to find power to live differently.
2. His Followers
Before Jesus makes his ‘greater love’ statement, he says
this to his disciples:
‘This is my commandment, that you love
one another as I have loved you.’
So if Jesus loves us in a sacrificial, laying down his life
way, he calls us to love in the same way. Contrast that with this
mailshot I received last month from Boots:
Dear Reverend Faulkner,
There are so many things to enjoy over Christmas: the parties, the presents and
making yourself gorgeous for the big day itself. Well, we want to make sure
that you look and feel a million dollars as well as help you enjoy the season
for less. …
… Why not treat yourself to something gorgeous this Christmas? Go on, you
know you deserve it.
I hope you enjoy Christmas like never before!
Advantage Card Manager
Isn’t it just what you expect from a society that was
recently described as thinking that the meaning of life is just about getting yourself
one treat after another? Yet the call of Jesus is not to self-indulgence but to
sacrificial love, even to the point of losing one’s life.
It is something that has been demonstrated courageously time
and time again in all sorts of situations. In terms of wartime I am drawn to
the famous story of the Catholic priest Father Maximillian Kolbe who willingly
took the place of a frightened family man in a Nazi gas chamber. Many of you
will know other stories of sacrificial heroism that never made the headlines.
Outside wartime I have just been reading a summary of Martin
Luther King’s heroic stand against racism in 1960s America. It was his explicit choice
as a Christian to confront that evil in a non-violent way that led to certain
As riots broke out in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and Harlem, King travelled from city to city trying to cool
tempers and reminding demonstrators that moral change is not accomplished
through immoral means. He had learned that principle from the Sermon on the Mount,
and almost all his speeches reiterated the message. ‘Christianity,’ he said,
‘has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a
Christian one must take up his cross, with all its difficulties and agonising
and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark
upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through
(Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My
Faith Survived The Church, p 25)
Or hear him addressing weary marchers who had trudged from Selma, Montgomery,
to the state capitol:
I know that you are asking today, ‘How
long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the
moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth
pressed to earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can
How long? Not long, because you will
reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arm of
the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
How long? Not long, because ‘cause mine
eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of
his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpets that
shall never call retreat. He is lifting up the hearts of man before his
judgment seat. Oh, be swift my soul to answer him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our
God is marching on.
(ibid, p 29f)
No-one has greater love than Jesus who willingly died for
the sins of the world. Our response is to receive the forgiveness he offers
through it and be transformed into those who also will live risky sacrificial
lives for the sake of his kingdom. Can we show ‘greater love’?