Sermon - 11th November 2018
Greater love has no-one
Scripture - John 15:9-14
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Exactly 100 years ago today, on 11 November 1918, at 11am, the Great War – as it was known then; or World War One, as we call it now – came to an end. It marked the end of 4 years of war that cost 18.4 million soldiers and civilians their lives. An estimated 23 million more were wounded.
While the War began in Europe, because of the empires of those European countries, the conflict was global. While the bulk of the War was fought in Europe, the War also took place in Africa. Cameroon, South-West Africa (today’s Namibia) and German East Africa (today’s Rwanda and Tanzania) were all battle grounds.
In both Africa and on the Indian sub-continent, men responded to the call from Britain: 1.25 million from India, and around 300,000 from Africa. Many of these travelled to Europe and worked as labourers in the battlefield, often as trench diggers.
For all of us today, whoever we are, on whichever continent we were born, the First World War impacted on the lives of our ancestors. Today, we remember them all.
We must also take a moment to remember that some of those in the War were gay. Here’s an image of two soldiers from WW1, their story told in Stephen Bourne’s book “Fighting Proud”.
Because it was 100 years ago, everyone who was alive is now dead. We, their descendants are left with names etched on war-memorials, history books and black-and-white photos and silent films, and these can seem unreal and we can feel disconnected from the reality.
Peter Jackson, the film director and producer – most well known for the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies – has used his studio’s technical skills to colourise footage from WW1. It is stunning and brings home the reality and humanity of the conflict.
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The poet John Maxwell Edmunds wrote these words in 1916: “When you go Home, tell them of us and say: For your Tomorrow, we gave our Today.” Those words are a poetic definition of the concept of sacrifice.
Inscribed on many war memorials – including the one in our own church – are some words from Jesus concerning sacrifice: “The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them.”
These words can be found in John’s Gospel, Chapter 15. When we read the other three Gospels, the closing events in Jesus’ life on Earth beginning with the Last Supper can be found in the final chapters. In John’s Gospel, the Last Supper begins just past halfway through, and the narrative around the dinner table – as John tells it - deals with huge themes: servanthood, betrayal, denial, salvation, the Holy Spirit, love and sacrifice.
As we come now to our Gospel reading, try to imagine being there, sat around the table with Jesus and His Disciples, listening to His teaching.
The key word in our reading is “love”. There are many kinds of love. Some of you will have heard me say in other sermons that the Greek language in which the New Testament was written has more words for love than English. This graphic illustrates them… Eros (romantic/erotic), Philia (friendship), Storge (familial, patriotism), Agape (unconditional).
Which Greek word for “love” do you think conveys Jesus’ words when He mentions love in today’s reading? … Agape: the Divine love, unconditional love, self-sacrificing love…
When we put these words of Jesus into the original spoken context, around the table of the Last Supper, I would suggest that He had three audiences in mind: firstly, Himself – as God’s Son, wholly human and wholly divine, He intended to allow Himself to be sacrificed on the Cross.
What does Jesus’ self-sacrifice accomplish for us? There is nothing which we humans can do to bring ourselves back into right relationship with our Creator God. There are no good needs, no bargains we can strike with God, and for the people of ancient times – no number of animal sacrifices. Jesus did it all for us. The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther called this “Sola Gratia” – Grace Alone. In response, all we have to do is to have faith.
Jesus’ second audience around the table of the Last Supper was His Disciples. Jesus had already told them earlier in the meal (John 13) that one of them would betray Him and that Peter would deny him. Jesus was telling them about their future and how they would need to live in faithful service to the Gospel. Life was hard: the Bible, other contemporary historians and church tradition have them all coming to an unpleasant end, but they lived out their lives proclaiming Jesus’ message of unconditional – agape – love.
And who is Jesus’ third audience for his words? We are.
Today, on this special Remembrance Sunday, let us think back 104 years to 1914, the beginning of the Great War and consider the position families in the UK, and in Europe, Africa, Asia, America and Australasia found themselves in. Or let us think back 79 years to 1939 and the start of the Second World War… war had been declared, governments appealed for volunteers, then passed laws of conscription to force people to fight.
What motivated those men? World War One was largely about territory. World War Two was something completely different: it was about fighting an ideology called Fascism.
These men were motivated by love. Now you may think that is a very strange thing to say, so let me explain it…
These men fought alongside their brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers and sons: their familial love for each bound them together, striving that they might all return home safely.
These men fought alongside their work-mates, their old school-friends, the other members of their church. Their love for each other as friends bound them together, striving that they might all return home safely.
These men knew their home-lives and their way of life in their villages, towns and cities were threatened. They feared for their grandfathers and grandmothers, their young children, their sisters, their wives and daughters and their other loved-ones.
I remember my grandfather, David Jones: as a boy, he sometimes told me of his time in WW2, serving in North Africa and Italy. He chose to leave his job and young family, and joined the Royal Artillery. He was a motorcycle despatch rider. One day, he was shot, lost a lung as a result. Why did he do this? For love of his wife, his two daughters and his country.
The many thousands of letters home from the soldiers speak of love, seldom of war itself: here’s an extract from a letter of Ralph Hall, stationed with the RAF in North Africa to his lover Montague Glover (in: My Dear Boy: “Gay Love Letters through the Centuries”, edited by Rictor Norton)
“Hello Darling, You don’t know how much I miss you… I kiss the photo every night. So you are in bed with me after all. I would rather have you with me. I was up the blue in the desert for a week and was it hell. Just sand and more sand. Let’s get back to the old days my dear as soon as this war is over…”
And there is one more love… love of country. It may be cold and wet for much of the time, but it is home. It is our home, because those whom we love are here, too. This United Kingdom we call home has so many assets for which we can be grateful: for the most part, we can readily live our lives freely and without fear. Our democracy, our welfare-state, our health system may not be perfect, but they provide us with important security and peace of mind. Rights for LGBT and acceptance of LGBT are something which set us apart from many other nation states.
Some of us here were born in the UK; others of you were born elsewhere but chose to leave the countries of your birth, but you made a conscious choice to come to the UK to seek asylum, because you believe the UK to be the best opportunity for you to be able to live a free and safe life.
The freedom, peace and rights we enjoy came at a high price, bought with the blood of literally millions of people. On Remembrance Sunday, we take time out to think about that.
Two thoughts in closing…
Because of the freedom in which we live, unlike our grandfathers and those before them, being part of the military which defends our nation is now a choice, a career like any other. There are around 150,000 full-time and 36,500 reserves serving in the Army, Royal Marines, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, who are trained and ready to put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Let us also remember them.
Finally, back to Jesus around the table of the Last Supper. When He spoke these words, the core of His message was a simple one: Love. Wrapped around these words that speak of sacrifice are more words of love. Jesus sums up all of his teaching in this one commandment: love one another… love that is unconditional. God’s grace is about getting what we do not deserve. And through sacrificial love, this is what we get: we get to be called “friends”, Jesus’ friends… God’s friends!