Sermon at St Mary Hadlow – Remembrance Service – 9th November 2014
Reading: Ephesians Chapter 6 verses 10 – 18 – The Christian’s armour
- Introduction. In the centenary year of the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914, that war is naturally in the forefront of our thinking at this time. Men volunteered in their thousands, with the strong expectation that it would be a quick war, the German army would be repelled and that our forces would be home by Christmas. Some of the regulars were even somewhat ‘gung ho’ relishing the chance of action. Yet we all know the actual outcome, that when the armistice was signed over 4 years later on 11th November 1918, millions of British and allied forces, as well as German forces, had been killed or wounded. Almost every village in our country has its war memorial giving the names of those from the village that were killed in that horrific war, dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’. Hadlow is no exception with about 50 killed, listed on the memorial window behind me and on the war memorial in the parish cemetery, where later this morning those names will be read out. Many of us have visited the war graves on the continent and attended the daily Menin Gate ceremony in Ypres and probably all of us have seen TV programmes revealing various aspects of the war on the western front. I hope that you have taken the opportunity to see our own village exhibition in the entrance to the Old School Hall. The role of the Royal Navy is not so well publicised, so allow me to mention one action that you may never have heard of. 100 years ago on 1st November 1914 a British Royal Navy Squadron was ordered to engage a German Naval Squadron in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile in what became known as the Battle of Coronel. A disastrous action in which the German Squadron had ships with superior guns, manned by well trained, selected crews against our slower ships manned by ill-trained reservists. The British Squadron lost 1600 men, including the Squadron Commander, Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock and two ships sunk, HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth with minimal losses on the German side.
Let us come forward to the present year and be grateful that the long running war in Afghanistan from 2001 to October of this year, has from a British perspective, come to an end but not without very considerable loss of life and soldiers and other servicemen and women maimed and mentally scarred. The 13-year war has seen 453 deaths of British servicemen and women. Less well documented are the deaths of members of the NATO ‘International Security Assistance Force’ in Afghanistan – about 4,000 and something like 10,000 deaths of Afghanistan Security Force personnel. For the Afghans, the conflict is not over.
The determination of amputees and other handicapped servicemen and women to be active and lead a full life as seen particularly in competitive sport has encouraged us all. The general public response for appeals of such charities as Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and Combat Stress to name but some, has been heartening. May I on behalf of us all say thank you to those people who have been out door-to-door collecting in Hadlow on behalf of the RBL Poppy Appeal and thank everyone for their donations in that way and through the collections at our church services today. In these ways we remember those who gave their lives or were wounded for the sake of a free democratic world. What else can we do to honour those who gave so much for us?
- Positive living – The Christian’s armour and weapons. We can seek to live positive lives in which,
We seek to serve rather than be served,
We work for a just society in which all our valued,
We work for peace and harmony in family and community life, in national and international life,
and we recognise that in an imperfect world there is a spiritual battle to be won.
Let me take you back 2000 years. The Roman army as an occupying power, in the first century AD, was not always popular
However then, when Jesus was here on earth as a man, he spoke very highly of the faith of a Roman centurion.
In the early Church the apostle Peter was sent by God to make the Christian gospel known to a Roman Centurion and his household.
The Apostle Paul, himself a Roman citizen, uses the armour and weapons of a Roman soldier as a picture of the Christian’s armour and weapons in the spiritual battle. This formed the Bible reading that I chose for today and that I would like to think through with you.
- The belt of truth. With the garments worn in the first century, rather like clerical robes today, a belt was a necessary precursor of putting on armour. It gathered the robes out of the way to give freedom of movement. Truth does give us freedom, whereas lies tie us up in knots. Every lie or distortion of the truth diminishes relationships. There are sometimes situations where it is inappropriate to reveal all that one knows but I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a white lie.
There is often pressure to distort the truth to suit our own ends. Let us seek to convey the truth at work, in family and social life and in all our activities. The Christian gospel is founded on truth and the Christian’s defence is founded on truth.
- The breastplate of righteousness. The first item of defensive armour for the Roman soldier was the breastplate of righteousness. The equivalent today would be the bulletproof vest. Associated with truth, right words, is right actions. The media are quick to discover and publicise the faults of people in public life, to, as it were, find chinks in their armour. We all fail at times in holy and righteous living but as Christians we should strive to live lives of service which are beyond reproach. That will form a good defence against those who might wish to malign us.
- The shield of faith. Complementary to the fixed breastplate was the shield, a well-oiled leather shield that the soldier could hold in one hand to move and extinguish flaming darts thrown at him from short range and various directions. The faith of the Christian in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who has promised to be with us, gives excellent defence against the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. For example, to protect us from the darker side of the internet.
- The helmet of salvation. The final item of the Roman soldier’s defensive armour was the helmet. It still is an important protection of a soldier in active operations today. We live in a health and safety conscious society. We wear helmets or hard hats, or should do when riding a bicycle, a horse or on a building site. Only a few days ago a man delivering material to a building site was killed before he had put his hard hat on, as a worker accidentally dropped a steel tape measure from a great height and striking the driver on the head. Sometimes the health and safety restrictions can become over zealous. ‘Take care’ has become a common parting phrase. Canon Andrew White, the Chaplain to St George’s Church Baghdad, often says ‘take risks’ – not needlessly, but as necessary to serve other people even, when there are dangers in so doing, rather than fearing to get involved. Would that we paid as much attention to our eternal salvation in Christ as to our day-to-day safety. I don’t want to belittle the importance of our ordinary daily safety. I wear a helmet when cycling. Much of my engineering work is concerned with risk assessment, safety precautions and protection. However to know, believe and accept what Christ has done for us is a tremendous protection against the hidden spiritual forces waiting to attack and destroy the Christian. Salvation is concerned with this life as well as the next. Let us put on the helmet of salvation.
- The Gospel of peace. In the recent war in Afghanistan there has been considerable emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of the citizens of that country. In the Roman Empire, having conquered a country the aim was to incorporate that country into the Empire, maintaining peace within the country and between it and other countries. The Apostle Paul was aware of the considerable freedom he had had to proclaim the Christian Gospel around the countries of the Northern Mediterranean, because of the freedom of movement throughout the Roman Empire. He had brought a message to win the hearts and minds of the citizens of the Roman Empire to bring peace between people and God and between one another. In similar vein he invites us as Christians to be messengers of peace. The Church of England is good at community action but not so good at communicating to those outside its fellowship the good news that we have in Christ. By contrast China and the countries of Africa are seeing considerable numbers welcoming the message of peace and coming to faith in Christ. Let us win hearts and minds in England with the message of the Christian Gospel, not being afraid of offending people of other faiths or none. And so, as part of that offensive we take the sword of the Spirit, that is, the word of God, the Bible, and especially the New Testament, to be used sensitively, appropriately and with conviction and vigour, undergirded by Spirit- inspired prayer.
- Conclusion. Perhaps many of you have received teaching in younger years about the Christian’s armour based on this passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus but you have not really penetrated to the spiritual meaning which the imagery portrays. As we remember today the many people, servicemen, servicewomen and civilians of many nations who gave their lives and were wounded in body and mind in the two world wars and the many lesser conflicts of the 20th century and the present century, let us be aware of the spiritual battle that still goes on. Let us use the Christian’s defensive armour and weapons in that battle as we seek in our own small way to preserve our freedom and peace in this life and prepare ourselves for the life to come.