Love is sacrificial

1 John 3.16–24
John 10.11–18

For Christians, self-sacrifice should be ordinary, not extraordinary. — David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 15550-15551). Presbyterian Publishing Corp. Kindle Ed’n.


Wednesday is Anzac Day. 103 years ago on 25 April, the Anzac forces—and, don’t forget, the Turkish soldiers too—would’ve been going through hell. 

We sang the 23rd Psalm today; some of the Anzacs will have been reminding themselves of the words of that psalm. Later we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer; some will have been saying that prayer. 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 homelessness, 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 Jesus challenges our notions of mateship. He calls us to spread our circle of mates very wide indeed. Jesus has mates in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. Therefore, so do we. The amount of foreign aid we give is a very small proportion of GDP, and it’s getting smaller. We have mates on Manus Island and Nauru. For Jesus, mateship has no limits. The big question for us is this: Are we acting like mates to them?

How can we speak truth about the Anzac story, 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. The actor Sam Neill once 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 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. We may disagree over whether we should have gone to Vietnam, either of the Gulf Wars or Afghanistan. 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, only rectified years later and too little too late for many.

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: 

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 10.48.52 pm

Above the figure of Jesus we read:


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 compares.

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.

This is a reminder of John 10—the good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep; and of John 15.13.

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

And they direct us not to war, but to Christian service. This is the full text of 1 John 3.16:

This is how we know what love is: Christ gave his life for us. We too, then, ought to give our lives for our brothers and sisters!

Third point: 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.

And 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 again 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 War never again! as well as Lest we forget. Amen.


Preached at Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church, 22 April 2018


Filed under Church & world, church year, Grief and loss, RCL, sermon

4 responses to “Love is sacrificial

  1. Hi Paul, thanks for the sermon. Yes, I think you do point very clearly to the wrongness of the image – it’s just not that obvious from the Facebook newsfeed and that’s what I was responding to. The points you make in the sermon are all good ones, yet likely to be silenced in all the sanctification of the “glorious fallen” on Wednesday.

    I have to say there is one thing that I struggle with – actually there are lots, but this one is relevant – and that’s the need to honour those who serve. Surely, signing up to serve in the armed forces is also signing up to the concept of armed conflict and the pursuit of violence as the solution to violence? Different for those conscripted in the World Wars and Vietnam, but today’s soldiers fight by choice. Why do I need to honour their service if I disagree with the basic tenets of armed conflict? Am I missing something here?


    • I’ve struggled with honouring those who serve, and the sermon reflects where my mind is now; your question helps me to see that I think honouring them is a pastoral act, in the light of the incidence of PTSD etc. I would make that clearer in a future version.

      • Ah, now I see. Of course – it’s a pastoral act.

        In college, our systematic theology lecturer was asked about baptising still-born infants. His response was along the lines of, “Well it makes no sense theologically, but I would do it because it is a pastoral act.”

        The other thing that helps me is to see a distinction between “honour those who serve” and “honour their service”. I need to focus on the person, not the action. Still have difficulty with the notion of “honour” but I can at least go as far as “care for/about” and one day possibly even “love”.

        • Thanks once more. I do mean honour the person. I use the word’honour’ only because it’s the word in general parlance. I could have used another and said why, but decided against it. When the Vietnam vets came home unrecognised (which I supported at the time) it made it harder to address their issues. Many of them fouls the later recognition to be a healing moment.

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