Sacrifice: God’s gift to overtake and outpace evil with love

Philip Morgan, 13 November 2016

Romans 8: 31b–39; John 15: 11–17

‘The people you love become ghosts inside of you, and like this you keep them alive.’

This was written by Robert Montgomery as a piece of public art. Montgomery is a conceptual artist: he sees his work as creating thoughts like this and showing them in print on panels in public spaces. When I saw this panel on a TV programme, onlookers were expressing great support for such a thought being displayed publicly, and it has apparently had 4 million hits on the website.

Well, it expresses what many have been doing every year on Remembrance Sunday since the end of the First World War, though we might have liked to see the feeling expressed more elegantly. But it has obviously touched deep feelings, some of which we may have borne along to church this morning. We do well to explore these at such a tender time.

Today, at war memorials in streets, squares and churches, people like us will be remembering friends and relations, among countless others, who have been killed in action. Others will be remembering on their own at home, or out on a walk. We may be remembering individuals’ faces – probably now only from photographs – or their names, or recalling seeing rows of headstones in one of the war cemeteries we’ve visited.

The conflicts of the past 20 years have brought our remembrance of those killed in war and other conflicts into even sharper relief, so this moment of remembering has great impact on us. What are we thinking about in those two minutes, and how are we thinking about it?

Let’s look at like this. We’ve sung one of the hymns that is a staple of remembrance services; Isaac Watts took Psalm 90, ‘O Lord, thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another’, and turned it into ‘O God, our help in ages past’. Isaac Watts was a free-church minister in Southampton in the 18th century and wrote some of our best-known hymns. There’s a United Reformed Church dedicated to him on the way to Southampton Hospital – good to have a verse or two of ‘O God, our help’ in mind when we go to outpatients.

The message is very definitely of the Old Testament from which it springs. ‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten …’ – like ghosts, we might say, and that is what is expressed by the psalmist. The Old Testament writers could not imagine life after death.

We can go further than that. We read the Old Testament because it was Jesus’ bible, and his ministry was soaked in his knowledge of it. So his teaching emerged from it but transfigured it. He came to bring new things to his people and to the world. Some could see it at the time – those who had been closest to Jesus in his lifetime – and at the crunch each had played a part in deserting him. Sustained by God’s love in bringing about the resurrection, they realised God had forgiven them this desertion and loved them just the same. Others with deeply felt burdens joined them, among them those who would write the gospels. They recorded the resurrection as God’s unique gift of love to the world, the whole world. And this is the bedrock of our belief: God with us in love.

They recorded the resurrection as God’s unique gift of love to the world, the whole world. And this is the bedrock of our belief: God with us in love.

Now, can we get that into our thinking during the two minutes’ silence, which has almost everything to do with the violence of war? Violence has been part of life since its beginning. We only have to go to chapter 4 of the first book of the Bible to find the first murder recorded in the story of God’s creation of the world: Cain and Abel. While the conviction of God’s love was dropping home to our forebears in the Christian faith, the unpredictable power of the Roman Empire was being felt in Judea and Galilee and all round the eastern Mediterranean. Violence was systematic and frequent, including violence against those who professed this seemingly extraordinary belief about God loving the world – indeed, creating the world so that God could love it. It is very likely that Mark’s gospel was written to strengthen the courage of men and women who were facing persecution and death because of what they believed.

The resurrection proclaims that violence does not, and will not, have the final word. So we circle back to remembering, and this Remembrancetide. Jesus revealed some of the belovedness of the world at the Last Supper, when he began to recast all notions of sacrifice … gave an entirely new meaning to sacrifice. He told the disciples the bread and the wine represented his life, and when they ate and drank in his name, they would be recalling his presence into their world after he had left them. Do this to remember me: now, through the week ahead and always. Sacrifice is not something to do with appeasing God for the evil we have done, or been part of, but the offering by God of the gift of sacrifice to overtake and outpace evil with love. ‘I am with you always – to the end of the age’, as the author of Matthew has Jesus say as the final sentence in the gospel.

This sacrifice is what links us in our living, day to day, to the risen Lord in eternity, an eternity beyond our notion of time and space, where God holds utter sway and all wrongs are righted. It is to this eternity that God draws us when we die. Adapting Paul’s quotation to the philosophers in Athens, we might say, ‘God in whom we die and have our being’. Yes, time like an ever-rolling stream does bear all its children away, and there is much tragedy in the deaths we remember this morning. But they, and all who have died, fly remembered as God’s beloved. That is why remembering has this double meaning at this time of year. We remember those who have died in war, as well as our own beloved dead at All Souls’ Tide, and God remembers them too.

‘Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8: 39).