“We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us” (Easter 4B / 100th Anniversary of ANZAC Day, 26 April 2015)

1 John 3.16–24
John 10.11–18

I hate militarism. I loathe nationalism. But I honour those who serve.

Sam Neill

How do we speak on a day like this? At this very time one hundred years ago, the Anzac forces—and, let’s face it, the Turkish soldiers too—were going through hell.

Soon we’ll sing the 23rd Psalm; some of the Anzacs will have been reminding themselves of the words of that psalm. Later we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer; many will have been saying that prayer too. They must have been praying above all for it to stop, so they could go home to their sweethearts and wives. After all it was General Douglas MacArthur who said:

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

We know of course that these scars are not just  obvious ones such as lost limbs. They are post-traumatic stress disorders, they are alcohol and drug problems, they are chronic depression, broken marriages and chronic unemployment.

You may have heard that Australia became a nation on 25 April 1915. Of course, that’s not literally true. We became a nation on 1 January, 1901.

What actually happened on that day at Anzac Cove was that we suffered our first great disaster as a nation. Over 620 men died on that one day. All together, Gallipoli cost the Allies 141000 casualties, of whom more than 44000 died. Of the dead, 8709 were Australians and 2701 were New Zealanders. More than 85000 Turks died.

As a nation, we had to make some sense of it for ourselves. So—apart from that last part, apart from the casualties the Turks suffered—Gallipoli has become our founding myth. Like so many myths, parts of it are true. But only parts.

To mention but one aspect of the myth: mateship. It’s true. But it has its limits. One of them concerns Indigenous people.

The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, recently said that young Indigenous men lied about their heritage to fight in WWI. They had to lie to go, because it was illegal for them to enlist.

He said they ‘signed up in considerable numbers and fought and died for Australia.’ Brendan Nelson continues:

Black and white diggers stood side by side, but when Indigenous soldiers returned home they were treated with the same prejudice and discrimination as before they left.

They were all mates together in Gallipoli, but it didn’t last once they returned. Indigenous returned soldiers were also barred from RSL membership.

The Australian songwriter John Schumann has just written a song called On every Anzac Day. Here is part of it:

From Murray Bridge and Mundrabilla, from Naracoorte and Perth
First Australian station hands, shearers, gangers, clerks…
And there was no black, there was no white, just a dirty khaki brown
And on our upturned slouch hat brims, we all wore the “Rising Sun”
Soldiers, brothers, all Australians, we had no time for race
When the bullets are whining past our heads, you’re all just shades of grey

Later, the song speaks of the returned soldiers:

He tried to join the RSL but the bastards wouldn’t let him in
They didn’t see a soldier, just a first Australian
And I wonder what it was we fought for and what it was we gave away
There’s reconciliation still to come — on every Anzac Day

How can we speak truth about the Anzac myth, while being true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Let me suggest two ways: we can honour those who served their country in time of war while we critique the politics that sent them off to war; and we can watch our language when it comes to speaking of ‘sacrifice’.

First, we honour those who serve, all of them, whatever their colour, race or creed. The actor Sam Neill recently said

I hate militarism. I loathe nationalism. But I honour those who serve.

We honour those who serve. Let me add two things: we also grieve those who are lost and we remember their families.

We need to be able to distinguish between the decisions of governments to go to war and the people who do the fighting for them.

We are free to agree or disagree with the rightness of a decision to go to war. I don’t believe I’ve agreed with any war Australia has fought since my family came here in 1965, whether Vietnam, either of the Gulf Wars or Afghanistan. Your opinion may vary. But whether we agree or not with a decision for war, we should honour those who serve. We should have compassion on those who suffer. And that goes for our attitude to the other side too.

One of the big mistakes this country made was to ignore Vietnam veterans as they returned home. It was an unpopular war, and the armed forces personnel who fought there were forgotten. Their suffering was increased greatly because of that.

It was a terrible mistake.

Secondly: we must avoid sloppy language about sacrifice.

We honour those who serve, but we really need to be very careful to speak of their deaths as a ‘sacrifice’. If we’re not careful, we may confuse the ‘supreme sacrifice’ of a soldier with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. Or do you think that’ll never happen?

Let me show you a photo of a crucifix outside a church in Yorkshire that has does exactly that:

In memoriam

Above the figure of Jesus it says in an Olde English font:


It’s just a couple of metres from the street. It can’t be missed, and it’s the first and perhaps the only message passers by will receive from this church.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the people who worship there know the difference between the death of Christ and the death of a soldier. But what does this crucifix say to people who are passing by? Did Jesus die especially (or only) for those who die in war? Is Jesus one of our ‘gallant dead’? Is the sacrifice of a soldier the same as the sacrifice of Jesus? Or even more important?

Let’s try to summarise this. How do we honour the dead in war and honour the sacrifice of Christ?

Well, firstly by not confusing them. By using language about sacrifice with care.

Secondly, by not taking verses of scripture and applying them to soldiers who have died. The classic is John 15.13:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

This passage is pointing to the love of Christ, who loved us to the end. No other love comes close.

And today, we read similar verses. We read 1 John 3.16 (very easy to remember!):

We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us.

And we read John 10—the good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep.

These passages speak primarily of Christ, not of soldiers or anyone else.

Thirdly, by realising that the sacrifice of Christ was for the end of all sacrifice. His was the final sacrifice; no more are needed. Yet we keep on sacrificing our young men and women. Civilians also, especially women and children, are sacrificed in war through rape and murder. And their sacrifices are all for nothing.

A final point: we honour the dead in war—and honour the sacrifice of Christ—by not rushing into war. I fear that’s a lesson we still have to learn. Let me remind you of what General Douglas MacArthur said:

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

We honour the dead in war, soldiers and civilians, by working for peace with justice, and praying to that end. We honour them by saying Never again! as well as Lest we forget. Amen.


Filed under ANZAC Day, church year, RCL, sermon

2 responses to ““We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us” (Easter 4B / 100th Anniversary of ANZAC Day, 26 April 2015)

  1. Reblogged this on Rev Doc Geek and commented:
    Paul Walton has preached a wonderful ANZAC sermon. So many of us struggle with honouring those who fought and those who lost loved ones without in any way glorifying wars.

    • I went to a very moving service today in which they read out not just the names of those from the parish who had been killed during the Great War, but also some of their record – the names of their parents, where they lived, when they enlisted, where they served, if they were injured or received medals, when and how they died. It was a very effective illustration of the human cost of war, because while many of us probably weren’t related to any of the names read, we had lived or worked at those addresses, which brought things closer to home. And of course, hearing name after name of soldiers killed at Passchendale, or of the poor chap who survived Gallipoli and the Somme and being wounded several times, before coming home to die of the flu, made it all very real.

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