St Barnabas Downham

Sunday 10th November 2002

In Remembrance


Memory has been defined as "the way we forget things!"

Let me give you an example.

The other day, for no particular reason, I found myself trying to remember the politician who is credited with designing what we know today as the Welfare State.

I had a hunch that his name began with a "B"; also that it was a word in everyday use although spelt slightly differently; also (and this was the maddening thing) it was a name which I knew that I knew perfectly well.

So I thought I would try an experiment and ignore the well-tested advice to "think of something else and it will come to you" but see what happened if I went on trying to think of it directly.

Well, after quarter of an hour of coming up with Balfour, Baldwin, Beaverbrook, Bonar-Law and several other false trails, my attention was distracted by the telephone ringing. I answered it, and as I put down the receiver afterwards the word I was looking for immediately came to mind: and of course it was Beveridge

So of course the old advice "try thinking of something else" proved to be once again. So on a Sunday which is called Remembrance Sunday this seemed to be a good point to start off my word to you this morning because "Remembrance" means so much more than being able to recall something which one has forgotten.

For example, one of the questions which people ask nowadays is whether there is any point in remembering the two World Wars. As they recede into the distance and fewer and fewer people remain on earth who experienced them personally – the First World War anyway – what is the point, it is said, in going back over old history; and if there is some point why not the Crimean War, the Wars of the Roses or the Napoleonic War for instance?

There are two reasons why we should treat the two 20th century World Wars differently from any previous ones:

We have far better resources to help us remember led up to those Wars, how they were fought, what the cost was, and their outcome than we have about previous ones. So they are easier to bring to our remembrance.

They were the first wars in history fought clearly over moral principles. Whether those principles were justified those wars is a question still being asked. Most people, now as then still say "Yes, they were the right thing to do even though the cost in human lives and suffering was enormous".

Remembering them, by regularly bringing them back to our minds on Remembrance Sunday, enables us turn what might become an empty ritual into something which speaks to each new generation.

Now let’s turn to the Bible and see how it uses the words remember and remembrance

There’s the very ordinary sense of "recalling something one has ignored or forgotten" Time and again, the Old Testament tells us the people of God forgot him. They did not remember what he had done for them by saved them from their enemies. The Historical Books of Exodus, Judges, Samuel and Kings are one long catalogue of their ingratitude, and the Books of the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and the rest consist largely of God speaking through his Prophet to bring back to the minds of God’s people their forgotten relationship.

Today you and I need regular reminding that the freedom we enjoy, being able to live without fear of arbitrary arrest or being sent to the gas-chambers simply on the grounds of our race, colour, political opinions, religion, we owe to those for the most part to those who gave their lives and limbs in those wars. We will remember them, yes, but at the same time let us not forget that it was what they had been brought up to believe which enabled them, and their leaders, to know, for instance, that it is better to give than to receive, that a man shows his love most surely when he lays down his life for his friends, and that it is a beautiful and noble thing to die for one’s country. None of these beliefs can be taken for granted. Every new generation needs to be taught them afresh. How many young people today, one wonders, have even been made to think about them?

The Bible also uses the word remembrance in another sense, that of holding something up before God in order that he may bless it, forgive it, judge it or correct it. The most striking example is that of the penitent thief who prayed to our Lord on the cross that he would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. He wasn’t just asking Jesus – the Perfect Man – not to forget him – the very imperfect thief. Rather he was pleading that Jesus would "hold him up" before his heavenly Father in order that his sins (which were probably many) might be forgiven. He echoed what the psalmist wrote "O remember not the sins and offences of my youth: but according to thy mercy think thou on me, O Lord, for thy goodness".

In the Bible, then remembering means not only "bringing things back to our minds" but also "holding or offering them up to God".

But there is a third meaning which is contained in the words which we shall shortly use "Do this in remembrance of me".

"Every time you eat this Bread or Drink this Cup," says St Paul, "you show forth the Lord’s death until he comes again".

Remembrance in the Eucharist means has both of the meanings we have so far considered: "Bringing Things to Mind" and "Holding them up to God". But it also has a third and crucially important meaning for us who fulfil his commandment to "do this in remembrance of me Sunday by Sunday.

To understand this third meaning let us think about something what happens surprisingly often in warfare. A person on the battlefield does something wholly out of keeping with their nature. A timid man is does something incredibly brave; a self-centred person risks or forfeits his own life in order to save someone else’s, someone he doesn’t even know; or a seventeen-year-old like Jack Cornwall, though mortally wounded, stays at his post till the last doing his duty.

"I don’t know what came over me!" is the one thing all these people say, when asked how they managed to act so completely out of character. Well, in the Eucharist, Something or Someone comes over us who has the power to transform us into something which we are not and could never be, by nature. That whole remembrance aspect of the Eucharist is more than simply reminding ourselves that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" as St Paul puts it.

Much, much more: for the remembrance which we discover in the Eucharist is not just something which reminds both God and ourselves of his gracious redemption of us through his Son Jesus Christ; it’s something which overtakes us, which "comes over us" like the courage that "comes over" the soldier in battle, transforming him from a Timid Tommy Atkins into a Jack Cornwell. By his overshadowing presence in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist our Lord Jesus Christ transforms us into the something we could never become ourselves, however hard we tried: the Children of God, the Members of Christ’s body, and fellow-heirs with him of his Heavenly Kingdom.

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