Monday, 13 November 2006

Remembrance Sunday 2006

1 Corinthians 15:1-8

We are here today to remember with pride and gratitude, and I suspect for some of us here - with real pain - those men and women who fought in two world wars, whether in the war at home or overseas, in order to defend our freedom and to bring freedom to the peoples of occupied Europe: 'they gave their tomorrow for our today'. And we honour them.

Remembrance Sunday has taken on a new significance in the last few years. There has even been talk of making it our new 'national' day, although we in Bury St Edmunds know that needs to be November 20. But it has taken on a new significance because even though the vast majority of our population did not experience the second world war - I was born almost 20 years after it ended - the stories are still told; the ghastliness of war has not changed, and even though Nazism was defeated and the swastikas ripped down in 1945, there are still many today who try to hold and manipulate nations and peoples through the use of terror and force.

I suspect that it might have been possible for Churchill to say: "Europe has fallen. Let's sue for peace, and keep our independence. Why should our children die for Europe and beyond?" It would have been much easier for Roosevelt to have said: "Europe has fallen. We have a war to fight in the far East. Why should our children die for what is on the other side of the Atlantic?" But they didn't. They realised that what happens to one affects the other; what happens to you affects me. They realised that if you see evil, even in a far off place that affects far off people, and if you have the power to do something about it, but do nothing, then that evil has reached out and begun to grip you. When I turn a blind eye to evil elsewhere, I turn a blind eye to evil in myself. And they did not know what the final outcome would be of their decisions. They did not know how many hundreds of thousands or millions might die. But they knew that they had to stand up to evil, even though it was in far off places.

And just as our men and women, as some of you, were willing to answer the call and to serve and give of themselves (in many different ways) in the world wars to defend others, so today it also happens. We consider the more recent conflicts in Northern Ireland, in the Falklands, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leone, and of course in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is right that as we honour those who fought in the world wars, we also honour the men and women who are prepared to answer the call, to obey orders, to leave their families, to risk their lives and even to give their lives for the sake of others, especially others in far off places. And as we honour them, we also honour their families.

At the heart of the Christian faith is a story. I'm told that a former Archbishop, Michael Ramsey was chairing a meeting at which people were discussing the question, 'What is the gospel?' And there were a number of speakers. One of them was talking about the need for social action; another was talking about the need for moral teaching and behaviour; another was talking about the need for evangelistic campaigns. Michael Ramsey got increasingly agitated, and finally interrupted: "The gospel is this: 'that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve'. That is the gospel. All the rest is interpretation."

At the heart of the Christian faith is a story - it happens to be a true story: it was predicted in the Old Testament, and witnessed by the first Christians - of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the story of a man who chose to give his life, not for honour, wealth, family or friends, not even for a principle that he believed in. He gave his life for others - for those who were close to him and for those who were far off, for those who loved him and even for those who hated him and who crucified him. He gave his life so that others, and that includes you and me, could begin to live: could begin to find true forgiveness, acceptance, identity, peace, purpose and hope. Jesus Christ gave his life to smash down the fortresses that we build around our ego's, the steel shell that we cocoon around ourselves. He is the invading army; he is the industrial tin opener. To those who allow him in, to those who receive him, he opens us up, so that we can be open to God and open to others, even others who are far away.

But the story does not end there. It is a story about a person who gives his life for others, but it is also a story about resurrection and hope. And because Jesus rose from the dead - and he was seen by Peter, by the twelve and then by many others (it is significant that Paul writes, 'most of whom are still living'. Why? Because he is saying to his readers, 'you can go and ask them'.) - we know that death has not won. Evil has not won. Love has won - and will win. Life has won - and will win. And a life that is given for the sake of another person is never ever pointless.

It is this story which is at the centre of our Christian faith. It is also the story that has been at the centre of our nation's life for so many centuries, probably since the time of St Edmund. It is, I believe, this story which gave to so many in this nation such resilience and courage in the very darkest days of the world wars. It is this story which tells us that when we have our backs to the wall, when we are crushed and overwhelmed, when it seems that there is total failure, when we are broken and in darkness - there is still hope. It is this story which can break down into the pit of the despair of a grieving partner or child or parent or comrade and bring to them a glimpse of light. It is this story which has brought hope, and brings hope, to so many people at a time when they feel crushed and broken and forsaken. It is this story which gives meaning and peace to confused lives lived in a confused world.

And it is this story, of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which has also inspired men and women to live for others, to give their lives - not for a religion or ideology, not for revenge, or family or personal honour, not for self-interest, not even for the idea of a country or nation - but out of love for others, even others who are far away.

People say that in these days when religious fanatics commit acts of terrorism we need less religion. That really is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We may need less of some of what has gone on in the name of Christianity, but we need Jesus Christ, the crucified but risen one. It is both tragic and desperate that the one person who can give us hope and life, who can inspire us to love and open us to others, who can give us peace and assurance - has become the most cursed person on earth. There is probably no other name on earth that is more abused than the name of Jesus.

And as we let go of the story that has been at the heart of our nation's life, in our schools, in our homes and in our national and local institutions, we let go of the story that can lead us to the one who can unite us, who can hold our families together, who can give us vision, who can give us peace, who can give us hope and who can open us up to love.

It is good and right to remember with great gratitude and pride those men and women who served in two world wars and more recent conflicts. It is good and right to remember their story. But it is also necessary to remember the story of a man who, 2000 years ago, gave his life for others, was crucified but rose from the dead. Because it is the person who that story points to who alone can give ultimate significance to our own sacrifices, and who can give meaning and peace and hope to our world and to our lives.

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