Don’t you know there’s a war on?

Many years ago, I used to call on an elderly lady to take her Holy Communion in her home. One day on her mantlepiece, I noticed an old and fading photograph. It was a picture of a young man in a soldier’s uniform.

He had gone off to the first World War, she told me; and he ever came back. And then she said, ‘He was my sweetheart’. And as you will perhaps be aware, this old lady was like many women of her generation.

And I recall a couple who were celebrating a significant wedding anniversary who told me something of their story. They got married in 1940. A couple of weeks later he was called to serve in the army. He wasn’t able to come home for seven years.

These two stories illustrate how some very ordinary lives became extra-ordinary. They are two (among countless examples) of how, whether they liked it or not, people found themselves deeply affected by being ‘caught up’ in what it meant to be at war. And it cost them a great deal.

But I find it intriguing how many, who lived through those dark days, will say that this is just how it was. They accepted it. In fact, anyone who tried to pretend otherwise was treated to a withering look and that rather caustic remark: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” But what also stands out is how those who were ‘caught up’ in the war found themselves having to choose. It’s not just, as I say that there were many sacrifices to be made.

More fundamentally people had to decide what was important to them. People had to think carefully about what they believed about their country, their family and basically what their lives would be about. Often agonisingly, this meant thinking about what they would do if they were called to fight; to kill another human being. And unless you were too old, sick or in what was called a ‘reserved occupation’ you really had to choose. Which is another reason why today we remember and honour the many brave men and women who made their choice and especially those whose choice cost them their lives. But the nature of the choice is brought home to me more especially by those who decided that they would not in fact kill; as a matter conscience.

If I may be personal for a moment, this was the choice made by my Father-in-law. And when I asked him about it, he said that the choice was not between fighting or opting out; pretending as it were, that it didn’t concern him. No, he realised that he could not imagine Christ ever killing someone, and so, he could not either. However, he knew that he had to be responsible. He couldn’t opt out; he too was caught up in the war. And so, the choice he made was to join a bomb disposal unit. Each day he risked his life whilst (among other things) trying to clear the ruins of Coventry of unexploded munitions.

Of course, those who can tell first-hand stories of what it was like in the two world wars are fewer in number these days. So, there are fewer first-hand accounts of what it was like watching a loved one leave; never to return. Of the privations and the fears of war time. The experience of combat. But our remembering; bringing the pride, the pathos and the pain of it all to mind, at this time of year, continues. This is how we try to honour what they chose to do having been caught up in it all.

So, where does this lead us? Well, it’s only a fortnight ago that the Christian family marked what we call, All Saints Day. This is the season of the year when we especially honour what we might call the heroes of our faith; many of whom died because of their loyalty to Christ. I’m reminded of the story of the old lady who was once asked why she went to church; to which she replied: ‘Just to show whose side I’m on’. All of which might sound a little melodramatic and yet this is one element of what the saints teach us.

Just like those others we remember today; the lives and decisions of the saints are saying: “Don’t you know there’s a war on? We’re all caught up in it whether we like it or not; and we are called to choose. We’re called to be responsible; to be deliberate in how we will respond to what’s really going on in our world”.

Now, this thing that’s going on is what Jesus calls ‘The Kingdom of God’. The heart of what Jesus was doing was to announce the truth that God reigns. That this is His world and that there is a better way of being a world and a better way of being a human being. The language he uses implies some kind of ‘invasion’. We’ll come back to that in a minute. But essentially that word ‘Gospel’, which Christians use rather a lot, means ‘announcement’. It means something has happened which calls us to choose. It’s not a matter of opinion, speculation or philosophy. As we might say, ‘the facts on the ground have changed’.

So, Jesus is telling us that we have been caught up in this coming of the Kingdom, (whether we like it or not) and at every step of the way, our actions, our values, our attitudes will indicate whether we are following His agenda or our own. In the end it’s all about whether our life is actually a ‘Yes’ to God or not.

Now, when we put it as directly as this, hackles start to rise because we like to bracket ‘religion’ in the “That’s a matter of opinion” column, don’t we? And of course, we’re free to think of it like that. But let’s be clear, that’s not how Jesus thinks. He will allow for no neutral ground. There is something of the ‘take it or leave it’ about Jesus; but then that’s probably why he ended up on a cross. And to cap it all he even tells us that if we get mixed up with him and his take on the world we’ll get the same treatment!

Perhaps you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a German Pastor who (against the advice of his friends) went back to Nazi Germany to try and strengthen the Christians there. He was ultimately imprisoned and murdered under Hitler’s orders. But in one of his books, he wrote: “When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die”. To some, this remark like this sounds morbid, even distasteful but he’s clearly dealing in much more than nice religious sentiments. With Jesus you get a real-world faith; and a call to choose.

I say again, each of those brave men and women whom we honour today knew that they were caught up in something which compelled them to choose what they would give their life to. So, let’s put it this way. Imagine for a moment that you are a citizen of occupied France. On June 7th. 1944, you open the newspaper; and the headline reads, “Allies have landed in Normandy”. Your spouse says: “Anything happen yesterday dear?” Now, you’re hardly going to reply, “Nah, not really. The allies have landed to rescue us but that’s about it. Looks like rain again”. No, just as the arrival of the allies in Normandy was news; life-changing news, so is the Gospel of Jesus. The facts on the ground have changed.

We can reject him if we wish but this is the power and the implication of what Jesus lays before us. He’s not offering a new way of being religious but a new way of being a world. There’s a war on; God’s rescue mission has begun and we’re all caught up in it. In a sense, each day, each moment is an invitation to ask whether I will let God be God. How far will my life be a ‘yes’ to him and his way of being in the world? Just as those whom we honour today had to choose, so do we.

2021-11-18