Ephesians 6 (NRSV)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
One hundred years ago today, at 11am Paris time, the Allies and German army declared a ceasefire that would lead to the formal end of World War I. The war that had ravaged the world by land, air, and sea for over 4 years was over. The war was begun in 1914 with high hopes that, though the enemy was formidable, this would be the war that would end war. They expected their soldiers would achieve a relatively easy victory and return home for Christmas. As the war continued, year after year, faced with the conditions of trench warfare, many began to realize the extent of the cost of such a total war. But when peace finally came, the world became more confident that the suffering would deter any future conflict. No one who had experienced the destruction of World War I wanted to follow the ways of war anymore.
People still speak of the “Great War” and give their respect to the countless young soldiers who are buried in cemeteries marked for the “Glorious Dead,” but the irony rings loudly in our ears. Any hope that this was the “war to end all war” faded as Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and the Allies were drawn into war once again. As time has gone on, the instruments of war have just gotten more deadly and the enemy more elusive. Having endured the fog of war in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, we’re now more likely to speak of World War III than we are the end of war.
That’s why, a hundred years after the armistice that spelled the end of World War I, we yearly celebrate the contribution of our Veterans instead of the prospect of lasting peace. We’ve given ourselves over to the idea that young men and women will always have to put their lives on the line for their friends and compatriots, and take the lives of their enemies. Rather than strolling through “Flanders fields where the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row,” we often spend this time telling ourselves triumphalist narratives about the necessity of war. We observe Veterans Day saluting our military heroes while doing our best to avoid thinking about the complexity and the consequences of war.
But this being a hundred years since we as a world last entertained the prospect of lasting peace between the nations, we’ve been invited by the World War I Centennial Commission to stop the noise and to listen in the silence to the tolling of the bells that once assured the world of peace and now ring out in a world where there is no peace.
The bells of peace ring out this morning in stark contrast to the words and the noise with which we normally fill the air. There is no glory in the tolling of the bells, only a reminder of the peace that did not last, the dead soldiers who would not experience earthly peace, and the veterans who carried the fog of war for the rest of their lives.
This is the solemn meaning of the annual commemoration of the armistice: there is no glory in war.
Yet, we do realize that in the dark fog, there are glimpses of light. In the brokenness of human experience as veterans and civilians, we see signs of greatness. As we remembered two weeks ago the lives of the Christian saints who by faith endured in times of great trial, today—this 100th anniversary of the armistice, this Veterans day—we commemorate the lives of the saints who served in times of war and left a legacy of peace.
To recollect the lives of the saints is different than how the world around us usually recognizes the contributions of military veterans. In those situations we do little to understand the humanity and complexity of those who served in the fog of war. We ask them to stand, we thank them for their service, we revel in the glory of the moment, and then we move on to other business. We view veterans as either larger-than-life heroic figures, like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, or as broken people whose only contribution to us was to learn and serve the ways of war.
To speak of the saints including, yes, the Christian saints who served in war is to hear stories of flawed humans who became filled with the greatness of God.
As we recognize the stories of veterans from this land and those separated from us by space or time, we remember that as John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in Luke 3, there were soldiers who came up to him, heeding the call to repentance and asked, “what should we do?” John replied, “do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” By faith, many of these soldiers bore fruit worthy of repentance and were baptized by water.
By faith, in Matthew 8, a Roman Centurion, an army commander, came up to Jesus as he entered Capernaum and appealed to him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress. Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word and my servant will be healed.” At this faith, Jesus was amazed: “not even among all the religious people in the whole house of God’s people have I found such faith.” By the soldier’s faith, the servant was healed in that hour.
By faith, after the Roman soldiers had mocked Jesus, struck his head, spat upon him, stripped him, and pounded nails into his hands to fasten him on the cross, the commander of the legion changed his tone. He had never seen a man endure the death penalty like this. He had never known one to take such suffering without a struggle. By faith, the centurion declared: “truly, this man was God’s son.”
The stories continue into the era of the church. Born in the fourth century, just three years after christianity had been made a legal religion, Saint Martin of Tours grew up in a Roman military family with a significant heritage. Against his parents wishes, he became an inquirer in the church at the age of ten, where he learned about Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. At age 15, he was conscripted into the calvary and was stationed at age 18. He delayed his baptism into the church, but never really fit in with his military comrades either, who said of him, “Why does Martin wash his servant’s feet, speak to beggars, and refuse to go to the baths with us?” On one such incident, Martin split his cloak in two and offered it to a freezing beggar.
Just before a battle some years later in what is now Germany, Martin was determined to leave the Roman army and change his loyalties. He declared his allegiance to the kingdom of God and its commanding officer, Jesus, saying, “I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.” Martin was dishonorably discharged and began a contemplative life in a cave after his subsequent expulsion from the military.
Long before the armistice of November 11th 1918 and the decree that this day should be recognized as one in honor of veterans, the church celebrated November 11th as the feast day of Saint Martin. His day is a reminder to us of the ambiguity of war and military service, as he walked a fine line between the Lord’s army and the Roman guard before ultimately declaring his loyalty to the King of the Universe. Though he carried the fog of war with him forever, Martin had given himself completely to the service of Christ.
Martin wasn’t the only one. Many of the Christian solider-saints of the past are more familiar to us. Francis of Assisi was the survivor of a gruesome war and was one of only nine soldiers to survive the battlefield. It was on the road to war that he heard the call from God to “repair the Church,” and he did so by giving himself to God in service even to the point of death.
Though Ignatius of Loyola abandoned his military career to begin a religious life, he always carried the lessons of his military service with him and ingrained the military order of obedience into the Jesuit order he founded. What greater heights he reached by placing his obedience in the Lord and God of all, the great commander and chief of all who trust and obey.
Joan of Arc, too, showed that this life of service and sacrifice was not for men alone. She demonstrated that women could not be reduced to biology or societal roles. Rather, service is the call of all God’s children.
Great is the example as well of Camillus of Lellis, who, 250+ years before the Red Cross bore the cross of Christ as he and others offered medical care to those suffering in conflict regardless of their loyalties.
Many years later, as the first World War dragged on, Clive Staples Lewis joined the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford University and was trained and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army. On his nineteenth birthday, he entered the front line of battle and did battle in the trenches until he was wounded and two of his comrades died.
At this point in his life, Lewis was an atheist, scarred by the wounds of war and angry at God for not existing. The war had proved to him, quoting a Roman poet, that “Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see.” Yet, as Lewis plunged deeper into the arguments and struggled with his friends, Lewis felt the presence of God come upon him.
C.S. Lewis’ service in the second World War was much different. He had tried to re-enter military service, but was rejected. Instead, he opened his home to children evacuating the war and used the lessons learned from wrestling with God in the trenches to offer hope through religious programs broadcast by the BBC during the air raids.
Thinking of the faith of the saints who served as soldiers in war, I think too of a quiet, gentle man named George who was captured as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II. He survived his captivity by sucking on the tea leaves he was forced to cultivate. When I knew him, the war was long over. He didn’t tell stories of the war without prompting. It wasn’t ultimately the thing that defined his identity. That was a different armor he carried on his body every day of his life, in service to a different war, in allegiance to a greater God.
This is the armor carried by every Christian saint, not only those who have served in war: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, proclaiming the gospel of peace, defending with the shield of faith, wearing the helmet of salvation, and holding the word of God as the sword of the Spirit.
This armor isn’t that of a great military power. It doesn’t aid in the use of weapons of mass destruction. This armor of God is protection for holding fast against “the rulers, the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the darkness” of war, “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
See, what made all these Christians who served in war great was not their greatness in war. It was and is their ideal of self-sacrifice, service, and steadfastness. That they would follow the model of Jesus and be willing to lay down their lives for their friends.
What made these saints great is what can make us all great—the way they have placed themselves at the feet of Jesus their commander in chief, the way they’ve worn the armor of God, the way they have served in the Great War—the true war to end all war.
World War I will never be called great without the cruel irony of knowing its pain. The armistice of November 11th, 1918 will be understood as the bridge to more war rather than a true path of peace.
But there is a Great War in our world. There is a war waging right now and long into the past and future that will be the war to end all war.
In this war, there is no fog. In this conflict, the sides are clear. On one is the light of the truth of Christ and on the other the darkness of sin and death.
Since the beginning of our time, humanity has suffered under the weight of accusation day and night—trapped by the wiles of the devil.
But, Christian soldiers, the armistice agreement has already been signed and the war will end once and for all. All we must do is stand firm, steadfast in peace and hope.
This is the war to end all war. This is the end of the story, as John of Patmos tells us in his Revelation:
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, after which Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
On that day, when the darkness is gone and the light of Christ shines forever in the city of God, the memory of war will be no more. Death will have been trampled into the ground. The scars of trench warfare will no longer be deep on human bodies. The blood of the lamb, the word of our testimony to God’s good news will bring an end to all war.
And the blessed memories of all the saints, all the witness of the lives of all the Christian soldiers will surround us on that day.
Today, we endure—trusting in God’s promises as we await with hopeful expectation the peace of God’s kingdom. Amen.
Image Credit: Andy Rain/European Pressphoto Agency – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/11/world/europe/armistice-day-remembrance-day-world-war-i.html
For further reading on soldier saints, see the work of Logan M. Isaac, especially http://iamloganmi.com/ten-saints-ten-days/.
A Concluding word from Kurt Vonnegaut (Breakfast of Champions):
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.