10th November 2019 (Remembrance Day)
John 15, v.4 'remain in me as I remain in you'
Also references to today's readings: Luke 20, 27-38 and Thessalonians 2, 1, 13-17
The words ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ have dominated many of our news bulletins for the past three years, and will no doubt do so even more for the next five weeks. Rest assured, I am not going to talk about Brexit this morning, but rather to reflect on leaving and remaining in other ways. Where better to begin such reflection today, on Remembrance Sunday, than to remember those who leave and those who remain in wartime. It is difficult to imagine now, so long after the end of World War Two, what it must have been like for families torn apart for such long periods of time. Films, television documentaries and books make bring home to us the horrors of the trenches in World War One, the realities of naval combat in the North Sea and the mortal risks of combat in the air in World War Two. We hear less about the struggles and anxieties of those who remained: waiting for long periods for news of loved ones, unsure whether they were dead or alive; anxious about their fate as they tried to survive as prisoners for war; dreading the telegram that might bring news of their death. For many this meant years of uncertainty in a world without electronic communication. For many families a whole generation would be wiped out: in the small village of Ratley, just below Edge Hill, I discovered a war memorial bearing the names of nine members of the same family. When we reflect on the constant strain and stress of life for both leavers and remainers in those wars, it puts our current concerns, however serious they may be, into perspective.
Who are the leavers and remainers in today’s world? Perhaps we may think first of labour migrants and refugees. The horror of those Vietnamese people who died in a refrigerated lorry is still very fresh in our minds, and we realise that they are a tiny fraction of the people trying to leave their countries by whatever means they can – many leaving far more desperate situations than those Vietnamese. Many head for Europe, which has so far proved itself unable to find a way of sharing what is a far smaller burden than it is perceived to be; others for the USA – now trying to keep them out with a wall and separating family members who manage to enter; and others from many parts of sub-Saharan Africa head for South Africa, where they have again been facing xenophobic attacks in recent weeks, leading many in Cape Town to plead for third countries to accept them. A great many of these would-be migrants – the leavers – are young and male. From their relatively meagre earnings they remit what they can to those who remain – their families far away.
Jesus’ own disciples were very much leavers: such was the evident power of Jesus’ personality that he seems to have convinced them to leave their homes and families and follow him, with little clear evidence of where this was going to lead. Their continuing doubts, uncertainty and misunderstandings are evident right up to Jesus’ arrest, and even after the crucifixion, until Jesus’ resurrection brings them the confidence to carry on, following the risen Christ and taking his message to those who will listen. We know little of their families who remained behind, but the absence of their main breadwinners must have brought a degree of hardship.
As Christians we are all in a sense leavers in a quite difference sense: most of us are probably not ‘born again’ in the way that St. Paul was, but we do practise a faith in which we accept the need to leave behind old ways and take on the new. This certainly doesn’t imply abandoning everything we know - indeed in today’s overwhelmingly secular Britain we could also be characterised as remainers, clinging on to faith in an increasingly faithless world – or, perhaps expressing this more positively, remaining true to our roots and to our Christian heritage. This dichotomy is mirrored in today’s epistle from Thessalonians. The young church is like a small boat crossing a turbulent waterway. As it is tossed to and fro, these new Christians – leavers in terms of their new faith – need to know how to stand upright and what to hold on to. Here Paul is quite clear: the safety-rope consists of ‘the traditions you were taught’ – namely those foundational teachings which he gave them when he was with them, and then by letter. These are the traditions to which they must remain true at all times. These teachings are threefold: the basic facts of the Gospel; the central actions of the worshipping church, such as baptism and the eucharist; and the fundamental principles of Christian behaviour, especially the mutual support which Paul calls agape, ‘love’. Paul’s message is that the mental and moral effort the young church must make to keep its footing and retain its grasp is made possible by grace, through which God gives them ‘eternal comfort and good hope’. The grace and power of God will work through his followers to stiffen their resolve and energise their flagging spirits. The hymn we sing on Remembrance Sunday echoes this theme: ‘Oh God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come’.
There is another sense in which we are all leavers: eventually we must all die, and in doing so leave this life, leaving behind our loved ones, our friends, our homes – leaving behind both the joys and the pain that life brings. But there are two senses in which we remain as well: on earth and in resurrection. On earth we remain in the minds of those for whom we were important, and literally in treasured photographs and possessions, as well as in graves or memorials. But we also remain in the sense of leaving footprints, many of which we may be unaware of – in our workplace, amongst our friends, in the communities of which we were part. Most of us have probably had the experience of someone saying something which makes us realise that something we have said or done in the past has had an influence that we had never imagined at the time. We don’t have to be famous to leave such footprints behind us: something of all of us remains in a host of unexpected ways.
Resurrection might be described as a spiritual concept of remaining. This morning’s Gospel focuses on resurrection, and the challenge of the Sadducees – very much part of the governing class, who had political as well as religious ambitions. Jesus responds to their attempt to argue against resurrection by making it clear that we must not think of heaven in terms of this earth – so marriage, for example, has no place in heaven because life is eternal and there is no need for reproduction. He reminds them that God had said to Moses ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’. How could he be God of the dead? The clear implication, Jesus argues, is that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still alive. The Sadducees recognised the power of this argument. It may seem an arid passage to us, but it does demonstrate Jesus’ ability to meet people on their own ground, using language and arguments that they could understand.
Much better known is Jesus’ teaching concerning the true vine and the branches in St. John’s Gospel. As the branches and the fruit abide in the vine, and wither if they cease to do so, so we, Christ’s followers must abide in him – ‘remain in me as I remain in you’, as some translations have it. When our earthly lives call us to leave – to leave home or family, to leave places we have known and loved, to leave the past behind – there is always this deeper sense of remaining in God’s love. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the hymn ‘Abide with me’: ‘when other helpers fail, and comforts flee’; when there is ‘change and decay in all around I see’; ‘through cloud and sunshine’; and in death – ‘Where, grave, thy victory?; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me’.