Remembrance Sunday sermons are, for me, a tricky balance of honouring the dead, and pointing towards Jesus, as the reason for our hope. This year I used the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster to help us to think about these things.
A few years ago, a poster first produced in 1939 was rediscovered. It was part of a series of propaganda posters produced by the Ministry of Information aimed to improve public morale during the war. The first, designed to strengthen public resolve ahead of gas attacks and bombing raids, was printed in a run of more than a million and read: Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory. The second, identical in style, said: Freedom Is In Peril.
From August 1939, both posters began appearing all over the country. The third, though, wasn’t published. It was held in reserve for the real crisis: invasion. So, thankfully, most people never got to see it. This poster stated: Keep Calm And Carry On.
Since the poster was rediscovered and printed thousands of them have been bought. If you’ve seen it you’ll know that the simple style is distinctive, and so the style of the poster has been copied and many parodies produced: ‘keep calm and ask mum’, ‘keep calm and spend more’ and so on. Rach recently bought me a mug in the same style as the poster which reads ‘when in doubt brew up’. Always useful advice! I’m sure you’ve seen some, including some of the sillier ones: ‘keep glam and rock on’ and ‘now panic and freak out’!
The poster was designed to comfort and inspire people should the massed armies of Nazi Germany ever cross the Channel. It was designed to encourage people to maintain the functioning of society, to ensure that people did indeed carry on with ordinary life in the face of significant adversity. As the civil servant who designed the Your Courage poster said, the series of posters was “a statement of the duty of the individual citizen”.
And that’s what I think we tend to think our armed forces are fighting for; for keeping our society and our values alive and strong, for defending what we hold dear. Of course, if you actually talk to individual military personnel, what they’re actually fighting for is for their friends, their family. It’s too abstract to think of fighting for your society; that isn’t the sort of idea that can motivate you, or sustain you. You need something more concrete, something more individual to keep you going.
That theme of love and friendship was at the heart of our gospel reading, which includes that well-known verse that is often used at Remembrance Day services: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”.
This passage is part of Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples before he is killed on the cross. He is encouraging his disciples, his friends to maintain the relationship that they have built up, even after his death.
Jesus shows us the depth of this love, the importance of this relationship, by dying for us. And we are given hope that this means something by Jesus rising to new life, to show us the way to God, to empower us with the Holy Spirit, and to demonstrate the importance of love, of relationship.
In the same way, relationships are meant to be at the heart of our Christian life. Our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other. Jesus spends quite some time telling his disciples to love him and to love one another, which means he knew it wasn’t going to be easy!
Some research has been done into how to maximise the amount of charitable donations that an advert will elicit. The type of advert that gets the least amount of money is one which gives facts and figures, stating how many thousands are affected by this problem. The type that raises the most amount of money for the cause is one in which the story of an individual is told, how the problem affects them personally. It’s been found that if facts and figures are included in the advert with the story then the amount of money raised goes down.
In other words, we’re not very good at abstract concepts and only really connect with people on a personal scale, on the scale of love and friendship and individuals. We see that most powerfully in the person of Jesus, of God become flesh, who loves us and wants us to love him, who longs to be friends with us, who wants the best for us. This individual, personal love is at the heart of Jesus’ call on our lives.
This failure to connect with the abstract, with anything other than the personal, was part of the reason why Hitler managed to kill so many Jews and others in the Holocaust. The extermination of these people was turned into a bureaucratic exercise, almost a normal part of what a functioning society did.
That tendency towards uncaring abstraction is part of what Paul is warning about in his letter to the Ephesians. Just before the passage that we heard read Paul has been talking about how practically to show love for one another as Christians. He has written about the changed relationships that flow from this, the desire to look after one another, the overturning of hierarchies, the concern for other people.
Paul then moves on to talk about the other side of that, of the struggle and enemies that Christians face. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”.
As Paul talks about the powers of evil he sees them as having been defeated by Christ, yet still present, still active, still attempting to destroy and damage. Paul is urging Christians to stand against the pagan lifestyle around them. Part of this was at the level of individual action and temptation, and part of this was the way in which society was structured. Roman society was structured in ways which meant that living a life in relationship with Jesus was made more not less difficult. And this is still the case. The assumptions, the unspoken attitudes, make life loving Jesus more difficult.
So, Paul is encouraging Christians to stand against this. Christians need to spend their lives drawing strength from Christ. This isn’t about trying to be strong be ourselves, its about being strong through God, about spending time with him so that we can draw strength from him. Readers need to be prepared, as if for battle, for right living does not just happen and opposition is certain Paul tells the church, together, to put on the armour – a soldier isn’t much use on their own but needs to stand together, be supported by others.
Part of this stand is to encounter and seek to change those ways in which society makes following Christ and knowing his love more difficult.
There has been a lot of interest in why the poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has become so popular. It has been suggested that “people are brought together by looking for common values or purposes” that the words are positive and reassuring in a time of uncertainty, anxiety and cynicism. As one expert said “[People] were promised the earth and now they’re worried about everything – their jobs, their homes, their bank, their money, their pension.”
Society has been structured and restructured in such a way that these positive things have become less likely, not more likely. We’re seeing this recognition in the protest at St Paul’s, as well as in the fall of governments in the Eurozone. As the church has been reminded, we are called to work for the poor, to demonstrate God’s healing love and his kingly rule to all, rich and poor.
Almost 900,000 British military personnel died in the horrors of the first world war. Almost 400,000 died in the second world war, with many more from the Commonwealth and Allies dying. But, since 1945, there has only been one year, 1968, when there has not been a British military casualty whilst on active service. Almost 3,500 have lost their lives.
The struggle to maintain our society, to defend our friends and family, is not over. We do not have to agree with all the conflicts that have taken place since 1945 to agree with this. But, also the struggle to see God’s kingdom come is far from over. We are all called to be part of this struggle, to demonstrate God’s love for one another, to fight against evil in all its guises, to know the empowering love of God working in our own lives. The fact that we are free to do this is a testament to the sacrifice of others, and to the supreme sacrifice of Christ. Let us remember and give thanks, and let that make a difference in our lives. Amen.