Today is a solemn morning that we have set aside to reflect on the tragedy of war and lives lost in battle. I want to stress the word “tragedy” because remembrance, in the context of a Christian service, must move beyond displays of honor, respect and gratitude. Ceremonies at the cenotaph are an opportunity for that, but churches are compelled to offer a response that ultimately unsettles all of us. Anglicans have traditionally not been very good at this. I think we have something to learn from the peace theology of Mennonite churches. And if we take Mennonites seriously, then Remembrance Sunday must be a time of penitence. Today is an opportunity for us to acknowledge the complicity of our wider church, and indeed ourselves, in war. However justified we may view certain wars, and whatever the good intentions of those—even our loved ones—who donned a uniform, in the final analysis we are faced with the legacy of violence and terror that war is.
This is a sobering reality. We need to acknowledge to ourselves and to God that, for all the brave men and women we carry in our memories, their collective story is one of tragedy. During the First World War, the British writer H. G. Wells published a collection of essays titled The War That Will End War. Of course, we know that H. G. Wells’ prognostication did not come to fruition. The First World War was, as the title to Margaret MacMillan’s book put it, The War That Ended Peace. A couple decades later, the world was plunged into war again. The Second World War spawned the Cold War, manifesting itself through combat in Korea, Vietnam, among other places. In our present time, war persists in Ukraine, Yemen, and many other countries. In fact, the website worldpopulationreview.com displays a map of the world that identifies nearly half the globe as where armed combat is occurring.
The legacy of war is a difficult one because there has yet to be a “war that will end all war.” And so we live among ruins, if not physical ruin then moral ruin, uncertainty, even despair. Our world today is reminiscent of the world of the ancient Israelites, who returned home after their extended period of exile in Babylon. But what they found was not what they had known. Their world was in a shambles, as we’re told in our first reading from the prophet Haggai. “Who is left among you,” asks Haggai, “that saw this house in its former glory?” That same question can be tweaked for our day: Who among us can recall when there were no wars or rumors of wars? It’s a hard question because the reality of war seems like an inevitable part of the human condition.
I mentioned at the beginning that our practice of remembrance should take the form of penitence. If we follow the Prince of Peace, the one who instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, then we need to be honest about how Christians, from earliest times until the present, have been complicit in taking up arms. Sometimes this has been done as a last resort for the noblest of reasons. But the end has always been tragedy—lives lost, peace at best provisional and temporary. How then do we go about remembering penitently? The prophet Haggai gives us some insight. We’re told, first, to take courage. In a polarized world of persisting conflict, in a world that seems so off course from what God intended it to be, we need to be courageous as we strive to embody an alternative way of being for our world—a way that disavows arms. There’s no formula or map to follow. It’s risky and uncertain—but take courage, says Haggai. In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns his followers of wars to come, and he tells them that persevering on the way of peace will lead to their persecution. Is it any different in our day? Disavowing arms and taking an active stand against advancing militarism will have consequences that we must endure. But according to Jesus, we have no choice.
A second thing we’re told by Haggai is to work. Ancient Israel was told to work by going about rebuilding the Temple. This was a monumental undertaking, but its purpose was to rekindle their spiritual life. What work are we to go about doing today? Let me suggest that our work is the very mission of Jesus. It is the mission of reconciliation. It is the mission of repairing relationships in our own lives and bringing healing and wholeness to our broken world. Those whom we remember today desired a better world, perhaps in the hope that one last war would end all war. Like them, we too desire a better world. How do we enact this fundamental desire? Haggai says to work for it, to set ourselves apart to that end, to strive in our own personal lives to embody God’s reconciling love as we interact with friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. This work is not only our service to the world; it is also the bedrock of our spiritual life.
A third thing we’re told by Haggai is that God’s Spirit abides among us. If taking courage and working seem like daunting tasks, we are reminded that we don’t act solely of our own strength. God’s Spirit is among us, even upon us, empowering us, strengthening us, directing us. But God’s Spirit is exactly that—Spirit. We are not promised that God’s presence will be manifested in unmistakable, concrete, tangible ways. God’s Spirit is often just a still small voice that we need to take care to hear, as the prophet Elijah did, above the winds and earthquakes and fires. When we are moved by God’s Spirit, in our own personal lives and in our life together as a church, our work of reconciliation will bear fruit. Haggai tells us that God has promised to shake the heavens and the nations “to fill this house with splendor.” God has promised us a world of splendor, a world as it was intended, a world reconciled. Do we believe this will happen? The lesson of Haggai is that it takes courage to believe it, and it requires us to work toward it. The lesson of today’s Gospel is that, even when we are reviled for undertaking this countercultural work, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
All of this begins with us acknowledging the tragedy of war and lives lost. And as we do that, let us commit afresh to embodying Jesus’ reconciling way of peace, bravely standing against the use of arms and listening for the voice of God’s Spirit, who promises to be with us and to restore the splendor of the earth.