By The Reverend Trevor Jamison, given at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 10th November 2019
‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is the Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.’ (10:12)
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, or to put it in another way, according to Saint Paul, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.
Today is Remembrance Sunday. This annual observance began in the wake of the First World War; a war of suffering on such a scale that it was hoped that it signalled the end of all wars. Today, we know that such hopes would not be realised. Only in a very small number of occasions since 1918 has there been a year when no member of the British armed forces has been killed on active service. Sadly, this annual act of remembrance, and the war memorials that form a prominent feature of almost every city, town and village of the UK, have not prevented national participation in other conflicts.
In fact, the generation of men that fought in the trenches of the First World War also provided the leaders of governments and armed forces that took part in the Second World War. Additionally, if the first World War (mostly conducted by largely church-going nations) was in part a denial of Paul’s statement that ‘the same Lord of the Lord of all’, then the Second World War, in most horrific terms included an emphatic denial of Paul’s ringing assertion that ‘there is no distinction between Jew and gentile.’
Consider then this memorial plaque. It is located in Westminster College in Cambridge. Westminster was the theological college of the Presbyterian Church of England, training students to be church minsters. Today, it is one of the United Reformed Church’s centres for learning, including training women and men for ordained ministry in our denomination. This plaque remembers the seven former students of the college who died in the Second World War.
Westminster College Chapel WW2 © Helen Weller (WMR-73026)
War memorials are very political things. History shows fierce local debates in Britain after the First World War over what form such memorials should take, and over which names should be included on or excluded from them. After the Second World War there was similar conversation amongst the leaders of Westminster College over this war memorial.
“In memory of the members of Westminster College who gave their lives in the war, 1939-1945: Arthur Bawtree, William Elsmlie, Herman Hartman, Theodor Hesse, Douglas James, Harold Rogan, and G. W. Vellacott.” The discussion was about whether to include the names of the former students, Herman Hartman and Theodor Hesse, because, as you can probably guess, Hartman and Hesse were German.
It is said that the argument was finally settled when one of the those present commented, “well if they learned together, surely their names can appear together.” Had Saint Paul been present perhaps he would have added, ‘the same Lord is the Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Not everyone deserves a place on a war memorial, their deeds being so terrible. And appropriately enough, nations see it as their first duty to remember their own war dead, not those of their wartime opponents. Still, there are variations and exceptions. I remember standing in a Lutheran church in Alsace, a region which has switched back and forward between being within France or Germany, according to the result of wars between the two nations.
In that church there are three memorials for the members of the congregation who have died in combat: for the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), for the First World War, and for the Second World War. In the 1870-71 conflict the church members fought and died in the French army, in 1914-1918 in the German army, and in 1939-45 they were back with the French army. I am not aware of how that congregation deals with the practice of remembrance.
Does it make it more difficult or easier to be a college or a congregation whose members have fought on different sides in conflicts between two nations? Certainly, if remembrance is marked in a political or national setting, as are our acts of remembrance, then things would be less straightforward. On the other hand, there would a constant reminder that, from the divine perspective, all national and ethnic distinctions become as nothing in the light of the fact that all peoples are called to acknowledge the same God as their maker and their Lord. So, one would hope, remembrance would be prevented from ever descending into mere national triumphalism.
Today, here at St Columba’s, we are remembering those who have died in war, particularly those who were associated with this church; those who were connected with our families and friendship networks; those who have died in any number of wars. We would hope that such wars were fought by this nation at least in part, hopefully in the main, so that no one need suffer because they were Jew, Gentile, or from any other identifiable group.
And we are reminded that there is a question for Christians to ask concerning any potential future conflicts where this nation might be asked to take part, so endangering its servicemen and service women. And that question is, “to what extent might this conflict remove or ameliorate self-interested human distinctions and divisions.” For remember, ‘there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; the same Lord is the Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’