Jonah 3.1-5, 10;
THIS Remembrance Sunday we shall recall particularly, in sombre gatherings across the nation, those who have died on active service during the past year. The rawness of this grief, still fresh, will alert us to the seriousness of war, the cost, and who bears it most.
In a poignant cartoon, Steve Bell recently depicted the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square as a catafalque, on which rested a military coffin. He was alluding to the end of Antony Gormley's installation, One and Other, in which ordinary people from all walks of life have been invited to spend an hour on the plinth doing or saying whatever they wish. In the cartoon, the safety net placed around the plinth for that event is filled with body bags, and underneath is a chilling epitaph: "More pointless waste". The message is simple: these deaths are part of our life.
We need to hear the challenge of cartoonists, who use their art to question the policy of governments, as much as the outlook of popular opinion. Mr Bell is right to provoke comment about the human and financial cost of continued engagement in Afghanistan, but that comment must focus on questions of government policy and military strategy. What we must not apply Mr Bell's epitaph to is the quality of commitment and life shown by those who are deployed in active military service.
Art has played a significant part in shaping our attitude towards conflict and remembering its cost. The monuments at which people gather today will mostly have been established after the First World War. The convention of setting up wayside shrines, of praying for the dead, and making reference to the crucifixion of Jesus as the exemplary sacrifice was a new thing to the people of Britain in the early 20th century, but it caught the mood of the nation.
In May 1919, the Bishop of Buckingham dedicated an outdoor crucifix on the London Road in Datchet, near Windsor, noting that it would be a wayside shrine - familiar to those who had fought in France, though not to us in England. But the connection between the sacrifice of Calvary and the death of troops fighting in the trenches was already in circulation.
James Clark's popular painting, The Great Sacrifice, imagined a dead soldier slumped at the base of the cross, his hand resting on the feet of Christ. It was a distinctive image that spoke even to a Scottish Calvinist, the Revd John Adams, who observed: "The wounded hand of the one is laid upon the pierced feet of the other, that the covenant thus sealed in death can never again be broken."
Seeing the death of soldiers in the trenches as an allusion to the sacrifice of Jesus was not simply a construct devised from the safety of home. Somewhere in France in 1915, John Nicholson wrote a poem, "The Crucifix". It was not great poetry, but it understood something of the connection between the consequences of the death of Jesus and the death of those engaged in a war that they believed was about justice and hope for a better world.
In the poem, Jesus comes off the crucifix and speaks about a soldier's sacrifice. The outcome of this encounter is that the soldier is given a place in heaven, but also bequeaths to the next generation a heart determined on a future in which "the Hell of War is dead." The narrator of the poem wakes from this dream to articulate his faith in the resurrection:
And the thorn-crown on His
Showed awfully in the moonlight.
But I knew he was not dead.
Our services of Remembrance today are perhaps more nuanced than were those that followed the great wars of the past century. Perhaps we have seen that victory is rarely decisive in a world that demands universal, mutual co-operation and respect if anyone is to flourish. This is the challenge that Jesus puts to us today in the Gospel. "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." The key word, of course, is "repent".
More than the allocation of guilt, this is about a change of heart, a change of outlook. The consequences are also more than personal: they reveal the new life of the society of the Kingdom of heaven. This repentance is how we apprehend the transformative effect of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ described in today's reading from Hebrews.
I recently met a soldier who had been badly injured while on active service. He will soon leave the Army, but, while recovering from his injuries, he has been training to become a teacher. He will be working with young offenders, because he has a passion for inspiring them to find the purpose and dignity in life that his army experience has given him.
I am not sure that he is a person of Christian faith, but I have no doubt that his influence for good in the lives of young people will exemplify the values of what we would call the Kingdom of God.
Here is the heart and meaning of repentance, of our mission and vocation: change that changes others, ending in the glory and perfection of heaven.
Text of readings
Jonah 3.1-5, 10
1The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
24Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
14After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.