A Sermon preached by Canon Anthony Phillips at St Mary’s Iffley on Remembrance Sunday 2016
In many countries, to-day’s Remembrance Sunday will be rightly commemorated in parades, and afterwards no doubt that dwindling band of world war veterans will exchange memories of what were for them the decisive years of their lives. But there will also be those for whom it will seem as if only yesterday they buried their dead, victims of the conflict in Ulster or the recent controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For them the reality of loss is still tragically raw.
Of course all of us will have the utmost sympathy for all who have suffered as a result of war, for those who witnessed man’s incredible inhumanity to man, for all for whom suffering remains a present reality. They deserve our unconditional support especially from the majority of us who have never been conscripted, never known the reality of risking life and limb in bloody conflict.
For Christians though remembrance of injuries suffered raises a particular challenge. For at the heart of Christianity lies the duty to love one’s enemies and to forgive them. So Jesus enjoins us: You have heard that they were told, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father’
And his last words from the cross were ‘Father forgive them for they know what they do’. But that should have been no surprise for at the heart of the prayer he taught his disciples and which we shall shortly recite is a plea for our own forgiveness and the recognition that we can only ask this if we have already forgiven those who have injured us.
Energising oneself to forgive is wrenchingly hard. But failure to forgive not only destroys one’s own personality, it also adds to the sum total of evil in the world. It adds yet further injury to the injuries which already burden mankind. The man or woman who cannot forgive dehumanises himself, herself, and becomes an agent of destruction.
But I would not have you think that in advocating unconditional forgiveness – for that is the only kind of forgiveness that one can have – I was in any way seeking to minimise the horrors of war or the suffering it brings to participants, their families and their communities. And to-day we have to contend with unpredictable terrorism and hate crimes which may strike anywhere and anyone, even a Member of Parliament going about her constituency business.
There is a popular slogan, Forgive and Forget. But that is totally inadequate in respect of the suffering which we remember today. For to forget the injuries, as if they had never happened, or as if they were somehow quite unimportant whether they happened years ago or yesterday, is to deny reality, to fly in the face of reason. They are important not only for the suffering which in most cases can never be eradicated, but also in reminding us of the horrors of which man is capable and so encouraging us to use every endeavour to prevent such them happening again.
For History has shown and shows that it is all too easy to treat others as if they were no longer fellow human beings. The Turks did it to the Armenians in the First World War; the Nazis to the Jews in the second. Protestants have done it to Catholics and vice versa, Whites have done it to Blacks, straights to gays. Europe to her shame is currently doing it to refugees and asylum seekers.
Forgive and Forget is a negative slogan. It leads nowhere: nothing comes from it. We cannot pretend that the past has not happened, and that its consequences are not with us still. We cannot simply shrug our shoulders and go about our daily business. Our concern should be to transform this present into a better future where the terrors of the past are impossible and those responsible for the present called to account however long it takes.
Remembrance is at the heart of both Old and New Testaments, for both Jews and Christians were called to remember the great saving acts of their faiths. But the Jewish understanding of what is meant by remembrance is very different from our western ideas. When in his festival the Jew remembered a past event, he did not simply look back on it as we might look back on some historical event, as something which happened once like Agincourt or Blenheim, Trafalgar or D-Day. For the Jew, to remember meant to take part in, to reactivate the event so that one experienced it for oneself, appropriated it into one’s inner being. This is clearly seen from a Jewish instruction of the second century AD which reads: ‘It is the duty of every generation to think of itself as if it had personally come up out of Egypt’. Every Jew was therefore expected to share in that divine deliverance, to make it is his own. So to with the Christian Eucharist.
When Christ celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, he said of the sharing in the broken bread: Do this in remembrance of me. And again of the wine:
Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me. By sharing in the Eucharist the Christian is not taking part in a memorial service for some worthy man long since dead. He or she does not just contemplate Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension as happenings of long ago. They actually identify themselves with his passion and death, and so also with his resurrection and ascension. As these events affect them personally, they become contemporary. For Christians make up that community who have died in Christ in baptism, and risen in him to new life. They are the community of the resurrection, living out the resurrection life here on earth. For Jew and Christian the saving events are not past events: they are ever really present, just as in each Eucharist Christ is really present, for through the act of remembrance we too find ourselves in the upper room. It is this Jewish way of looking at remembrance which I believe should be foremost in our minds to-day. Perhaps I might sum it up with a new slogan: Forgive and Remember.
Suffering is always wicked, cruel and devilish, but it need not be useless and uncreative. It can have a redemptive power of quite superhuman proportions as those who acknowledge the cross know. Those whom we commemorate to-day will indeed have died or suffered in vain unless their suffering is made redemptive. And it can only become redemptive through us, through us accepting their sacrifice much of it quite unwitting, and turning it to good. It can only become a creative force in so far as we ourselves use it to create a better world in which such suffering can no longer occur.
But I believe that we shall only be fully motivated towards achieving that prophetic kingdom in which swords are turned into ploughshares as we fully experience for ourselves its alternative, the inexhaustible destructive force of hell Without this full remembrance, I fear we shall all too easily fall once more into the fatal attraction of hoping that there is such a thing as a just war which in the age of nuclear weapons and chemical warfare is no longer possible. As we ourselves are faced by unprecedented dangers, the urgency of this message becomes daily more apparent. No longer can we keep silent. The bestiality that has always characterised war throughout the centuries, a bestiality which dehumanises both victim and victimiser, should no longer have a place in any civilised society, certainly not left to the might of individual nations or fundamentalist sects determined to impose their will.
To-day is not the commemoration of Armistice Day. That was a historic event – 11 November 1918 – and we can look back on it like any other historical event. To-day is Remembrance Sunday. To-day we remember and make our own the sufferings of war. But being a Sunday, it is like every Sunday, a remembrance too of the resurrection. Our task as Christians is to bring to the suffering of war the resurrection faith, and out of the works of darkness bring forth the kingdom of light.