May 15, 2019
Focus readings: Rev 21:1-6 & John 13:31–35
In 2016 I wrote:
It is just over 100 years since men landed on the beaches of Gallipoli and began laying down their lives for the sake of others. At a time like this it is tempting to glorify war. There was nothing glorious about World War 1. It was all about great imperial powers seeking to defend or strengthen their empires. It is partly because of war, because of the way we squander resources even including human life that I believe in what is sometimes called original sin. Our case, I believe is hopeless!
However I also strongly believe we are made in the image of God and that God is making all things new. Even when we are at our worst we can still do the most wonderful things. We can give our lives for the life of others, be they our country, our leaders, our commanders or our mates. It is this that we give thanks for and honour today.
As Christians we believe that death and sin and violence do not have the final say. The cross and the empty tomb can be transformed from symbols of death and defeat to symbols of new life.
Questions for thought and discussion
How would you describe war? How should we best honour those who lay their life on the line in military service? How do you respond to the notion that death and violence and war do not have the final say?
This is a new recording of a sermon originally preached in 2016. That sermon was delivered the day before ANZAC Day. ANZAC Day is a national holiday in Australia and New Zealand which commemorates those who have fought or died in war while in the armed services.
Today we are confronted with two very different visions. The first is of course the vision of the trenches, filled with brave men, but also with mud and flies and the pounding of artillery shells, memories of going over the top when sometimes the casualties were incredible, and diseases that killed as surely as any gun or shell. Faced with this horror it is not surprising that a number of people turned away from God. In his famous little book A fortunate life, the Australian AB Facey gives this as the reason he could no longer believe in God.
The other vision is the vision of John in the book of revelation. We are given a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where crying and mourning and even death will be no more and every tear will be wiped away and Jesus raised from the dead and ruling as King says “behold I make all things new!”
How do we fit these two visions together? The horror of the Gallipoli battlefield and the vision of a new heaven and a new earth?
Now this vision of John is not about this current world, this creation, being thrown away. It is about Heaven and Earth coming together, and being made new. Not about us going up to heaven, but about heaven coming down to us. The risen Jesus is at the centre of this vision. Just as Jesus was raised from death, so the whole creation including us is rased from death and decay. John sees heaven and earth joined as together as one, melted down together and forged into one, new reality. He sees the words of the Lord’s Prayer come to life. God’s name is hallowed or honoured, God’s will is done on earth as in heaven for God’s Kingdom has come and heaven and earth have become one single reality.
This is of course the vision laid out in the third verse of that great old anthem the Holy City:
And once again the scene was changed
New earth there seemed to be
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea
The light of God was on its streets
The gates were open wide
And all who would might enter
And no one was denied
No need of moon or stars by night
Or sun to shine by day
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away
So how does this new creation vision, fit with the vision of hell or something close to it of the Gallipoli trenches?
I think the answer may be at least partly found in John’s vision in Revelation and in the Gospel reading for today.
Jesus in John’s Gospel is talking about his death on the cross and his resurrection revealing the glory of God. He is talking about how no one else can take that journey with him, he will return to the Father. But he goes on to tell us that the glory of God can be revealed, here and now even though he has reuturned to the Father and is no longer physically with us. That is the quality ,the nature, the message of Jesus’ love and God’s glory can be revealed without Jesus physically with us.
Where and how could this be possible?
Jesus tells us it is “In this, that you love one another as I have loved you, by this will everyone know that you are my disciples.”
In other words the glory of God, the kingdom of God, the vision of the time when heaven and earth will truly be combined will be seen in the love the people of God show toward one another and their neighbours.
Before I develop that theme a little more I feel I need to say that in the midst of the hell of the trenches, those servicemen who were soldiers may well have personally found John’s vision strengthening and comforting. Christian servicemen may well have been strengthened by the notion that this living hell they were in, this death that surrounded them would not have the final say, that ultimately it was defeated. They were like the first believers who heard John’s vision. They face persecution and knew that any day they might be arrested and thrown to the lions as a form of public entertainment for a blood thirsty crowd. This vision may have brought personal hopeas they faced suffering, death and its shadow.
But it goes deeper than that, because it is also in our love for each other and for the neighbours God gives us, in the way that we are light and salt for the world, that the new creation comes into the living hells of the battlefield, and even onto the Roman Arena for the risen life of Christ, the Spirit within us, should be at work now.
We, our lives, should be little books of Revelation, little Sermons on the Mount, mirrors of the glory of God that is to come but is also even now amongst us. This might sound “airy fairy” or mystical or impractical but it works out in real life. On the battle field it worked out in the Chaplains like the Salvation Army’s William Mackenzie conducting 647 funerals in three day at Gallipoli. But his service was much more than funerals, Salvation Army general Minnie Carpenter wrote of him:
"Chaplain McKenzie made Christ real to thousands of men. Up and down the fire-swept ridges he followed them, carrying food and water, tramping miles for their mail; by night cutting steps over treacherous patches which the boys must travel in the morning, Praying with them, helping them to live, supporting them as they died. Burying literally hundreds of brave lads fallen in battle, he spent far into the night in his dim dugout, writing to their relatives."
Although not on the same scale most Chaplains of all denominations did similar work. More than this individual Christians, enlisted servicemen in stories that have never been told would have done the same for their fellow soldiers. Why? Because they had a vision, a conviction, that not only one day would heaven and earth come together but that they also had the conviction that God’s love and power the new heaven and the new earth was at work even in the present. They believed that God’s love should be seen and felt now, that things could and should transform even in the present, the hell of war was and is not the ultimate reality.
This conviction that the Kingdom of God, the new Heaven and the New Earth could be seen, imperfectly, incompletely but none the less tangibly be seen in the love of Christians for each other and their neighbours has spread far beyond wartime.
As I have reminded you many times It was because Wilberforce believed... It was because Wesley believed... It was because Martin Luther King jr believed... It was because those who started Lifeline....
So to sum up the old creation will, and is, passing away and the New creation is, and will Come. Chaos will be destroyed, the universe will be perfectly renewed. Suffering and tears, sickness and heart breaking loss, and even the horror of war will be swept away. And even the greatest enemy of all death will be destroyed. All this is great news. The even better news is that it's already started now. In Christians’ love for each other and their neighbours,the new is breaking into and transforming the old, even now even in places as dark as the trenches of Gallipoli. And we, all of us who are Christians, are part of that story of the new heaven and the new earth coming in all its fullness and at work even now.