A sermon marking the Commemoration of the Centenary of the Outbreak of World War One
At St Edward’s Stow by the Rector, the Revd Martin Short at the 11.00am service on August 3rd 2014
So we have arrived the eve of the centenary of one the bloodiest conflicts in history – not that anyone remotely saw what lie ahead on this day 100 years ago.
The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey told the House of Commons exactly a hundred years ago today we have consistently worked with a single mind, with all the earnestness in our power, to preserve peace.
The reality now, he said, was that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved. Russia and Germany, at any rate, have declared war upon each other.
Because France and Russia were in alliance there was a clear German threat to France. Grey told parliament
My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet, engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside...
That view prevailed and this country was to be part of a conflict lasting over 4 years in which 1,117,077 Commonwealth Service men and women would lose their lives. The total death toll would be over 16 million with a further 20 million injuries.
Each one of us will have others in our hearts today whose names are not on our memorial here and we have had the opportunity to recall them in laying our tributes.
I was handed a copy of a letter this week.
It was written by someone who was to fight in the first action of the war at Mons in Belgium. He was writing home to his wife the date is August 20th 1914
The Letter is simply headed ‘Expeditionary Force’
My own Darling,
They have just told us that letters must be posted in ten minutes, so I am hastening to scribble a line. I hear that we may move tomorrow & I may not get another chance for sometime. I expect you have seen in the English papers by now what country we are in, but I may not let you know, & where we shall move to, I do not know. I am very well, dear old girl, and I only trust the you & the biddies & old mother are also & not worrying too much, it is no good. I hope to do my duty to old England & leave the result to a higher Power. We are having lovely weather, very hot today. Dearest love to your all & many kisses to the biddies, & God bless you all.
Ever Yr. devoted Percy
Dearest love to old Mother
Just got your P.C. of the 15th, so glad you are all well. I wonder if you have got any of my P.C.s?
The soldier who wrote that letter died four days later on 24th August 1914 and his granddaughter is in church here today.
How do we begin to make sense of all this horror and loss?
When our forefathers considered this question, their answer was the rood beam - above my head – across the Chancel arch – the figure of Christ on the cross.
But his death was not the end.
This is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah that is the reading printed on our Order of Service.
By 1914 the Christian message had offered hope and meaning in life for nearly 1900 years. That is why supporters of the Scripture Gift Mission wanted to enable the young men who went to the front to know about Jesus and to read his good news for themselves.
And so they had printed a pocket sized version of St John’s Gospel.
I have a replica here and there is one of these replicas for each of you to take away this morning. Each of us can read its 21 short chapters and ponder their importance to young me to whom they were first given and to ourselves today.
St John’s Gospel tell us that:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God
The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life
All of this is in the first three chapters.
Later Jesus goes on to say:
Do let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s House has many rooms ….I am going there to prepare a place for you.
And towards the end St John tells his readers the purpose of his book.
He tells us that
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Now it is possible to let the message of John’s Gospel go in one ear and out of the other. But that won’t help you much if you are waiting to go into action. It is time to make up your mind.
The most important question suddenly becomes - Do you believe in Jesus or not?
And so, at the request of the Service Chaplains, the publishers put a Decision Form in the back of the Gospel. Men were invited to sign it as a gesture of commitment for their own assurance as they faced their fears of death. I’ll let you read it for yourselves. You too can sign it if you wish, like many of those young soldiers.
Many of these Gospels, with their signed forms, found their way back to relatives who then knew that their loved ones died with faith. Some, sadly, were the means by which their owners were identified.
On this 100th anniversary of darkness, error, division and death, our world needs more people who have made their minds up and are willing to take a stand.
Today is a day to engage with Christian faith as our forefathers did.
Those who put up our memorial rood beam saw in Jesus a God of love who:
It is only when death brings redemption, and resurrection follows death, that can we make any sense of all we will remember in the years ahead.
The good news is that they do. And, as this little book tells us, we can live in light and hope. And that is possible even in the darkest and most fearful places.