A reflection by the Rev'd John Vincent for the RAFA Service

Trinity 1 Good Shepherd. RAFA Service. 2022

Firstly, I want to than William for his graciousness as a former RAF chaplain for inviting me, a former Army Chaplain, or Pongo as we are affectionately called, to preach this morning at this Royal Air Force Association service!

I did serve however in a couple of tri service posts and of course on operations, we are all lumped in together, - the old joke of the Army digging in while the RAF check in, fortunately is not always the case and so I do have one or two blue credentials.

Each of us here belong to different organisations – former serving personnel, reservists, cadets, church members – and the one thing that unites us is a sense of belonging; that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

Each of the services are slightly different, but they all have core values: values which inculcate the ethos of the service, values which dictate every action and command, values which instill the highest standards of behavior on and off the battlefield. The Army, has 6 such values – Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. The Royal Air Force is very similar with Respect, Integrity, Service and Excellence.

And for those of us with faith, well we have many values, but the military ones I think can work rather well: Courage to witness to our faith, Discipline of prayer and sacrament, Respect for others through loving others as we would want to be loved, Integrity – living out our lives in truth and selfless commitment is the sacrificial life that we are called into when Jesus asks us to take up our cross to follow him.

Whether military or church, it is a big ask to develop such values to live by: and I think that if we try and do it on our own, it is nigh on impossible.

I had the privilege to serve for a couple of years at the Infantry Training centre where all infantry recruits undertake their 6 months basic training, and they learn very early on that key to success is supporting one another – its about getting the section into a safe harbour, or the whole platoon across the finishing line of an eight mile tab – to simply look after yourself is not good – no one wants to be labelled ‘Jack’. It is an acknowledgement that no one can be good at everything and the best way to live is to look out for each other, playing to strengths, and supporting those who are struggling.

The military get that and it stays with them beyond active service: it is truly wonderful that there are organisations such as RAFA that provide ongoing fellowship, along with practical and moral support, along with so many other excellent veterans organisations and charities; I wish other organisations and institutions would follow the same example as it would make society a much stronger and supportive network.

The late Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of South Africa, often spoke about Ubuntu – an African concept translated as ‘I am because we are.’ we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. playing to each other’s strengths, and supporting one another’s weaknesses. it is this sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves that enables us to reach our full potential as God intended – it is others who help define us as individuals.

Being with others who share the same values, and who encourage, inspire and support us enables us to live life in abundance: And this is particularly true when it comes to faith. We have all heard the mantra that  you don’t need to be a Christian to go to church – I guess in one sense that’s true -  if I lives somewhere remote and unable to access a Christian community, this would not make me any less a Christian.

But without a sense of belonging or community, we miss out on so much.

Jesus knew this – and so when he talks about faith, he never presents it as a personal lifestyle choice that we try and live out on our own; he nearly always uses corporate language – of a flock of sheep, of houses with many rooms, and then in the reading I have chosen this morning, he talks about the relationship of faith as being like a vine with many branches. of being the true vine and us his branches, connected, dependant on one another, joined together by the grace and love of God, the vine grower.

So Faith is not just about us as individuals – it is a calling in to a shared life, it’s a calling to a sacrificial life, it’s a calling to a life where we flourish through belonging. Jesus couldn’t make this clearer in the gospel reading this morning where he says, abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. A shared life brings much fruit.

Later on in our service, we will remember those who gave their lives for our country; for them, life was not about individualism: it was about the greater good and those dearly held values of freedom and peace… something they believed in passionately – so much so that they were prepared to lay down their own lives to preserve what they held dear.

But they are not just names on war memorials; and our calling to mind their sacrifice is far more than just remembering; if all we do is remember, then they remain just names in the past; but if we take on their values, their vision of a greater good, then they really do live on through us, and their sacrifice will not be in vain.  We continue that vision, working tirelessly for those shared values that sustain us and help us grow: putting aside individual ambition and working for the common good.

So it really is good to belong – it is in our DNA –  and through belonging, we find identity, meaning , and live life in its fullest as God intended.

Today we think of all of those branches that connect us with others, and though which we are nourished. Especially today,we give thanks for the work of the Royal Air Force Association and all veteran organisations. We pray for all those serving in our armed forces home and abroad and those who this day will be putting their lives in danger for the common good.

We give thanks for all our youth organisations and for the life skills they develop in our young people. And we give thanks to God for the community of the church - our shared life of faith, for the joy of belonging, for the strength and encouragement we receive from each other, and for the love and grace of God in whom we find fullness of life.