Preacher The Reverend Neil Summers
‘Remember’ is one of those wonderful, wide-ranging English words that can mean as little as having a vague recollection of something, right through to the haunting quality of the murdered King of Denmark’s ghostly words to his son, ‘Hamlet, remember me’. Remembering is an acknowledgement of distance, and distance helps us see things in perspective, emotionally and historically. Our ability to look back at wartime leaders helps us see them as human beings with horrendous responsibilities – some of which, frankly, they got wrong. Bear in mind that Dresden Cathedral was reopened not much more than ten years ago, though the city itself was decimated by British bombs decades before. And more recently, as we know, politicians have been criticised for decisions which have led to some quite disastrous consequences. But, sadly, such reflection on experience doesn’t always seem to teach us much, for we go on hearing phrases like ‘fighting for peace’, and ‘waging war against terrorism’, strategies that resort to violence in the name of non-violence, which, while understandable, can have a terribly hollow ring.
The early Christians believed that there would be a period of wars, earthquakes, famines, and bloody persecution, and that these would be encouraging signs of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth. A time when faith would be tested, to be sure, but a time which would prove to be the birth pangs of the dawning of a new age of joy and victory. Well, that’s not how it worked out. Ironically, the Christian church – and religions more broadly – have often been close to the heart of ongoing conflict and bloodshed, ensuring that’s not how it worked out. We cannot just treat the continuing turmoil of life as some sort of temporary blip by continually re-scheduling it into an unknown future, even as we look towards the fulfilment of the Kingdom Jesus spoke about. Human suffering, pain and violence are not like the dentist’s drill – a few more moments and the agony will stop. It doesn’t, as events of the past century have proved time and time again, whether in Flanders fields, on the Somme, in Auschwitz, Vietnam, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq or Syria, and so it goes on… And, tragically, there isn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest that things are going to change for the better any time soon.
But does all that mean those first Christians were also wrong to believe that God would ultimately be victorious? And living in our kind of world, as Advent approaches, is there any way we can even begin to talk meaningfully of God as king, or Jesus as saviour? The only kind of answer I can point to lies in this word ‘Remember’. The power of remembering is no novelty for Christians, for remembrance is one of the most dynamic realities at the heart of our faith: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. When bread is broken on the altar, we are not only calling the Last Supper to mind, but we are entering into one of the most powerful and breath-taking mysteries of human experience. For ‘re-member’ is, in English at least, the opposite of ‘dis-member’. Paradoxically, the Christian contention is that the brokenness, the dismemberment of Jesus on the cross, is the mysterious means by which we, in our brokenness, can be made whole.
The extraordinary Christian claim is that the world is healed, not by the strategies of generals and politicians, but by the self-giving love of God. And it is only that unique and profoundly Christian paradox that enables us to talk about the victory of God – which is like no other kind of victory. The triumph of the cross that Christians talk and sing about is not about happy endings; it’s not about clouds rolling away; it’s not about the pain stopping. It is an altogether deeper order of experience – the freedom that comes from the surrender of the will in the garden of Gethsemane; it is the eternal Easter hope that is only to be found in the deep and continuing darkness of Good Friday.
It is not reasonable to hope that God will spare us from the painful realities of life. If it can happen at all, it can happen just as much to us as to the next person. And it happened to God, in Jesus. People who think that being a Christian makes life a bed of roses have clearly never read the Gospels properly. God’s way of defeating death is to enter its darkness. Our way of faithfulness will be a similarly messy engagement with the often unsatisfactory nature of living in this world, with its compromises and deals and moral uncertainties; but in the belief that God travels that road with us towards what may – or may not – be some kind of ultimate resolution. Our task is not to ask, as the hymn suggests, for ‘ease or still waters or green pastures’, however appealing they sound. Rather, we are to tread ‘the steep and rugged pathway rejoicingly’, working in cooperation with the divine will as God lovingly, painfully, weaves so many broken threads back into the tapestry of creation. And that can only happen through us, through human beings. Let our remembering be the means by which the miracle of God’s love may take root in our lives, and then go on to make an impact on the world we inhabit. Let our prayer be that God will re-member us, put us back together, restore us to our full human potential, and bring to fruition through us that reconciliation, peace and wholeness which the world, by itself, does not seem able to give. In Christian terms, this is called Incarnation, whereby the divine life, the life of God, finds its truest expression in our humanity.