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Sermon: National Armed Forces Day 27th June 2015

Andrew Watson
Saturday 27th June 2015
National Armed Forces Day
Matthew 8:5-10,13
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The people of our nation owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who serve in our armed forces. That is, I hope, one of the central messages to come out of this National Armed Forces Day. June 2015 has been an exciting if demanding month for the county of Surrey, where, just 12 days ago, we were celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the foundational document for our liberties as a just and democratic society. But how are such liberties to be protected without a disciplined, effective military presence – without men and women, ultimately, being willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of us all?

It’s not just the steady, sobering trickle of coffins that made their way through the streets of Wootton Bassett that I’m thinking of here. It’s also men like Robert, a Falklands veteran, who used to attend our Homeless dinners in Twickenham, having never quite adjusted to civilian life; or the stream of patients with debilitating, even life-threatening injuries who made their way through the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine during my years as Bishop of Aston in the city of Birmingham.

The vast majority of our armed forces, of course, come through their period of service largely unscathed. But it’s that willingness to do what it takes in Afghanistan or Iraq – that commitment to offering training and humanitarian help in Kenya and Sierra Leone – that preparedness to confront the new challenges of our day: the growing belligerence of Moscow, the appalling, senseless brutality of Islamic State – that makes the work of our armed forces both so impressive and so vital.

That doesn’t make them perfect, of course, or beyond criticism, any more than politicians, or indeed bishops, are perfect or beyond criticism. Extreme pressure brings out extreme behaviour, which is why both the very best and the very worst of human nature is often to be found in war zones and places of natural disaster: immense courage and heroism on the one hand, sickening callousness and brutality on the other.

Yet while it’s important never to expect infallibility from our institutions; while we ignore the Christian disciplines of confession and repentance, and replace them with the secular disciplines of denial and self-justification, at our peril; while we can never afford to be complacent, there is still so much to admire in the ability and effectiveness of our armed forces. Speaking on behalf of the civilian population in our county and nation, we’d like to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’.  

And so to our second Bible Reading this morning from one of the four gospels, these remarkable biographies of the life of Jesus written by his friends: and as we look at those gospels as a whole, the military of Jesus’ day come across in a rather mixed light. On the one hand we have soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross (‘well, we were only doing our job’, they would have said, though there was far less excuse for the gratuitous blindfolding and mockery and crown of thorns, and scrabbling around the cross with dice in hand). On the other hand we have soldiers humbly responding to the preaching of John the Baptist, and a Roman centurion famously standing at the foot of the Cross and proclaiming, ‘Surely this was the Son of God’.

Much the most attractive soldier to appear in the pages of the Bible though, was the hero of today’s story: another centurion, a generous benefactor to the local synagogue, and a man whose passionate request to Jesus earned him not just the healing of his servant but also one of the most heartfelt compliments from the lips of our Lord himself: ‘I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith’.

So where did that ‘great faith’ come from? Partly from his experience of the battlefield perhaps, because those who regularly put their lives on the line tend to take faith issues pretty seriously – hence the enduring need for army, naval and air-force chaplains; but also from his commitment to those military virtues of discipline, duty, obedience and authority. The centurion was a man used to working within the structures of the Roman army. As such he recognised in Jesus the same authority in the spiritual world as he and his superiors exercised in the physical world. When the centurion called Jesus ‘Lord’, he wasn’t just being polite. He really meant it.

So alongside the word ‘Thank you’, spoken on behalf of the civilian population of our county and nation, our Bible Reading suggests a second message for today: the word ‘Please’. ‘Please continue to protect our borders’, of course, but also ‘please continue to remind us of the military virtues of discipline, duty, obedience, authority, comradeship, courage, sacrifice and faith’ in a world where such virtues can sometimes seem in short supply.

In recent times we in the Church have shied away from military imagery, even changing the words of old-fashioned hymns like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ into ‘Onward Christian Pilgrims’, for fear of appearing too aggressive or imperialistic. Only the Salvation Army and Church Army have bucked the trend. But while the Church has a message which remains deeply relevant for the military, with our vision of the Kingdom of God, of the good society, of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has removed the sting of death itself, and opened the gates of eternal life to all who put their trust in him – the military also has a message which remains deeply relevant for the church and indeed the rest of society: a life-or-death commitment which makes so much of our civilian living seem rather cowardly, self-centred and superficial by comparison.

This is no place to glorify war, of course: even war at its best is no more than a necessary evil. But that shouldn’t stop us from expressing our gratitude to those willing to engage in that necessary evil on or behalf, or from learning from the best in human nature, wherever we find it. A little more courage in our society, a little more comradeship, a little more self-sacrifice, a little more vision would go a very long way.