All Saints Sydenham

4th July 2004

Faithful Soldiers and Servants – Part One

It’s my good fortune to have been invited to All Saints Sydenham both today and in a fortnight’s time. This gives me the opportunity to say something which needs two preaching-slots to do it justice. In case you miss one, copies will be available after each service.

The following idea came to me ready-made a few weeks ago when a party of us went to Ypres in Belgium for a conducted tour of the battlefields of the First World War. We learnt many things about military strategies, good and bad, during that tour, and what struck me for the first time was their relevance to the Christian life which we find ourselves having to live in these present turbulent times.

Bear in mind that he image of the Christian as a Soldier of Christ isn’t a new one: it’s supported both by Scripture and Tradition. Beside St Paul’s two exhortations, to the Ephesians and Thessalonians (to put on the armour of God) and to St Timothy (to endure hardship like a good soldier), it’s influenced many Christian hymn-writers. Wesley’s Soldiers of Christ arise, Baring-Gould’s Onward Christian Soldiers, Bode’s Once pledged by the Cross, Duffield’s Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Montgomery’s Lift up your heads ye gates of brass and Monsell’s Fight the good fight for example. So it shouldn’t surprise us if Good Practice in Christian and military discipline have a number of features in common

One of these is the importance of capturing, and holding onto, the high ground What happened at the Ypres Salient and the adjoining hills (the Messines & Paschendaele Ridges) is an illustration of this.

The so-called Low Countries, Holland, Belgium and North-eastern France where much of the fighting during WW1 took place really are mostly low and flat. There are, however, occasional hillocks or ridges rising above the surrounding terrain. Capturing a hill gives its captor a number of advantages over their opponents down on the plain below.

First, they can see further. A ten-metre hill extends the horizon by over eleven kilometres; at fifty metres height that becomes 25 kilometres: the higher you get, the more you can see.. The second advantage of the High Ground is seeing in every direction; whereas those beneath have no idea what's happening on the other side of the hill. Thirdly, being on top of a hill means that when the fighting starts, those on the top, unlike their opponents, are going down- rather than uphill with the extra effort that entails.

However, a hill-top has one serious drawback – the risk of being "undermined". In WW1 enormous charges of explosive ‘down under’ literally blew away the advantage which hill-holders enjoyed.

In Christian terms, occupying the moral and theological high-ground confers similar advantages. It enables us to see further than those whose vision is limited by this world; we can look at things from several different angles at the same time; and when conflict comes we stand on the highest Rock of all – God’s nature and will revealed to us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

These two redoubts the theological and the moral it is the Christian’s responsibility to defend. Both are important. To lose one loosens our hold on the other. Since most Christians are better educated in Moral than in Theological foundations of their faith, these latter can be easily undermined long before a successful attack can be made on the Moral front..

Unfortunately neither redoubt can remain standing on its own indefinitely. There is an extensive "tunnel network" connecting Moral and Theological truth. So if our enemies first sets out to undermine our Theological foundations, quietly and unperceived, the subsequent job of undermining our Moral foundations becomes a mere doddle: it follows as surely as night follows day. So it’s only when the whole moral edifice comes crashing down about their ears that Christians begin to realise for the first time that matters of faith, which seemed so unimportant – sacraments, preaching, teaching, bible-study and prayer – have become, by our neglect of them, the reason that the moral disaster has overtaken us.

Of course moral falsehoods can also undermine theological outposts. But most Christian defenders are sufficiently alert morally to thwart any direct attack on a well-guarded moral position. So the Enemy doesn’t attack the Family, or Chastity, or start advocating Abortion-on-Demand. Instead he undermines our confidence in Virtues like Truth, Faith, Hope and Charity by replacing them with Values like Tolerance, Compassion, Liberty, Caring and Self-esteem.

Once that idea has caught on in the popular mind that Values and Virtues are one and the same thing, it’s easy to portray the defenders of Moral Hill as believing in precisely the opposite of what these virtues stand for: we are the bigoted, narrow-minded, unforgiving, intolerant busybodies that Every Reasonable Person has always known us to be. Moral corruption enjoys a field-day!

But how did the loss of the Theological High Ground come about?

Its collapse started as a fashionable theory in the 1960s that Theology was beyond the wits of the average man-in-the-pew. It was something best left to the Generals. As a result most churchgoers weren’t taught enough theology even to defend the most easily defended theological propositions. They were taught to "Trust and Obey" their clergy, but never to think for themselves.

Not much different from World War One where the average private was reckoned by his superior officers to be capable of learning to pull a trigger and not much else. Much of the carnage of Ypres and the Somme was due to regarding privates as so much bone-and-muscle who could, by sheer weight of numbers capture any objective they were told to. 50,000 British troops perished on Day One of the Battle of the Somme as a result!

The facts are different. Even the simplest soul can, and should, be taught some elementary defensive and offensive strategies in warfare, and the same is true in the Christian Warfare on which we are presently engaged. Such knowledge won’t, of course, turn us into Field Marshals (or Bishops or Canon Theologians) overnight, but it will enable Private in the Army and Layman in the Church alike to provide the same quality of leadership that an average well-trained NCO habitually displays.

So a course in Christian Discipleship, or Discipline could do much worse than begin with a simple study of what went right and what went wrong in the Fields of Flanders ninety-odd years ago. Every November we rightly remember those who gave their lives to enable us to remain free. But for the Christian every Sunday is a Remembrance Sunday, which gives us the opportunity, not only to feed upon the Bread of Life, but also, by studying, learning and applying the principles of Christian Warfare, the better to become and remain ‘Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants to our life’s end’

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