925 years ago, the Church, entangled with kingdoms and governments, called for crusaders, saying it was a Christian man’s duty to fight for the name of God in the Middle East. About 2 million died.
401 years ago, the Thirty Years’ War erupted in Europe, a war between Catholics and Protestants. Each church and country declaring that it was a man’s duty to fight for their understanding of God. About 5 million died from fighting and famine.
105 years ago, clergy in pulpits across this country proclaimed that it was a person’s Christian duty to defend the global empire that secured our prosperity, as the “war to end all wars” erupted, and some 24 million combatants and civilians lost their lives, and 214,000 Canadians – then over 2.5% of our population – were killed or wounded.
80 years ago, once again, the Church declared that it was a person’s duty to take up arms, not in the name of God or Empire, but for the cause of “Freedom”, as a full 10% of Canadians entered the armed forces, as upwards of 100 million people worldwide lost their lives directly or indirectly in that war.
Then, as we entered the Cold War, opinions changed. The Church, and society at large, was unsure of its position, until, around 1985, when the churches of North America generally agreed a Christian’s duty was, as we recited last week in our Baptismal Vows, a duty to “strive for justice and peace among all people”, while “persevering in resisting evil”. Tens of thousands of Canadians still answered their country’s call to serve in Korea, then the Gulf, then Yugoslavia and Somalia, returning home broken and bruised, but now without the heroes’ welcome or widespread support that helped their parents’ generation return from World War II.
And, the story continues, as our country and her allies deployed again to the Middle East, and even today, our Armed Forces list 33 ongoing peacekeeping and other operations at home, in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
There’s no question. War is a difficult and complex matter. And there’s also no question, as we look back, that whenever the church forgets its purpose and identity and simply becomes a shadow or echo of the state, our fallen humanity, our temptations to pride and greed lead us, over and over again, down the dangerous path of thinking that God is on our side, as though we were the ones with the eternal plan. We forget so quickly that the good news is the opposite: that God calls and invites us to be on His side.
Why we Remember
On this Remembrance Sunday, the Church calls us to gather with several intentions.
First, as the People of God have done since Issac told Jacob about God’s Covenant with Abraham, we gather to recite the story of how we got here; a story that includes both great blessings at God’s hand, as well as great atrocities in the name of ‘empire’ as certain regiments were deemed less valuable based on their heritage, and sent to their doom.
As the prophets of old recounted both the good and the bad to call God’s people to obedience, it’s our duty to remember the good and the bad, as we look back and see that there is no “war to end all wars”, and until Christ returns, no amount of deterrence or rational debate can save a distraught people from following the rantings and calls to war of a crazed leader. We gather to remember our story.
Second, we remember not just our history, but the great sacrifices of those who gave so much. And perhaps we serve their memories best if we don’t romanticize it too much. They were brave, they were courageous, they fought for the cause of freedom against oppression and evil. But they were also curious, in search of adventure, excited to leave their small quiet town and see the world; young men and women – even boys lying about their age – who, serving their country, traded youth for the horrors of war, as many never came home, and all came home changed, wounded by the physical and psychological scars of warring humanity.
And, having remembered our story and having recalled the sacrifice of those who died, thirdly, this is a day of prayer. This is a day of longing, as we pray that these sacrifices will not be repeated.
Church and State:
‘Already’ and ‘Not Yet’
War, it seems, is an inevitable fact of life in our fallen world. And it is good and right for us to honour those who serve, protect, and defend us from threats foreign and domestic. As we are taught by the scriptures, the worldly authorities are a part of the God-given order – even though crowns and thrones may perish and kingdoms rise and wane.
And if there’s a lesson a Christian today can learn from the long, sad history of the church and state as strange bedfellows in support of war, it’s that the Christian position, the Gospel position, our position, doesn’t fit well in any worldly camp. In no way can the Body of Christ justify marching out in the name of worldly empires: after all, we must remember that our conflict is not against flesh and blood – our fellow humanity; no, our conflict is against evil and the spiritual forces of wickedness.
At the same time, we neglect our Gospel call to be a city on a hill, a light to enlighten the nations, and to be the messengers of peace if we bury our heads in the sand; and our task to bring the Good News of peace in Christ to the ends of the earth means that we, like those first apostles, must find ourselves on the dangerous frontlines between justice and injustice, between peace and the evils of war.
And there’s an important theological idea that explains this difficult position in which we find ourselves. It’s summarized in three simple words: already… not yet.
As we proclaimed last week, Christ has already defeated death and the grave… but we are not yet able to see that defeat on this side of the veil between time and eternity.
God has already built that kingdom where swords and weapons of war are beaten into plows to provide for the needy, that land where lion and lamb, men and women, slave and free, of all races and languages and nations live peaceably side by side, where wars and rumours of wars are no more… but we are not yet there to experience it.
We, here today, are by baptism already made full members of the Kingdom of God, that one true kingdom that endures while all the others, like every nation in history, rises and falls, as one day, even our own great nation will pass away. But, we are not yet present in that Kingdom, and as such are called to live as resident aliens in this land, subject to its laws, and active in its society.
And that Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, of which you and I are already citizens, has a crucial difference.
In this world, the call comes to serve our country, for patriotism: to serve our fatherland, to serve and protect the crown, the structures, the institutions, and the government.
But the Kingdom of God doesn’t ask for patriotism. Patriotism is for the kingdoms of this world.
…In junior high English class, we read the classic poem “Dulce et Decorum Est pro patria mori” – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country; what the poet and World War I veteran William Owen described as “the old lie”, preached from pulpits as young men shipped off to war.
But the message of the Lamb of God, our Lord, is this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” But, my friends, it doesn’t stop there, for this is no airy-fairy love; this isn’t about positive thinking or happy thoughts. For he continues, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”.
This is no catch phrase.
No, the very Kingdom of God – the new Jerusalem, the new Heaven and the new Earth, that country where the lion and the lamb lie side by side – is built around, founded upon, the man who laid down his life for his friends – even Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our eternal hope, our very faith, is founded on the one who willingly, without compulsion, entered a battle that was not his own – but which would never be won without him – so that those who were oppressed by the forces of evil could know the freedom of justice and peace.
And, if we are to be included ourselves, then “friends” isn’t just those with whom we like to spend time; the word there is companions, associates, those who choose to be on the same side.
Greater love has no one than this.
So, even in 2019, with church and society having learned so much about the horrors of war, we as Christians are called to duty.
Not to fight for the name of the God of Peace, as though that’s what God desires.
Not to fight for the prideful divisions that keep the church divided in ministry and witnesses.
Not to fight for empire, or even for the political ideals of freedom or democracy, as every empire one day passes away.
Our duty, as those already citizens of the Kingdom of God, is to love this hurting world so much that we are willing to lay down our life, in imitation of our Lord.
Our duty, as those blessed with God’s provision, is not to hoard what we have been given, but to sow from our freedom and bounty so that others, even those under oppression in foreign lands, may reap what we’ve sown. That, as we read in the Gospel, when that great harvest comes, we may all rejoice together in what the Lord has done.
So, this day, let us commit ourselves to remember: to remember the great story, the honourable and the horrific, that has brought us to this day, and let us pledge never to forget God’s goodness to us through it all.
Let us commit to remember those men and women, from every walk of life, who sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy; those freedoms that, if we’re not careful, we and those who come after us can so easily take for granted.
And, as those citizens of the Kingdom of God, living – for now – as foreigners in this world and, by God’s grace, as citizens of this great land of Canada, let us long for our promised peace, yearning for an end to our divisions, and living as those who, when called, would take up our cross and bear it to the end for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
Will you persevere in resisting evil…?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people…?
To which we responded: I will, with God’s help.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget.
 John 15:12-13