Love is stronger than death: Remembrance Sunday

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Looking through hymns for Remembrance Sunday, and also readings and prayers, a common theme emerges. The imploring is for war to cease, looking forward to a time when peace will reign and there will be an end to fighting, to killing, to hatreds and violence. We could be forgiven for thinking that either God is not listening, or more to the point humanity isn’t, and this is a vain hope. Peace can be seen as the temporary pause between wars, a brief moment when conflicts quieten and we conduct those struggles through other means. Which is of course, not what peace is. Peace is not just a pressing of the pause button, but a reconciliation and uniting of common cause so that the flourishing of all is advanced. Anything else is not really peace at all because in the heart the hatreds and injuries fester ready to erupt again and wreak havoc.

For those of us longing for the day when war will cease and the shouts of battle will be turned to cheers of praise, our first reading speaks (2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-15). Paul was writing to a beleaguered and persecuted church in Thessalonica. It is one of his earlier letters, written around AD51. News reaches him in Corinth that the Christians in Thessalonica are wondering when Christ will come again and relieve them of their sufferings. He seems to be taking his time. If you were to sum up his letter in a Tweet it would be something like:

“Hold your nerve and stick at it. Don’t be conned by fake news.”

False reports of Christ’s return were abounding and people led astray in all sorts of ways. If there was a message for today, then that would be it. We are surrounded by misinformation, lies and deception in politics. The first casualty was truth and it was injured a long time ago. Holding our nerve and sticking at it is a message we can be renewed and strengthened in.

The passage we heard, ended with encouragement to stand firm and hold fast to being living witnesses to the hope, light and love of God in Jesus Christ. Whatever assails us, whatever fake news abounds, whatever hatreds, we are to remember that the way of Christ is the way of truth and peace, and it will always win through because it has the ultimate victory. It is better to be on the side of the angels than the one that leads to destruction. Put another way, Michelle Obama said, “when they go low, you go high” appealing for rising above the fray and going for the moral high ground, dignity intact. ‘Being the change we want to see’, words often attributed to another great leader, Ghandi, is one way we can bring it about, we can act as salt and light and yeast, as we are bidden to do in the Gospels. We want peace, so we have to live and breathe it, to be it, to proclaim it in how we are. When this happens it can have a remarkable affect on those around us. 

Remembrance Sunday is always a poignant moment, standing in the autumn sunlight and cold air, with its silence. Silence is the only response we can make in the face of the horrors and loss of life. It should sober us. It is a different emotion when reflecting years later to the moment when battle ceases. That can be a simple sitting on a rock with a quiet ‘it is finished’. Those are evocative words for us, because those are Christ’s words from the cross just before he died. A moment has been reached when conflict no longer has the upper hand. That will feel very different depending on whether this is a peace-treaty that brings reconciliation or is one of victor over vanquished. When there is liberation then one has to be put down and Paul implies in his letter that this is indeed what will need to come to liberate those in Thessalonica enduring great suffering. So the poignancy of the moment will vary with how we approach it – later reflection, post battle relief, victor-vanquished spectrum, moment of liberation.

This leads to another theme for Remembrance hymns, prayers and readings, that of justice. Without it there is no peace because that is the root of flourishing we seek for all.  And here we hit up against another theme, in the hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’. It is the line about a love that asks no questions that always sticks in my throat. It can be read as a love that will give willingly and in the service of others, trusting the one who commits them. But as we know too often that kind of blind allegiance is misplaced as political leaders who commit troops to action prove to have clay feet. And so if we are building a nation for peace and justice we need a love that asks lots of questions. And that is not incompatible with going high when others go low, because it is a search for truth and the solid ground on which justice and peace can be built, sustained and  can therefore flourish. Remembrance falling during General Election campaigning is a reminder that keeping faith, holding our nerve and sticking at it and not being conned by fake news requires calling to account and respectful challenge. Our patience may get tried, but that is the challenge as we seek to be the change we want to see and hold the high ground.

I will give the final word, as is fitting, to D-Day Veteran Harry Billinge, who was being interviewed on BBC Breakfast on Friday morning (8th November 2019 – 12:10 mins in). He was asked by Naga Munchetty what his message to young people would be, making sure they know the history and the lessons learnt. He replied that they need

‘to learn to love one another. There is a lot of hate in the world, greed and nonsense… It is a pity really that we don’t have a month of prayer because we have so much to thank God for. “Turn back O man, foreswear thy foolish ways.” We have been stupid. We are so clever, we can blow one another up but we don’t love one another. That’s the strongest thing on earth. ‘Love is stronger than death’.”

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th November 2019

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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