'For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly […] Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.’ Romans 5:6, 9-10
Brothers and sisters, when I was a boy I remember seeing that famous war recruitment poster from 1915. A daughter is sitting on her father’s knee, reading from a history book, clearly admiring the heroic sacrifices made by her parents’ generation in defending King and Country. ‘Daddy?’, she asks; ‘What did you do in the Great War?’ I remember asking a similar question of my Grandpa. Of course, unlike the implication of the poster, the answer is seldom one of straightforward cowardice or straightforward heroism. Closer to the truth is that war, the battlefield, is a mixture of both the heroic and the hellish, the glorious with the grim, between conquest and collapse. The battlefield is the place where the best friends are made, and the best friends are lost. For war not only heightens the glory of human self-sacrifice even as it deepens the costliness of it, but war also elevates the best of human motives, the best of human actions, even as it darkens the worst of them. The battlefield is the place where Victoria Crosses are won, but also the scene in which horrors such as Nagasaki become realistic possibilities. If you like, the battlefield is the place where our best selves and our worst selves are given free reign. Which shall we remember today? We cannot but remember both. ‘Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?’ Things too honourable to boast of, and things too monstrous to admit. The truth of it is a harsh one. For war, the battlefield, is not to blame for either the best of us or the worst of us; it is just the theatre in which the best of us and the worst of us are able to be played out in fullest measure. No; we are to blame, both for the best of us and for the worst of us. We are to blame for our worst selves, and for the better selves we have the possibility of becoming. The real battleground between good and evil is not out there on some foreign field; it is within us, and, however you look at it, we do not seem to be getting any better at promoting the good and diminishing the evil. Indeed, as we survey our news reports, we might conclude that things are getting worse.
What hope is there for us, then? Locked in this battle between the better selves we long to be and the worst selves that we tend to be – how can we be saved? How can our future amount to anything more than endless repetitions of the same warfare that generations have fought? How can this battle, that plays itself out in the heart of every human being, between good and evil, be decisively won for the good? This is the decisive question of human existence. And it is the question to which the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ provide the answer. For in Jesus Christ, God himself stooped down from his heavenly throne, became a human being, and entered once and for all into the cut-and-thrust of human existence. In the person of Jesus, God provided his solution to the age-old problem of humanity’s struggle between our better and worst selves. In Jesus, God-made-man came and said: ‘Enough! Enough of the endless battle between human good and evil, between the better self human beings cannot become and the worst self that holds them hostage. Enough! In Jesus Christ’, God says, ‘I will live humanity’s life for them. And I will break the bonds of human evil by confronting it head on’. In Jesus Christ, God took the worst of the very worst that human warfare can launch against anyone – false accusation, torture, and then a deliberately slow, cruel and calculating death. In his trial and crucifixion and death, he endured the very worst consequences of the worst of our worst selves – the full warfare that all humanity could throw at him. And in him God absorbed our worst existence, and then defeated it, triumphing over it as, having been fully and completely overcome by it in death, he broke its hold once and for all in rising from death to a new life. ‘Father, what did you do in the Great War between good and evil?’ ‘I sent my Son, to become the battleground in which good would finally triumph over evil; to die in order to finally annihilate the power of evil, and to rise again to finally establish a new existence in which all those who follow him are freed from all that held them back from becoming their better selves’. This is the Christian story. This is the Gospel. This is the Good News: that to those who trust in Jesus, the worst selves that so often seem to hold us hostage in fact have no more power over us; that in Jesus, we are free and transformed into the better selves we long to become. That is what we as Christians believe; that is our hope; that is our Gospel. And it is the story to which we must become wholly and really converted if we are to stand any chance of winning a peace for our sorry world. It is a story we must preach – for others need to hear it just as much as we do – but it is also a story that we must learn afresh ourselves, each and every day, when we make confession before God and one another, that there remains warfare in our hearts, save for the freeing power of Jesus at work within us holding it back.
And so on this Remembrance Sunday do not ask of those whose memories we honour, ‘What did you do in the Great War?’ Ask instead, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, win the Great War between good and evil in my heart’. For he is the perfect hero in whom there was found no cowardice; and the great Good Man by whose goodness a future horizon of everlasting peace has opened up to those who love him. Amen.