Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
100 years ago today, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Armistice came into effect and millions flocked into the streets to celebrate the end of the Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, it was hoped. After 52 months of fighting, and with over 16 million dead, the guns fell silent.
And ‘we will remember them’, we promised. And we do. But what is it, and who is it, we remember?
In virtually every community, every parish in the country, there exists some form of memorial, a marker in time and space of the lives of the many who left their homes and never returned. They are in churches and chapels and schools and roadsides and village greens, the lists of the war dead we promise not to forget.
And though the First World War has passed from living memory now, these names bring home the reality of the lives it cost. They walked the same streets; they were someone’s son or husband or brother or father. William Daintree, whose name is inscribed on our memorial, was a saddler, married in St Bene’t’s a year before he went to war, and dying of his wounds before peace was declared. Frederick Coote, born and bred and enlisted in Cambridge, baptised in this church 127 years ago today, was killed in action in the Somme in 1917. He has no known grave: this is where he’s remembered.
And though the details we know of the war dead of this parish are scant, they matter, because they help us to remember that these were real human beings. If we avoid the particular we risk remembrance becoming fantasy, co-opting the dead to our own agenda, be that patriotism or pacifism or the politics of Brexit. In the privacy of the collective two minutes’ silence we allow ourselves instead to remember that those who went off to war were the brave and the adventurous, the patriotic and the idealistic, the willing and the conscripted, the homesick, the warsick, and the sheer terrified. If our remembering doesn’t make space for all that, then what we are actually engaged in is a collective act of forgetting.
And our remembering will bring with it gratitude, for those who faced the horrors of the trenches, and the hope that we will never be asked to make the sacrifice they did. But it should also bring with it discomfort, because to remember war is to be reminded of the failure of humanity. People really hoped the Great War would be the war to end all wars. A century on we know different, and that the human appetite for violence and injustice is not so readily sated. War is never something to celebrate. It is always atrocious, at best the lesser of two evils. War is about our failure to be who we are created to be, people living in the image of God, and our failure to recognise that image in others. In war, people become objects and commodities. Lives lost become statistics, and that’s only if we bother to count.
We keep on requiring sacrifices, wherever the theatre of war moves to. Today their names are Yemeni, Syrian, Afghan, Congolese, Sudanese, Rohingya. They are today’s dead and injured and traumatised and stateless victims of war’s incessant demand for sacrifice, and of the human sin that feeds it.
And yet as we gather today, as we remember, we hear this, from the letter to the Hebrews: ‘But as it is, Jesus has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.’
Jesus has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. This same Jesus, who, in the gospel reading, strides onto the scene proclaiming that ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.’
What the letter to the Hebrews is saying is that the war to end all wars took place nearly 2000 years ago, on the first Good Friday and Easter day. All the sacrifices, piled up year after year, says the letter to the Hebrews, couldn’t deal with sin and death. What it took was the sacrifice of the Son of God, the one whose perfect self-offering finally defeats the power of sin and death. This is the once-and-for-all sacrifice, the one that does not need repeating year after year, that does not require an endless supply of blood and victims to keep the peace.
Because what Jesus’ sacrifice does is make peace. In him and through him humanity is united to divinity, and in him and through him we are united to one another. ‘The strife is o’er, the battle won’, we sing at Easter, proclaiming the victory of Jesus over sin and death, and his establishing of a new humanity, united with God and at peace with one another.
This is the sacrifice we remember day by day and Sunday by Sunday as we celebrate the Eucharist. Here we proclaim that through the body and blood of Christ offered for us, death has no more dominion: we are no longer caught in its grasp and its death-dealing ways. Here we are given a pledge and foretaste of the heavenly banquet, of the feast of God’s kingdom of lasting peace.
This remembering, which we call Eucharist, shapes and orients our remembering of the dead of the wars that still demand human sacrifice. Here we listen to Jesus’ voice and obey him: we repent of the ways we still trade in violence and hatred and death. And we believe the good news that in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead God pronounces that the war is definitively over, and makes us citizens of his kingdom of peace.
‘Go in the peace of Christ’, I will say at the end of this service. And having been reconciled to God and one another in this Eucharist, that is what we are sent out into the world with, Christ’s gift of peace. Into a world of polarisation and division, of hatreds stoked by political expediency and an ongoing lust for violence we are sent out as those who have heard and received and bear the good news that the war is over. Christ has won the victory, and death has no more dominion.