Greater love …

Sermon preached on “Remembrance Sunday”

Recently , I found myself engaged in a conversation about the way that certain songs, or pieces of music, can become associated in our own minds with a particular time or place. It may only need a few bars of music, or a specific phrase to be sung, and we are plunged back ten, twenty thirty years – and in our minds eye we’re transported to another time and place – among the sights and sounds and possibly even the smell – of a long-forgotten episode in our lives. For a short time, those sensations are incredibly vivid and real.

For me, one such “trigger” is the phrase we often hear at Remembrance services – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.

I first came across those words, as a 17 year-old, singing with a scratch choir of students in the Chapel of Oundle School, near Peterborough. It’s a large and impressive Chapel, built in 1921 as a memorial to those killed in World War 1.

As with our parish church, there is an apse – a curved wall – behind the Altar.  And, unlike the building here, there is beyond the apse an “ambulatory” – a corridor – curving round below the level of the high windows, from one side of the chapel to the other.

And it’s to that place that MY mind travels as soon as I hear the phrase “Greater love hath no man than this”.

What I remember most is a series of colourful stained glass windows, showing the Seven Ages of Man – travelling through from Infancy – a bonny baby sitting on a mat – to old age (described on the final window as “the second childishness”).

Along the way there are some lovely, humorous touches: in the second window, “the schoolboy” is shown – trudging reluctantly to class, with text books scrumpled under one arm and hands firmly in pockets. The 6th age, by contrast, shows a rather self-important looking school master – clutching a sheet of geometry homework, with several crossings out and corrections on it … still definitely in red ink (not allowed these days!).

In between the windows, however, there is something of a contrast: etched on the pale stone are three large black crosses, each with golden rays radiating from the centre. And, beneath the arms of each cross, are the names of old boys of the school who didn’t make it through the Great War – along with their faded photographs.

I think what hit me at the time, and what stays with me even now, is that peculiar blend of colour and beauty and gentle humour, alongside the starkness of that cold, dark stone memorial – and the reality that lay behind it.

It gives the impression of mixed emotions – of tremendous pride AND profound regret – a sense that somehow the natural order of things had been disrupted.

It serves as a reminder that, among the proud young men of Oundle School, there were some who experienced perhaps the first four “ages of man” – infant, schoolboy, lover and soldier – but knew no more of life than that.

In the setting of a school, surrounded by the vibrancy and optimism of youth, the words “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” take on a particular significance and poignancy.

On one level, of course, those words actually have nothing at all to do with Oundle School, or with the Great War or with any other conflict.

They were first written in St. John’s Gospel, where Jesus is preparing his friends for his own death.  Contained within a passage about love – those familiar words seem to be concerned with revealing the depth of Jesus’ love for his friends and the depth of God’s love for his people.

And they certainly provide no mandate either for bloodlust – or for the cult of martyrdom that exists today among some religious fanatics – the suicide bombers and others who imagine that acts of terrorism somehow promote the will of God.  Jesus commanded his friends to love, not hate.

In appropriating those words, and associating them with those who’ve died in war – we are using them for a very different purpose from that intended by the person who first wrote them down, sometime in the first century AD.

But then that kind of “appropriation” – of relating the Scriptures to our own context – is a natural part of our Christian tradition, and especially in relation to Jesus himself:  It IS in trying to make sense of his life that we start to make sense of our own.

By exploring the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions, and the real human emotions that he grappled with, we begin to recognise shadows of our own humanity – and the means to cope with the challenges that WE face.

Jesus died for his friends, but he taught them to live for each other.

And – for most of us at least – it’s that kind of sacrificial living – in a way that puts the welfare of the whole community ahead of our own personal ambitions – that we need to embrace if we are to preserve the peace which has been so dearly bought.

Even as we give thanks for 70 years of peace, we sense that there are new challenges for us to meet. Recent events in Mogadishu and Egypt, and the ongoing tensions in Syria and Sudan and elsewhere, the huge number of refugees forced to flee their war-torn homes, all serve to remind us that there are real and present threats to that peace.

If we are going to meet those challenges, then we need to be ready to show support for our armed forces in confronting those who now seek to undermine the cause of peace.

If we are going to meet those challenges, then all of us need to be resolved to work across differences of religious or political outlook – to escape the cycle of greed and the struggle for power over others, that keep the human race divided.

All of us need to be alert to the circumstances that allow individuals, or groups within our own nation to become alienated from mainstream society – all of us need to be aware of the tensions and inequalities that lead to strife between nations – and to do whatever we can to bring about a more stable situation.

Even today, then, we need to recount our tales of heroism – whether they be about the young men of Oundle School, or the men commemorated on our War Memorial outside, or anyone else.

We need to remember those who overcame their fears – to confront the evils of their day – so that we might be encouraged to believe that it is possible for us to do so today.

We need to remember the stories not just of the men who died, but also of their wives or girlfriends, their parents and families, their neighbours and their school-friends.

We need to remember the stories of those who survived war, but whose lives were shattered.

And we need to remember the stories of those who “gave their lives” in other ways – working tirelessly to rebuild those shattered lives and to create a better future, not only for their friends, but for the generations to come.

As we remember them all, and their experiences of the past, they may yet teach us how to live for tomorrow.