A reflection for Remembrance Sunday by the Rev'd David Warnes

Remembrance Sunday 2021

Matthew 5:38-48

Today’s Gospel is a doubly challenging one. It seems to set impossibly high expectations:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

And it is particularly challenging on Remembrance Sunday, for it has been seen by many as a call to pacifism. Yet today we rightly remember those who were called to bear arms, those who lost their lives in combat and those civilians who paid the highest price for the aggression and incompetence of political leaders.

In the early 1970s, the headmaster of the school where I began my teaching career took the step of inviting a German Lutheran pastor to preach on Remembrance Sunday. It was less than 30 years since the end of the Second World War, a war in which many of my older colleagues in the staff room had served. In advance of the occasion there was much criticism of the headmaster from them, for they still viewed Germans as the enemy and for them Remembrance Sunday was, very properly, about remembering the friends, comrades and family members who had been killed in the war.

The pastor, a man who had himself risked his life by smuggling Jewish refugees out of Germany, chose to tell in very simple terms, the story of another pastor, a close friend of his and a relative by marriage, whose involvement in the resistance to Hitler resulted in his execution. His sermon was heard in respectful silence, and at least some of the critics came to understand why he had been invited to preach. The preacher’s name was Eberhard Bethge, and the friend whose story he told was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a convinced pacifist yet was close to people, including members of his own family, who were involved in plots to assassinate Hitler. One of his brothers and two of his brothers-in-law were executed because of this. Bonhoeffer himself used his cover as an agent of German military intelligence to make visits to neutral countries and pass messages to the British, telling them that an attempt to overthrow Hitler was being planned and pleading for a negotiated peace if it succeeded. Yet at no point did he abandon his pacifism. Rather he believed that the use of violence to overthrow the Nazi regime was sinful, but that it might be necessary to act sinfully and accept the consequences so that others might live in freedom. He thus remained faithful to what he saw as a Christian calling to non-violence, while also acknowledging that one should live and, if necessary, die for the good of others. That too was at the core of his Christian calling, for he described Jesus as “the man for others”.

His life and his death are reminders of the painful truth that there are no easy answers for the Christian who seeks to follow Christ in a fallen and complex world. The counsel of perfection with which today’s Gospel ends is profoundly challenging:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But it is important to understand what Jesus meant by perfection. He wasn’t referring to the ancient Greek philosopher’s notion of perfection as a moral absolute, for that is something that none of us can possibly achieve. He probably used the Hebrew word Tamim or its Aramaic equivalent, and he almost certainly had in mind the most famous use of that word in the Hebrew scriptures

“You shall be perfect before the Lord your God.”

[Deuteronomy 18:13]

And Tamim means perfection in the sense of wholeness, integrity; a wholeness and integrity that is very difficult to achieve as we wrestle with the moral ambiguities and complexities of life. Those ambiguities and complexities mean that, as Christians, we may not always come to the same conclusions about what is the right course of action,

Important, therefore, to remember that we do all this wrestling within the love of God. Important also to remember that our Christian calling is, as Bonhoeffer wrote:

“…not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of people who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.”