Remembrance: world peace is what God wants, and is possible

Peter Seal, 9 November 2014

Ecclesiastes 3: 1–15; John 15: 11–17

Today we keep Remembrance Sunday, this year marking 100 years since the outbreak of World War I. Together, in this act of worship, supported by our Bible readings, we proclaim the primacy of love over hate; the primacy of peace over war.

It’s absolutely right that we honour those who gave their lives fighting for their country; those whose lives were, literally, taken from them. Many of these men were young, very young. It’s the tender age of many of those who died that has struck me most forcibly this year.

Our remembering today is such an important element of our communal identity. It’s something we need to teach our children and young people. It’s so good to be joined today by members of our local scouting organisations. They come looking so smart and proud in their uniforms. Some of them are not much younger than their forebears who took up arms and fought for their country. Today we pay tribute to our local scouting groups – to the young people and to their dedicated leaders. We give thanks for the discipline being taught and the role-modelling offered.

As we remember those who have fought and died in war and other armed conflict, we remember too the many civilians who died, as well as countless helpless animals. We recall the physical destruction to towns, cities and countryside. This week we’ve been reminded again of the environmental vulnerability of planet earth and the prognosis for the end of this century. Whenever I see a picture of an exploding bomb I’m distressed not only by the human suffering inflicted, but also by the long-term effects of the pollution that is being caused. The phrase ‘costing the earth’ comes to mind.

It’s hard for most of us to imagine what it feels like to be in the midst of a war. I recently read the book Gardens of Stone, my Boyhood in the French Resistance by Stephen Grady. Stephen, born in 1925 in northern France, is the son of an Englishman who is a head gardener in the Imperial War Graves Commission. Aged 16, he joins the French Resistance. He’s been imprisoned for his part in defacing a damaged German fighter plane that has been shot down near his home. One day, from his appalling prison cell, he hears the sound of the Allied bombers droning overhead, and writes:

The throb of those engines gives me a grain of hope to which I can cling. For that sound is a sign that someone, somewhere, is continuing the fight. And what I discover is that, when you are in a very dark place, and you are frightened for your life, then the knowledge that someone is putting up a fight on your behalf, in however small a way, can make all the difference. For it gives you hope. And hope is the difference between giving up and going on.

We are living in the midst of a distant but ever-impinging time of international terror. The brutal murders in recent months by the so-called Islamic State are horrific beyond description or imagination. There are perhaps two things we can do in response.

First, to realise that – as in the case of Stephen during World War II – signs of hope can make all the difference. Together, therefore, we persevere in our prayers, trusting that in some mysterious way they are being felt by those who are so fearful.

Secondly, we can keep alive in our hearts the multitude of good, peace-loving and gracious Moslems in this country and throughout the world, who are deeply distressed by what is happening in the name of the faith they cherish and live by.

As we know from history, all faiths are vulnerable to the horrors of absolute certainty and the wicked extremism that can flow from this.

The Prince of Wales spoke this week of his mounting despair at the expulsion of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in northern Iraq and Syria by Islamic State jihadists. He expressed his deep concern at the deterioration of religious tolerance around the world. He warned that ‘the very freedom on which society is built is threatened with destruction’. He continued, ‘It is an indescribable tragedy that Christianity is now under such threat in the Middle East … where people of different faiths have been living together peaceably for centuries. It seems to me’, he said, ‘that our future as a free society – both here in Britain and throughout the world – depends on recognising the crucial role played by people of faith’.

Today’s collect and post-communion prayers carry helpful phrases. We pray, ‘Lord, look with compassion on the anguish of the world’; ‘Bring the families of the nations divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin to Jesus’ just and gentle rule’.

As we remember those who gave their lives in war, we have a deep sense of gratitude. There are so many stories of bravery and heroism and of heart-rending grief. You may recall that the telegram telling the poet Wilfred Owen’s parents that their son had been killed was handed to them as the bells announcing the armistice rang out.

The pain of war is unutterably sad. It could be that part of what we can do as Christians is to be ready to stay with the pain. Not in some sort of self-indulgent, masochistic way, but because seeking to identify increases compassion which, in turn, can inspire in us a commitment to peace-making, in whatever way we can.

Seeking to identify increases compassion which, in turn, can inspire in us a commitment to peace-making.

You may know the history of the two minutes’ (or ‘great’) silence, which was also known as the ‘pause’. It was first observed in Britain on what was then known as Armistice Day, Tuesday 11 November 1919. The first minute was understood by some as thanksgiving for those who survived, and the second minute to remember the fallen. King George V, writing in The Times a few days earlier, had requested: ‘For the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities’.

The police stopped traffic, pedestrians stood still and trains delayed departure or stopped (unless in tunnels). According to the central switchboard, no telephone calls were made in London during the great silence. The event was subsequently described as ‘without parallel in the world’s history’. ‘In no previous two minutes had so many, and such fervent, prayers for the dead been uttered by so many hearts and lips.’ The Times reported, ‘A new gentleness seemed abroad … people move respectfully’.

The two-minute silence is usually communal but can also be used by individuals. The addition of the reveille to the last post is seen by some to signify resurrection.

The little things you and I do each day really can make a difference. In the name and in the power of Jesus Christ, we are called to be bearers of hope, to be peacemakers. We’re called to go on believing that – against all the odds – world peace is what God wants, and is possible.